Turkey’s ‘Kurdish initiative’: What went wrong? (Or did it?)

Okuma Süresi: 26 Dakika

December 10, 2010
By Dr. Akin Unver
Princeton University

Click here to download the PDF version.

In May 2009, Turkish President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had hinted the possibility of launching a Kurdish initiative, which, according to some, was perhaps the most ambitious project, directed towards the peaceful resolution of Turkey’s Kurdish question in recent history. Although its details were left more or less ambiguous, the ‘Kurdish initiative’ in its broadest terms, aimed to diffuse decades of tensions between the Turkish state and its Kurdish population through several social, legal and economic measures. Although the initiative had initially met with support from a large portion of the society, as the AKP dug deeper into the problem, this support turned into popular unrest and criticism, which lead to a temporary halt of the process.

What is Turkey’s Kurdish question?
Turkish Republic had been fighting more than twenty Kurdish rebellions since 1920s [i] – according to the general consensus in the academic literature – due to the formulation and practice of Turkish citizenship during the early republican era[ii] Many of the earlier rebellions were Islamist in nature, instigated by the traditionally powerful Nakşıbendi Sufi brotherhoods of the Kurdish regions as a response to the republican elites’ decision to abolish the Sultanate and the Caliphate; in 1922 and 1924 respectively. Up until 1970s, Kurdish rebellions and unrest were generally religious and tribal in nature. Following the gradual mechanization of the Turkish agricultural sector in the 1950s and 60s as a result of the injection of American Marshall Aid money and equipment, agricultural unemployment increased in the Anatolian rural areas. Many Anatolian peasant families (including the Kurds) had to migrate to big cities to find jobs, whose makeshift barracks gradually turned into shantytowns. People of the shantytowns would find employment either as blue-collar workers in the city factories or would remain unemployed, becoming a part of the political polarization of the Cold War. Those who joined factories were soon influenced by the Communist workers’ union discourse and participated in organized political-leftist activism. Through the period of 1960s and 70s, much of the immigrant Kurds threw their lot in with the political left, as the anti-religious and anti-dynastic ideals of Marxist-Lenninist interpretation of Communism[iii] resonated strongest with the Kurds, who were deeply frustrated with the dominance of the landowners (ağa) and religious brotherhoods in their regional culture. Soon leftist organizations and Marxist-Leninist discourse would become the primary political outlet for the urbanized Kurds.

The Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) was one of many of these Kurdish-leftist groups that had become a part of the urban violence, which scourged Turkish cities through the 1960s and 70s. Following the 1980 coup that took place declaredly as a response to growing street violence, the PKK went underground together with some other leftist groups that were considered too insignificant to be cracked down. Abdullah Öcalan fled to Syria shortly before the coup and then under Syrian tutelage, established the first PKK training base in Syrian controlled Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. During the Turkish military junta administration, Diyarbakır Military Prison would become quite notorious for the guardians’ systematic use of torture and killing of the inmates[iv]. The founding and the most senior body of the PKK would be the survivors of the Diyarbakir prison, who had argued that the “state had turned against its Kurds” and that “the Kurds must defend themselves against the state”[v]. Recruiting a large number of former members of the militant Kurdish political-left that had fled from Turkey after the 1980 coup, the PKK reformulated its objective as “launching a revolution against the oppressive Turkish state, along Marxist and Leninist lines and the creation of an independent Kurdistan”[vi]. The PKK soon launched its first attack in August 1984 on two Turkish military outposts in Şemdinli and Eruh; this milestone event is considered as the beginning of a protracted armed conflict with the PKK.

