Dreams of Kurdistan

In a new shift, Kurds in Turkey are gradually giving up on independence. So why is the Turkish government so worried?

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.

"After 2000 there was a real shift toward developing a civil society component to open up more space for Kurdish politics," says Dilan Bozgan, coordinator of the Diyarbakir Institute for Political and Social Research (DISA), a year-old institution that is among a handful of newly established think tanks in the southeast devoted to Kurdish affairs. "Kurdish civil society has really become larger, both in terms of its rhetoric and its numbers. It really has created a new space for politics, instead of violence."

Interestingly, this shift toward the politicization of the Kurdish issue is one that the Turkish state appears to find as threatening, if not more so, than an armed insurgency. Since the autonomy move has begun, the AKP has instituted a severe crackdown against Kurdish politicians, municipal officials, and activists, arresting thousands of them as part of an investigation into the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), an umbrella organization -- alleged to be a PKK front -- that is a driving force behind a large part of this quasi-state building. Although there is no clear figure, Kurdish officials claim more than 6,000 people are currently on trial as part of the KCK investigation -- most of them charged under Turkey's vague anti-terrorism laws, which give prosecutors the ability to accuse almost anyone of assisting or being part of a terrorist group.

Indeed, for officials who fear the Kurds' demands for recognition of their culture and believe that their calls for increased power on the local level mask more ambitious goals, the crackdown makes a certain amount of sense.

"The state and the police, especially those who went to study in the United States, realized and understood how a nation is built, and they understood the KCK network is an attempt to build a nation. This is quite threatening," explains Emre Uslu, a former official with the counterterrorism department of the Turkish national police force and a professor of political science at Istanbul's Yeditepe University.

The KCK operation, which started in early 2009, has certainly cast a wide net, ensnaring a number of figures whose main crime appears to have been simply getting too close to the pro-Kurdish political movement. Among the several thousand prisoners currently awaiting trial are the head of Diyarbakir's leading human rights organization, a municipal official who was collecting data about mass graves and disappearances in the region during the 1980s and 1990s, and a noted professor of political science from Istanbul who was teaching members of the BDP about constitutional law.

"The people who were supposed to make this grassroots autonomy move happen are now in prison," Bozgan says. "From the state's perspective, the KCK operation has been a success."

But what makes the severity of the government's KCK crackdown puzzling is that it comes at the same time that Ankara itself is working to move away from a strictly military-based approach to the Kurdish issue. This shift became clear in the summer of 2009, when the AKP announced the launch of what was then popularly referred to as the "Kurdish Opening," a reform package that was supposed to pave the way for finally resolving the Kurdish issue and convincing the PKK to lay down its arms.

Not unlike the Kurds' concept of "democratic autonomy," the Kurdish Opening was vaguely defined and quickly floundered, with its first act -- the repatriation of a group of PKK fighters living in Iraq -- ending up also being its final one. After the BDP commandeered the event and turned it into a kind of victory party (one that was broadcast live on Turkish television), the AKP, fearing further political fallout, put an end to the process.

By the time Turkey was approaching the 2011 parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had actually reverted to the sort of harsh Turkish nationalist rhetoric not heard since the 1990s. Asked by an interviewer last summer what his party would have done had it been part of the coalition government when now-jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured in 1999, Erdogan answered, "Either he would have been executed or we would have resigned." Ocalan's original death sentence was commuted to life in prison after the government that preceded the AKP abolished the death penalty in 2002, as part of its EU-oriented reforms.

In recent months, Turkish officials have suggested that another Kurdish initiative is in the works. A renewed effort would sideline the PKK -- with which the government had conducted secret talks in the past -- and focus instead on the BDP as an interlocutor, according to reports in the Turkish press. There has also been the suggestion that Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani, who recently paid a two-day visit to Turkey, could be asked to act as a mediator between Ankara and the PKK. But any new government effort could very well be undermined by the anger created among Kurds over the KCK mass arrests, and by the fact that so many of the civilian Kurdish leadership with whom Ankara would conduct a dialogue are currently either in jail or facing terrorism charges.

Complicating the issue is the increasingly volatile regional picture, particularly with regard to the deteriorating situation in Syria. Ankara fears embattled President Bashar al-Assad and the PKK are reviving an old alliance in order to dissuade Turkey from more forceful intervention in Syria. In remarks made in March, PKK leader Murat Karayilan warned that if Turkey invades Syria, "all of Kurdistan will turn into a war zone." But the prospect of Syria's Kurds, who have so far conspicuously avoided joining the protests against Assad, joining the opposition to the regime, and in the process giving a further boost to the Turkish Kurds' autonomy push, could be equally threatening for Ankara.

"In Syria, you see the Iraqi Kurds are putting pressure on the [Syrian] Kurds to stay out of the uprising," Barkey says. However, he says, the Kurds could indeed be enticed to join the revolt if it gains further momentum -- and they will ask for some sort of autonomy in return. With two autonomous Kurdish regions along Turkey's border, "It will be harder to explain to Turkey's Kurds: If the Kurds in Iraq and Syria have [autonomy], why don't they?"

One way or another, it appears that if Ankara wants to move forward on resolving the Kurdish issue, it has to take into account the Kurds' "autonomy" movement. In a recent survey taken in Diyarbakir by the Center for Political and Social Research (SAMER), another Kurd-centric think tank, nearly 50 percent of the respondents said they wanted "democratic autonomy" for their region; only 19 percent said they preferred "independence."

In many ways, the Kurds' shift has already changed the nature of the conflict, forcing the Turkish state to adopt political responses instead of purely military ones. After the BDP started intensifying the "Kurdish imams" program and called for a boycott of state-run mosques, the Turkish government fought back by offering sermons in Kurdish. In response to BDP-run municipalities in the southeast increasingly using Kurdish in public services and signs, state-appointed governors in the region -- whose duty in decades past was to suppress the use of Kurdish -- have started putting up their own billboards in Kurdish (albeit ones that frequently stress the unity and fraternity of the Turkish people).

Still, even as the Kurdish issue in Turkey turns civil, there is the distinct possibility that it could erupt once again into bloody tit-for-tat violence. The disappointment created among many Kurds by the government's failure to deliver on its promised "Kurdish Opening," combined with the resentment caused by the state's aggressive effort to quash the nascent Kurdish autonomy movement through the KCK arrests, could set the stage for another violent flare-up of the Kurdish conflict in the coming years -- one that would have repercussions well beyond Turkey's southeast region.

"There is a consensus among Kurds that the current status within Turkey is not doing well for us and it has to change," Bozgan says. "There's a lot of frustration right now, and it's hard to see where this is going. We will just wait and see what happens in Syria and what Erdogan will do regarding the Kurdish issue. It's a shaky moment, unpredictable."




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