Politics has always been a difficult and risky business for Kurdish nationalists in Turkey. The hegemony today of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), with its history of dogmatic Marxism-Leninism and its attachment to armed struggle, is very much a reflection of the refusal of successive Turkish nationalist regimes to accommodate Kurdish aspirations for cultural and political autonomy.
The stirrings of progressive Kurdish nationalist politics in Turkey date to the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Kurdish intellectuals in Istanbul and Ankara formed cultural clubs and organizations. The summer of 1967 saw mass student demonstrations in 19 Kurdish cities and towns, including 10,000 marchers in Silvan and 25,000 in the southeastern city of Diyarbakır.
Organized activism took two forms, very much as it did in neighboring Iraq. One was the July 1965 formation of an explicitly Kurdish organization, the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Turkey (KDPT), in Diyarbakır. The KDPT program included an explicit demarcation of “Kurdistan” with Kurdish as the official language and an exclusively Kurdish government bureaucracy, proportional Kurdish representation in Turkey’s parliament and economic investment. By 1968, many KDPT leaders were imprisoned, assassinated or in exile.
The other path of Kurdish political engagement was through the leftist Workers’ Party of Turkey (Türkiye Isçi Partisi, or TIP). Although the TIP officially took a negative stand on the Kurdish question, by 1969 the secretary-general and the president of the party were both Kurds. At the end of 1969, TIP president Mehmet Ali Aslan challenged a 1967 decree outlawing “the distribution in Turkey of any material of foreign origin in the Kurdish language,” and started a bilingual Turkish-Kurdish journal, Yeni Akış (New Current), which raised explicitly the question of Kurdish national rights until it was suspended after four issues. This period also saw the publication of a Kurdish-Turkish dictionary and socioeconomic studies of Kurdistan. Like the Communist Party in Iraq, the TIP, in its fourth congress in 1970, acknowledged the Kurdish question — the first time a legal Turkish party had taken even this smallest of steps.
The formation in early 1969 of the Revolutionary Cultural Centers of the East (DDKO in Turkish) marks the beginning of the separation of the Kurdish nationalist left from its Turkish Marxist counterpart. DDKO came together initially in the two university cities of Ankara and Istanbul before spreading to Diyarbakır and other cities. It represented a new generation, some of whose members, like Mahmut Kilinç and Mehdi Zana, are key figures in the non-PKK political leadership today.
The Kurdish attention to culture was a response to a policy of forced, systematic assimilation emanating from the Turkish center. Starting in the early 1960s, for instance, Kurdish peasant children were sent to boarding schools in large villages in which Kurdish was forbidden. “My father was a nationalist,” one schoolteacher said in 1980, “but we were ten children and he wanted to finish with this misery. To have a teacher’s diploma was a dream, it guaranteed economic independence. For this my father forced us to speak Turkish at home. There was a small box in which we had to put 25 kurus every time we used a Kurdish word!” Many Kurdish militants today tell a similar story.
The Turkish government’s alarm at the revival of Kurdish nationalism increased following the March 1970 autonomy agreement in Iraq between Baghdad and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) led by Mustafa Barzani. Under pressure from the army, Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel launched authorized commando operations against a number of Kurdish towns and villages that set a pattern for abusive collective punishment that continues today. This repression increased following the March 1971 army coup.
The military government proceeded to outlaw leftist Turkish as well as Kurdish organizations, including the TIP and the DDKO, and imprison many of their cadres. The prisons functioned as schools, however, and this period spawned explicitly Kurdish leftist groupings including the Socialist Party of Kurdistan in Turkey, better known as Ria Azadi (Kurdish for Road to Freedom, the name of their journal) and Rizgari (Liberation, which also published a journal of that name). The 1970s and early 1980s was a period offerment, in which Kurdish left nationalist formations experienced serious factionalization.
Paradoxically, the PKK was born not in Kurdistan but in Ankara, where Abdullah Öcalan and other Kurdish students were active in the Turkish extreme left but questioned the attitudes of those groups toward the Kurdish question. More surprisingly, some of the founders and later leaders of the PKK were Turks. They disseminated propaganda, recruited members and established regional committees that would only come together on certain occasions such as the end of Ramadan so as to avoid attracting the attention of the authorities. They adopted the PKK name in late 1978 or early 1979. What distinguishes the PKK from other Kurdish parties is less the “democratic centralist” organization or the Marxist-Leninist language than an emphasis on armed struggle distinguished by its ferocity. The other distinguishing feature is PKK emphasis on the need to mobilize the peasantry: Southeastern Turkey has virtually no industrial working class, as almost all industry is in the west and center, and the rural economic structure is marked by very large landholdings with serf-like conditions for workers.
