BACKGROUND: The peace talks under way between Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and representatives of the Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MİT) have raised the expectations in Turkey that the conflict that has raged between the Turkish state and the Kurdish insurgents in the southeast of the country since 1984 will be soon brought to an end. The Turkish government is eager to have Öcalan declare a cease-fire and order his organization to start to withdraw its militants from Turkish territory before the end of this year. Next year is election year in Turkey, with upcoming municipal and presidential elections, and Prime Minister Erdoğan – who is aiming to become Turkey’s first popularly elected president with vastly extended powers – is in a hurry to end the Kurdish insurgency that could otherwise pose a threat to his electoral prospects.
The civil war in Syria, where the Kurds have wrested control over parts of the region that neighbors some of Turkey’s Kurdish-populated provinces, raising the specter of a dangerous spillover, has made Ankara ever more determined to defuse the issue once and for all. Indeed, the deteriorating regional context is the main rationale behind the restart of the peace talks with Abdullah Öcalan; less than a year ago, Erdoğan was sending very different signals, pandering to Turkish nationalism and saying that he would have rather seen Öcalan hanged.
Turkish commentators more or less take for granted that Abdullah Öcalan will deliver what Erdoğan asks of him, and that also appears to be what the Turkish government expects. Yet, regardless of Öcalan’s willingness to be forthcoming, a settlement of the conflict with the Kurds will require changes that in turn have implications that widely transcend the current, restricted framework of the peace process.
The late Kurdish politician once stated that a solution requires that the Kurds are satisfied and that the Turks are persuaded. Elçi, who died last year, served in one of the governments led by social democratic leader Bülent Ecevit in the 1970s and was subsequently sentenced to two years in prison by the military junta in the 1980s for having stated that he was a Kurd and that there are Kurds in Turkey. His statement offers a neat summary of the challenge that Turkey is facing.
IMPLICATIONS: The main demands of the Kurds, reiterated by the representatives of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), and which several surveys during the last years have shown to be supported by a great majority of the Kurds in Turkey, are well known: The Kurds want the constitution to be ethnically neutral, with the current references to Turkishness as the identity of the nation and its individuals deleted. They demand the right to education in their own language, and call for devolution, that state power is decentralized, and local municipalities empowered, which in practice amounts to a demand for local and regional autonomy.
By a large margin – 72 percent – the Kurds hold the view that granting the Kurds more rights will solve the problem and usher in democracy, according to a recent survey by the A&G polling company. However, the view of the Turks is diametrically opposed: according to the same survey, 79 percent of the Turks believe that granting the Kurds more rights will lead to the partition of Turkey and thus reject satisfying their demands. These results are corroborated by the findings of another, recent survey conducted by TESEV (The Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation) together with Konda. The survey offers little indication that the Turks are prepared to be forthcoming toward the Kurds: 80 percent of the Turks say that only Turkish can be the medium of education, while 78 percent of the Kurds say that other languages than Turkish should be permitted as the medium of education. The Kurdish-Turkish cleavage is apparent also in the views taken of the empowerment of local administrations: 79 percent of the Kurds envision an order where the local administrations have been accorded the right to levy specific local taxes, a proposition which is strongly suggestive of local autonomy.
However, the picture among the Turks is more nuanced than what is suggested by the overall numbers: 34.5 percent of those who identify themselves as Atatürkists in fact agree with the proposition that local administrations may levy specifically local taxes. The percentages are even higher among those who identify themselves as democrats (42.5 percent) and Islamists (37.5 percent), but these categories include Turks and Kurds. The finding that a significant minority of Atatürkists, who are strongly Turkish nationalist, favors devolution is nonetheless striking; however, conservatives and other categories of Turkish nationalists, as could be expected, take stringently nationalistic views.
So far, Erdoğan has not been outspoken about how accommodating he intends to be; it is possible, indeed probable, that the prime minister himself has not yet made up his mind about how far he is prepared to go in satisfying the demands of the Kurds. However, Erdoğan has on several occasions lately distanced himself from Turkish nationalism in remarkably strong words. Speaking on February 19, Erdoğan said “We stamp our feet on Kurdish nationalism, Laz nationalism as well as Turkish nationalism.” Later, he reiterated his view that he finds nationalism repugnant, saying “No one should come before us brandishing Turkishness, Kurdishness. We are a government that has trampled on all kinds of nationalism.” This view of nationalism is well grounded in the universalism of Erdoğan’s Islamic world view; indeed, those who identify themselves as Islamists among the population are also those – after the democrats – who look most favorably on granting the Kurds their rights.
Erdoğan’s statements suggest that the Turkish prime minister would not mind if the current references to Turkishness are absent in the new constitution that is currently in the process of being drafted; they may also be taken as indication that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is prepared to be forthcoming regarding the use of Kurdish as the medium of education. Although the AKP is yet to commit itself to taking such a step, there are signs that the governing party contemplates introducing wording in the new constitution that would at least open up for that possibility in the future.
Both Erdoğan and Selahattin Demirtaş, one of the co-leaders of the BDP, have stated that the views of the two parties are convergent; what seems to be an emerging alliance between the AKP and the BDP has given rise to speculations that Erdoğan’s game plan is to strike a deal with the Kurdish movement. It is assumed by Turkish commentators that Erdoğan hopes to secure the acquiescence of the Kurds for his ambition to introduce a presidential system, in which the government would be deprived of its executive role and the parliament would be devoid of any power to check the new, all-powerful chief executive. In return for their support, the Kurds would, goes the reasoning, be offered the local autonomy they covet. So far, the representatives of the BDP have not made any attempt to challenge the growing perception that they would be prepared to help Erdogan realize his power ambitions.
CONCLUSIONS: Satisfying the demands of the Kurds will imply a redefinition of the identity of Turkey. Prime Minister Erdoğan has distanced himself from nationalism, and he is ideologically inclined to replace Turkishness with Sunni Islam as the identity that holds Turkey together. In that sense, Erdoğan is ideologically well-equipped to deal with the Kurdish issue, which is ultimately a Turkish issue. It is so because a settlement requires that the Turks be persuaded that satisfying the demands of the Kurds does not invite the partition of Turkey or imperil the state; promoting the Muslim identity as a common bond may facilitate the challenge of transcending Turkishness.
However, a settlement of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict is also going to have other, far-reaching ramifications. It will above all reverse the traditional role of the Turkish state, which historically has sought to regiment society; it would enshrine a whole new principle, making it the duty of the state to respect societal diversity and uphold societal freedom.
Erdoğan may consider deleting references to Turkishness from the constitution, and to allow the Kurdish identity a greater space, but it is less clear that he would also agree to dilute the power of the state – and ultimately his own power – which agreeing to the Kurds’ demand of local autonomy would amount to.
Halil M. Karaveli is Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, and Editor of the Turkey Analyst.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2012. 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".