On March 21, 2013 in the symbolic Kurdish city of Diyarbakır, on the symbolic new year’s day of Newroz, in front of a crowd composed of almost a million people and broadcast live by most Turkish news channels, a letter from the imprisoned Kurdistan Worker’s Party’s (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan was read. The letter urged Kurds to end their nearly 30-year armed struggle against the Turkish state and open a new page for democratic politics within the framework of Turkish sovereignty:

“Today a new era is beginning. The period of armed struggle is ending, and the door is opening to democratic politics. We are beginning a process…based on democratic rights, freedoms, and equality is growing.”[1]

Five years later, after unprecedented negotiations between the Turkish state, led by Prime Minister Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and Öcalan, mediated by the leftist and pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the negotiations known in Turkey as the “Resolution Process” have ground to a violent halt, with the Kurdish issue once again framed by the Turkish state as “terrorism.” Following the AKP’s decisive victory in the Turkish elections of 2018, Erdoğan accused the HDP as being “those who bless terrorists” and implicitly threatened the opposition Republican Peoples Party (CHP) for supporting the HDP’s campaign to join parliament:

“Turkey is a powerful state. The state knows whom to show compassion, as well as whom to thump with its velvet-lined iron punch. Those who bless the terrorists will never escape the state’s grasp. Those who have supported them to be part of the parliament will also pay the price.”[2]

Öcalan’s peace offering and Erdoğan’s threats effectively illustrate the radical change in Kurdish-Turkish political relations over the last five years. Öcalan’s call for ending the armed struggle in 2013 and working within the framework of Turkish sovereignty was a major break in the history of the Kurdish movement. After 30 years of violent conflict, the overall leader of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK)—the umbrella organization for various Kurdish parties including the PKK—had ordered his organization to adopt a political and democratic solution to the Kurdish issue within Turkey. Likewise, the Turkish state under AKP rule had taken unprecedented steps to start negotiations with Öcalan as part of its “Kurdish opening,” which gained ground after 2012.

The resulting Resolution Process, however, collapsed after the Turkish general elections in June 2015 and armed clashes erupted in several urban areas of the Kurdish provinces, with the number killed reaching 904 in 2015, 1063 in 2016 and 714 in 2017.[3] Fighting between KCK militants and Turkish military forces persist within the borders of Turkey and in trans-border areas between Turkey and Iraq and Syria. Erdoğan has also made good on his threat against HDP members by jailing dozens of elected parliamentarians under anti-terrorism charges, stifling legal Kurdish political expression in Turkey.

Yet, while the resolution process has been replaced by a return to violent conflict between Kurds and the Turkish state reminiscent of the dark period of the 1990’s, the nature of Kurdish-Turkish politics has been transformed significantly by the last two decades of geopolitical transformation and dialogue initiatives and Kurdish politics has been transformed even more dramatically, with uncertain implications for the future of the struggle.

Changing Kurdish Socio-Political Space

The current impasse in the Kurdish-Turkey conflict cannot be understood without taking into account the significant transformation of the Kurdish socio-political space in Turkey since 1999.[4]

The year 1999 was a breaking point for three reasons. First, Öcalan was captured by Turkish forces on February 15, 1999 in Nairobi, provoking a substantial transformation of the PKK’s ideological and political orientation, strategic goals and organizational structures. Second, the legal Kurdish parties’ local administrative experience within Turkey began after the local elections held on April 18, 1999, paving the way for the PKK’s hegemony in several Kurdish provinces. Finally, Turkey was accepted as a candidate country for European Union (EU) membership on December 10, 1999. Since that time, the social basis of the Kurdish struggle has shifted from being mostly rural, illegal and institutionally weak in the 1990s to becoming progressively more urbanized, legal and institutionalized. Moreover, Kurdish socio-political space has become transnational and internationalized, moving from stages which can be characterized as Europeanization (1999–2005), to Kurdistan as a whole (2005–2012) and finally to Rojava (2012–2018).[5]

