“Whether you call it a terror problem, a southeastern Anatolia problem or a Kurdish problem, this is the first question for Turkey,” Abdullah Gül declared in May. “It has to be solved.” With these words from the president, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish acronym, the AKP) put the long-simmering tensions between the state and the country’s millions of Kurds squarely on the front burner. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan then announced a major new initiative, whose Turkish title literally translates as the “Kurdish opening.” Soon after that, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, announced that he had completed a “road map to peace,” 160 handwritten pages proposing means to the end of the fighting between PKK guerrillas and the Turkish army, an on-again, off-again, decades-long war that neither side is strong enough to win or weak enough to lose. Hopes for a definitive answer to Turkey’s “first question” rose high, but few concrete steps were taken.

Several months later, in an attempt to force a breakthrough, Öcalan said that delegations of Kurds should return to Turkey as “peace groups” from their camps in northern Iraq. Two groups crossed the border on October 18. The biggest, numbering 26 people (including nine women and four children), was from the refugee town of Makhmour. A second group of eight guerrillas came down from a PKK base in the Iraqi Kurdish Qandil mountains. In the late 1990s, tens of similar returnees were arrested, tried and imprisoned for seven to 15 years, but this time most members of the “peace groups” were merely detained overnight before being released, following negotiations between the state and a team of 45 lawyers. Five of the guerrillas face prosecution for membership in a terrorist organization and spreading terrorist propaganda. [1]

A joyous crowd of 50,000, including ten MPs from the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), greeted the freed “peace groups” on the Turkish side of the remote, but busy border crossing. Accompanied by the DTP, the returnees traveled in a convoy to Diyarbakır, the unofficial capital of Turkey’s Kurdish-dominated southeast, where more than 100,000 people came out to welcome them. Then a third group of Kurds, due to arrive in Istanbul from Europe on October 28, found its entry visas withheld at the last instant by the Turkish embassy in Brussels. The celebrations had proven too provocative for the Turkish side, which perceived them as a victory parade. Erdoğan suspended the peace group project, blaming the DTP for putting the whole initiative at risk of going back to square one. Once again, it seemed that much had been promised, but little delivered.

Great Expectations

The AKP’s springtime “opening” had initially spoken of such measures as cessation of restrictions on use of the Kurdish language, better prison conditions for Öcalan and return to Turkey for the PKK fighters on the condition that they lay down their arms. By early August, however, the Vatan newspaper was reporting on much broader government plans, something like an overall strategy that would see it following the path lit by another “road map” prepared by the independent think tank, TESEV, and requested by the prime minister’s office a few months previously. This document had laid out the basics of “diverse efforts” to “solve the entire Kurdish question,” recalling (or warning) that “the state’s failure to pursue policies during non-violent periods in favor of restoring permanent peace caused it to miss very important opportunities.”

Economically, TESEV called on the state to invest in infrastructure and pursue full employment in the historically poor southeast, among other measures. Political and legal recommendations included writing a new constitution compliant with international human rights norms and establishing Kurdish-language education and public services. The latter step has been unimaginable for the Turkish nation-state since its foundation under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the 1920s. (The state has so insisted upon the Turkishness of the polity that Kurds were long described as “mountain Turks.”) Regarding security, TESEV recommendations included disbanding the village guards, the Kurdish units recruited and armed by the state to battle the PKK alongside the army. Another issue that needed to be addressed was the plight of the million-plus people forcibly evacuated from their villages in the southeast by the army in the 1990s, and never resettled, let alone compensated. [2]

The government’s springtime announcement of a new initiative was not the first time that the comments of politicians in Ankara had raised expectations. In 1991, Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel stated flatly, “Turkey has recognized the Kurdish reality.” Two years later, Demirel’s successor Tansu Çiller spoke of the “Basque model,” referring to the partial autonomy for Basques obtaining in Spain. And in 1999, as Turkey geared up for its campaign to join the European Union, Prime Minister Mesut Yılmaz avowed, “The road to the EU passes through Diyarbakır.” None of these hopeful signs came to anything, however, as politicians continued largely to kow-tow to the military. In his first term as prime minister, Erdoğan made similar noises, pledging in August 2005 to resolve the Kurdish question by building a “democratic republic,” and telling Diyarbakır crowds later that year, “The Kurdish problem is my problem.” [3]