Although the conflict became increasingly more serious from 1984 to 1990, the Gulf War and Turkey’s role in it soon turned the low-intensity Kurdish problem into an all-out Kurdish rebellion (which, at times came very close to success) that would scourge the south-east for about a decade. The main turning point was Turkey’s decision to allow NATO jets to station in and launch operations from the İncirlik airbase in Adana. In order to punish Turkey, Saddam Husayn decided to hit where it hurt most: instead of launching a gas attack similar to that in Halabja in 1988, Saddam ordered his forces to march onwards to northern Iraq. Unlike Saddam’s genocidal Anfal gampaign of 1986-89, this time Iraqi forces harassed and pushed a large number of Kurdish refugees that had emerged as a result of the Anfal campaign, towards the Turkish-Iraqi border[vii]. Within a matter of weeks, Turkish troops stationed on the border had about a million Kurdish refugees to deal with; a figure that would rise up to more than three million within months. Saddam’s harassment of the northern Iraqi Kurds created one of the most serious refugee crisis Turkey had to deal with, millions of displaced, desperate and angry Kurds provided the ideal recruiting pool for the PKK, which increased its recruits by ten-fold, it also made us of the arms and supplies intentionally left by Saddam’s troops on their way back to Baghdad to deadly effect. Saddam’s revenge was complete: from 1990 onwards, Turkey fought one of the most difficult counter-insurgency campaigns in modern history against a terrorist organization whose recruits skyrocketed by the Kurdish refugees Saddam pushed to the Turkish-Iraqi border. According to some estimates, this armed conflict took a toll of more than 37,000 lives and cost more than 200 billion US dollars[viii]. After about 15 years of intense fighting and about a dozen cross-border campaigns, Turkey had managed to force the Syrian government to expel Abdullah Öcalan out of Damascus in 1998, by directly threatening to invade Syria. After about a year of traveling from country to country, including Russia, Greece and Italy, Öcalan was finally captured in Kenya on his way out of the Greek Embassy in Nairobi and was delivered to Turkish operatives.

Öcalan’s capture had dealt a formidable blow to the PKK. Afterwards as a ‘top heavy’ organization, the PKK then entered a period of interregnum and the violence in the south-east dropped considerably. Yet, the 2003 war in Iraq threatened the status-quo Turkey (as well as the Clinton administration) had worked so hard to build in the south-east and northern Iraq. Especially after the rejection of the March 1st bill of the Turkish parliament that would otherwise allow U.S. troops passage through Turkish soil[ix] and the U.S. Army 173d airborne division raid on a safe house in Sulaymaniya[x], the rift between the United States and Turkey had lead the decision-makers of the George W. Bush administration to initially follow a more preferential treatment towards the northern Iraqi Kurds at the expense of Turkey. Benefiting from the American air cover that prevented Turkish jets from entering northern Iraqi airspace and more lenient treatment by the northern Iraqi Kurdish administration, the PKK succeeded in regrouping, reorganizing and rectifying its leadership structure after the capture of Abdullah Öcalan. In 2005, the PKK had regrouping and rearming sufficiently that it had started to attack Turkish military positions in south-eastern Turkey again by 2005. The most notorious of these attacks was the October 2007 raid on the Dağlıca outpost, which created an intense public reaction that forced the Turkish authorities to make renewed efforts to negotiate with the US officials, to open the northern Iraqi airspace to Turkish jets. Following such public pressure in Turkey and the subsequent negotiations between American and Turkish militaries, the United States agreed to back limited Turkish incursions into northern Iraq[xi]. Shortly, Turkey launched two cross-border air and ground raids against the PKK in late 2007 and early 2008. However, the Turkish military was very well aware of the fact that these raids could do no further than temporarily disrupting the PKK’s operational capability. There had to be a lasting solution.

What is the ‘Kurdish initiative’?
From early 2008 onwards, Turkey took steps to disrupt PKK’s operational capability by launching periodic air raids and troop incursions into northern Iraq, while the PKK managed to break-through and launch several small-scale attacks against several Turkish military outposts[xii]. This low-intensity stalemate was broken by the PKK’s captured leader Abdullah Öcalan in early 2009, who had declared that he would announce a ‘roadmap for the resolution of the Kurdish question’ by August. Although statements of some Turkish officials point to the contrary, Öcalan’s declaration created a momentum within the government to pre-empt his plan and announce a counter ‘Kurdish initiative’ that would render his plan useless. Indeed, the Turkish government had been considering the possibility of taking steps that would help diffuse tensions with the Kurdish population and increase the AKP’s vote share in the Kurdish areas, which would at the same time fulfill some of the Copenhagen criteria for European Union membership. To this end, an earlier signal had come in January 1, 2009 by the launch of TRT-6, the only Kurdish language TV channel of the state-owned Turkish Radio and Television Corporation[xiii].

