Kept in the dark–in a safe quarantine for reconciling the conflicting interests of competing powers–the Kurdish issue constitutes one of the great taboos of the Republic. Since the 1920s, Kurds have indeed regularly served as an outlet for political violence, social and military endemic in a country seeking stability.
It is now feared that the resumption of PKK (Kurdistan Workers> Party) operations on Turkish territory might lead the country into a new spiral of conflict. Several parameters, however, had followed a positive way since the early 2000s: The military truce following the arrest of Abdullah Öcalan in 1999 opened the possibility of a pacific and civil resolution of this problem. We are moreover facing a Turkey and an EU that are moving closer together, leading to a significant progress in advancing minority rights. Finally, the AKP, in power from 2002, advocates an approach apparently without taboos to the Kurdish question. Since its inception the AKP, a priori traditionalist in terms of morals, inaugurates a new political style and literary attack the principal Turkish taboos. The Kurdish question is now almost openly discussed in Turkey in all its complexity and with all its contradictions, which obviously delays the emergence of a peaceful new synthesis. The Kurdish question, beyond the safe handling
Since the founding of the Kemalist Republic, the Kurds have been driven into silence in Turkish politics. The centralizer process of assimilation, considered essential to the delivery of a homogenous Turkish national identity, has never reached its goal, between marginalization and revolts of a Kurdish community attached to its identity. «Minority» represents about 20% of the population; it is not recognized in its specificity by the Treaty of Lausanne, which, established in 1924, awards protective status to Armenians, Greeks and Jews as the only official minorities, a legacy of a residual Ottoman Empire.
The conflict between the guerrillas of the PKK and the Turkish army has caused the death of almost 30,000 people and the displacement of 400,000 Kurds between 1984 and 1999. Istanbul has become the first Kurdish town of Turkey, and the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts concentrate significant Kurdish populations. The Kurdish question has become a national issue in the territorial sense of the word.
The international dimension of the problem also tends to be complex. Turkey concentrates almost half of the Kurds dispersed in the Middle East; the other stands are situated in Iran, Iraq and Syria. The fear of Kurdish secessionism is one aspect of the «Sèvres syndrome» persisting in some circles of the Turkish power. The consolidation of Iraqi Kurds’ autonomy concerns more particularly the Turkish military, which fears that Iraqi Kurdistan might encourage revolts among Kurds in Turkey. The guerrillas of the PKK have effectively established their bases in Iraq, where they now conduct increasingly frequent operations, causing deaths in Turkey. At the same time, the Turkish Air Force occasionally bombs the positions of the PKK in Iraq. Another international component, Kurdish emigration in Western Europe, explained by both political and economic factors, has for a long time complicated the agenda of Turkish governments. Between 700,000 and 1 million Kurds live in Europe–two-thirds reside in Germany, mostly of Turkish nationality. These Kurdish migrant communities are highly politicized, and have been active since the 1980s in seeking recognition of their rights in Turkey. The challenge here for the Turks is not only strategic–the PKK finds strong support in these immigrant communities–but also of image, as Turkey is described among European opinions as a country violating fundamental natural rights.
A strictly safe treatment of the Kurdish question in Turkey has prevailed throughout the internal clashes between the PKK and the army. Breaking the Kurdish taboo would today mean that the problem can and should be treated differently by the Turkish state, in all its dimensions, including political. In this sense, the return of peace after 1999 provides an initial development of the topic: There is then a start of recognition of cultural rights of Kurds, along with the European vocation of Turkey. The Kurdish effect on the local elections of March 2009
The relaxed atmosphere prevailing at the beginning of 2009 has authorized a series of symbolic transgressions that can measure the traveled distance. The ambience of the campaign for the local elections of March 29 could almost make people expect the emergence of a «Kurdish spring.»