Turkey’s accession to the EU—and Europeanization—became the principal macro dynamic framing Turkish and Kurdish domestic socio-political spaces and initiatives between 1999–2005. The AKP, for example, used the EU membership process as a lever to bypass obstacles such as the military and civil bureaucracy’s tutelage over politics to build control over policy and politics. Similarly, the leading Kurdish movement also used the EU process to reframe the political basis of the Kurdish issue as one of democracy and multiculturalism rather than national self-determination and statehood.[6] Öcalan, for example, publicly reinterpreted the Kurdish issue as part of the “democratic republic project,” proposing a general democratization process at the Turkish national level, along with decentralization and multiculturalism, as the basis to resolve the Kurdish issue.[7]

The establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq, after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the stabilization of the Kurdish region after 2005, however, radically altered the principal parameters of the Kurdish issue from Europeanization to geopolitics.[8In other words, the interactions between the Kurdish sociopolitical spaces in terms of states and non-state actors in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran become the determinant dynamic framing the Kurdish issue. After the establishment of the KRG in 2005, the KCK, as an umbrella organization unifying various PKK-affiliated parties across the broader Kurdish regions, began to re-frame the Kurdish issue in terms of “status,” calling for power-sharing in the Kurdish regions of Turkey closer to that of Kurds in Iraq.

As a result, in 2007, the leading Kurdish movement shifted from proposing a “democratic republic” to proposing “democratic autonomy” for Kurds within Turkey. Despite criticism regarding the ambiguous nature of autonomy, the “democratic autonomy” project refers to the recognition of the collective cultural rights for Kurds, and power-sharing between local and regional governments and the central government.[9] Community-based local democracy was offered as the best alternative for the resolution of the Kurdish issue, and also for new policies that could accommodate ethnic/national and religious/secular identities within Turkey more generally, along with gender and class-based equality.

The principal dynamic behind this transformation to a geopolitical frame was growing interaction at multiple levels among Kurdish communities, political groups, municipalities, religious groups, commercial actors and NGOs within Turkey and Iraq. In addition, the growing political and economic cooperation between the KRG and the AKP government after 2007 legitimized both the KRG and pro-Kurdish politics among the Kurds who supported the AKP. This process contributed to the development of a second kind of political Kurdishness, comprising pro-Islamist, conservative and liberal tendencies, alongside the secular, left-wing, gender-sensitive political Kurdishness represented by the HDP. Thus, in 2005–12 the nature of the Kurdish issue shifted from being influenced solely by Europeanization to being shaped by dynamics across the broader terrain of historic Kurdistan.

In 2012, following the Syrian anti-government uprisings, Kurds in Syria now controlling their cities and regions began to build Rojava as a de facto autonomous region in northern Syria under the political and military leadership of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the sister organization of the PKK. The establishment of Rojava in Syria as another geopolitical factor influencing the evolution of Kurdish socio-political space was even more concerning to Turkey than that of the KRG for several reasons. The political leadership in Rojava, unlike the KRG, is a KCK-affiliated organization and the KCK has mobilized its human and organizational resources not only in Turkey, but also in Europe to support Rojava. Likewise, the Kurds of Syria speak Kurmancî, the same dialect the majority of Kurds in Turkey speak. Moreover, economic ties and cultural interactions between the Kurds of Turkey and Syria are traditionally stronger than those between the Kurds of Turkey and Iraq. Rojava did not change the framework adapted by the leading Kurdish movement, which remained democratic autonomy. Yet, the establishment of Rojava functioned as the second geopolitical break for the Kurdish issue in Turkey after that of the KRG. Therefore, the years after 2012 can be considered the years of Rojava.

