“The aim of the Turkish armed forces is to ensure that the separatist terrorist organization bows down to the law and the mercy of the nation.” Thus did the Turkish chief of staff, Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, brusquely dismiss the one-month ceasefire announced on August 19, 2005 by the Kurdistan People’s Congress (or Kongra-Gel). Kongra-Gel is the name adopted in 2003 by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which had renewed its armed struggle with the Turkish state just over one year before proclaiming its latest truce.
The ceasefire came in response to an August 12 speech by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Diyarbakir, a city nestled in the rugged southeast where much of Turkey’s Kurdish population lives. Under strong European pressure not to intensify military action in the southeast, Erdogan promised to handle Turkey’s “Kurdish question” with more “democracy.” Since it was swept into power by November 2002 elections, Erdogan’s neo-Islamist party has affected a somewhat softer attitude toward the Kurdish question than the secular hardliners who have traditionally dominated Turkey’s military and civilian elite. Anxious to meet the human rights benchmarks for talks on Turkey’s desired accession to the European Union, the new government used its parliamentary majority to ram through a reform package that legalized Kurdish-language instruction and broadcasting. Though this reform has been unevenly implemented at best, it was de facto recognition of the distinct culture of the people the Turkish state had long called “mountain Turks.” The speech in Diyarbakir, a town long regarded as the center of Kurdish opposition, was a sign that the neo-Islamist government is prepared to extend its reforms.
But rather than ease the government’s task, the ceasefire may have complicated it, because the neo-Islamists are under equally strong pressure from the military-civilian elite not even to appear to negotiate with Kurdish nationalism, and especially not the PKK, as everyone still calls the group. Echoing Ozkok, the National Security Council urged the government in Ankara to brush off the Kurdish party’s overture in order to preserve “the independence of the nation and the indivisibility of the country.” An unnamed “senior foreign ministry official” hastened to tell Agence France Presse: “Those people [the PKK] are terrorists and it is not possible for us to qualify their actions either as positive or negative.” At Ankara’s behest, Belgium blocked a PKK press conference.
The ceasefire has underlined how Turkey is caught between the demands of a rocky EU accession process and the vested interests of domestic groups. Over it all looms the torturous political transition of neighboring Iraq.
From 1984-1999, the Turkish armed forces waged war on the separatist PKK militia in the east and southeast of the country. Some 37,000 people died in the course of the campaign, and hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of villagers were forcibly resettled as the military and its allied “village guards” burned and razed hamlets suspected of harboring or aiding Kurdish guerrillas. Fighting in Turkey stopped after the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999. The PKK declared a unilateral ceasefire, never recognized by Ankara, and its remaining 3,000 to 5,000 militants moved into Iraqi Kurdistan, which had long been a base for PKK activity and consequently became the site of constant Turkish incursions tolerated by Saddam Hussein and, later, the two major Iraqi Kurdish parties.
During the 1999-2004 unilateral ceasefire, southeastern Turkey enjoyed a relatively violence-free period and experienced improvements in the quality of political and social life. Some of the displaced villagers were slowly permitted to return to their lands, though they were faced with numerous obstacles, and though others remain stuck in shantytowns around major Turkish cities. The state of emergency, which was originally declared in 1987 in eight southeastern provinces and was gradually expanded to cover 13, was lifted in the last remaining two provinces in November 2002.
In local elections in 1999, HADEP, a pro-Kurdish party, won control of 37 municipalities in southeastern and eastern Turkey, including major cities such as Diyarbakir, Batman, Siirt and Bingol. From that time, the mayors of these cities entered the political arena as the elected spokespersons of the Kurds. The state elites, confident in their military victory over the PKK, either studiously ignored these emerging Kurdish representatives, refusing to meet with them, or accused them of being PKK sympathizers. On one occasion, Osman Baydemir, the mayor of Diyarbakir, paid a visit of condolence to the family of a PKK militant who had been killed in a 2004 clash with Turkish troops. Although Baydemir later stated that he also visited a wounded policeman and offered his condolences to the family of a killed officer to acknowledge the suffering of mothers on both sides, the images beamed to every television in Turkey showed only his visit to “the mother of a terrorist.” Upon the broadcasting of these images, which apparently were recorded and distributed by the police, the military and local state officials cracked down on Baydemir. The Diyarbakir governor’s office even filed a legal action against him.
