BACKGROUND: When the PKK first launched its insurgency in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey in August 1984, even the existence of Kurds in Turkey was officially denied; and the use of the words “Kurd” and “Kurdish” were criminal offences. Almost unknown at first, by the early 1990s, the PKK had grown in strength to control large swathes of southeast of Turkey after dark. Gradually, the Turkish security forces reasserted control through a combination of improved military tactics, a scorched earth policy and mass repression, including widespread human rights abuses and extrajudicial executions. By the time PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was captured, tried and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1999, the organization had been militarily marginalized; its activities mainly confined to isolated mountainous areas.
But the PKK’s insurgency had made the organization almost synonymous with the Kurdish nationalist cause in Turkey. Even those Kurdish nationalists who were appalled by the PKK’s often brutal violence reluctantly admitted that it had played a critical role in bringing the Kurdish issue onto the political agenda. Although the Turkish state subsequently made only minor, invariably grudging, concessions to Kurdish demands, it had at least been forced to acknowledge the Kurds’ existence.
In 2003 and 2004, the AKP government eased some of the restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language, but refused to grant the Kurds full cultural or political rights. After Öcalan’s capture in 1999, the PKK declared an open-ended ceasefire. In June 2004, in frustration at the limited nature of the AKP’s reforms and its refusal to recognize Öcalan as a legitimate interlocutor, the PKK returned to violence. Militarily much weaker than a decade earlier, the PKK knew that it could not achieve victory on the battlefield. Its primary objective was to use violence to force the Turkish state into direct negotiations to resolve the Kurdish issue.
Publicly, the AKP insisted that it would never initiate talks with the PKK. In reality, by 2007 it had already started detailed discussions both with Öcalan in his cell on the prison island of İmralı and with representatives of the PKK leadership based in the mountains of northern Iraq. In June 2009, the AKP launched what it described as its “Democratic Opening”, a process of engagement and consultation with the country’s Kurds over how to address their grievances. The initiative culminated on October 19, 2009, with the arrival at Habur on the Turkish-Iraqi border of eight unarmed PKK militants, who were allowed to walk freely into Turkey in the beginning of what the AKP predicted would be the eventual disbanding of the entire organization.
The Democratic Opening was the boldest attempt by any Turkish government to resolve the Kurdish issue. But it was poorly thought out and incompetently implemented. No legal framework had been established to deal with the returning militants, who were technically still classed as terrorists. More critically, in its anxiety to claim the credit for disarming the PKK, the AKP had failed to prepare Turkish public opinion. The sight of eight PKK militants crossing untouched into Turkey, where they were feted as returning heroes by thousands of Kurdish nationalists, infuriated Turkish nationalists, triggering violent demonstrations and attacks on ethnic Kurds across Turkey. In panic, the AKP abruptly halted the Democratic Opening.
However, behind the scenes, the discreet contacts with the PKK appear to have continued until shortly before the general election of June 12, 2011. In September 2011, a voice recording, apparently dating to around May 2010, was posted on the internet showing members of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) engaging in very detailed peace negotiations with PKK representatives during a secret meeting in the Norwegian capital of Oslo.
Why the contacts with the PKK were halted remains unclear. Some Turkish officials have claimed that the PKK was uninterested in negotiations. This appears unlikely as forcing the Turkish state to negotiate is the main objective of the PKK’s campaign of violence. At least part of the answer probably lies in the timing. In the general election of 12 June, 2011, the AKP was returned to power for a third successive term with 49.9 percent of the vote, despite finishing second to candidates from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy (BDP) in most predominantly Kurdish areas. The result appears to have convinced Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has long harbored strong Turkish nationalist sympathies, that he did not need Kurdish votes. More dangerously, the size of the AKP’s victory seems to have reinforced Erdoğan’s already considerable self-confidence to the point where he did not believe that he needed to negotiate or compromise.
IMPLICATIONS: Under Turkish law, inmates are allowed to meet with their lawyers once a week. On July 27, 2011, six weeks after the AKP’s election victory, the Turkish authorities prevented Öcalan’s lawyers from visiting him on İmralı. They have prevented them from visiting him ever since. Since late summer 2011, there has been a sharp increase in the number of Kurdish nationalists who have been arrested on allegations of belonging to a PKK-controlled front organization called the Union of Communities of Kurdistan (KCK). To date, over 7,500 suspects have been taken into custody, including more than 1,000 in March 2012 alone.
