Kurdish issue reaches pivotal point
Turkey has reached a critical juncture with its "Kurdish problem", as the gap between the state and the various Kurdish movements widens.
By Anna Wood for Southeast European Times in Istanbul -- 08/08/11
During national elections in June, the Kurdish-backed political party BDP managed to get 36 members elected to parliament. Though the victory of the BDP-backed independent candidates was initially a cause for celebration, the situation quickly deteriorated when the candidacy of one of the elected parliamentarians, Hatip Dicle, was nullified post-election.
The seats of elected Kurdish deputies in the Turkish parliament stand empty as the BDP boycotts parliament and convenes in the predominately Kurdish city of Diyarbakir. [Reuters]
The deaths of Turkish soldiers as a result of PKK attacks have led to a rise in Turkish nationalism, deepening the divide between Turks and Kurds. [Reuters]
PKK deaths have also flamed Kurdish nationalist sentiment. [Reuters]
In reaction to this, the party has staged a boycott, with elected officials refusing either to enter parliament or to take the oath of office.
Evaluating these events as they were unfolding, Lehigh University professor of political science and Kurdish expert Henri Barkey expressed serious concerns. Preventing Dicle from entering parliament, he explained, "risks undermining the goodwill [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and the AKP had garnered" through the Kurdish Opening.
Though a parallel series of events affected the country's largest opposition party, the People's Republican Party (CHP), a deal was reached between it and the AKP and the CHP boycott soon ended.
A similarly rapid solution does not seem likely for the BDP-backed candidates, however. The negotiations that have occurred between the state and party representatives have been ineffective.
The candidates' refusal to enter parliament has been criticised by some observers, including Denise Natali, the Minerva Chair of the Institute for National Strategic Studies, who believes the boycott and its fallout represent a wasted opportunity.
"The BDP did indeed have other alternatives that could have given it greater leverage in influencing change, as well as further legitimising its position and Kurdish claims inside the political arena," Natali tells SETimes.
She says these alternatives included fielding candidates who had no prison record and taking the oath of office "so as to move forward with negotiations and show the Turkish state that it is serious about change".
Announcement of democratic autonomy
In mid-July, the level of conflict was suddenly heightened by two parallel events.
The first was an attack attributed to the PKK that left 13 soldiers dead in the southeast province of Diyarbakir, the headquarters of Kurdish political activity in Turkey.
The clash gave new energy to Turkish nationalism and boosted anger towards the Kurdish people and the BDP.
The second event may stand as a landmark in the evolution of the Kurdish nationalist movement. On the same day as that Diyarbakir attack, the Democratic Society Congress (DTK) announced a plan for so-called "democratic autonomy" of Kurds in Turkey.
"A solution to this problem will only be found with the recognition of Kurds as a people and their attainment of a status that is fundamentally equal to all of Turkey's peoples," DTK Vice-President Aysel Tugluk said. "As it currently stands, the Kurdish people do not want to live as a people without a status in the face of policies that threaten their existence as a nation."
In an exclusive interview with SETimes, Kurdish parliamentarian Sebahat Tuncel shared what she believes to be the significance of the plan. "The problem isn't just bringing an end to the violence or the conflict. At the same time, it will enable a democratic society to manifest its style of governance."
Tuncel also highlighted the multiple aims of the DTK's announcements.
"Democratic autonomy has two dimensions," she told SETimes. "The first is the democratic and peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem, what we might call the peace project."
The second, Tuncel continued, is "the democratisation project, which will create opportunities for all Turkey's identities, cultures and beliefs to express themselves freely and as equals."
Though the actual efficacy of this pronouncement of democratic autonomy is in question, with some dismissing it as empty words and others perceiving it as a threat to the territorial integrity of the Turkish state, it inarguably augurs a new phase in Kurdish politics.
Though somewhat inelegantly and inefficiently divided among multiple organisations and various authorities -- the BDP, the DTK, the KCK, the PKK and the figure of its imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan himself -- the Kurdish nationalist movement is evolving and articulating its demands on a national and international stage.
Concern clearly remains regarding the connections between these groups, with the state, the media and much of the public quick to categorise BDP as merely an extension of the PKK.
To influence the state agenda, Natali says the BDP must convince people otherwise.
"The BDP, or its successors and affiliates, will have to affirm that they and the Kurdish demands are not a threat to the unity and stability of the Turkish state in order for the Kurds to make future progress on the political front," Natali told SETimes. "At this point, they have done just the opposite."
Feasibility of an autonomous zone in Turkey
The question that lingers in the wake of the DTK announcement is what, exactly, a system of democratic autonomy in Turkey might look like, and whether it is possible given the current political climate.
Autonomous regions have, in some places, provided a productive solution in areas of ethnic or religious conflict and majority-minority tensions.
Spain, whose government included a roadmap for the establishment of autonomous zones in its 1978 constitution, is often touted as an example of a successful, peaceful transition to autonomy.
Catalonia and Basque country, each home to communities the state recognises as historical nationalities, are governed by autonomous legislatures and courts, and maintain ties to the federal government through government councils, whose presidents require approval from the monarch.
Canada, too, stands as an example of a state that has grappled with demands for autonomy, particularly from the province of Quebec. Though debate regarding the level of provincial autonomy continues there, it is a peaceful part of the political process rather than a cause for war.
However, as noted by Turkish detractors of autonomy, the geopolitical and ethno-cultural realities of Turkey and the Middle East are much different than of Spain and Canada.
Crucial to any system of political autonomy is a large degree of state decentralisation, something that has long been considered an anathema by the Turkish state. Officially, the central state is the arbiter of many local policies, a fact that leads to a system both inefficient and, for many, undesirable.
In a country where the Kurdish language was illegal until the early 1990s and its use is still curtailed in some settings today, the ideal of equality -- let alone autonomy -- may seem out of reach.
Juha Raikka, a professor at Finland's University of Turku who has studied the practical and ethical facets of autonomy, says the public must be tolerant for such solutions to be practical.
"The main condition is general acceptance of the solution," Raikka told SETimes. "Canadians accept that Quebec has autonomy. Finns accept that the island of Aland has autonomy. That is why regional autonomy works well."
KB, a political writer and founder of the blog Kurdistan Commentary, expressed scepticism about Turkey's readiness for such autonomy.
"If speaking Kurdish is seen as threatening the territorial integrity of the state, how could autonomy be possible? The Kurds need to be recognised constitutionally and guaranteed their rights before autonomy can be considered."
According to Natali, the lack of readiness exists not simply within the public, but at the state level, as well.
"Turkish officials, institutions, and political parties remain committed to the unity and the stability of the state," she says, adding that "the very idea of an autonomous Kurdistan Region bordering another autonomous Kurdistan region in Iraq would undermine that sense of security and unity."
Natali emphasises that a unilateral decision such as that made by the DTK has no hope of affecting true change in Turkey.
"Any change in the nature of the Turkish state and its institutions would have to engage constitutional and administrative reforms acceptable to the Turkish populations and officials, including the devolution of powers to the regions," Natali says.
Indeed, the consensus is that constitutional change is at the heart of any potential compromise between the restive Kurdish populace and the less than flexible AKP, which makes extensive use of nationalist sentiments to garner votes.
"The constitution is the key," Barkey emphasised. "No matter what happens, Turkey needs a new constitution. If nothing emerges from Ankara on this front, all bets are off."
As the solution is delayed and the impasse deepens, however, the prospect of productive co-operation dims.
"The passage of time makes things always more difficult to settle," Barkey said. "What people do not understand is that in conflictual situations, barring unexpected dramatic developments, time works against the simplest compromise."