Views on a new Near East
Wednesday April 16th 2014

Cemal Karakas: Kurdish prospects under the AKP

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Cemal Karakas is a Research Associate at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), Germany. He has been published in Intereconomics, the Review of European Economic Policy, European Foreign Affairs Review and Politique étrangère. He is also the author of Die Balkankrise als Gegenstand der Gemeinsamen Außen – und Sicherheitspolitik (2004) and is a consultant on EU, Democracy Promotion, and German and US relations with Turkey.

Is the proposed PKK-AKP “peace process” now dead and buried? Can we hope for a resurrection in the near future?

The so-called “peace process” or better “Kürt acilimi”, the “Kurdish opening”, is not dead and buried, but it has stopped for now. The recent PKK attacks demonstrated that the hardliners within the PKK are in vogue. As a result of the attacks, the hardliners and nationalists in the government and opposition grew strong again. It is a vicious circle. The prospect for a restart of the “peace process” depends inter alia on the other current major domestic issue in Turkey: constitutional reform including the extension of minority rights. If the AKP government is not able to achieve concrete results with constitutional reform, a probable outcome could be snap elections to gain new political legitimation.

But let us not forget: every real peace process depends on sincerity, forgiveness and on negotiating partners who are really interested in a solution and who are willing to shoulder its political costs. It seems to me that in Turkey both sides – the government and the PKK – still think that they would lose more than they would gain through solving the Kurdish question. The AKP is frightened of strong nationalist public opinion and of losing votes to the nationalist parties and maybe risking a new party ban process (for threatening Turkey’s territorial integrity). The PKK on the other hand is frightened about its own future and legitimacy. Will it be recognised as a serious political actor by the Turkish government or not? What about disarmament questions or the huge money flow from Europe? The PKK is frightened to lose financial and political power, to be excluded from civilian peace building and the political participation process. It seems that for both sides the terms of trade are still unsound.

Why has there been an upsurge in violence in southeast Turkey at this particular point in time?

In parts of the Turkish media it was reported that Abdullah Öcalan, the former leader of the PKK, has instructed the PKK to end its ceasefire because of the end of the “Kurdish opening”. I am not sure about that. To me it is more convincing that after the detention of more than 1,000 former DTP-members in April and the “one step forward, one step back” policy of the AKP, the PKK announced the end of its year-long ceasefire to show their capacity to act and to put pressure on the AKP. The AKP is a Janus-faced political force for the PKK: On the one side they are the only Turkish party who seriously cares about the Kurdish question. On the other, they have the ability to absorb Kurdish electors and as a result to weaken pro-Kurdish parties. The strategy to involve the AKP government in another armed fight with the PKK could villainise Erdogan’s Party and alienate it further from the Kurdish population and electors.

How should we interpret Murat Karayilan’s (PKK leader) recent statement that the PKK “is willing to disarm in return for greater political and cultural rights for Turkey’s Kurds”?

In the past the PKK has made – subject to certain conditions – several offers to disarm, but these offers have always been rejected by Turkey, which officially refuses to negotiate with terrorist groups. Nevertheless, it is certain that representatives of the government and the PKK have negotiated unofficially in the past and they should, of course, come together to negotiate once again. But the main question remains unsolved: What would be after any new ceasefire and (partial) disarmament? Would the PKK be accepted as a legal and legitimate political force or not? As long as there is no consensus on that and on the Kurdish question between the Turkish government and Turkish opposition parties or within Turkish society there will be no stable resolution.

Under what circumstances have so-called PKK splinter groups, like the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, emerged and how strong are they?

Splinter groups appear as soon as the leader, the strategy or the goals of an organisation is disputed. After the capture of Abdullah Öcalan in 1999 a succession debate emerged within the PKK. It was accompanied by a discussion about the “right strategy and means”. The PKK today is not one homogenous organisation anymore, it became more decentralised. Öcalan is still considered as a leader, a hero and the only one with the capacity to integrate among most groups, but nobody knows exactly what will be after his death. This could be a problem insofar as the Turkish government seeks to find a political solution with one major group. But what happens if another PKK group will not accept that outcome? The heterogeneity of the PKK might be an advantage in terms of paramilitary manoeuvrability but it might be a disadvantage in terms of bolstering political opinion in its favour.

It is difficult to say how strong the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons really are but they are apparently strong and organised enough to operate in major western Turkish cities.

What could Ankara do, if anything, to incorporate Kurdish culture, society, and ideals into Turkey’s mainstream identity? Would such an effort help solve the problems facing both sides?

Most Kurds I know do not want independence but a real cultural autonomy, like, for example, in South Tyrol in Italy. Nevertheless the Turkish state fears the Kosovo-effect. Turkey has a history-based identity and mentality problem: As long as multi-ethnicity and multi-religiosity are considered as threats and not enrichments of Turkish society and state, every opening policy towards minorities (for example Christians and Alevis) will be contested. At the same time Turkey is facing a structural problem – the people’s (democratic) sovereignty is subordinated under the Kemalist state’s sovereignty. As a consequence every government has to respect, again, for example, the notion of Turkishness (remember the disputes on §301). First of all, Turkey has to reform its myths of nation building, its current concept of state and nation: one country, one (Sunni Muslim) Turkish nation. The idea of the new founded Turkish republic in the 1920s was to consider all Muslims on Turkish soil, particularly the Kurds – despite their different ethnicity – as Turks in order to enhance their social status and rights. The basic idea was praiseworthy, but such a nation concept can only work if the minorities are not discriminated in real life – but that was the case in Turkey. For many decades, the Kurdish southeast of Turkey was socio-economically neglected, and Turkey had the biggest regional and income disparities within the OECD. Until the mid 1980s many central and east Anatolian villages had no electricity or running water. That was one of the main reasons why the PKK emerged in the 1970s. Prime Minister Turgut Özal, by the way, was the first leading politician to really care about the Kurds. Nevertheless, I think that the current concept of nation held by Turkey does not fit into the 21st century. In the long run, the overall concept of the Turkish state might be: one country, two (or more) nations. This is psychologically important, even more important than the legal base, to justify the extension of minority rights.

