"Kurdish Opening" Closed Shut

Why Turkey's misguided, if well-meaning, attempt to make peace with its Kurdish population is bound to fail.

On Oct. 24, Kurdish migrant farm workers started a fight in the town of Ipsala, in the northwest region of Turkey. After the Kurdish workers apparently harassed local girls, some of the town's youth attacked the workers in retaliation. The conflict escalated, and the Kurdish workers were forced to take refuge in the town's mosque to avoid a growing anti-Kurdish mob. Across the country, veiled mothers, the precise constituency one would imagine to be supportive of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, protested the government's "Kurdish opening," which promises overtures toward the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a terrorist organization that has waged a 25-year struggle against Turkey.

Social violence between Kurds and non-Kurds, an unusual phenomenon in Turkey, has been spurred by the recent "Kurdish opening." How the AKP deals with the Kurdish problem will not only determine the party's political future, but also has the potential to make or break Turkey's ambitions as a regional power. It will take an individualistic, European approach to resolve the Kurdish issue to the benefit of both the AKP and Turkey as a whole.

The "Kurdish opening" envisaged bringing members of the PKK back to Turkey from the organization's bases in Iraq and cells in Europe through an unofficial amnesty. This approach, however, backfired when 34 PKK members, whom the Turkish government had allowed into the country from Iraq, delivered fiery speeches in support of the terrorist group. On October 19, speaking to a rally in Diyarbakir, the party members said they had returned to Turkey not to take advantage of the AKP's amnesty, but rather to represent the PKK. The group added that they had no remorse for their past actions, including violence, and made political demands on the Turkish government.

These demonstrations, and images of individuals involved in terror attacks walking freely in Turkey, have touched a raw nerve. The government has since backed down, calling off its plan to bring more PKK members back to Turkey, and the "Kurdish opening" has flopped. Yet Turkey can still resolve this impasse. The AKP has, thus far, dealt with the issue by giving collective, ethnicity-based group rights to the Kurds. This approach has led to social backlash in Turkey for being perceived as too conciliatory to the PKK, and for challenging the notion of "Turkishness." But Turkey can break the Kurdish impasse by increasing the rights of all Turkish citizens, regardless of ethnicity and religion.

Solving the Kurdish problem in Turkey requires an understanding of the very notion of what it means to be a Turk -- someone defined by historic Turkish identity rather than ethnicity. Turkey is an amalgam of various Muslim ethnic groups, including Kurds as well as Bosniacs, Crimean Tatars, Albanians, Circassians, Abkhazes, Georgians, Arabs, Macedonian-, Serbian-, Bulgarian- and Greek-speaking Muslims, and ethnic Turks, among others.

The Turkish amalgam is a non-ethnic, historic entity that is a product of the country's Ottoman past. For 500 years, the Ottoman Empire treated its entire Muslim population as members of the same political grouping, the Muslim "millet," imprinting its Muslim population with an indelible collective political identity. In the twentieth century, the members of the former Muslim millet in Turkey came to see themselves as Turks, regardless of their ethnic background.

Despite a violent challenge by the PKK in the name of Kurdish nationalism, the historic Turkish amalgam has remained intact: Kurds continue to intermarry with non-Kurds in large numbers and live in ethnically mixed neighborhoods and cities. A 2009 poll by SETA and Pollmark, an Istanbul-based think tank and polling firm, provides plenty of evidence of the close social proximity between Kurds and non-Kurds in Turkey: For example, 67 percent of Kurds polled said they have close non-Kurdish relatives.

Collective group rights given to the Kurds would challenge the foundations of this Turkish amalgam. This is why public resentment among the non-Kurdish population -- an undertaking also seen as giving in to the PKK, widely viewed as a terrorist group -- is rising. The AKP and Turkey will suffer if the party sticks to this ill-conceived, if well-meaning, strategy.

Instead of granting collective group rights to the Kurds, Turkey should increase the cultural and political rights of all its citizens, Kurds and non-Kurds alike. Take, for instance, broadcasting rights. The government's granting of collective Kurdish group rights foresees broadcasting in Kurdish by private TV networks. Such a step appears to grant exclusive rights to one ethnic group in Turkey. Instead, the government should consider a new broadcast law allowing citizens to broadcast in any language they wish, without mention of specific languages.

Addressing the Kurdish issue through collective measures would be a slippery slope. Assigning exclusive, ethnicity-based group rights to the Kurds would further strengthen and solidify their Kurdish identity, increasing the distance between the Kurds and rest of the country's population. For Turkey to resolve its Kurdish problem, it must not only make the Kurds happy, but also keep the entire country content regarding the reforms. By adopting an enlightened approach to Turkey's problems, the government can do just that: increase the rights and liberties of all citizens, while ensuring that all citizens maintain equal rights.

The AKP, which promoted Turkey's bid for EU accession until 2005, has since shied away from the process, losing its popular pro-Europe brand in the West and among Turkish liberals, the party's erstwhile supporters. If the party were to re-embrace the EU process and adopt a 21st century European attitude towards the Kurdish problem, this would not only save Turkey's EU accession, break the Kurdish impasse, and make Turkey, but also save the AKP. Instead of just a "Kurdish opening," that would be an opening for all of the Turks.