The formative years of the PKK as an organization coincided with the years of martial law that followed the September 1980 military coup. The repression of the 1980s, both in numbers of persons seized and imprisoned and in the extent of systematic torture, was far worse than before. The few journalists who managed to attend trials in Diyarbakır wrote that prisoners were sometimes brought to court in metal cages loaded on trucks, hardly able to walk or stand. Prison conditions were so harsh that prisoners staged prolonged hunger strikes that lasted more than a month at a time, or, in more than a few cases, committed suicide. On March 21, 1982, Mazlum Doğan lit three matches to celebrate Nowruz and hanged himself in his cell rather than make a televised confession. A few weeks later, on May 18, four prisoners wrapped themselves in benzene-soaked newspapers and set themselves on fire. When their comrades attempted to put out the flames they refused, insisting that it was a “freedom fire.”
In Kurdistan, the extent and ferocity of the repression decimated the Kurdish parties, some of which decided to disband. The regime thus cleared the way for the PKK. Abdullah Öcalan left for Syria and Lebanon just prior to the September coup and set about, regrouping the PKK there. The first PKK armed assaults on Turkish forces, in 1984, were on gendarme forts. The Turkish regime, much like the French in Algeria, recruited “village guards” — 16,000 by the end of 1989 and nearly twice that number by 1993. But this did nothing to impede the growth of the PKK, which systematically attacked them as “collaborators.” PKK guerrillas — they do not use the term peshmerga because of its association with Barzani’s “feudal” movement in Iraq — were not fussy about who might end up in their line of fire. Between 1987 and 1989 they destroyed some 137 schools as “instruments of Ankara’s policy of assimilation.” It was not until the end of the decade that Öcalan indulged in an “auto-critique,” saying that PKK armed actions needed to be “more selective.” PKK tactics gave the Turkish authorities a great deal of leeway in portraying them as bloody terrorists, a task made all the easier by the rigid censorship of events in Kurdistan and the obliging attitude of most of the Turkish press. It was only after some Turkish journalists noticed that many victims of the so-called “Red Kurds” had been killed by army weapons that the dimensions and consequences of Turkish martial law began to breach the wall of silence surrounding “the southeast.” The Turkish government has maintained a martial law regime over the country’s 11 Kurdish provinces to this day. The option of choice has persistently been the military option: from launching “hot pursuit” raids into Iraqi Kurdistan to destroying villages and killing and displacing tens of thousands of people. For a brief period in the wake of the 1991 Gulf war, President Turgut Özal spoke in measured terms of a more liberal policy towards the Kurds, and laws prohibiting the use of the Kurdish language were repealed. But following Özal’s death in April 1993, it has become clearer than ever that when it comes to the Kurdish question, it is not the civilian elected government which determines policy but the army-dominated National Security Council.
Many have lost a great deal in this war, but the least of them is the PKK. “If Jezireh is ours today,” says Öcalan, speaking of a town near the Iraqi-Syrian border, “it is half thanks to our efforts. But the other half, Turkey presented to us on a silver platter.” The PKK have an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 full-time fighters. Öcalan declared last September that he would have twice as many at the end of 1994.
The recent course of events in Turkish Kurdistan cannot be understood without appreciating the relationships of the PKK with the Kurdish parties of Iraq. Despite sharp differences of ideology, strategy and method, the PKK signed an agreement in 1981 with the KDP, which, after all, controlled the Iraqi part of Kurdistan along the border with Turkey. The agreement gave the PKK transit rights and rear bases in KDP territory. Turkish military pressures after September 1983 heightened the differences between the two groups that were not overcome even by “summit” meetings between Öcalan and Masoud Barzani (son of KDP founder Mustafa Barzani) in Damascus in 1984 and 1985. It was then the turn of Jalal Talabani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which signed a memorandum of agreement with the PKK in May 1988. The agreement was never implemented but at least the parties maintained “bridges.”
The establishment of a Kurdish government in northern Iraq in June 1992 brought the contradictions between the two movements to a head. One factor was the Iraqi Kurdish leadership’s effort to establish good ties with Ankara as a way of maintaining relief supply routes and the allied military protective cover over Iraqi Kurdistan. In November 1991, Talabani appealed to Öcalan to declare a ceasefire, or at least to cease operations from camps in Iraq. Instead, PKK attacks increased, and Öcalan denounced Talabani as an “agent of imperialism.” As the dispute escalated, the PKK enforced a blockade on the only road from Turkey into Iraqi Kurdistan in July 1992, exacerbating the negative effects of the UN sanctions and the Iraqi blockade on the Kurdish region of Iraq.
