Monday, 07 March 2011

Squaring the Circle: The PKK Return to Violence and Turkey's Intractable Kurdish Problem

Published in Articles

By Gareth H. Jenkins (vol. 4, no. 5 of the Turkey Analyst)

On February 28, 2011, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) announced that it was abrogating its unilateral ceasefire first declared on August 13, 2010. Initially, the PKK had been expected to continue to abstain from violence until after the June 12, 2011 general election; after which Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has pledged to introduce a new, more liberal, constitution. However, recent months have witnessed growing frustration at the AKP’s refusal to clarify what concessions to Kurdish demands will be included in the new constitution; while a large number of Kurdish nationalists have been arrested and prosecuted on poorly substantiated charges.

BACKGROUND: In June 2009, the AKP launched what became known as the “Democratic Opening”, which was originally intended as a process of engagement and consultation in order to identify and address the grievances of Turkey’s Kurdish minority and put an end to the PKK insurgency, which has cost over 40,000 lives – most of them Kurdish militants and civilians – since it was first launched in August 1984. After decades in which the policies of successive Turkish governments towards the Kurdish issue had been characterized by a mixture of denial and often brutal suppression, the AKP’s initiative was both bold and unprecedented. But it was also poorly planned and implemented.

On October 19, 2009, eight militants crossed into Turkey at the Habur border gate from the PKK’s main camps in northern Iraq in what was initially heralded as the first stage in a process would eventually result in the entire organization laying down its arms. Under what appears to have been a prior arrangement between the PKK and the AKP, the militants were not arrested. But no legal framework had been created to deal with the militants who arrived at Habur. Nor was there an agreed roadmap for what would happen next. The AKP seems to have regarded the incident as the end of the insurgency. The PKK saw it as the beginning of a new process in which it would engage with the Turkish state in addressing Kurdish demands for greater cultural and political rights.

The eight PKK militants were paraded by their supporters through the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey as conquering heroes who had finally forced the Turkish state to the negotiating table. The result was an explosion of Turkish nationalist outrage, including violent protests and clashes between ethnic Turks and Kurds on the streets of the cities of western Turkey. Amid well-founded fears of even more violence, the AKP cancelled the return of any more PKK militants; and the eight who had already arrived were arrested. Alarmed by the prospect of alienating its Turkish nationalist voters, over the weeks that followed, the AKP launched a propaganda campaign stressing its commitment to the unitary Turkish state. On December 11, 2009, the main pro-Kurdish political party, the Democratic Society Party (DTP) was outlawed by the Constitutional Court. Although such moves placated Turkish nationalists, they were regarded by many Kurdish nationalists as a betrayal and proof of the insincerity of the AKP’s professed commitment to addressing their concerns.

In June 2010, the PKK once again intensified its campaign of violence. Through summer 2010, an intensification in long-running discreet contacts between the PKK and representatives of the Turkish state was accompanied by repeated public promises by AKP officials that they would address Kurdish concerns in a new constitution that would be promulgated after the June 12, 2011, general election. On August 13, 2010, the PKK announced a unilateral ceasefire. However, over the months that followed, the AKP studiously avoided giving any indication of what concessions to Kurdish demands it would include in the new constitution. More critically, on October 17, 2010, the criminal court in the main Kurdish city of Diyarbakır held the first hearing in what has come to be known as the Democratic Confederation of Kurdistan (KCK) trial.

The KCK is the brainchild of imprisoned PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan, who proposed the creation of consultative assemblies in all of the countries in the Middle East with a large Kurdish population. It has never been clear how the concept would work in practice and it has failed to take root in any other country except Turkey, where it has served as a theoretical template bringing together networks of Kurdish nationalist groups and NGOs. There is no doubt that some of the 151 defendants – who include the elected mayors of 12 towns in southeast Turkey – who are accused of being members of the KCK do have close links with the PKK. However, many others appear to be guilty of nothing more than being Kurdish. More disturbingly, the case has been characterized by repeated cases of abuses of due procedure; while the 7,578 page indictment (just like the equally large Ergenekon investigation into alleged coup-plotters) contains numerous absurdities and contradictions. The longer the case has continued, the more widespread has become the sense of betrayal amongst Kurdish nationalists and the conviction that, just as with the events of late 2009, the trial is yet further proof of the AKP’s insincerity. 