It appeared that the Islamist-oriented AKP just might make good on the promises of its secular predecessors. As outsiders, the AKP had a somewhat different overall agenda from the Kemalist establishment. It derived great electoral support from the Kurds when it first swept into power in 2002, and was locked in a bitter struggle for power with the military dating to the “post-modern coup” of 1997, in which the army had deposed an Islamist government without firing a shot. Nevertheless, in the late autumn of 2007, the AKP gave in to army pressure and green-lighted cross-border raids on PKK bases in northern Iraq. The raids were triggered by renewed PKK attacks on Turkish soldiers, as the group ended its unilateral ceasefire explaining that there had been no reciprocation from the Turkish side.

As Turkish and Kurdish nationalist feelings sharpened again, militant voices grew louder in the national debate. It did not escape Kurds’ attention that some of the most outspoken AKP figures on the Kurdish question had fallen silent. In fact, the only real opening before the spring of 2009 was the establishment of the state satellite TV channel TRT 6 in January. Broadcasting in all three main Kurdish dialects, the new channel came under the direction of Sinan İlhan, a Kurd from the Foreign Ministry who commented openly on state suppression of civil liberties and the “pointless bans” on the Kurdish language. [4] This move might have appeared to represent a major shift in state policy, had it not been for the timing. TRT 6 was put together in just 45 days and then launched less than three months before provincial elections in the southeast, in which the AKP aimed to defeat the DTP. The channel was dismissed as a campaign stunt. The DTP won the elections in the southeast.

It was clear from this result that Kurdish voters would not be appeased by relatively minor measures like a single state TV channel, and had started to lose hope that the government would try to address their aspirations to greater cultural and political autonomy, let alone engineer an end to the armed conflict. And, given that Erdoğan proclaimed the Kurdish initiative against this background, cynics understandably assumed the “opening” to be no more sincere than many other measures undertaken by the AKP. Notably, the party had enacted democratic reform in order to meet EU accession criteria and then forgotten about it once the EU had pronounced itself satisfied. The “opening,” it appeared, was little more than a series of photo opportunities.

And yet, from the date of Gül’s statements of late May, barely a day passed without the Kurdish issue front and center in the Turkish media. Intellectuals reflected upon France’s experience with devolution of the central state, and newspaper columnists analyzed paired concepts like “nation-state” and “unitary state,” “Turk” and “Turkish,” and “supra-identity” and “sub-identity.” Polling on the issue was commissioned and reported, and the Kurdish question in general became a prominent topic on talk shows and in newspapers.

In mid-August, the prime minister made an emotional appeal for all parties to unite behind a solution, rhetorically asking parliamentarians, “If Turkey had not spent its energy, budget, peace and young people on [fighting] terrorism, if Turkey had not spent the last 25 years in conflict, where would we be today?” [5] Optimism rose with the summer temperatures. Clashes between the PKK and Turkish army were few, with the PKK again adhering — officially — to a unilateral truce. On the political front, DTP leader Ahmet Türk floated a vague four-point plan, and Interior Affairs Minister Beşir Atalay held consultations with the major parties, unions and business associations. But still it remained far from clear if the AKP really had a complete package in mind, let alone what it would look like.

Öcalan’s Road Map to Peace

Meanwhile, Abdullah Öcalan sent word from jail that on August 15, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Kurdish insurgency, he would release a comprehensive peace proposal. His lawyers were unable to receive the 160-page “road map” until August 20, however, whereupon the prison authorities confiscated it. The whereabouts and fate of this tome remain uncertain. Because Öcalan’s intention to release the road map had been widely known, many saw the entire AKP initiative as propelled by the desire to preempt him. Deniz Baykal, leader of the main opposition Republican Peoples’ Party, even accused the government of acting on a timetable set from İmralı, the island prison where Öcalan is held.