After ‘testing the waters’ and seeing a more or less positive public reaction to the creation of TRT-6, in May 2009 President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan attracted all media attention by making separate statements that there would be “new openings regarding the Kurdish question” and that “this [was] an important opportunity that shouldn’t be missed”[xiv]. On May 12, 2009 a news report from the Turkish daily Hürriyet[xv] wrote that the ‘Kurdish initiative’ that the government was working on was comprised of six preliminary steps: Establishment of the Kurdish institutes, abolishment of the restrictions previously imposed on local Kurdish radio and TV stations, introduction of the Kurdish language as an elective course in schools, reverting back the names of the Kurdish villages and towns that were ‘Turkified’ after the 1980 coup, recruitment of Kurdish speaking civil servants in the south-east, abolishment of the ban on Kurdish language in prisons and the ban on giving Kurdish names to the newborns. The government also issued a follow-up statement indicating that under no circumstances, can the Kurdish initiative imply Kurdish-only education in the south-east, any possible constitutional amendment that would highlight the Kurdish ethnicity, release of Abdullah Öcalan, any form of autonomy for the Kurdish majority cities or towns, or halting Turkish military operations against the PKK. Weeks later during the June 2009 National Security Council meeting, the National Intelligence Organization (Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı – MIT) was asked to prepare a report that would discuss possible scenarios on how best to approach a peaceful solution.

Meanwhile, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) tried to allay fears that its single-party government is making irreversible decisions on traditional state policy regarding perhaps Turkey’s most important domestic issue without consulting opposition parties and civil society groups. This was also necessary, as Abdullah Öcalan’s plan was structured upon a certain ‘consensus’ he claimed to have reached after discussing his views with “numerous civil society groups” via his lawyers[xvi]. Therefore the AKP leadership thought that approaching this critical issue without a parallel consensus and alliance building policy would ultimately backfire and be interpreted as AKP unilateralism. Beşir Atalay, Minister of the Interior, soon assumed the pivot role of this social consultation and consensus-building project. The first of these meetings took place on August 1, 2009, when a ‘workshop’ towards the resolution of the Kurdish question took place, where the Minister Atalay met with 15 academics and experts to listen to their views on how best to solve the Kurdish question. Afterwards, Atalay met with the center-left Democratic-Left Party (DSP), right-wing nationalist Great Union Party (BBP), center-right Democrat Party (DP) and pro-Kurdish center-left Democratic Society Party (DTP). Also the Minister’s meetings included the influential Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges (TOBB), labor unions Hak-İş, Türk-İş and the Union of Turkish Bars (TBB).

While the consultation process was in order, in August 18, initial specific details of the Kurdish initiative were introduced via the media. The program emphasized the government’s rather ambitious main priority; taking steps that would not only reduce to amount of violence between the PKK and Turkish Armed Forces, but “to eradicate violence once and for all, aiming to end the armed conflict permanently”. This specifically meant the disarmament of the PKK and its disbandment, as well as undertaking intense intelligence and covert operations to prevent radical segments within the PKK to sabotage this very delicate process by conducting acts of provocative violence. In addition, the plan included easing of the suppression mechanisms such as reduction of the military checkpoints in some major roads that have been stifling transportation and trade in the region. Additionally, TRT-6 programs would be re-designed and would include more specific Kurdish cultural elements, rather than the mundane recitation of old news reports. An economic and developmental investment program was also emphasized, as economic well being of and employment opportunities in the Kurdish areas were considered very important for the solution of the question. Final component of the initial plan was to cooperate with the Northern Iraqi Kurdish Administration and the United Nations and get their support for the evacuation of the Makhmour[xvii] refugee camp in northern Iraq, which had been one of the primary recruiting grounds for the PKK. The plan suggested Makhmour’s inhabitants to return back to Turkey and the PKK militants to surrender to the UN camp administration and receive rehabilitation there. In addition, easing of certain articles of the Turkish Penal Code related to ‘willing surrender’ of the PKK militants would be re-considered to hasten PKK’s peaceful disarmament. Finally, establishment of a tripartite mechanism of consultation between Turkey, Iraq and the US that would oversee the PKK’s disarmament, was suggested.[xviii]

In the meantime, Turkish government was making sure that it kept Abdullah Öcalan out of the process as much as possible and was making it very explicit that it was pursuing all possible options without his involvement. To this end when Öcalan finally gave his ‘road map’ document to his lawyers in August, it was confiscated by the İmralı prison administration.[xix]