Two Years of Reform
The real push for democratization of the southeast came from outside Turkey, from Brussels in Belgium. Victorious in elections, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (or AKP, by its Turkish acronym) was able to pursue the EU membership that Turkey has long coveted in part because the quiet in the southeast had dampened European criticism of Turkey’s human rights record. When they were supporters of more openly Islamist parties in the 1990s, the AKP deputies were elbowed out of politics by military intervention or various anti-democratic laws. Accordingly, the AKP leaders looked favorably upon the requirement of the EU membership process that the role of the military be reduced. With 65 percent of the seats in Parliament, the AKP was the first party in almost two decades to be able to govern without coalition partners—meaning that legislative measures necessary for EU accession were passed quickly.
In less than two years, the AKP pushed through major reforms, including abolition of the death penalty and a clampdown on police use of torture; the release of political prisoners; greater freedom of expression and protection for the media; and very limited cultural, educational and language rights for minority groups, in particular for the Kurds. Most importantly, curbs on the excessive power of the military sailed through. The National Security Council, previously the main institution of army influence, was transformed into a purely advisory body; its secretariat, which had been held by a high-ranking general, was handed over to a diplomat. Military spending was placed under parliamentary control, sowing great discontent among the army brass. During these two years of sweeping change, analysts were convinced that, if the pace of reform did not slow, Turkish membership in the EU would be possible sooner rather than later.
The prospect of joining the EU raised hopes among the Kurdish population as well. The legal representatives of the Kurds, such as the southeastern mayors, as well as the still armed Kurdish opposition, repeatedly expressed their enthusiasm for EU membership, which they believed would pave the way for more cultural and political rights for the Kurds, including regional autonomy. These high hopes were soon to diminish.
In early 2003, even as the AKP was passing the EU-inspired reform packages, Washington asked Ankara to allow US troops to invade Iraq from bases in Turkey. After the Turkish parliament voted to deny this request on March 1, 2003, the United States threw its weight behind an invasion and occupation strategy involving the Iraqi Kurds, posing an acute dilemma long feared by the Turkish state. As the US allied itself ever more closely with the Iraqi Kurds, first against Hussein’s regime and then against the insurgency raging in Iraq since June 2003, an independent Kurdish state in Iraq or a federated Iraq in which the Kurds were both autonomous in their region and powerful in Baghdad came to seem like real possibilities. It was obvious to Ankara that if such a state or federation were established, the Kurds of Turkey, who live in one of the poorest regions of the country and have scant economic prospects, would fall under the influence of their fellow Kurds to the south. Ankara’s fears increased as the Iraqi Kurdish parties began moving to annex oil-rich Kirkuk to their hoped-for mega-province.
Adding to the Turkish state’s trepidation were the estimated 3,000 PKK militants who still took refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. After the US-British invasion of Iraq, the Turkish army stated that its soldiers on the border of northern Iraq would stay there as long as the militants stayed in their Iraqi camps. Washington assured Ankara that the PKK would not be tolerated in northern Iraq and vowed repeatedly to disarm all armed elements in Iraq, including the PKK militants. However, to this day the PKK guerrillas continue to move about freely in northern Iraq, from whence they have infiltrated into Turkey to conduct operations.
Acknowledging the crucial importance of US tolerance for its activities, the PKK explicitly endorsed the US adventure in Iraq. In 2003, a party manifesto declared that “by intervening against the Saddam regime, which so severely suppressed the Kurds and the entire population, the US has played an important role at the dawn of a new era. Kongra-Gel welcomes this intervention by the US, but wants to point out that constructive results can only be achieved if the Kurdish question is permanently solved.” Rather than risk alienating the friendly Kurdish parties of Iraq, the US has opted not to act against the PKK and not to allow Turkey to launch cross-border raids. Prime Minister Erdogan visited Washington in June 2005 to implore President George W. Bush to revise this policy, but he returned home empty-handed.