The contents of the mislaid road map have emerged, however, in reasonable detail. The PKK line is that the road map follows the “defenses” raised by Öcalan during his trial and appeals between 1999 and 2004, in which he propounded a concept of “radical democracy.” This idea is expressed in two parallel projects. The first, a top-down reform of the Turkish state into a “democratic republic,” aims to decouple democracy from ethno-nationalism, by which citizens’ rights are tied to their Turkishness, and substitute a civic understanding. The second, democratic confederalism, envisions that Kurds will gain some form of autonomy through bottom-up, local self-organization.

Öcalan and the PKK stress that the guerrillas are willing to lay down their arms for good in favor of political dialogue. Indeed, the PKK has called several ceasefires prior to the one currently in effect, the first in 1993 and the longest for over five years between 1999 and 2004. The PKK’s quest for political dialogue has a similar history. Before the first ceasefire, there were indirect contacts between Öcalan and Turgut Özal, then the president, while regular contacts between state representatives and the PKK occurred in 2006-2007 (as detailed in a book published by the state’s National Intelligence Organization) — the failure of which led to the most recent round of violence. [6] Just as in Northern Ireland, where the British met secretly with the Irish Republican Army for years while vowing that they would never “negotiate with terrorists,” so also it seems the state in Turkey has had occasion to pursue a clandestine pragmatism.

Despite pressure from its militants to show “strength” in the absence of a positive response from Turkey, the PKK again declared unilateral ceasefires in 2008 and 2009, holding open the door to negotiations while using the break in fighting to reorganize itself, in line with the dictum reiterated by a DTP adviser, “Always be ready for peace, or for war.” This delicate balance within the PKK has been maintained to date, with the organization standing behind Öcalan’s road map, irrespective of its content, and thus displaying an enduring loyalty that continues to prevent Ankara from taking the imprisoned leader out of the equation.

“Project for National Unity”

The end of August proved to be a turning point. First, harsh criticism of the AKP poured forth from the parliamentary opposition, replete with dire warnings of the impending downfall of the republic. This invective was followed by a message from the chief of general staff, İlker Başbuğ, posted on the army’s website, which reiterated the military’s commitment to the “unitary” Turkish state and the struggle against terrorism. The top general rebuffed the DTP call upon the government to negotiate with Öcalan, saying, “There should be a good look at who is responsible for the bloodshed. You cannot put martyrs who sacrificed their souls for their country and terrorists in the same corner.” In response to the push for political and cultural autonomy for Kurds, Başbuğ continued, “The state of Turkey, the country and the nation, is an indivisible whole. Its language is Turkish.” [7]

The summer was ending, the weather turned unseasonably cool and the Kurdish opening began to close. President Gül lashed out at journalists who asked about amnesty for PKK militants. Prime Minister Erdoğan, attending an iftar meal (to break the daily Ramadan fast) with police at a Special Operations Department branch, declared, “I say this very clearly and openly: Neither the state nor the government of the Republic of Turkey will sit down with terrorists or treat a terrorist organization as a party to negotiations. This can never, ever be a subject for discussion.” [8] On September 5, prominent AKP MPs turned a discussion of the Kurdish opening into a recitation of old slogans, denouncing the PKK as “baby killers” and exalting Turkey as “one nation with one flag.” [9] And CNN Turk showed Erdoğan stating at another iftar meal, “If we execute a project for national unity, if we make steps toward a democratic opening, we do it with the aim of ending terror.” The discursive shift was sharp. It was only in May that the new initiative had been proposed, and already, by the first week of September, it had been converted into a “project of national unity” and the Kurdish question reduced, once more, to a single word, “terror.”