From ‘Kurdish initiative’ to ‘Democratic initiative’ to ‘national unity and brotherhood project’
While the government was pursuing two parallel processes in August, of consulting with the civil society and calculating more sensitive options with the military and intelligence branches, perhaps as a cosmetic touch to the process, the ‘Kurdish’ part of the initiative disappeared from the AKP discourse (which was also reflected in pro-government media outlets) and the title of the plan suddenly became ‘democratic opening’. According to some accounts, the main reason for this cosmetic touch was then Chief of General Staff İlker Başbuğ’s statement of August 25, 2009, where he emphasized the unitary character of the Turkish Republic and that the military would not support any plan that would jeopardize the Turkish character of the republic.[xx] Meanwhile, encouraged by Başbuğ’s statements two opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) that were mostly pursuing a policy of low-profile involvement, begun raising their tone and criticism of the AKP’s initiatives.

In fact initially, both the CHP and MHP had welcomed the initiative; albeit with a cautious tone. When the AKP had decided to engage in consultation and consensus building meetings, which also revealed the government’s lack of a more detailed and operational plan regarding the solution of the question, both opposition parties rejected AKP’s calls for support to the process claiming “we won’t embark on a ship whose destination is not set”[xxi]. This wasn’t a rejection of the process or a stand against the solution of the Kurdish question; rather, the opposition wanted to make sure that the government knew exactly what it was doing and had a clear roadmap in mind before they could commit their political capital to the process. On the other hand the AKP knew very well that had it prepared the full roadmap in advance, without consulting the opposition parties and the civil society representatives, the plan would then be seen as partisan unilateralism and would be shunned away as the AKP’s attempt to impose a fait accompli.

Late October 2009 became a milestone in terms of deterioration of the process. Perhaps the most important aim of the Kurdish initiative was to prepare a conducive environment for the PKK to disarm and in popular Turkish discourse ‘come down from the mountains peacefully’. As an initial part of the plan, Turkish security operatives had began negotiating with the families of the PKK members back in August and had succeeded in convincing 17 of them to surrender peacefully to the authorities. The peaceful and supportive manner in which the authorities received these 17 PKK members would set an example to many others in the mountains and would help weaken the prevalent argument within the PKK, which was a direct result of the 1984 Diyarbakır prison massacre: ‘if you surrender to the state, you will be tortured and killed’. After several other incidents of PKK members surrendering and the security officials (with strict orders from their superiors) receiving them in a peaceful manner, the government now decided to arrange the peaceful surrender of a larger group; this surrender would have to be advertised and put on the front pages – after all, it had to be a public relations campaign that would expedite the surrendering process of the other members of the PKK. Although the government tried to keep Öcalan out of the process, it nonetheless had to use him to negotiate the peaceful surrender of 30 PKK members and 4 children on October 21, 2009. While predictably, Turks cringed whenever they heard the name ‘Öcalan’, he was nonetheless intent on playing a key role in the disarmament process of the PKK. All parties to the process, AKP, PKK and DTP wanted this to be a high-profile and advertised event; after all, this would set the tone for the reception of further surrenders. To this end, DTP prepared a massive reception rally in Diyarbakır; in this very symbolic ceremony, 30 former PKK members took out their mountain gear and wore civilian clothes as a way of conveying their intention to lay down their arms and integrate into the society. Careful legal and security operatives also followed their strict orders verbatim: they welcomed the PKK members without arresting them and took them to a lodging facility, where a ‘mobile court’ could walk them through the surrendering process. On the one hand, this rally set a good example to other PKK members in the mountains; they could surrender peacefully, and they could be received well, and unharmed. But from the Turks’ perspective the rally included almost everything Turks had stood against and considered ‘alarming’. Abdullah Öcalan posters, fireworks, flying of the Kurdish flag and singing of the Kurdish anthem, were all more than enough to infuriate the Turks who read about and watched this event from TV and newspaper sources that also played their part in amplifying all negative aspects of what was going on. While the Turks had expected the PKK members to disarm and surrender to the authorities as a show of regret and remorse, the DTP had reframed the entire debacle as ‘the proof that the Kurds have won’ and their decades’-old demands were finally accepted by the Turkish state. This was the DTP’s way of ‘getting the Kurdish electorate back’ that would otherwise support the AKP for managing a very delicate process of PKK’s disarmament. DTP’s attempt to over-emphasize its role in facilitating this surrender at the expense of the AKP, where clear statements about Abdullah Öcalan being the leader of the entire movement were made, the DTP not only caused the Turkish public support for the Kurdish opening wane almost overnight, it also opened the way for its own closure by explicitly associating itself with the PKK and Abdullah Öcalan[xxii], so early in a very delicate process.