As part of the strategy outlined by government officials in late March 2012, the AKP has decided that it will no longer engage either with Öcalan or with any other representatives of the PKK unless the organization first abandons violence. The AKP has vowed to “liberate” Turkey’s Kurds from what it describes as “PKK pressure”. It has also expressed a willingness to initiate discussions with members of the BDP who have “opted for democracy by entering parliament”. But it has already stated it will refuse to accede to the BDP’s main demands, namely the inclusion in a new constitution of a reference to a distinct Kurdish identity or the granting of autonomy to the southeast of the country.
The preconditions set by the AKP raise questions as to what it expects to negotiate with the BDP. Several members of the BDP have already expressed doubts about the AKP’s sincerity. Five of the 36 successful BDP-affiliated candidates in the June 12, 2011 general election are in jail on charges of supporting the PKK and have been unable to take their seats in parliament. The BDP estimates that over 6,000 of its members have been arrested over the last two years, most of them as part of the KCK investigation. Despite the announcement by the AKP of its willingness to talk with the BDP, its five elected members of parliament remain in jail and its officials and supporters continue to be arrested.
There is no doubt that many in the BDP are broadly sympathetic to the PKK. But the level of sympathy varies. Although the PKK is able to exert influence within the BDP, it does not have total control. However, BDP members are virtually unanimous in arguing that any discussions about resolving Kurdish grievances must include both the PKK and Öcalan. There is also an awareness in the BDP – which is implictly lacking in the AKP’s promise to “liberate” the Kurds from the organization – that, despite all its faults, the PKK enjoys considerable popular support in southeast Turkey. Even those who abhor the PKK’s methods have difficulty opposing an organization whose members are perceived as risking, and often sacrificing, their lives for the Kurdish cause; and most people in southeast Turkey have a friend or relative who has joined the PKK.
Similarly, Öcalan’s imprisonment on İmralı has enhanced rather than damaged his status. His isolation has added a mystique to his image and, in the eyes of many Kurds, helped to facilitate his transition from a ruthless and egocentric guerilla leader to the embodiment of the Kurdish nationalist cause. From this perspective, the refusal of the Turkish authorities to allow Öcalan to receive visits from his lawyers is counterproductive, not only fuelling rumors that he is in poor health or being ill-treated but reinforcing his iconic status as an almost mythical martyr.
CONCLUSIONS: The AKP’s “new” strategy for resolving the Kurdish issue appears to be based on the same combination of denial and confrontation that characterized the policies of its predecessors. Implicit in the AKP’s refusal to engage with the PKK or Öcalan is the assumption that the depth of dissent in southeast Turkey has been artificially created and can be removed by the eradication of the purported cause, namely the PKK. This was not true in the 1990s and it is not true today. Indeed, far from lessening the PKK’s appeal, the adoption of hard-line policies – such as aggressive military action – has traditionally tended to boost public sympathy for the organization.
Privately, AKP officials report that they are concerned by a Turkish nationalist backlash if the government is seen to be negotiating with the PKK. It is true that in recent years there has been an alarming rise in anti-Kurdish racism in Turkish society and an increase in attacks in Western Turkey on Kurds and Kurdish-owned premises. However, despite the violent demonstrations that prompted the AKP to abandon the Democratic Opening, it has made no attempt to address the threat of a violent Turkish nationalist backlash, apart from occasional specious appeals to Muslim solidarity. Nor would the fear of Turkish nationalist violence necessarily prevent AKP from continuing secret talks with the PKK and Öcalan; as it did until shortly before the June 12, 2011 general election.
Unpleasant though it often is, the PKK remains the most powerful force in the Kurdish nationalist movement. As a result, excluding the PKK and Öcalan from negotiations would also appear to preclude any solution.
The implicit assumption in the AKP’s “new” Kurdish strategy that it has the ability to impose a solution almost by strength of will on Turkey’s most intractable problem is also indicative of broader trend in its policies since June 2011, in which a self-confidence bordering on hubris appears to inform both domestic and foreign policy. In most areas, the greatest risk is merely disappointment and wounded pride. But, as the melting of the winter snows herald the traditional beginning of the PKK’s campaigning season, there is a real concern that the price of failing to resolve the Kurdish issue could be paid in blood.
Gareth Jenkins, a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the CACI & SRSP Joint Center, is an Istanbul-based writer and specialist of Turkish Affairs.
© 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".