European Council on Foreign Relations

Kurds in Turkey: not another false dawn, please

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It is beyond doubt that finding a lasting solution to the Kurdish problem is the principal challenge to Turkey’s democratic consolidation. It bears on relations with neighbours too – from Iraq, the home of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), to embattled Syria where Adelbasset Seyda, a Kurdish activist, recently became the head of the Syrian National Council. Whether it accommodates demand of its Kurdish population for cultural and political rights matters to Ankara if it wishes to serve as a source of inspiration for the Middle East’s quest for more open and inclusive government. Or as Seyda put it shortly after his election“If Turkey wants to engage in a constructive and lasting reform and dialogue process with the Arab world, it must be through the Kurds both across its border and within.” 

Unfortunately, news coming from Turkey are not encouraging. While Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan this week declared that Kurdish would be introduced as an elective class in Turkish schools for the first time in the republic’s history, the prospects for a grand bargain involving the ruling AK Party, on the one hand, and the Kurdish nationalist movement are dwindling daily. Back in May, Leyla Zana, a veteran Kurdish politician, was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for spreading propaganda for the outlawed PKK, declared as a terrorist organisation by Turkey but also by the EU and the US. And this week Aysel Tuğluk, a MP from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), was given a 14.5 year sentence on similar charges. It is true that BDP is dependent on both PKK’s imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan and the fighters in North Iraq’s Kandil mountains headed by Murat Karayılan. But as Turkish history has shown times and again repression is counterproductive. Only engaging the party in a political process could work, parallel to disarmament talks with the PKK – a policy AKP forged ahead with in 2009 but later surrendered. Sadly, these times are over. What symbolises the depressing state of affairs is the tragic incident at Uludere last December when Turkish fighter jets killed by mistake 34 young Kurdish civilians.

The sentences against Zana and Tuğluk couldn’t come at a worse time. Earlier this month, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the principal opposition force, put forward a new initiative for resolving the Kurdish issue. One of the proponents is the party’s Vice President Sezgin Tanrıkulu, formerly a human rights lawyer in the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbakır in Turkey’s southeast. In previous years, the party, which saw itself as the torchbearer of one-nation Kemalism and the oppressive “deep state”, opposed any change. More recently, its leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, himself of Kurdish origin, has been very timid on Kurds’ issues. Now it seems that the party has seized the initiative if only to prove that the rhetoric about a new, social-democrat CHP has substance (many Turks are thoroughly unconvinced even if they have little love for Erdoğan). Not only are CHP and AKP moving closer together on the need for a fresh start on the Kurdish issue, but there are reports about new talks with Kandil - mediated by Iraq’s president Jalal Talabani, a Kurd himself. Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq, is apparently involved as well. 

Involving the Iraqi Kurds is both inevitable and desirable. Good relations with KRG and Talabani are essential, especially at a time when Turkey’s own policy of “zero-problems with neighbours” is faltering.Once seen as a threat, Kurdish communities in neighbouring countries have become something of a bridge and allies against radical nationalists (yet, one shouldn’t forget that over one-third of PKK militants hail from Syria). But, as in the past, friendly ties with Kurds in Iraq or elsewhere could not substitute engagement with Turkey’s own Kurdish citizens. Erdoğan still has a chance to turn the tide by working side by side with the BDP and CHP in parliament and even making progress to a new civilian constitution AKP promised in the run-up to its victory at the June 2011 elections. Or he risks to be overtaken by events. Good news is that unlike last year PKK has thus far shown restraint. They have reportedly accepted to be represented by the BDP in talks with Turkish authorities and have come up with a reasonable set of demands. But there is also a scenario where sentences against the likes of Zana and Tuğluk, coupled with the controversial Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) trial, heightens tensions and derails whatever green shoots of a genuine peace process there might be. 

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