How have the AKP party been assessed by (i) the media, (ii) opposition parties and (iii) the general public in Turkey for their handling of the PKK and other similar groups?

The AKP is in a difficult position. Whatever they did with their “Kurdish opening” policy they could not please everybody. For some pro-Kurdish media and opposition groups, the AKP policy did not go far enough; for some Turkish nationalist media and parties, national interests were sold out. Therefore it is very difficult to have an “appropriate” handling with the PKK. The aggressive official statement made by Erdogan on the last terror attacks [by the PKK in May and June 2010] owed to a heated debate amongst the Turkish public and the rise of ultra-nationalist voices. But Erdogan and even the Turkish military are smart enough to know that there is no military solution to the Kurdish question. I think there can be no sustainable peace or solution to the Kurdish question without the PKK. But as I mentioned above, the PKK, first of all, has to be clear about its own goals and strategies. In addition, I think the European Union and its member states, which have their own experiences of minority issues, terror organisations and conflict management, should help the Turkish government more than in the past.

Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the following about the decision to ban the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party: “The court’s decision to ban yet another party shows just how urgently constitutional reform is needed to guarantee political participation in Turkey.” What was the impact of this decision on Government-Kurdish relations?

I agree with Emma Sinclair-Webb. Turkey is still a transitional democracy with certain structural defects protecting the Kemalist state ideology, for example, the 10 per cent threshold and over-hasty party bans. Both means aim to exclude Islamist and Kurdish parties from the political participation process. But the exclusion of these parties means the exclusion of big parts of society and this de-legitimates Turkish democracy. Some experts would say it stabilises it but I do not agree with this. The ban of the DTP did not really affect government-Kurdish relations because the decision was taken by the judiciary and not by the AKP. But you can criticise the AKP for its hesitation to reform the 10 per cent threshold (because they benefited from it in the past more than any other party), and party law within the constitution.

Is Turkey’s perceived alignment with Middle Eastern partners (especially following Turkey’s Iran/Brazil nuclear deal, damaged relations with Israel and Turkey’s place in an Arab free trade zone) likely to influence the future of the AKP’s dealings with the Kurdish population?

I am not sure about that. First of all, I think the AKP government overestimates its own capacities with its “Strategic Depth” doctrine, because it creates too many trade-offs and it is hardly operational politically. But it is understandable that Ankara is deepening its trade relations with Iran and Russia because Turkey is a country with no significant natural resources and it wants to extend its strategic role as a major energy hub. Concerning the Kurdish question, public opinion in many Islamic countries appreciates the hard Turkish position on Israel or the US, but many leaders in Arab countries are not happy with, for example, Erdogan’s support for Hamas or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There is still criticism in the Islamic world, especially on Turkey’s handling of the Kurdish question. The argument of the Islamic community, the Ulema, is: Muslims do not discriminate against or kill other Muslims.

How have changes in Iraqi Kurdistan since 2003 influenced Kurdish nationalism in the region, particularly within Turkey?

Since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, the northern and respectively Kurdish dominated parts of Iraq became the most stable and flourishing part of the country – not least thanks to tight trade relations with Turkey. The Iraqi Kurds are relatively satisfied with their own government and situation, they consider the PKK as a Turkish organisation and problem. I do not see a direct influence on Kurdish nationalism in Turkey from the developments in Iraq.

How have the AKP’s relations with the Iraqi government been impacted upon by recent PKK incursions from Iraq into Turkey? How is Iraq’s current political deadlock likely to shape AKP’s dealings with Kurdish groupings?

On his last visit to Turkey, the president of the regional Kurdish government in Iraq, Massoud Barzani, assured his cooperation and support against the PKK. And the United States, as well assured help to Turkey, especially regarding intelligence. But it is obvious that Iraq has no interest in a permanent Turkish military presence in Iraqi Kurdistan. The current political deadlock is a major internal problem for Iraq, as well as the permanent disputes between Sunni and Shi’ite groups about political participation and policies, but I do not see an impact on the AKP’s dealing with Kurdish groupings.

There are an estimated 350 children between the ages of 13 and 17 serving sentences in Turkish adult prisons for connections to the PKK and similar groups. What is the socio-economic background of these children and what is the reasoning behind such detentions?

Most of the arrested children have a poor socio-economic background, including little school education, a high unemployment rate, no prospects, etc. Some of the children are therefore highly politicised and abused by Kurdish nationalists. The clampdown of the Turkish security forces and judges is aimed at showing strength, especially the capacity to act and the validity of the state authorities. But the exaggerated measures are contradictory and will strengthen sympathy for the PKK. This is a vicious circle, too.

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