The PKK and the Iraqi Kurdish parties each consider themselves to be the leading force in the struggle for Kurdish liberation. For the PKK, “the government of Erbil does not represent much…. Each tribe is a power.” The PKK could tolerate “tactical relations” between the Kurds of Iraq and Ankara, but not the alliance that they see the Kurdistan Regional Government having established with the Turkish army and intelligence forces. The Kurds of Iraq, for their part, are not prepared to sacrifice “a free Kurdistan, with freely elected political institutions…for the death of two Turkish gendarmes that does not bring much,” said Jawhar Nameq, chair of the Kurdish parliament in Erbil, at a Paris press conference in December 1992. “The PKK claims there are no borders between the parts of Kurdistan,” said Adnan Mufti, formerly a leader of the small Kurdistan Socialist Party. “So we ask them then, why don’t you fight Saddam Hussein?”
On October 4, 1992, the Kurdish government in Erbil issued an ultimatum to the PKK: Either withdraw from the border bases or be expelled. Iraqi Kurdish attacks began the next day, and Turkish government forces intervened the following week. On October 27, after heavy fighting, including extensive Turkish air attacks, PKK leader Osman Öcalan (Abdullah’s brother) discussed ceasefire terms with Talabani and Barzani. Turkish forces renewed their attacks two days later. Estimates of PKK losses ranged from 150 (Osman Öcalan) to 4,500 “eliminated” (Turkish chief of staff Gen. Doğan Güreş). By any reasonable measure the PKK suffered a serious defeat.
For years Jalal Talabani had been striving to convince Abdullah Öcalan to proclaim a unilateral six-month ceasefire to test the will and strength of Turkish civilian leaders. In the spring of 1993, on March 17, at a base in Lebanon with Talabani present, Öcalan announced a ceasefire from March 20 to April 15 and declared that the PKK did not intend “to separate immediately from Turkey.” Two days later, on March 19, a PKK agreement with the Kurdistan Socialist Party brought an end to the long-standing PKK vendetta against the other Kurdish parties. More significantly, the March 19 agreement proposed that the Kurdish question could be solved in the context of “a democratic and federal regime” and set out nine conditions for a political solution.
Ankara chose to see only PKK weakness in the ceasefire. All that was left to Öcalan, said Interior Minister Ismet Sezgin, was “to surrender without conditions.” Nevertheless, on April 6, Öcalan announced an unlimited extension of the ceasefire and repeated the conditions for negotiation outlined earlier. To this Demirel replied, “If [Öcalan] gives up killing, we won’t reward him [with] a region of Turkey.” Özal, who had been the most forthcoming Turkish leader regarding the Kurds, died suddenly the next day. Within a month, Turkish Kurdistan was again engulfed in violence.
The Kurds of Turkey are in a paradoxical position. Cultural repression in Turkey is fiercer than in Iraq or Iran, yet Turkey is also where at least the formal attributes of democracy are most respected. Scores of Kurds have served in the Turkish parliament over the years, but in the past these have been landed notables with long-standing ties to Ankara and no wish to advertise their Kurdishness. Since 1983, though, the several legislative elections have provided an arena in which militant younger Kurdish politicians have been able to seize very limited maneuvering room. The elections of October 1991 were the first to witness the emergence of a genuine and explicitly Kurdish bloc, when 18 deputies elected on the Social Democratic ticket broke off to join the small People’s Labor Party (Halkin Emek Partisi, or HEP). It was a mixed group — some saw themselves as close to the PKK, while others were more traditional social democrats and nationalists. The Turkish authorities, though, had little tolerance for anyone aspiring to “the equality of the Turkish and Kurdish peoples…within the framework of the legitimate principles of law,” as former HEP chair Feridun Yazar put it during his trial. On July 3, 1992, the State Security Court indicted the founders of the REP for “separatist propaganda.” On July 15, 1993, the Constitutional Court outlawed the HEP, a few days after the deputies had resigned to form the Party of Democracy (DEP). In December 1993, Hatip Dicle, considered close to the PKK, was elected DEP chairperson. On March 3, 1994, the parliament voted to lift the parliamentary immunity of seven DEP deputies. They were arrested at the door of the parliament and charged under Article 125 of the penal code (“crimes against the state”), which carries the death penalty.
The DEP will likely meet the same fate as the HEP before it, but the recomposition of the Kurdish movement in Turkey seems irreversible. The access to power of a “Kurdish government” in Iraqi Kurdistan, the acceleration of the war in Turkish Kurdistan, and the March 1993 agreement between the PKK and other Kurdish parties in Turkey can hardly be interpreted otherwise. The question now is what course will prevail among Turkish political authorities — the brief opening initiated by President Özal before his death, or the military-dictated hard line of President Süleyman Demirel and Prime Minister Tansu Çiller. Will the Kurdish civil society that has taken shape little by little be doomed to disappear in yet another phase of “total war”?