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Turkey's Kurdish Spring

William Gourlay |  11 April 2013

Ocalan in manaclesThe equinox on 21 March heralds the arrival of the northern spring. The Kurds, and other peoples of western and central Asia, know it as Newruz (Nevroz in Turkish). It is the start of a new year and they celebrate accordingly.

While Nevroz was once outlawed in Turkey, this year it was celebrated openly and more jubilantly than ever. In the south-eastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir crowds amassed to hear a Nevroz letter delivered from Abdullah Öcalan (pictured), the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) imprisoned near Istanbul.

Öcalan's message, read out to the assembled throng, was greeted rapturously. In language lyrical and effusive, he declared that the insurgents of the PKK should forego armed struggle against the Turkish military. After negotiating with the Turkish government since last October, Öcalan proclaimed that this Nevroz, traditionally a day of defiance, should presage a new era of 'sunshine, with enthusiasm and democratic tolerance'.

The PKK leadership holed up in the Kandil Mountains of northern Iraq promptly declared a ceasefire, creating the prospect of an end to a military conflagration that has bedevilled Turkey's south-eastern, largely Kurdish-populated provinces for almost 30 years.

The PKK emerged in the late-1970s with a Marxist agenda demanding cultural and political rights for the Kurds, whose existence had been denied since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Launching a military campaign in 1984, it declared its intention to create an independent Kurdish state in south-eastern Turkey.

The terror tactics that the PKK adopted and the threat they posed to Turkish territorial integrity brought a swift and determined response from the Turkish military. A strength-sapping guerrilla war has rumbled on ever since, resulting in an estimated 40,000 deaths, seeing the displacement of large numbers of Kurds and hobbling Turkey's economic and political development.

The Turkish Republic is predicated on Turkish homogeneity, despite the fact that an estimated 20 per cent of the population is Kurdish. The PKK anointing itself champion of Kurdish rights and seeking to carve out a Kurdish state made it simple for Turkish nationalists to dismiss any Kurdish demands as separatism. And the PKK's brutal tactics meant any concession on Kurdish rights would be construed as giving in to terrorism.

The PKK's ceasefire in the wake of Öcalan's letter, and the democratic timbre of his overture, should invalidate any further dismissal of Kurdish demands as manifestations of separatism and encouraging terrorism. It is to be hoped that these recent events bring a permanent end to the PKK insurgency.

But PKK terror was one thing, the Kurdish issue is entirely another. The first may have been brought to heel, but the second remains unresolved. As Öcalan himself enunciates, the PKK's laying down of arms amounts not to an end, but to a beginning.

After decades of repression, denial and attempts at assimilation, Turkey's Kurds have long hankered for fundamental rights and freedoms. This is something that the incumbent AKP (Justice and Development Party) government has recognised. The AKP Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told The Economist in 2005 that the solution to the Kurds' long-running grievances was not more repression but more democracy.

Despite a patchy record on press freedom and increasing (over)sensitivity to criticism, the AKP has overseen the introduction of a Kurdish-language TV channel, the opening of Kurdish-language elective courses at high school and university level and, in recent months, the use of Kurdish language in the judicial system in some provinces.

A key Kurdish demand remains: that the constitution be amended to acknowledge the Kurdish reality. The present document declares that every single citizen is a 'Turk'.

The AKP the government's pursuit of a negotiated settlement with the PKK and Öcalan's 21 March oratory have provoked different reactions in different quarters. The Kurdish reaction has been predictably positive — and in Diyarbakir jubilant — while elements within Turkish society, in a chorus led by the far-right MHP (Nationalist Action Party), decry current initiatives as tantamount to dismembering the Turkish nation-state.

While such accusations are exaggerations, there remains a strong nationalist current within Turkish politics and society. The MHP is the third most widely supported party. Political scientist Ihsan Dagi says many Turks view the political arena as one where any advance for the Kurds must inevitably disadvantage the Turkish majority.

So in order to establish a lasting peace and permanent solution to the Kurdish issue, the government, and its Kurdish interlocutors, must chart a course through treacherous waters, reconciling the hopes and expectations of the Kurds with the fears and concerns of nationalist elements.

But, as Öcalan points out, Turks and Kurds have for centuries lived in 'fraternity and solidarity' in the Anatolian heartland. If ongoing negotiations can rekindle a sense of common purpose for Kurd and Turk then perhaps a Kurdish spring may arise.

William Gourlay headshotWilliam Gourlay is a writer with a particular interest in Turkey and the Balkans. His PhD research at Monash University focuses on ethnic and cultural identities in 21st century Turkey. 



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Submitted comments

I pray often for freedom for the West Papuans, the Tibetans, the Uighurs, the Kashmiris and the Kurds. I could add a lot more names to that list, but that's all I can cope with. Is there any chance for any of them before the extinction of the nation-state?

Gavan 12 April 2013

William, you say: "The Turkish Republic is predicated on Turkish homogeneity, despite the fact that an estimated 20 per cent of the population is Kurdish." That is true. But it gets more complex. Turkey also has about 25% of its population who are not Sunni Muslim, but Alevis, who are sometimes described as Alevi-Bektashi because of the overlap between Alevism (without going into detail basically an offshoot of Shi'ism) and membership of, or association with, the Bektashi Sufi order (Shi'ite). These people (ethnic Turks) are also not officially recognised, discriminated against and sometimes violently attacked. Turkey also has quite a few (5 million perhaps) ethnic Caucasians (Chechen, Akhbaz etc.). The extreme secular nationalists (Kemalist) want to keep the current status quo with these, and all other minorities (including Christians). As you know, Kurds are spread across the interconnecting borders of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. The fear of politicians in all these nations is that, one day, following the example of Iraqi Kurdistan, which operates independently of Baghdad, these (35 million+?) people will want to combine in their own nation, possibly centred around Diyarbakir.

Edward F 18 April 2013

Hi Edward, yes as you suggest the ethnic make up is far from the homogenous Turkishness that hard-line nationalists like to claim. I believe that most from the Caucassu (and Balkans), having sought Turkey as a refuge, tend to identify as Turkish, while maintaning their cultural practices. The Kurds are clearly the biggest sticking point, although recent surveys indicate that the separatist impulse is relatively small. In fact, many Kurds in Turkey look to Istanbul and Ankara as cities of opportunity, rather than those of Kurdish Iraq (where a different dialect of Kurdish is spoken, in any case).

William Gourlay 19 April 2013

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