All this signaled an early retreat from the loud pledges to strive for a lasting peace, as recognized by Ahmet Türk, quoted in the newspaper Radikal: “The mountain did not even give birth to a mouse.” Then Muammer Türker, governor of the southeastern province of Hakkari, an AKP appointee with a record of liberal statements on the Kurdish question, warned that should the government fail to meet expectations, Kurdish separatist feeling and the risk of further bloodshed would rise in tandem. Aware of the danger of getting bogged down again in insults and recriminations, Öcalan called on both Turkey and the PKK to cool down the rhetoric. Over the next two months, the state emitted more positive noises. Reports surfaced of a high-level meeting between Erdoğan and the military to discuss wide-ranging proposals including conditions for PKK amnesty, employment for disbanded village guards units and Kurdish-language education at the junior level. [10] Again, however, what materialized was nothing much — initial preparations for private “foreign-language” TV channels and a few university courses in Kurdish studies.

In fact, the “Kurdish opening” had by now become entrenched as the “democratic opening” — a phrase implying redress of the grievances of other marginalized groups like the Laz of the Black Sea region and Turks of Bosnian origin. [11] But this Orwellian redefinition was to mutate further, with the major initiatives directed outward, and the “opening” reinterpreted in terms of thawing Turkey’s frozen relations with its eastern neighbors, Armenia and Syria. And thus it was that Öcalan intervened to try to push matters forward with the peace groups.

Whereas Öcalan and the PKK considered this action promotion of his road map, and the peace groups were intended to negotiate actively for PKK demands, the public shows of support for the returnees clearly embarrassed the Turkish authorities. The future of such peace groups is unclear. On the one hand, their suspension might not be temporary, while on the other hand they may yet be able to negotiate with the authorities, and could even eventually operate as the thin end of the wedge for a piecemeal, undeclared amnesty. What is certain, however, is that the delegations have served both the PKK and the DTP, allowing them openly to test the sincerity of the government and to demonstrate their ongoing popularity, primarily to their constituents and to the state, but also to the world at large.

Looking West and East

The European Union and the United States have been calling upon the PKK to disarm unconditionally since the events of September 11, 2001. Mainstream nationalist Turkish politicians and the public at large, predisposed to see a geopolitical agenda hidden in the helping hand of the West, have been unconvinced. When US weapons infiltrated from Iraq were discovered in PKK arsenals in the summer of 2007, and various US politicians spoke in support of a federal or partitioned Iraq with its Kurdistan nearly or wholly independent, these nationalists had all the proof they needed of Washington’s “true” intentions. Many Kurds, meanwhile, intrinsically distrust Washington because of its close ties to the Turkish state, including its supply of weaponry, intelligence and counter-insurgency training to Ankara.

The US is of course very much involved in the future of the northern Middle East, particularly given its ongoing military presence in neighboring Iraq. Regional stability is paramount for the US under President Barack Obama, all the more so now that the US has to deal simultaneously with deteriorating security in Pakistan and Afghanistan and difficulties with Iran. And with tension in northern Iraqi cities on the rise — especially in the oil-rich center of Kirkuk — Washington is worried about escalation. The US would prefer to see the armed conflict on the Turkish-Iraqi border resolved sooner than later. Nevertheless, one cannot imagine Washington investing political capital on behalf of the Kurds in the way that it did for the Irish, attractive as parallels with Northern Ireland might be. [12]

As for the EU, its call on the PKK to renounce violence has shown Kurds that the days when their émigré populations could rally Europe to their cause are over. The Kurdish issue is no longer a simple case of basic human rights, especially with the developing ties between Brussels and Ankara. The AKP realizes that it needs to show some signs of engagement with the Kurdish issue in order for EU accession negotiations to continue. But Turks, steeped in the history of the attempted Anglo-French carve-up of the Ottoman Empire at Sèvres in 1920, have not yet forgotten the numerous visits of European parliamentarians to the southeast over the years. In the end, the promise of EU membership exerts little leverage on the country these days, after referenda in France and Germany showed such stark opposition to Turkey’s bid to join the club. If Ankara is paying lip service to real democratization and peace in the southeast to mollify Brussels, that does not bother Turks who believe that Europe is only stringing Turkey along anyway.