IMPLICATIONS: Since it returned to violence in June 2004 after a five-year hiatus, the PKK has been aware that it is unlikely ever to defeat the Turkish security forces on the battlefield. Violence has been used more as an instrument of psychological attrition, which was initially primarily directed at wearing down the Turkish state’s public refusal to recognize the PKK as a legitimate interlocutor in negotiations to address the concerns of the country’s Kurds. From this perspective, the incident at Habur in October 2009 and the Turkish state’s admission in summer 2010 that it was engaged in negotiations with the organization could be interpreted as a victory for the PKK. The problem now for the PKK, and the broader Kurdish nationalist movement, is how to move on to the next stage and persuade the Turkish state to make concessions to its demands.

During the early years of its insurgency, the PKK effectively wasKurdish nationalism in Turkey. In recent years, non-violent elements – such as political parties, NGOs and the media – have come to play an increasingly prominent role in Kurdish politics; while the rapidly growing Islamist movement known as Hizbullah (which is unrelated to the Lebanese organization of the same name) has adopted a more explicitly Kurdish nationalist identity. As a result, in addition to opposing the Turkish state, the PKK is also under pressure to maintain its preeminent position within the broader Kurdish nationalist movement; and the most obvious way for it to do so is through violence. Members of the PKK freely admit that recruitment and popular support both rise when the organization suffers casualties at the hands of the Turkish security forces.

Yet the PKK is aware that, in any negotiations with the Turkish state, it stands a better chance of extracting concessions when its militants are not killing Turkish soldiers or civilians. As a result, choosing when to initiate and abrogate ceasefires has always involved a careful calculation of costs and benefits; particularly as a sustained ceasefire without extracting any concessions may make the organization look weak and ineffective not only to the Turkish state but also to its Kurdish supporters, who may then switch allegiance to other groups and organizations.

For the first time ever, the PKK leadership in northern Iraq took the decision to abrogate its latest ceasefire without consulting with Öcalan; after the Turkish authorities repeatedly prevented Öcalan’s lawyers, who serve as his means of communication with the organization, from visiting him in his cell on the prison island of İmralı. It is currently unclear whether this marks a long-term change in decision-making processes in the PKK. However, the decision to return to violence without Öcalan’s explicit approval is an indication of the depth of the current anger and frustration in southeast Turkey and the PKK’s fear that it would lose credibility if it remained passive any longer.

The continuing winter snow in southeast Turkey means that it will probably be several weeks before PKK militants can redeploy and launch a sustained campaign of violence. On February 28, 2011, the PKK also declared that there was still time for the AKP to make concessions to Kurdish demands. However, in practice, the government is unlikely to do so before the June 12, 2011 general election. The AKP has already made it clear that it will targeting Turkish nationalist votes in the hope of pushing the Turkish ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP) under the 10 percent threshold for representation in parliament, and thus increasing the number of the AKP’s own seats in the assembly; and the memory of the turmoil of October 2009 still serves as a reminder of the repercussions of being regarded as being soft on the PKK.

CONCLUSIONS: Regardless of whether or not the accusations of the AKP’s insincerity are justified, it is difficult to see how, under the prevailing circumstances, any ruling party could grant sufficient concessions to satisfy either violent or non-violent Kurdish nationalists. In recent years, these have mostly focused on the demand for the use of Kurdish as the language of instruction in schools in southeast Turkey and the gradual introduction of autonomy for the region. Even if, as expected, the AKP is returned to power in the 12 June 2011 election, it will find it very difficult to include such concessions in a new constitution without facing a Turkish nationalist backlash which would probably be more widespread and more violent than the protests which followed the incident at Habur in October 2009.

However, there is also little doubt that the policies pursued by the AKP government since August 2010, particularly its support for the deeply flawed KCK trial, have played a significant role in growing tensions in Kurdish areas; which have in turn intensified the pressure on the PKK to return to violence. The KCK indictment’s tendency to lump all Kurdish nationalists together as PKK is also disturbingly reminiscent of the attitude taken by previous administrations; one which inadvertently increased both the popularity and the prestige of the organization and resulted in Kurdish nationalists who were otherwise opposed to its often brutal methods becoming closely aligned with it.

Traditionally, an escalation in PKK violence has tended to result in an increase in Turkish as well as Kurdish nationalist sentiments. In electoral terms, this will mean a growth in support for the DTP’s successor, the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), at the AKP’s expense in southeast Turkey; and for the MHP at the AKP’s expense in the rest of the country. Although the shift is unlikely to change the overall result of the June 12, 2011, election, which the AKP is still expected to win, it could significantly reduce its parliamentary majority.

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, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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