The stalling Kurdish initiative therefore came to a full halt after the October 21st rally. One of the most enthusiastic supporters of the process, President Abdullah Gül issued a statement next day emphasizing that the surrendering process “shouldn’t be turned into a show”, also warning the DTP not to agitate the Turkish public opinion during such an early phase in the process. Yet Kurdish hardliners pushed their rhetoric even further; one of the founding members of the PKK, Cemil Bayık asserted bluntly (and to some, provocatively) the same day that: “further surrenders will not take place until the Turkish state recognizes the will of the Kurds”[xxiii]. Both the CHP and MHP issued strong statements next day, CHP leader Deniz Baykal stating that “the PKK is being allowed to become a dominant political force in the region” whereas an infuriated MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli asserted that this was a ‘scene of betrayal’ in which “plans of Turkey’s partitioning are made and finalized” further agitating Turkish public opinion by claiming “families of the fallen soldiers have already began returning their medals back”[xxiv].

As a direct consequence of the DTP’s rally, the government decided to relocate Abdullah Öcalan to another prison room in İmralı on November 3, which Öcalan declared through his lawyers as ‘punishment conditions’. Soon, mass Kurdish riots started in numerous part of the country, protesting what Öcalan had defined as poor prison conditions. This was one of the reasons why the DTP decided to run another rally and demonstration, this time in the Hatay town of İzmir, known for being dominantly Turkish-nationalist. On November 23, 2009, DTP rally in İzmir met with widespread anger from the crowd during which stones were thrown at the DTP politicians. Citizens of İzmir called this a ‘provocative act’ as it was intentionally taking place in a Kemalist town, whereas DTP complained that this showed Turks’ intolerance for anything Kurdish, including a peaceful rally. About two weeks later however, the PKK attacked and killed 7 Turkish soldiers in Reşadiye town the Blacksea city of Tokat, perhaps as a way to threaten the Turkish government by showing their violent reach further from the predominantly Kurdish areas.

DTP’s gambit, coupled with the AKP’s dragging consultation process, Öcalan’s prison conditions and subsequent provocative Kurdish moves created sufficient destabilization of the momentum and caused the initial episode of the Kurdish opening to collapse. Meanwhile the opposition parties took agitation further, referring to the process as one in which ‘the AKP is testing waters for the partitioning of Turkey’ and defined the Kurdish initiative as one of ‘partition initiative’. DTP’s gambit also backfired after the Constitutional Court initiated a legal process against the party and decided to close it four days after the Reşadiye raid, on December 11, 2009 on the grounds of “becoming a focus of terrorist activities”. Later, a senior Turkish government official would tell the author in a private interview:

The DTP says that its real leader is Abdullah Öcalan […] but it also says that it is an intermediary party like the Irish Sinn Fein […] if the DTP first comes up and says ‘I will act as an intermediary’ and then acts like the civilian wing of the PKK and tells us to negotiate directly with the PKK and Öcalan, then why do we need the DTP?

Following this ordeal, the ‘democratic initiative’ news gradually disappeared from the media agenda. The AKP had to slow down the process and pursue minimal progress; sufficiently intent to create a sense in the Kurdish areas that the government still cared about their problems, but without advertising and publicizing it to a degree that it would provoke the Turkish public opinion, which was seriously annoyed with the DTP rallies and PKK attacks. In early January 2010, the AKP prepared and published a Q&A booklet on the democratic initiative, this time titled ‘National Unity and Brotherhood Project’[xxv], which was intended to answer all questions regarding the initiative, but this was more of a PR move, rather than a direct contribution to the process.

Currently, the process is locked between the government and Abdullah Öcalan, where the government is oscillating between dealing with Öcalan and completely marginalizing him off the process. Öcalan on the other hand is using his hold over the PKK as a bargaining tool that forces Turkish authorities to deal with him. Most recently, the PKK attacked three Turkish military outposts, killing several Turkish soldiers since late-May and early-June 2010.