The Kurds have for a long time been the scapegoat of the traditional parties in Turkey when these latter were conducting their campaigns. In 2007, the nationalist party Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi(MHP) still claimed the restoration of the death penalty–abolished in 2002–for Abdullah Öcalan, and advocated military intervention against the Kurds in northern Iraq. The contrast is striking when, in February 2009, Tayyip Erdoğan himself ventured to pronounce a sentence in Kurdish in a meeting in Diyarbakır and affirmed to the Kurds that they are «first-class citizens.» These rhetorical gifts undoubtedly encouraged Ahmet Türk, one of the leaders of the Kurdish Nationalist Party DTP (Democratic Society Party), to express himself in Kurdish a few days later at the National Assembly. Public television that was broadcasting the session simply muted the sound; in 1991, the same weapon cost Leyla Zana 15 years imprisonment by Ankara State Security Court. Other times, other morals?
We know that the local elections in March have been a semi-failure for the AKP: Even though the party had won the elections with 39% of the votes, we are far from the achievement of the year 2007 (46.6%) and of the results of the previous municipal elections (41.6% in 2004). Some in this election see already the end of the «AKP time,» with this failed national test for a Prime Minister that is always in search of plebiscitary legitimization. These elections have been particularly marked by the disaffection of the Kurdish electorate that voted overwhelmingly for the AKP in the previous elections. This time, the DTP, campaigning on an ethno-nationalist basis, made a remarkable breakthrough, doubling the number of municipalities it controls in comparison to 2004’s position, preventing the AKP from taking hold of the symbolic bastion that it aimed at taking: Diyarbakır.
After a strengthening campaign that had revealed logrolling practices widely attacked by the opposition, the AKP has been caught red-handed distributing washing machines and refrigerators to Tunceli (also known as Dersim) voters; the election results show that the popularity of the governing body is declining in the Kurdish regions. The personal factor and clan solidarity have obviously played a crucial role in many localities. The DTP has also worked on its image of a unified party, having survived from the waves of repression that had carried away the precedent Kurdish parties. It has to be remembered that the party is fragile in respect to several points. The 20 deputies that have been elected in 2007 as independent candidates to overcome the election barrier of 10% at the Parliament decided then to come together on an ethnic basis. After some hidden and unfinished negotiations during the 2007 campaign, any political rapprochement at all between the DTP and the AKP seems to have become not viable. The DTP, which has refused to publicly condemn the PKK’s activities, is constantly accused of following ethnic separatist principles, and is regarded as «a home to prejudicial activities to the independence of the State and to its indivisible unity.» The AKP and the Kurds, a strategy of co-optation
Electoral gains of the DTP have unmistakably pointed out the boundaries of AKP’s Kurdish policy. The Kurdish issue has indeed received special treatment from a governing body determined to challenge the traditional points of reference of Turkish political life. However, the Kurdish strategy of the AKP reflects the doctrinal ambiguities of the party. Several factors should have logically led the AKP on to the "ground of the Kurds" and encouraged the party to try a new approach. The first motivation refers as we just showed, to the electoral equation: The AKP needs Kurdish votes to consolidate its influence on the country. Islamist on a theoretical basis, the AKP has de facto all the characteristics of a catch-all party. Since its creation, it has always known how to expand its audience from a relatively popular and conservative center-right, by having the support of the new Anatolian bourgeoisie and by co-opting members of the Istanbulian liberal elite. It had also gradually seduced a Kurdish electorate lacking of chronicle representation and who is becoming less sensitive since the truce to radical political claims of pro-Kurdish parties. It is vital to note that out of the 340 AKP deputies present at the current Assembly, 70 are of Kurdish descent. To settle itself on the "Kurdish ground," the party made sure in 2007 to recruit on its list Kurdish politicians tired of local intrigue, but also civilian notabilities not involved yet in any kind of political compromise.
The adoption of the EU agenda has also certainly pushed the AKP to make the Kurdish issue less dramatic. Tayyip Erdoğan’s team has, in such context, designed to enlist the Kurds a strategy based on three pillars. First, economic development: Based upon the assumption that territorial development differences and the miserable condition of the Kurds are propitious to a perpetuation of endemic violence, the government proposes to allocate an increasing part of the resources of the Turkish state to the development of the southeast. On a political stand, the AKP’s program pays particular attention to the role of democratization, emphasizing how important the balance of power is–the army must be kept away from politics–and on the necessity for real equal rights for all Turkish citizens, including minorities. Concerning the cultural aspect, the AKP pursues its predecessors with a policy of gradual liberalization of the expression of Kurdish identity, introducing nevertheless some important symbolic break. The launch of the national television Kurdish TRT6 in January 2009 constitutes a big step toward recognition, even if the programs seem relatively subjective and perhaps erode in some way the audience of ROJ TV.