The Evolution of Turkish-Kurdish Dialogue

A remarkable evolution of Turkish-Kurdish dialogue and the emergence of political initiatives has transformed the terms of the conflict since 1999. Three major dialogue processes for the resolution of the Kurdish conflict in Turkey took place, influenced by the broader transformations of Kurdish socio-political space discussed above: the İmralı Process (1999–2004) in the years of Europeanization, the Oslo Process (2008–2011) in the years of Kurdistan and the Resolution Process (2013–2015) in the years of Rojava.

The İmralı Process, named after the island where Öcalan has been imprisoned since 1999, was a major opportunity to end the Kurdish conflict in Turkey for several reasons. With his imprisonment, the state could finally contact Öcalan directly, opening talks. The PKK declared its loyalty to its leader’s call for peace and withdrew its armed groups from Turkish border regions, dramatically reducing the conflict between 1999 and 2004. Moreover, the PKK significantly revised its ideology, political goals and method of struggle, privileging “internal political resolution,” “peaceful ways” and “dialogue and negotiation” with Turkish state authorities. Lastly, the broader context of Europeanization had important effects on both sides.

Despite its promise, the İmralı Process failed for several reasons. Internal divisions within the PKK, along with the departure of many members from the Party, including from the presidency council, eroded a common position. The Turkish economic crisis in 2001 marginalized mainstream political parties, leading to the rise of the AKP as a new political force in the general elections of 2002. And finally, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the establishment of the KRG dramatically changed the geopolitical context of the Kurdish issue in Turkey, Syria and Iran.

The Oslo Process beginning in 2008 had even more potential to resolve the Kurdish conflict: It was a more institutionalized process because the Turkish state was negotiating directly both with Öcalan on İmralı island and the KCK’s top-ranking representatives in Oslo. In addition, an international organization participated in the meetings as a mediator, which encouraged both the Turkish state and the PKK to fulfill their commitments by producing an “audience cost” as well as recording all stages of the process. Moreover, the process was partially open to public opinion: For the first time the government announced to the people that it had initiated a political process to resolve the Kurdish issue, creating a public reference for all future negotiations. Both sides arrived at a stage where they prepared some basic protocols for further negotiations, including practical steps that each side should take.

The Oslo Process also failed, largely due to the gap between the primary goals of both sides: The AKP government was focused on disarming the KCK, limiting the resolution of the Kurdish issue to the partial recognition of individual cultural rights, while the KCK advocated power-sharing and collective cultural rights within the framework of a democratic autonomy project. In addition, the divided internal power structure of the KCK—Öcalan, the main KCK base in the Qandil mountains and the diaspora in Europe—created obstacles to building a common agenda and decision-making mechanisms among Kurdish actors. Moreover, the legal pro-Kurdish party in Turkey was not included in the process. Like the İmralı Process, the Oslo Process remained limited to a dialogue process between the state and top-ranked KCK leaders, never becoming a true societal negotiation or reconciliation process.

The last initiative, referred to as the Resolution Process, was the most socialized dialogue process, closely followed by the public. Beginning officially on January 3, 2013 and publicly announced by Öcalan’s letter on Newroz in Diyarbakır, the dialogue was essentially between Öcalan and the state delegation. The state allowed Öcalan to communicate with both the KCK and the public via a delegation composed of senior politicians from the HDP. The AKP government framed the issue within the Turkish democratization process, focusing on disarmament, while the KCK insisted on power-sharing, collective cultural rights and the recognition of Rojava by the Turkish state.

This process also failed, like the previous two initiatives, because the two sides were unable to build consensus on the negotiation agenda and processes, on the terms of Kurdish disarmament and how to address the trans-border aspects of the Kurdish issue, Rojava in particular. Despite its relative openness to public opinion, the process excluded both parliamentary and non-parliamentary opposition groups, with no identifiable mechanism allowing opposition groups to monitor the two sides and build democratic pressure for peace building. The AKP refused to open up the process to third-party mediation, while the KCK insisted on mediation and recommended the US for the role several times. In sum, the two sides never transcended the space between their political agendas to build a horizon for a common future. The government concentrated solely on disarmament, while the KCK refused to disarm without any clear roadmap for power-sharing or recognition of the collective rights of the Kurds through constitutional reforms.

