Small steps toward a distant goal

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Newroz in Diyarbakir, 2011.

Looking at social and political developments in Turkey, one often has the feeling that things are going backwards and forwards at the same time; political actors inspire optimism one day and pessimism the next.

This is especially the case in regard to the current peace negotiations between the government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the most serious effort yet to end a 30-year conflict that has cost tens of thousands of lives.

There are a lot of things to be optimistic about right now. Never before has Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan so publicly staked his political capital on the process. His intermediaries have spoken to PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan before, but always secretly. Never has Erdogan been under such pressure to come out with a result.

A significant moment was his pledge on January 20th that the armed forces will end operations against the PKK if it withdraws its forces from Turkey. This promise – a basic pre-condition for peace negotiations – has never before been given by a Turkish leader.

Last week, parliament passed legislation authorizing the use of Kurdish in court. for its part, the PKK has agreed to withdraw 100 fighters from Turkey, Hürriyet reported today.

Also, Erdoğan reshuffled key cabinet posts, removing Interior Minister Idris Naim Şahin – a figure despised by Kurds, and in fact pretty much everyone else who is not a hardcore ultra-nationalist.

Small, positive steps like this will need to keep on coming if the peace process is to maintain momentum. As a minimum, we should see the release of the vast majority of the hundreds of Kurdish civilian activists, mayors, lawyers, and journalists imprisoned on ‘terror’ charges over the past four years.

One major problem, as several writers have pointed out recently, is the government’s unwillingness to take seriously the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the political grouping that has most support among Kurds.

Aliza Marcus wrote in the New York Times:

A viable peace deal must answer Kurdish demands for human rights in a manner that protects the views of all Kurds, not just those of Mr. Ocalan and the P.K.K. And the best way to do this is through the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, known as the B.D.P., which won seats in Turkey’s parliament in 2011 and can genuinely claim to represent Kurdish aspirations.

Mr. Erdogan needs to recognize that the way to peace is through politics. Instead of engaging solely with Mr. Ocalan, as if the P.K.K. rebellion were purely a security problem, he must craft a political process that addresses Kurds’ grievances about cultural rights and autonomy, giving the rebels a reason to lay down their weapons.

Currently the government treats the BDP as if it were an illegitimate front for the PKK, rather than a legitimate conduit for Kurdish demands. While Öcalan and the PKK are obviously central to any negotiations, the Kurdish problem is at root one of civil rights, and these should be negotiated with the Kurds’ civilian representatives.

Perhaps by minimising the BDP’s role in the current peace process, Erdoğan hopes he can ultimately undermine its political support and scoop up some of its voters ahead of the 2014 presidential elections.

Some observers, such as Soner Çağaptay, view Erdoğan’s motives for pushing the peace talks revolve mainly around his presidential ambitions.

“…Erdoğan seems determined to achieve a settlement with the PKK, if for no other reason than that brokering a peace deal will effectively eliminate the last hurdle to achieve his goal of getting elected as the country’s next president in 2014,” he wrote in Hurriyet Daily News last week.

This touches on my key concern about the current peace process. What we have seen so far are small, easy steps, and a focus on the very limited goal of ending the fighting, whilst the underlying cause of the conflict – the injustice faced by the Kurdish minority in Turkey – remains largely unacknowledged by the government.

Erdoğan has persisted in his rhetoric that there is ‘no Kurdish problem’ in Turkey. What Erdoğan apparently meant in this speech is that he rejects Kurdish nationalism, or ‘Kurdism’. He uses the mantra of ‘equality’ and a bear hug of ‘brotherhood’ when addressing Kurdish grievances, however he has never given any corresponding rejection of Turkish nationalism, in fact he has embraced it with damaging and divisive consequences whenever it has suited him.

Rhetoric aside, resolving Kurdish grievances will require historic changes to the country’s governmental structure. Rightly or wrongly, the Turkish state has come to be viewed as an occupying force by a substantial number of citizens in the southeast. To create a lasting peace, the powers of the valilik – the governorship appointed to each province by Ankara – will have to be stripped back in favour of the elected municipal authorities (a measure that would be to the benefit of the whole country). This may sound simple, but it will require Erdoğan to do something that he has never done before: give away power. We may expect something from the current redrafting of the constitution. However the AKP has a worrying record of passing legislation that looks good on the books but has little impact in reality, or else cynically subverts its stated aims.

Another discouraging trend is the simmering ethnic tension between Turks and Kurds, which shows no signs of fading away. There are persistent strains of ultra-nationalism in both communities, exacerbated by 30 years of conflict, a sensationalist media, and broader social and economic trends. Large populations have moved from the countryside to the cities, with impoverished Kurds and Turks living cheek by jowl in dead-end neighbourhoods. Meanwhile, the country’s economic development is fostering ever starker inequality. Such an atmosphere is a breeding ground for radicalism.

In this context, incidents and provocations have and will continue to try politicians’ commitment to a peace process, and the tolerance of the Turkish public. One recent test was the funeral in Diyarbakir of the three PKK members and Kurdish activists killed in Paris earlier this month. In this case, as William Armstrong has written, the government may have used its influence over the media to massage coverage in such a way as to minimize the tension such an event could give rise to.

In fact, I think this incident gives a good example of how the peace process might succeed, if it does. It will be thanks to Erdoğan and the Turkish state’s ability to force a resolution on its opponents. Any result that comes out is, in my view, unlikely to be lasting, and will be far from perfect.

In her book, Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks, which I am currently reading, anthropologist Jenny White writes how the AKP has succeeded in re-imagining Turkey’s self-image as a nation in the world. However, she argues, it has not come up with an ideological framework that incorporates the country’s Kurdish and Alevi minorities. 

The best we can hope, I think, is for this process to yield more of the modest changes we have seen so far, to make Turkey a slightly fairer place for all its citizens, and to buy enough time and breathing space for another generation of Kurdish and Turkish leaders to find a way to live more easily together.

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