The PKK itself gives scant credence to the Western call to disarm, because, in the absence of trust in genuine dialogue, it considers the military option necessary for the survival of the Kurdish struggle. It is a terrible truth that it was PKK killing that brought the Kurdish issue to the fore in the first place — just as it was IRA bombings that ultimately led to reform in Ulster. European politicians find it hard to comprehend why the guerrillas have not come down from the mountains, and in the fervor of the “global war on terror” they were swung to Turkey’s position. There is, indeed, a collective amnesia about armed conflict and how it can be resolved. In Europe, the upshot is to devote the most attention to Kurdish cultural rights, at the expense of the Kurds’ political demands and the need to create a climate conducive to negotiations. The EU has pulled back from playing the crucial role that, for example, the US played in legitimizing the IRA.

Looking east, Iraqi Kurdish leaders seek to improve their relationship with the Turkish government and ensure the prosperity and security of their territory. Indeed, the suggestion has surfaced in the Turkish media that Iraqi Kurds might prefer to be linked to Ankara than to Baghdad. Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, has long been criticized by Turkish authorities for allowing the PKK to maintain bases there, and in March 2009, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani called upon the PKK to lay down its arms following bilateral meetings with Gül and Erdoğan. The KRG went on to voice guarded support for the Kurdish opening and urge the PKK to maintain its ceasefire. “Any positive initiative on the issue is appreciated by us,” said Falah Mustafa Bakir, the KRG equivalent of a foreign minister. “We will make sure that our territories will not be used as a launch pad for attacks against our neighbors.” [13]

Although there are economic incentives for Turkey to improve its relationships with the Iraqi Kurdish leadership, neither the KRG nor Talabani is strong enough to broker peace. It was Öcalan who summoned the peace groups that entered Turkey from KRG-administered lands, and it remains unclear if Barzani or Talabani played any role at all. To the contrary, their full-fledged support for the AKP government initiative — despite (or maybe precisely because of) its disregards the main political actor speaking for the Kurds of Turkey — suggests that they are bystanders.


Winter approaches. The immediate prospects do not look good. The apparent closure of the opening bolsters radical Kurdish nationalists in their view that it is near impossible to resolve the conflict peacefully. The rapid collapse of the political space for compromise deepens PKK’s and Kurdish suspicions of the Turkish state. Hopes rose high with the entry and the subsequent release of the “peace groups.” But given the halt called by the prime minister, and the snail’s pace of progress on the core issues the PKK began fighting for in the first place, disillusionment is setting in once more. The scattered PKK attacks on Turkish soldiers in the summer and fall, meanwhile, proved to Turkish nationalists that the opening is best shut, permanently. The DTP, isolated in Parliament since the 2007 election, and heavily criticized for its popular mobilization following the entry of the peace groups, is shackled.

The AKP, assuming it intends to create momentum for peace anew, will find this task difficult. Even though the governing party enjoys considerable EU support, it will again encounter resistance from the parliamentary opposition, as well as the armed forces, who have accused the AKP of surrendering to “the terrorists.” What is more, a large part of the AKP’s constituency comes from the nationalist mainstream and is unsupportive of expansive overtures to the Kurds. The party leadership, beginning to look ahead to the 2011 elections, is already loath to rock the boat.

In 2009, the phrase of the moment was “road map” — whether in the TESEV report or Öcalan’s shelved opus. Deniz Baykal invoked the phrase sardonically to distance his party from the Kurdish opening, bidding the AKP, “Bon voyage!” The problem, though, is that the Turkish government appears to have been without a road map. Its journey has accordingly seemed meandering, its leaders driving blind. A slightly different metaphor, however, of peace as a process, does seem to describe events as they have transpired. Erdoğan might still be prevaricating when he claims the “democratic opening” is a seven-year work in progress with short-, medium- and long-term objectives. [14] But this concept does offer some hope, a glass with something in it, even if it is far from half-full. And Erdoğan is not wrong to emphasize how much progress has been made.