The Turkish state was especially threatened by the introduction of Rojava into the negotiations, which it interpreted as an existential threat to the Turkish state and nation. With the establishment of Kurdish autonomous regions in Iraq and Syria, the state’s efforts to frame the problem as its “internal Kurdish issue” had been transformed into a “trans-national Kurdistan issue,” reigniting Turkish narratives about threats to its national existence and security in any post-agreement era. This intransigence was reinforced by strident objections to the process aired by the Gülenist movement, ultra-nationalists, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and the conservative wing of the Republican People’s Party based on Turkish nationalist discourses that opposed recognizing Kurdish rights beyond narrow individual or cultural frameworks. These objections also influenced many AKP supporters who subscribed to Turkish nationalist values.

As a result, the AKP proposal was quite limited. This alla turca (Turkish style of) resolution project was announced as yerli (local) and milli (national). By pushing an alla turca project, the AKP aimed to limit the negotiation agenda to individual cultural rights and a limited administrative decentralization, as well as excluding international actors and the application of international norms.

On the Kurdish side, the fragmented power structure of the leading Kurdish movement prevented it from building a coordinated process, which remained elitist and exclusive not only at the national level, but also within the Kurdish region, as the movement limited the negotiation process to a small number of top-rank leaders. While Kurdish politics in Turkey is now far more urbanized, legalized and institutionalized than it was in 1999, the internal power structure of the movement remains as it was before 1999: Öcalan and the KCK still constitute the central powers of the movement, while the legal organizations remain in the periphery. As Hamit Bozarslan describes it, Öcalan and the KCK are “the referential actor,” while the periphery assumes “the representative actor” role.[10] A political resolution of the Kurdish issue needs to reconstruct the internal power structure of the movement in order to succeed at peace-building: The legal organizations led by the HDP should be re-organized as the new referential actor and take the KCK’s central place, which would gradually retreat toward the periphery.

Such a transformation, however, lies beyond the current Kurdish movement and its leaders. Kurdish politics suffers from the lack of an effective opposition: despite the existence of five pro-Kurdish political parties, they are mostly small groups and lack the capacity to build common ideas, shared interests and joint institutions. Moreover, critical public debate in the Kurdish region is quite limited. Most of the NGOs and media are identified with either the leading Kurdish movement or the government. Alongside the NGOs and media, Kurdish intellectual productivity and criticism are also limited. The urban conflicts which occurred after the failure of the Resolution Process is a recent example. Despite the loss of nearly 3,000 people, the forced migration of 500,000 people and the massive destruction of the cities, there exists very limited public criticism of the politics of both the KCK and the HDP.

Continuity and Change in Kurdish Politics

Since the failure of the Resolution Process, Turkey has been rocked by a major socio-political crisis and several traumatic events that have directly and negatively affected the prospects for a political resolution of the Kurdish issue: the urban conflicts between Turkish security forces and Kurdish militants in August 2015 and May 2016; the failed coup attempt against Prime Minister Erdoğan on July 15, 2016; the ensuing state of emergency rule since July 2016; Turkey’s interventions in Rojava (Jarablus in August 2016, Afrin in January 2018); and the constitutional referendum on April 16, 2017, which ended the parliamentary system and approved a “Turkish style” authoritarian presidential system. After such instability, where does the Kurdish issue stand now?

The geopolitical context of the Kurdish issue has changed significantly due to the establishment of the KRG and Rojava and the significant gap that has emerged between Turkey and most international powers concerning the Kurdish issue, particularly in Syria. The US had historically supported the Turkish government position concerning the Kurdish issue, but today it collaborates with the Kurds in Syria under the leadership of the KCK’s sister political and military organizations, which is a critical change for Kurdish politics. Given the trans-national quality of the KCK and the impact of geopolitics on the Kurdish issue in Turkey, the collaboration between the US and the Kurds in Syria exerts significant influence not only on the armed mobilization of the Kurds, but also their ideas, interests and institutions beyond the Syrian border.