Meanwhile, Turkish expectations of swift approval for EU membership had begun to fade. On December 17, 2004, the EU’s executive body, the European Council, granted Turkey a date for opening accession negotiations: October 3, 2005. Celebrations in Turkey were tempered as the strings attached to the EU decision became apparent. The EU has asked, for instance, that Turkey indirectly recognize the Republic of Cyprus—a condition perceived as impossible to meet by Turkish elites, one of the reasons being that denizens of the majority-Greek south of the island had voted heavily against reunifying with the majority-Turkish north of the island in a 2004 referendum.
Turkish Europhilia soured further at the close of February 2005, when the French national assembly amended the French constitution to specify that every future expansion of the EU must be subject to a referendum by the French electorate. But it was mainly the late spring’s “no” votes upon the proposed EU constitution in France and the Netherlands that effected a sharp switch in Turkish feelings toward the EU. Turkish media presented the “no” campaign almost exclusively as opposition to the enlargement of the bloc—particularly to the membership of Turkey. Posters plastered on walls in France reading “Turkey in Europe—I vote no” were published on the front pages of Turkish newspapers. It has not escaped Turkish notice that European politicians have started taking a firmer stance against Turkey’s membership since the no votes. “Privileged partnership” began to gain support as an alternative to full membership among European politicians, on both left and right. In Germany, the Christian Democratic Union, the Christian Social Union and the Left Party began openly to oppose full EU membership for Turkey.
As hopes for EU membership sharply declined, the Turks realized two things: Iraq will soon be a federal state in which Kurds will be recognized as a constituent people, and the US will not make good on its promises to confront PKK forces in Iraq. This bitter mix of realizations fueled the recrudescence of a strident Turkish nationalism. The notion of Kurds as non-loyal citizens of the republic seeking opportunities to betray the Turkish state became a major feature of public discourse, and was perhaps expressed even more aggressively than it was when the conflict in the southeast was at its peak.
The nationalist wave crested after Kurdish children claiming to be PKK sympathizers attempted to burn the Turkish flag during the Kurdish New Year’s celebration in Mersin on March 21, 2005. Two days later, the army issued a statement denouncing this act of “treason” by “so-called citizens.” The army, the statement added, would stand ready to “fight until the last drop of blood to protect the country and its flag.” Beginning the next day, hundreds of thousands took to the streets in protest, burning Abdullah Ocalan in effigy. The country was virtually covered with Turkish flags. Shortly thereafter, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Ocalan’s 1999 trial had been unfair because of the participation of an impartial military judge. Although the Court is not an EU institution, and although the decision had been long anticipated, there was a furor in Turkey. The EU stood accused of defending a “terrorist” and a “baby killer.”
With Turkish nationalism on the rise, the PKK again resorted to violence. Small guerrilla bands sneaked back across the heavily fortified Iraqi border and reports of fighting between the army and the militants began appearing in Turkish newspapers. On August 5, PKK militants using rockets killed five Turkish soldiers and injured six more in an attack on a police station in Semdinli. The incident was symbolic in that the 1984 war against the presence of the Turkish state in what the PKK called “Turkish Kurdistan” was announced with attacks on military guardhouses in Eruh and Semdinli. Summer bombings in tourist areas have also been laid at the PKK’s doorstep.
A “New Page”
Already before the PKK attacks, the judiciary and the military were resisting the application of the EU-inspired laws. With the EU euphoria disappearing, tensions between army leadership and the AKP, which ties its political future to EU membership, developed into an open struggle. On April 20, Chief of General Staff Ozkok gave a speech at the War Academy in Istanbul. His remarks covered every major issue of domestic and foreign policy, and focused especially on the Kurdish question and the EU. He claimed that the activities of the PKK had increased dramatically and accused the EU of acting as a mediator for the PKK. EU accession would be “no blessing,” he said, and it would not be “the end of the world” if Turkey did not become a member.
