From the outside looking in, the conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurds seems stuck in a kind of gruesome holding pattern. Articles written months and years apart are virtually indistinguishable from one another: "Three Turkish Soldiers Reported Killed In PKK Clash In Southeast" reads a headline from May 17, 2012 -- but it could just as easily have been from two decades ago.
But, beneath the headlines, the defining narrative of this long-running conflict -- which has claimed tens of thousands lives since the late 1980s -- may finally be changing for the better. The shift became apparent last July, when some 850 politicians, community activists, and civil society leaders gathered in the eastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir for a meeting organized by a pro-Kurdish umbrella group called the Democratic Society Congress (DTK). At the end of the gathering, the DTK's leadership -- veterans of Turkey's Kurdish political parties -- boldly announced that the organization was declaring what it called "democratic autonomy" for Turkey's predominantly-Kurdish southeast region.
"We, as Kurdish people, are declaring our democratic sovereignty, holding to Turkey's national unity on the basis of an understanding of a common motherland, territorial unity and the perspective of a democratic nation," the congress's declaration read. "We invite everyone who lives in our lands to introduce themselves as a democratically autonomous Kurdistan citizen."
On the one hand, this critical moment was once again overshadowed by a spasm of violence: That same day, July 14, clashes only a few hours' drive away between Turkish security forces and rebels from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) resulted in the deaths of 13 Turkish soldiers and seven PKK fighters. As the deadly clash that day -- and a seemingly endless string of flare-ups since then -- made clear, the PKK's use of violence, which has been the defining element of the Kurdish issue since the 1980s, is still very much in the picture.
Still, the July "autonomy" declaration helped make something else apparent: After decades of violence, there has been an important shift within Turkey's Kurdish nationalist movement toward emphasizing the civil aspect of their struggle and fighting the battle over the Kurdish issue in the political sphere. It's a new approach borne out not only by last July's declaration, but also by an increase in political and cultural activity by Kurdish civil society organizations and by municipalities run by Turkey's pro-Kurdish party over the last few years.
For decades, the dream of the Kurdish movement was the establishment of an independent state in territory now belonging to Turkey (as well as Iran, Iraq, and Syria). But the failure of armed struggle and the success of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in making inroads among Kurdish voters has forced the PKK and the wider Kurdish movement in Turkey to modify their nationalist aspirations. This shift has been bubbling under the surface for some time, but it has become more pronounced in recent years. Turkish Kurd politicians and activists in the southeast have begun speaking more openly about their vision for a politically and culturally autonomous -- rather than merely separate -- Kurdish region within Turkey, which runs on a highly centralized state structure dominated by Ankara.
Though the definition of this autonomy remains fuzzy, talk of it is now being accompanied by action. Some of the moves have been small: the opening of Kurdish language and cultural institutions, an increasing use of Kurdish in the delivery of municipal services, even the development of ideologically driven cooperative agricultural communities (Kurdish kibbutzim, if you will). Other steps -- such as the creation of a cadre of Kurdish imams who pointedly hold services and preach outside the state-sanctioned mosque system -- pose a more direct challenge to Ankara's rule. Put all these new initiatives together, though, and what you have is a picture of a Kurdish movement that -- partly by design, partly organically -- is laying the groundwork for the creation of a distinct political and cultural regional entity within Turkey, not a separate country.
"When you look at the discourse of the last year, they are increasingly pushing the envelope, talking about Kurdish education, talking about local administration," says Henri Barkey, professor of international relations at Lehigh University and an expert on Kurdish affairs. "They are creating all these organizations in order to ... be able to have a strong set of cards in their hands when they bargain with the state. They can say, ‘Look, you may not be ready to give us autonomy, but we already have it.'"
This shift is being fueled by a number of developments. The electoral success of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which now runs city halls in most of the southeast's major cities, has given Kurds a more powerful political voice and the ability to test the boundaries of their political power. At the same time, political reforms introduced by the Turkish government in the last decade -- mostly as a way to shore up its European Union membership bid -- have created an increasingly larger space for Kurdish civil society organizations to grow. A good example of this change is Diyarbakir, the political and cultural capital of the southeast, which today has a flourishing civil society scene that's far more vibrant than those in most other Turkish cities, save for Istanbul and Ankara.