A Kurdish spring

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It’s Nowruz, an age-old Persian holiday marking the start of spring and of a new year. Celebrated from Central Asia to the Balkans, Nowruz (or Nevruz as it is spelled in Turkish) has long become a symbol of the Kurdish struggle for self-determination. Hardly a year passes without mass gatherings, demonstrations, rallies in cities across Turkey, Istanbul to Diyarbakir, where thousands fly the flags of Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a guerilla force outlawed as terrorist, and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) seen as its legal offshoot. Clashes with the police, tear gas are are the usual scenes on that day.

But this year it is different. Abdullah Öcalan, whom nationalist Kurds view as their undisputed leader, issued a call from his prison cell for the PKK to disarm. His appeal was read aloud by BDP deputies to a crowd of 250.000 gathered in central Diyarbakir (or Amed, as Kurds call it), the unofficial capital of the Kurdish part of southeast Turkey. After months of talks with the Turkish government, which has turned the resolution of the Kurdish issue into a top priority, Apo (as Öcalan is known) said:

"We have given years for this people [the Kurds] and paid a big price. No effort or sacrifice went down the drain. The Kurds won their identity back. Let guns be silenced and politics dominate"

This is certainly a step forward in that a disarmament process will facilitate changes in the constitution and Turkish laws to recognise Kurds as an ethnic group: ut would give them formal status and perhaps initiate a process of devolution, akin to the one in Northern Ireland and in line with the demands for “democratic autonomy” in southeast Turkey  (recently the slogan has morphed into “democratic republic with local autonomy”). Rather than carving out a state of their own, Turkey’s nationalist Kurds have accepted that living in a democratic country which accepts their linguistic and cultural identity is the way forward, a notion which is widely shared by their pious co-ethnics who are supporters of the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party. The government’s reaction is positive too: The Minister of the interior Muammer Güler, commented “The language Öcalan used was the language of peace”. Still, the minister added that implementation should follow.

Here comes the tricky bit. Similar attempts at a Kurdish opening in 2009-10 backfired when PKK guerillas got hero’s welcome on entering Turkish towns. Under pressure from Turkish nationalists Prime Minister Erdoğan had to make a u-turn and an opportunity went wasted. This time around the principal opposition force in parliament, the People’s Republican Party (CHP) is largely supportive and society at large is more at ease with the idea of Kurdish empowerment in exchange for the cessation of violence. But this quasi-consensus might easily prove fragile and vulnerable to radicalism from both Kurds (e.g. splinter groups from the PKK) or indeed Turks. In particular, it is not very clear how much sway Öcalan, captured in Kenya back in 1999, has over guerillas in the Qandil mountains in northern Iraq where Murat Karayılan has emerged as a military commander. Karayılan presided over an escalation of attacks in 2012 leading to some 700 dead, which in hindsight could be seen as part of a carrot-and-stick strategy to influence the dialogue process with Ankara authorities. PKK’s opaque nature makes it difficult to tell how much traction the peace process has within the organisation’s ranks. But then again the Marxist-Leninist guerilla force is not known for tolerating dissent. Last week Turkish hostages were released from Qandil, a clear gesture of goodwill.

If disarmament makes headway this will surely have positive fallout on Syria where PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD) has previously clashed with the Free Syrian Army, backed by Turkey, over the control of towns in the Jazeera region in the northeast (more in a recent report by the ICG).

There is a caveat too. There are many in Turkey who are concerned that Kurdish rights could be the price for BDP and PKK’s throwing their weight behind Prime Minister Erdoğan’s plan to install a presidential regime. Whether a democratic autonomy is possible in a Turkey where democratic consolidation is in peril is highly questionable.

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