BACKGROUND: When the PKK returned to violence in June 2004 after a five-year suspension of offensive operations, it was aware that it was too weak to achieve an outright military victory. Its primary goal was to use violence as an instrument of psychological attrition in an attempt to force the Turkish state to the negotiating table; ideally including the recognition of its imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan as a legitimate interlocutor and leading eventually to his release and participation in the political process in Turkey.
The return to violence was also an attempt by the PKK to preempt the emergence of an alternative focus of Kurdish nationalism in the admittedly still limited political space created by the EU-inspired reforms passed by the AKP in 2003-2004. Although the PKK rejected the notion of an independent Kurdish state in southeast Turkey, it remained vague about its political goals. Indeed, the PKK often appeared more concerned with persuading Turkey to recognize it as the representative of the country’s Kurds than with any detailed demands for a resolution of the Kurdish issue.
Although the PKK was militarily much weaker than during its first insurgency in 1984-1999, it initially appeared likely to be able to sustain a low level insurgency almost indefinitely. However, the November 2007 decision by the US to lift its opposition to Turkish air strikes against the organization’s bases and camps in northern Iraq forced the PKK onto the defensive militarily and psychologically. More significant was the adoption by the Turkish authorities – including the armed forces and intelligence service as well as the AKP government – in early 2008 of a policy of constructive engagement with the Iraqi Kurds. Previously, Turkey had feared that direct dialogue would be interpreted as implicit recognition of the Iraqi Kurds’ political authority in northern Iraq and encourage them to push for full independence. By spring 2009, there were signs that the policy of engagement was beginning to bear fruit as the Iraqi Kurdish authorities increasingly restricted the movement of militants and supplies to the PKK’s camps in the mountains. There were also reports in Kurdish nationalist circles of discreet contacts between Turkish intelligence and elements affiliated with the PKK in an attempt to determine a roadmap for an end to the insurgency.
As a result, the launch of the Turkish government’s “Kurdish Opening” in June 2009 was another phase in an ongoing process rather than a completely new initiative. Initially, the “Kurdish Opening”, later re-baptized “Democratic opening” was designed to prompt a public debate, which would then be followed by a number of concessions to Kurdish cultural and linguistic rights. There is no reason to question the sincerity of the commitment of the AKP, and of the Turkish state establishment in general, to putting an end to the bloodshed that has cost over 40,000 lives since 1984. However, there is also little doubt that the AKP calculated that “Kurdish Opening” would result in a net gain in its popular support in the run-up to the next general election in 2011; and that any lost Turkish nationalist votes would be more than offset by increase in support from ethnic Kurds, particularly as cultural concessions would be accompanied by economic measures to boost job creation in the chronically underdeveloped Kurdish southeast of the country.
The process was always going to be fraught with risk and to require skilful handling if it was not to backfire. The AKP needed to try to minimize the loss of Turkish nationalist votes by ensuring that at least the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) was engaged in the process and could be held partly responsible without taking any of the credit. Similarly, the government had to remove any motivation for the PKK to continue fighting without being seen as making concessions to terrorism. More critically from the perspective of its own electoral prospects, the AKP had to make sure that the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) – which has long been regarded by both its opponents and many of its supporters as being affiliated with the PKK – was unable to take the credit for any concessions to Kurdish rights by claiming that they were a response to its own lobbying efforts.
IMPLICATIONS: The first warning signs came in late summer 2009 when both the CHP and the MHP announced they would refuse to participate in the AKP’s “Kurdish Opening.” Nevertheless, the AKP continued to hold discussions with the DTP.
On October 17, the DTP announced that a group of PKK members and sympathizers would arrive at Turkey’s Habur border crossing with Iraq on October 19 in a gesture of the organization’s commitment to the peaceful resolution of the Kurdish issue. The Turkish media immediately described the group as coming to “surrender” and AKP officials publicly predicted that hundreds, perhaps thousands, more would follow until the PKK had laid down its arms.
On October 19, eight serving members of the PKK arrived at the Habur border gate. They were accompanied by 26 residents of the Mahmur refugee camp, which is home to approximately 11,000 ethnic Kurds who fled to Iraq in 1994 when the Turkish security forces burned their villages in southeast Turkey in an attempt to deny PKK militants food and shelter.