The metaphor of a “peace process” recalls the unfolding narrative from the north of the island of Ireland. To be sure, there are important differences. First, although there are undeniable tensions, the ethnic groups of Turkey are not in the grip of the strong communal enmity that characterized relations between the Protestants and Catholics in Ulster. The problem in Turkey is primarily a political one, a problem of the Turkish state’s own making, in the construction of a nationalist ideology for the country. That is the good news. The bad news is that Northern Ireland emerged as a beacon from the darkness of “the Troubles” because the investment of British nationalism in the province was relatively small, to the degree that London was eventually able to act as honest broker between the minority Sinn Fein and the majority Ulster Unionists. In Turkey, however, it is the state itself that represents the oppressive majority. The AKP may well be the only potential honest broker for another generation.

The AKP gained power by winning the middle ground of Turkish politics, but the center can be an awkward place to occupy. Steering a middle course may mean being all things to all people. Playing off competing groups and ideologies against each other as oppositions come and go — the army vs. the EU, secularists vs. Islamists, Kemalism vs. liberalism — means also being defined by them. The AKP is faced with the choice of whether or not to take a stand and set a principled course of its own. The summer and autumn of 2009, alas, were probably not the prelude to this principled course. Rather than a Northern Ireland-style Good Friday Agreement, progress on the Kurdish question in Turkey will continue to be characterized by small, painful steps rather than major breakthroughs. DTP representatives will get reelected, Kurdish speakers will be employed in the Diyarbakır police force and private Kurdish-language TV channels will finally start broadcasting. And the deeper, underlying political problem will go unaddressed. A revised constitution is the next major, achievable target, in 2010 possibly, though more likely sometime in the year or two following a 2011 AKP election victory. But Kurds and Turks will wait in vain for a truth and reconciliation commission to apply balm to the wounds of warfare in the 1990s and subsequent skirmishes. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is probably no John Hume, but he is certainly no Nelson Mandela.


[1] Zaman, October 19, 2009.
[2] Yılmaz Ensaroğlu and Dilek Kurban, A Road Map for a Solution to the Kurdish Question: Policy Proposals from the Region for the Government (Istanbul: TESEV, 2008).
[3] Cited in Burhanettin Duran, “The Justice and Development Party’s ‘New Politics,’” in Ümit Cizre, ed., Secular and Islamic Politics in Turkey: The Making of the Justice and Development Party (New York: Routledge, 2008), p. 97.
[4] Today’s Zaman, January 5, 2009.
[5] Today’s Zaman, August 12, 2009.
[6] PKK/Kongra-Gel Terör Örgütü: Analiz Notları, Mücadele Metodları [The PKK/Kongra-Gel Terror Organization: Analytic Notes and Combat Methods] (Ankara: Emniyet Genel Müdürlüğü İstihbarat Daire Başkanlığı, 2008).
[7] Yeni Şafak, August 26, 2009.
[8] Güncel Haber, September 3, 2009.
[9] Istanbul Haber, September 5, 2009.
[10] HaberTürk, September 16, 2009.
[11] Radikal, September 18, 2009.
[12] On the example of Northern Ireland, see Zafer Yörük, “Lessons to Be Learnt from Northern Ireland,” Bianet.org, August 19-20, 2009; and Ted Smyth, “The Unsung Heroes of the Irish Peace Process,” World Policy Journal 22/1 (Spring 2005).
[13] Today’s Zaman, August 17, 2009.
[14] HaberTürk, September 17, 2009.

How to cite this article:

Andy Hilton, Marlies Casier, Joost Jongerden "“Road Maps” and Roadblocks in Turkey’s Southeast," Middle East Report Online, October 30, 2009.

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