Trade Secrets

The real message of the collapse of trade talks in Cancún: Business as usual is over for the WTO.

The World Trade Organization's (WTO) September 2003 meeting in Cancún, Mexico, had barely collapsed before major corporations and their government and media mouthpieces launched into damage control: Blame developing nations -- those countries making up the majority of wto members, and that U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick dismissed as "won't do" countries -- for defending their interests. Blame Mexico's foreign minister, Luis Ernesto Derbez, who hosted the meeting. Or blame advocacy groups and nongovernmental organizations.

This blame game is a wasteful distraction from the reality that, after nine years of existence, business as usual at the WTO is over.

To overcome opposition when the WTO was established in 1995, promoters promised benefits eerily similar to those trotted out before Cancún: billions of dollars in global economic growth and the reduction of poverty in poor nations. Not only has the WTO failed to deliver on such promises, but numerous countries are suffering economic, environmental, and social harm after implementing the global body's mandates. This harm highlights the WTO's key contradiction: Shouldn't those living with the results determine the policies versus having them imposed by the WTO?

Not according to the old powers that be. In the run-up to Cancún, a bloc of powerful economies -- the European Union, Japan, the United States, and Canada -- plotted with the allegedly neutral WTO secretariat to set the agenda in advance. Their plan was not to negotiate, but to dictate four more WTO agreements that have little to do with trade and that require signatories to rewrite their domestic laws to conform even more to a "Washington Consensus" set of one-size-fits-all policies. Developing countries were expected to provide more privileges for foreign investors, subjugate their government procurement policies to WTO disciplines, prioritize facilitation of imports over other domestic policy goals, and adopt uniform "competition" policies that enable mega-conglomerates to further consolidate markets. The proposal would have undermined economic development and made the WTO even more untenable for scores of poor nations still unable to digest their Uruguay Round commitments, such as requirements to create new corporate patent rights over medicines and seeds.

Unfortunately, the genuine demands of the developing world were not on the agenda. The so-called G-21, a group led by Brazil, China, South Africa, and India -- representing half the world's population and two thirds of its farmers -- pressed hard to cut rich countries' farm subsidies. Many developing countries also presented a unified position on nonagricultural market access and dismissed an "Implementation Agenda" of 105 specific changes to current WTO rules.

Yet, wealthy countries were shocked (yes, shocked) when Cancún broke down, even though more than 80 developing countries had already rejected the rich nations' agenda. But Cancún followed 18 months of deadlocked WTO talks in Geneva, which began in Doha in 2001 after a similar agenda had fallen apart in Seattle in 1999. Clearly, Zoellick's triumphant remark in Doha that the "stain of Seattle" was erased proved laughable given the outcome of the Doha WTO meeting. Rich countries called it the "Doha Development Agenda" and poor countries called it the "Everything but Development Round." By any name, it papered over gaping disagreements between rich and poor.

On the road to Cancún, the small bloc seeking WTO expansion merrily lectured the developing countries about the WTO's great success to date and imperiously declared that more of the same was in developing countries' interests. But poor nations have lived with nine years of WTO policy, along with 20-plus years of "field testing" the WTO model through International Monetary Fund structural adjustment programs. Today, the least developed countries' share of world trade is more than 45 percent less than its share before the establishment of the WTO. Excluding China, the percentage of people living on $1 per day worldwide has increased. WTO agriculture rules have led to record low prices paid to farmers and increased food dumping, destroying livelihoods and undermining food security for millions. Countries that most faithfully adopted the "neoliberal" policy package (trade, finance, and investment liberalization; privatization; deregulation; and new property protections) have been the hardest hit. Few developing-country officials believe studies touted in the United States claiming that countries most open to the global economy grow the fastest. They need only look at Argentina's collapse and China's remarkable growth. Ironically, the countries exalted as the most economically open -- such as China, Vietnam, and Malaysia -- flouted major elements of the model by having no convertible currency, tightly regulating foreign investors, limiting imports, and planning industrial policies. These countries engaged the global economy on their own terms, using trade policy strategically when they deemed it useful.

Given the WTO's record in rich countries, developing countries also question what they can expect in the future. Under the current trading system, the U.S. trade deficit exploded to $435 billion in 2002, equal to 5.2 percent of U.S. gross domestic product. Nearly 3 million U.S. manufacturing jobs (one in six) have been lost over 10 years under the North American Free Trade Agreement and the WTO, with cascading effects on state and local tax revenues. U.S. real median wages remain below 1972 levels. This record does not even touch on the string of domestic environmental, health, and food safety policies under assault by the WTO. U.S. voters' dismay over this record has forced trade to the top of the presidential primary debate in the United States.

Trade can be beneficial, but under what rules? The Cancún agenda shut out the possibility of real transformation of the existing terms of globalization. The true loss in Cancún was not that a bad agenda was rejected, but that the real issues were never even discussed. No one is calling for an end to trade or trade rules. But what will those rules be, and who will write them? Either those desperately defending the status quo will come to realize that their failed project is over and that change is inevitable, or their ideological intransigence will cause autarchy following the current system's inevitable implosion.