Evaluating the success of the Kurdish initiative: Shift in Turkish Weltanschaung?
Although the DTP rally seems to be the most explicit reason for the collapse of the momentum, there are less visible aspects of process. Primarily, Turkey’s Kurdish question in the recent years has become a tug-of-war between the ruling AKP and Abdullah Öcalan. While the AKP has been trying to attract moderate Kurdish votes by marginalizing the PKK and Öcalan, Öcalan can still force himself into the equation by giving orders to PKK groups loyal to him through his lawyers and instigate provocative acts of violence. Such acts of violence always politically weaken the AKP and make it look unable to provide security and order in the southeast, and when the military forces respond by counter-terrorism operations, the AKP loses further credibility among the Kurds for what they perceive as ‘unleashing the military upon them’. This of course damages AKP’s credibility as a sincere agent of conflict resolution among the Kurds. This is why for the AKP (and for that matter, any other governing party or coalition), resolution of the Kurdish question through peaceful measures always halt or slow when circumstances necessitate negotiating with Abdullah Öcalan, whose very name is sufficient to create a very strong negative public reaction in Turkey. Yet, when the AKP tries to force Öcalan out of the process, an act of provocation takes place, threatening any delicate process towards the solution of the question. More problematic perhaps, is that Abdullah Öcalan’s command of the PKK is not perfect. There are groups within the PKK that are less attached to Öcalan’s cult, as well as those that are open rivals to him. These rival groups also sometimes engage in provocations and acts of violence in order to derail processes that can possibly emphasize or strengthen Öcalan.

Yet although Öcalan still remains the notorious leader of an organization, which is officially considered as a ‘foreign terrorist organization’ by the United States, United Nations, NATO and the European Union, for many Kurds, Öcalan is the primary leader of the Kurdish nationalism, without whom, one cannot even talk about the solution of the Kurdish question. For almost all Turks, on the other hand, even the slightest suggestion of dealing with Öcalan or allowing him to play even the tiniest role in this issue remains unacceptable. When the AKP tries to bring Öcalan into the process, it receives a massive backlash from the Turkish public and gets accused for ‘discussing the partition of Turkey’, as well as having to deal with the acts of provocative violence by Öcalan’s rivals within the PKK. On the other hand, when the AKP tries to bypass Öcalan, PKK or DTP, then pro-Öcalan groups conduct violence or provocative acts to remind the AKP that they cannot be pushed away from the process. AKP and the Turkish state security-intelligence branches are finding it increasingly difficult to deal with the Kurdish problem without dealing with Öcalan, but this is specifically the thing that gives Turks shivers. Thus, many observers have claimed that the Kurdish initiative was bound to fail since its inception and at least for the foreseeable future, any hope for a peaceful resolution is lost.

However, before judging the Kurdish initiative as a ‘success’ or ‘failure’, an observer must ponder the possibility that this is not a policy ‘package’, but a mindset and a shift in the ‘way of looking’ at Turkish politics that delve into multiple and intertwined layers of domestic and foreign policy considerations (most of which have been considered as taboo). Following DTP rallies, some Turkish and foreign observers deemed the Kurdish opening as ‘failure’, perhaps overlooking the fact that the episode, which is deemed as failure, was intended as just the prologue of a larger process. Especially from the AKP’s side, the process has only just begun as greater coordination between state security and intelligence agencies is taking place towards the solution of this question. It is well realized within the Turkish state organs that the most difficult part of a conflict-resolution process is its beginning and provocations and derailing will take place as a natural by-product of such difficult strategies. Turkey’s increasing cooperation with the Northern Iraqi Kurds is a proof of this multi-tiered approach. Henri Barkey argued for example, that the head of Turkish MIT Emre Taner had been consulting with the Kurdish Iraqi leaders Talabani and Barzani in order to get their support in the disarmament of the PKK, which is a significant policy shift as both the Turkish government and the state-intelligence branch were now dealing with them at the highest levels[xxvi].

Second, it must be remembered that two of the main reasons for the announcement of the Kurdish initiative, were Abdullah Öcalan’s initial ‘road map’ and the defeat of the AKP in the predominantly Kurdish towns in the municipal elections of March 2009, against the Kurdish DTP. The initiative was not a spontaneous act of ‘democratization’, as much as it was a direct result of AKP’s plummeting electoral popularity among the Kurds. It must be stressed however, that the initiative itself is no longer primarily about the Kurdish votes, and will likely continue even though Kurds do not vote for the AKP in the future elections. In addition, the ruling Justice and Development Party announced and dived into the initiative in a very hasty way in order to pre-empt Abdullah Öcalan’s roadmap. This is why it had to engage in the consultation and consensus building measures after it had announced the initiative; unlike Öcalan, who had pursued these processes through his lawyers before he had announced his decision to present a ‘road map’. Furthermore, some critics point to the fact that the government is dealing with the Kurdish question when the PKK is directly influencing Kurdish opinion through its armed tutelage at gun point, and that the very reason that a violent PKK determines how the Kurdish people react to the opening renders the opening anything but ‘democratic’.