However, the thousands of ethnic Kurds who turned out to meet the group at Habur greeted them not as penitents but as conquering heroes, turning their arrival into a carnival of music, dancing, triumphant ululations and a waving mass of PKK, DTP and Kurdish nationalist flags. Under what appears to have been a prior agreement between the PKK and the Turkish authorities, the eight PKK members were not arrested. Over the next few days, they travelled around the southeast, attending celebrations organized by the DTP and being feted by cheering crowds everywhere they went. The eight PKK members had no hesitation in declaring that they had come not as penitents but as emissaries from the PKK. They even brought a list of demands from Öcalan, insisting that the Turkish state demonstrate its willingness to make concessions on Kurdish political and cultural rights before the PKK would consider renouncing violence. It was clear that both the militants and those who had turned out to greet them regarded their arrival in Turkey as a victory in their long struggle to force the Turkish state to recognize the PKK as a legitimate interlocutor and the representative of the country’s Kurds.
Extraordinarily, the AKP does not appear to have foreseen the impact that television footage of the celebrations at Habur would have on the Turkish masses. As the DTP paraded the eight PKK members through southeast Turkey, Turkish nationalists took to the streets to protest in the rest of the country. In several towns, there were scuffles as Turkish nationalists clashed with DTP supporters. On October 24, amid fears of even worse violence, Erdogan announced that the AKP had postponed the planned arrival in Istanbul on October 28 of 15 PKK members and sympathizers from Europe.
In announcing the postponement, Erdogan bitterly criticized the DTP. However, although there is little doubt that the DTP has exploited the return of the PKK militants for its own ends, the protests have also served as a reminder that managing the Turkish nationalist reaction to any resolution of the Kurdish issue is much more complicated than a mere balance sheet of votes lost and gained.
When the Turkish Republic was established in 1923 as a nation state, the only officially recognized minorities were the Jewish, Armenian and Greek communities. For most of the republic’s history even the existence of Kurds has been officially denied. Traditionally, the official Turkish state discourse has equated national unity with ethnic and religious homogeneity. History textbooks still teach that national unity is a prerequisite for national survival in the face of relentless foreign conspiracies to divide and weaken Turkey. In recent years, migration and increased confidence has made ethnic Kurds more visible on the streets even of the cities of western Turkey. The result has been a palpable rise in anti-Kurdish racism, which has been compounded by EU pressure for greater Kurdish rights and the continuing trauma of the death and destruction caused by the PKK’s insurgency. In poorer areas, resentment has been sharpened by economic hardship, high youth unemployment and the influx from the countryside of young Kurdish migrants looking for work.
Under such circumstances, and in the absence of an unequivocal commitment from the PKK to renounce violence, it is not surprising that media coverage of the PKK militants’ triumphal arrival in Habur triggered such an outcry from Turkish nationalists. What is surprising is that the AKP does not appear to have foreseen that containing Turkish nationalist sentiments was always likely to be at least as difficult as placating Kurdish aspirations.
CONCLUSIONS: Erdogan’s announcement of the postponement of the arrival of PKK militants from Europe is a serious setback for the AKP’s “Kurdish Opening”. It has also probably put paid to any lingering hopes that the AKP may have entertained of persuading the CHP to join the process. However, it is also a fact that, although it miscalculated and was partially motivated by electoral motives, no other Turkish government than the AKP has ever attempted to solve the Kurdish issue by peaceful means.
It remains to be seen whether or not, once the Turkish nationalist outrage at the events at Habur has abated, the AKP will be prepared to renew its efforts and can find a formula which can put an end to the PKK insurgency while avoiding a potentially devastating Turkish nationalist backlash.
Gareth Jenkins, a Senior Associate Fellow with the CACI & SRSP Joint Center, is an Istanbul-based writer and specialist of Turkish Affairs. The contents of first two indictments are discussed in greater detail in Jenkins' Between Fact and Fantasy: Turkey’s Ergenekon Investigation, a Silk Road Paper published by the Joint Center in August 2009.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2009. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".