The Kurdish conflict has often been subordinated to the broader, and sometimes shifting and contradictory, policy goals of Turkish domestic and foreign policy, which is clearly the case today. The AKP government’s attempt to build up its regional economic and political power in the hinterland of the Ottoman Empire led to its pursuit of a political resolution to the Kurdish conflict prior to 2015. But AKP foreign policy failures have triggered the government’s push to limit negotiations to narrow “national” and “local” negotiating frameworks, and brought about the return of a security and “terrorism” based approach. Within the domestic arena, the Kurdish issue was instrumentalized by the Kemalist powers to undercut the AKP during the İmralı Process. During the Oslo and Resolution Process, these sides switched as the AKP government and the Gülenist movement instrumentalized the issue. The government’s current security-based approach is yet another instrumentalization of the Kurdish issue to further the establishment of a more authoritarian executive presidential system.

In fact, the executive presidential system envisioned by AKP is itself a new obstacle to establishing a Kurdish peace, as democratic standards have decreased considerably. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, Turkey’s rank tumbled dramatically after the coup attempt: Turkey is now considered to be a hybrid regime (4.88/10), falling somewhere between an authoritarian regime (0–4) and a democracy (6–10) in 2017.[11] It is also widely believed that state violence played a critical role in the radicalization of Kurdish politics and the emergence of the PKK in the 1980s. Now, despite the relatively peaceful and reformist period of 1999–2015, the state of emergency and harsh security-based approach to Kurdish political expression has the potential to provoke a new wave of radicalization.

More broadly, the social, cultural and political space of Kurdish politics has been radically transformed. The Kurdish conflict is no longer located solely in rural areas, as recent fighting shows that the KCK has been able to spread the conflict to urban areas. Moreover, the conflict between the KCK and Turkish security forces is not restricted to the Kurdish region in Turkey, but now includes Rojava in Syria. One can even argue that the central space of the conflict has been Rojava since 2015. There has also been a significant increase in the transnational interaction between Kurdish communities in the bordering countries (Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran) since the establishment of the KRG and then Rojava. The boom in satellite-based Kurdish TV channels, internet and social media, as well as direct individual and collective interactions at multiple levels, have all played critical roles in the formation of “a Kurdistan community” taking shape beyond these borders. This interaction has arguably transformed “the internal Kurdish issue” in the four countries to a single “Kurdistan issue.”

Internally, there has also been a transformation in the relationship between the leading legal pro-Kurdish parties and the PKK (and then the KCK) since 1999. While the PKK/KCK remains the central power within the leading Kurdish movement, and the legal political parties and organizations remain representative actors in the periphery, the movement has faced a new challenge since 2014. Until the 2014 Turkish presidential election, the legal pro-Kurdish political parties received only around 4–7 percent of the votes. Since the establishment of the HDP there has been an extraordinary increase with the HDP receiving nearly 11–13 percent of the votes today, posing a major challenge to the internal power structures of Kurdish politics.

Finally, one can argue that a second form of political Kurdishness has emerged since 2002. The political identity of Kurdishness, traditionally represented by the dominant Kurdish movement’s embrace of secularism, left-wing politics, gender-based transformation and armed struggle, is now being joined by a new type of political Kurdishness that is conservative, pro-Islamist and reformist. In addition to geopolitical changes, the AKP’s partial recognition of Kurdishness opened up a public space for Kurdish cultural identity, encouraging the emergence of this second form of Kurdishness. This second Kurdishness has been an essential factor increasing HDP’s votes, in addition to a large number of non-Kurdish voters backing the HDP in the major metropolitan cities.[12] Similarly, support for the AKP in the Kurdish region is based on this second Kurdishness. People supporting the AKP mostly share HDP’s core demands such as democratization, decentralization and the right to education in one’s mother tongue. In addition, several political groups, including Azadî and the Free Cause Party (HÜDA-PAR), claiming to be both pro-Kurdish and pro-Islamist, have been established in recent years. Where this second Kurdishness and its influence on political actors leads Kurdish politics remains to be seen.