However, if to be precise, the political and cultural aspects of AKP’s Kurdish policy are the ones appearing to be the most ambiguous. To avoid flattering ethnic claims that could eventually drift to secessionism, the political speech of the Prime Minister regularly raises the religious sentiment of the Kurds, highlighting their belonging to the Muslim community. The Islamization of the political discourse has also been one of the main features of the last electoral campaign, contaminating the DTP, whose genealogy is originally strictly secular and Marxist: To reconquer a socially conservative electorate, the Kurdish party has enlisted veiled women on its lists. The appeal to religion as the basis of social and communitarian cohesion can easily incite and fuel the suspicion of Neo-Ottomanism around the AKP, a suspicion that has already been stimulated by the opposition regarding other matters (including diplomacy). In fact, according to some analysts, such an ideological prism might prohibit the correct and accurate solving of the Kurdish problem: Caught between Kemalists and new Ottomans, Kurds now have fewer chances to have their identity recognized officially and in a peaceful way. Can we avoid another skid?
Diplomacy certainly represents another important point vis-à-vis the evolution of the Kurdish issue approach: After months of modest progress, AKP’s team has officially taken steps and concerted Iraqi Kurdish authorities. Both the appeasement at the borders and the extension of the Turkish soft power in the Middle East constitute the essential objectives for Turkey’s foreign policy according to Ahmet Davutoğlu, the new Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs. The rapprochement with Iraqi Kurdish authorities seems to be motivated by economic interests–Turkish businessmen are increasingly present on Iraqi territory, especially in the northern part–as well as by strategic: Abdullah Gül has obtained from Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, being a Kurd himself, and from the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Nêçîrvan Barzanî, mutual agreement to disavow the PKK and cooperation aimed at its neutralization.
These steps are conditioned by some slight internal balances in Turkey. The sensitivity of the Turkish army vis-à-vis the Kurdish issue remains particularly difficult to accommodate. The government therefore seems to be constrained by the lack of strong support as well as by the heterogeneity of the popular coalition who support the latter: The Kurdish issue may still be regulated at the margin, between the requirements of extreme nationalists and of a militant Islam that worries Europe. Rhetorical excesses made by the Prime Minister regularly reveal the limits of the AKP’s intentions. Sometimes a single speech is enough to bring things to a head: In saying loud and clear in August 2008 in Diyarbakır that Turkey is only about «one nation, one flag, one state,» and that «those who do not agree with this principle are more than welcome to leave the country,» Erdoğan stimulated the anger of the southeast, resulting in violent riots and much concern at the national level. More generally, the effective implementation of cultural rights theoretically acquired by Kurds in recent years tends to be controversial. The European Union, which could be expected to put its head above the parapet vis-à-vis the Kurdish issue, has in reality little control over it and seems to be powerless to influence the political debate in Turkey as negotiations of adhesion become bogged down.
The tragic incident that occurred in May 2009 in a village near Mardin (this was a shooting at a marriage that caused 45 deaths) has again drawn the Turkish public’s attention to the specific difficulties of the region. Beyond the military dimension of the problem, the difficulty of facing the Kurdish taboo seems to reveal the fragility of the political and social pact in Turkey. If we adopt a more historical perspective, we then understand that the co-optation of the Kurds is not a new phenomenon, but once again the policy attempted by the AKP has bumped into an intrinsic boundary: the refusal to accept a real dose of multiculturalism, fearing to offend the feeling of nationalism of the majority of the population.
Two essential "yards" for the Kurds should now appear on the agenda to prove the AKP’s good faith to them. The first one is material: In addition to a strategy of economic development, it must adequately address the problem of refugees and the restitution of goods for those who have suffered forced displacement during the internal confrontations. The second project is purely political and has already been mentioned: the constitutional reform that could consider the introduction of a new definition of citizenship, based on the concepts of multi-confessionality and multi-ethnicity.