A Note on Turkey and the Kurdish Issue: “Hearts & Minds” out the Window

There has been almost two months since around seven hundred (700) Kurdish inmates went on hunger strike in Turkish prisons. They are demanding better conditions for the PKK’s (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) imprisoned leader (Abdullah Öcalan) as well as greater minority rights for the Kurds, such as the right to use their language for instruction purposes and in courts. This development has sparked a broader debate involving, among other things, Prime Minister Erdoğan questioning the motives of the inmates and the extent to which the strike was real – calling it a “show”. An important degree of attention has also been given to the health of the inmates and the possibility that after a point, deaths may begin (see here, hereand here).
As if these were not enough – let alone the greater regional geopolitical instability due to the Syrian crisis and the increased clashes between the Turkish government and the PKK – two events came to add complexity to the Kurdish issue and all but help the difficult situation. On the one hand Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), during the 10th congress of the party – which will also decide about the next party leader – statedthat “there is no Kurdish issue” while he blamed the government of planning to release Öcalan. One would of course expect that from an opposition party and especially from a man who is fighting to keep its chair at the leadership of the party. Yet, considering the current stage of the Kurdish issue such remarks are clearly, to say the least, not constructive.

On the other hand, PM Erdoğan during the AKP’s annual meeting capitalized on public opinion surveys and said that most Turks want the reinstatement of capital (death) penalty so that PKK’s Abdullah Öcalan can be executed. In his words,

“This country changed the law to abolish the death penalty even though the terrorist leader [Öcalan] was given the death penalty…He is residing now on İmralı [island in the Marmara Sea] because of that. A majority of our people want to bring back the death penalty now because the relatives of the killed are in pain.”

Erdoğan went further than that to remind the audience of his commitment to “one nation” despite multiple ethnicities that may exist within it. He also mentioned that the government launched elective Kurdish language courses, highlighting however that this was not because of PKK’s wishes.

One fundamental concern/question arises out of all the aforementioned: how committed is the Turkish government to addressing the very real Kurdish issue? Obviously the hunger strikes are happening, the PKK is waging an intense guerilla war against the government, the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy party (BDP) is openly criticizing the government about its stance on the Kurdish issue, and very often there are Kurdish protests and clashes between Kurds and the police. That is to say that there is a Kurdish issue and that it would be nice for a change for all the political powers of the country to acknowledge it instead of being in denial. It would also be helpful if the ruling party decided to genuinely follow some social, political and cultural policies that would eventually integrate the Kurds and their own particularities into the rest of the society and the state apparatuses. That would really be a “winning the hearts and minds” approach, which would bring about real change on this matter, instead of granting minor rights to the Kurds while maintaining a mentality of assimilating them into the “Turkish nation”.

 Devlet Bahçeli’s and, more importantly, PM Erdoğan’s remarks have thrown the whole “hearts and minds” approach out the window. The idea alone that Öcalan should probably be executed because that is what most Turks want disregards entirely what a large portion of the Kurds want and most importantly the PKK, which is the biggest problem right now – no matter what one thinks of the PKK. After all, why would anyone say something like that if he wanted to de-escalate the situation? In the midst of all the problems mentioned above which clearly constitute an escalation in the Kurdish issue (both nationally and regionally) the AKP – as well as other political powers – is clearly showing a more confrontational face on the Kurdish issue; one that in no way resembles the “Kurdish Opening” of 2009 or recent efforts for a multiparty approach to the matter.

Zenonas Tziarras

04 November 2012

Appeared on Strategy International, 05 November 2012.


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