Despite these drawbacks however, current process is taking place in perhaps the most conducive political environment for the resolution of the Kurdish question. Domestically, although the AKP has lost many of the Kurdish majority cities in the last municipal elections to DTP, it nonetheless still is the unrivaled political party in Turkey. Secondly, the AKP has the political will and capital to politically lift the Kurdish question off of the shoulders of the armed forces that have been carrying it for decades; successive military Chiefs of Staff declared that a military-only approach could not resolve the question and the problem needed a social and political solution[xxvii]. It was an important coincidence that the military-intelligence branches realized the necessity for a popular political party to handle this question, at the same time such a party emerged in Turkish politics. Third, although the PKK has regrouped considerably since the beginning of the Iraq war, it is nonetheless not as problematic as it had been in the 1990s. Although the Iraq War seriously threatened Turkey’s security and is perhaps the primary cause of the plummeting relations between U.S.-Turkish relations, Turkey nonetheless managed to convert this disadvantage into advantage by pursuing close relations with the Northern Iraqi Kurds and investing hugely in the northern Iraqi reconstruction projects. Similarly, the Northern Iraqi Kurdish Administration grew more powerful since the war in a way that is not threatening towards Turkey; to the contrary, Turkey politically repositioned itself that a stronger Northern Iraqi Kurdish Administration would be to the benefit of Turkey in terms of the tripartite Turkish-American-Iraqi cooperation against the PKK. Some observers suggest that Turkey’s decision to open a consulate in Erbil was a very clear indication of Turkey’s recognition of Iraq’s future as a federal entity, as well as the KRG’s legitimate status as a federal government within Iraq[xxviii]. As a result, the PKK in northern Iraq is becoming increasingly aware of the fact that remaining in the mountains and attacking Turkish outposts will cause it to become gradually squeezed between Turkey, United States and Iraq. Realizing this much earlier in 2005, Abdullah Öcalan had in fact created the Union of Communities of Kurdistan (KCK); a political umbrella organization for the different Kurdish groups in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. KCK’s main aim, some analysts argue is to politicize violent Kurdish groups and serve as a bridge organization as the members of these violent groups disarm and take part in civilian-political affairs[xxix].

Although its current track record, as well as the AKP’s sincerity in the process is debatable, the Kurdish initiative has so far been the most comprehensive approach introduced regarding the resolution of the Kurdish question. As it was a hasty way of marginalizing and bypassing Öcalan-origin solution plan, the government had to condense and expedite a preparatory consultation process, which needs an extended period of time to mature. Additionally and perhaps most seriously, this initial episode exposed a counterintuitive reality: Turks don’t know what the Kurdish question is. Of course, every citizen of Turkey has some idea about what the Kurdish question implies, such as ‘it is a problem of terrorism and territorial integrity’ or ‘it is a problem of human rights and lack of democratization’, however Turkish society does not yet have a consensual agreement and outlook towards the very definition of the Kurdish question. This is why, when the AKP engaged in the Kurdish initiative, it had very little (if any) idea of what it was going to do to address the question and had to divert a lot of its energy and political capital towards consulting different segments of the society to hear what they understand from the Kurdish question.

Societies that cannot properly define their problem, cannot offer an operational solution to them. This lack of a unified understanding of the Kudish question is currently Turkey’s biggest obstacle on the way to the solution of the problem. While some citizens of Turkey understand ‘bringing the PKK down from the mountains’ as a positive step towards the peaceful solution of the Kurdish question, some others got intensely furious when some of them did actually come down from the mountains and were released by the security officials. This is why, the biggest step towards the peaceful solution of the Kurdish problem will be taken when the Turkish government and state organs encourage and support popular debates and interactions that will focus on this very critical question: ‘What is Turkey’s Kurdish question?’.

When the definition can be made, the solution will appear.
Click here to download the PDF version.

About the writer
Dr. H Akın Ünver is the Ertegün Lecturer in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Turkish Policy Center or its directors.

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