Recent statements by Ozkok also suggest that hardliners in the military are trying to regain the influence they had prior to the EU-related democratization reforms of the AKP government. On August 5, Ozkok complained about the army’s lack of sway. “Despite reduced authority,” he said, “the Turkish armed forces are continuing and will continue to fight, with self-sacrifice, the terrorist organization which aims to take our nation back to painful days in the past.” In the following days, it became clear that Ozkok was complaining about amendments to the “anti-terror” law that limited the authority of security forces and increased civilian control of the army.
Caught between the generals’ demands for wider authority to deal with terrorism and EU pressure to solve the Kurdish problem by non-military means, Erdogan clearly sided with the EU. In a meeting with representatives of 150 intellectuals who had called on the PKK and the government to end the ongoing conflict in the southeast, he declared that his government would not step back from the democratization process. The meeting had historical value in and of itself; it was almost the first time a Turkish prime minister had agreed to meet with a group of citizens on the Kurdish issue. A couple days later, Erdogan paid his visit to Diyarbakir. In his speech there, he acknowledged, for the first time, that previous Turkish governments had mishandled relations with the nation’s minority Kurds. The Kurdish community applauded the statement. Osman Baydemir declared that it “constitutes the foundation for turning a new page in relations between Kurds and the government.”
Since the unilateral PKK ceasefire, the conciliatory tone toward the Kurdish question writ large has persisted in AKP statements. On August 21, Erdogan said on Turkish television: “The Kurdish problem and PKK terrorism or terrorism are two different things. We must not confuse the two. We must separate the two. The Kurdish citizens are my citizens. [Kurdishness] is a sub-identity. We must not confuse sub-identity with supra-identity. They must all be viewed as a whole, as citizens of the Republic of Turkey.”
Until recently, the AKP did not have a Kurdish policy of substance. The reforms that affected the Kurds in Turkey were designed to meet the bare minimum required by EU membership criteria. The recent AKP declarations are an acknowledgement that developments in Iraq and internationally have created a favorable environment for the rise of PKK activity, which the neo-Islamist party seeks to forestall lest the army seize the opportunity to reassert itself further in Turkish politics. Rhetoric about terrorism notwithstanding, the AKP is trying to find a viable solution for the Kurdish question that does not include military confrontation.
Before and after it announced the ceasefire, however, the PKK made it clear that the necessary condition for a continued truce is a general amnesty for PKK militants and the release of their imprisoned leader Ocalan. Their campaign for “the release of Abdullah Ocalan” began in June.
On August 23, the National Security Council held its monthly meeting after Erdogan’s Diyarbakir visit and the ceasefire announcement. At the meeting, the general staff urged the prime minister to clarify his statements about the Kurdish issue, warning him not to use the phrase “the Kurdish problem” again. Erdogan responded that his government was not planning to make concessions to terrorism and added that the only purpose of the “steps” he has been talking about is to win the hearts and minds of Kurdish citizens. The content of these steps has not yet been specified.
In Turkey’s present political climate, the AKP government can go only slightly further than its acknowledgement of past “mishandling” of the Kurdish question. Erdogan’s steps will probably be limited to pushing state offices, local administrations and the judiciary to apply the EU-inspired laws that grant cultural rights to Kurdish citizens. Directly after the National Security Council meeting, the government asked the Supreme Radio and Television Board to reply to the applications of local radio and TV channels to broadcast in languages other than Turkish. Favorable replies would remove the bureaucratic barriers to broadcasting in Kurdish. The apparent purpose of the AKP government is to satisfy the EU before accession negotiations open on October 3, while neither alienating the military nor offending the rising Turkish nationalist sensibility on “the street.” The two conditions of the PKK truce, meanwhile, are perceived by the government as impossible even to discuss. Although the AKP appears determined to avoid a descent into guerrilla warfare, the peace is fragile.