Kurdish politics have been transformed significantly despite the failure of the 2013–2015 Resolution Process and the return to armed conflict and Turkey’s security-first policies. Over the last two decades, developments within Turkey and the broader regional environment have transformed the Kurdish struggle for rights and recognition from a country-specific issue to a regional and even international concern. While continuities remain—particularly the subordination of the Kurdish issue to the foreign and domestic interests of various regional states—the new sociopolitical space of Kurdish politics, the establishment of Kurdish autonomous zones and the internal challenges to historic Kurdish political power centers, may yet produce a new opening, but one that may not look anything like what has come before.


Endnotes

[1] Cuma Çiçek and Vahap Coşkun, The Peace Process from Dolmabahçe to Present-Day: Understanding Failure and Finding New Paths (İstanbul: Peace Foundation, 2016), p. 6.

[2] Diken, August 4, 2018.

[3] Uppsala Conflict Data Program, “Turkey: Kurdistan.”

[4] The Kurdish socio-political space refers to the multiple Kurdish socio-political mobilities that build a fluid space in terms of geography and culture beyond the Kurdish region (where Kurds constitute the majority) in Turkey.

[5] Rojava means “west” in Kurdish, referring to the western part of the cross-bordering greater Kurdistan. After the Syrian civil war, the leading Kurdish movement in Syria used Rojava to name the Kurdish region in Syria, and it became popular among Kurds living in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, and the Kurdish diaspora.

[6] I use the leading Kurdish movement to designate the socio-political mobilization in Turkey which is led by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and the Democratic Party of Regions (DBP) in Turkey and the Kurdish region respectively; including women’s movements, youth movements, trade unions, Kurdish media, local governments, local assemblies, cultural centers, NGO networks; the Democratic Society Congress (DTK) as the unitary structure representative of this complexity of multiple organizations in the Kurdish region and the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK) and the organizations affiliated to it; as well as sister organizations in Iran, Iraq and Syria and networks that are widespread and active in the diaspora.

[7] Öcalan’s defense texts clearly show the influence of Turkey’s adhesion to the EU on his re-interpretation of the Kurdish issue: Abdullah Öcalan, Sümer Rahip Devletinden Halk Cumhuriyetine Doğru (İstanbul: Mem Yayınları, 2001).

[8] Geopolitics refers to the fact that the Kurds live under sovereignty of the four states, yet there have been strong interactions between the states and non-states actors as well as the Kurdish communities. The concept of geopolitics takes the transnational quality of the Kurdish/Kurdistan issue as one of the principal dynamics to analyze the domestic transformation of the sociopolitical space in each Kurdish/Kurdistan region.

[9] For a brief summary of this criticism: Mesut Yeğen, Son Kürt İsyanı (İstanbul: İletişim, 2016).

[10] Marlies Casier and Olivier Grojean, “Between Integration, Autonomization and Radicalization: Hamit Bozarslan on the Kurdish Movement and the Turkish Left,” European Journal of Turkish Studies (Online) 14 (2012).

[11] The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, Turkey.

[12] For a more detailed discussion on the HDP’s success see Cuma Çiçek, “HDP: focus of left-wing opposition beyond pro-Kurdish mobilization,” Open Democracy, July 15, 2015.

How to cite this article:

Cuma Çiçek "The Failed Resolution Process and the Transformation of Kurdish Politics," Middle East Report 288 (Fall 2018).
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