Turkey’s AK Party and the Kurdish question: From conflict to negotiation

Published in Turkey
By Mesut Yegen
The Turkish state’s engagement with the Kurdish question had previously relied on three approaches: assimilation, repression and containment. In engaging with the Kurdish question, the state used the first two approaches inside Turkey and the third was used abroad. Since the foundation of the Turkish republic by Ataturk until the late 1990s, the Turkish state seemed satisfied with this policy. Kurdish resistance in Turkey had not become sufficiently powerful as to force a change in the state’s policy of assimilation and repression. Moreover, the international climate between the 1920s and 1980s had allowed an easy containment of Kurds outside Turkey. Throughout this period, Turkey, Iran and Iraq have, in principle, cooperated to contain the Kurds. The Treaty of Sadaabad, signed in 1937 between Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Afghanistan, commited the parties ‘to respect the inviolability of their common frontiers’, to refrain from acts of aggression against each other, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, and to prevent ‘the formation or activities of armed bands, associations or organisations to subvert the established institutions, or disturb the order or security of any part, whether situated on the frontier or elsewhere, of the territory of another Party, or to change the consitutional system of such other Party.’[i] Signed with the encouragement of Britain in 1937, the Sadaabad Treaty remained binding after the Second World War when NATO and the USSR patronised international politics.
The 1990s: Cracks in the status quo
The status quo which was based on these three approaches became untenable in the 1990s because the Turkish state was confronted by two important developments that made it difficult to sustain the situation as it had been in the previous seventy years. First, Kurdish resistance to the politics of assimilation and repression reached such a peak and intensity in the mid-1990s that maintaining the status quo became too costly for the Turkish army. While the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) turned into a strong military organisation that was able to maintain a low-profile war against the army, the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) that was allied to the PKK was being supported by one third of Kurds inside Turkey. Second, the protection that the USA and NATO provided for Kurds in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War ended seven decades of containment, and making that policy unviable. In addition to these two developments, the policies of assimilation and repression faced huge resistance from the Kurds by the 1990s, rendering them useless as realistic approaches for the Turkish state. The status quo maintained by assimilation, repression and containment was thus severely shaken.
This created a crack within the Turkish establishment. While the traditional elite of the republic[ii] insisted on maintaining the policy of the previous seventy years, then president Turgut Özal wanted to introduce a policy of low-profile recognition of Kurds and to terminate the policy of containment. However, Özal’s sudden death in 1993 prevented the deepening of that crack within the establishment. After his death, the state introduced an even harsher policy of repression. The campaign of brutal repression, maintained at the cost of huge loss of lives and suffering,[iii] ended in 1999 when PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan, was captured by the army. This was followed by the withdrawal of the PKK militants from Turkey. It seemed the Turkish state had succeeded in ending Kurdish resistance.

The 2000s: The EU and the new era
An important development ocurred on 11 December 1999 that marked a change in the status quo. On that day, the EU accepted Turkey’s candidacy for full membership. The candidacy required Turkey to introduce various reforms, some of which impacted directly on the Kurdish question. As a result of the candidacy, in 2002, capital punishment was abolished, and several constitutional amendments were made, resulting in Öcalan’s death sentence being commuted to aggrvated life imprisonment and ending the ban on publications and broadcasting in Kurdish. Laws enabling learning, teaching, and broadcasting in Kurdish were enacted in August 2002.[iv]
In summary, the withdrawal of the PKK and the beginning of the EU accession process resulted in the Turkish state relaxing its policy of repression, and it began to introduce a weak policy of Kurdish recognition. This was the situation when the governing AK Party began to engage with the Kurdish question.

AK Party and the Kurdish Question
A first-hand document revealing the AK Party’s approach to the Kurdish question is the party’s 2001 programme,[v] which indicates that the AKP in some respects pursued and in others departed from the way in which other mainstream parties had approached the Kurdish question. Under the ambiguous title of ‘the Southeast’, the programme said that the AKP would, like previous governments, perceive the Kurdish question in relation to ‘terror’, ‘foreign incitement’, and ‘underdevelopment’. However, the programme also indicates that the AKP intended to depart from the established approach to the Kurdish question. Admitting that economic development alone would not be sufficient to resolve the question, the programme suggested recognising cultural differences. Moreover, it posited citizenship as the main point of reference for national identity. This was of great importance because hitherto all mainstream political parties and all three constitutions had pointed to Turkishness as the basis for citizenship.[vi]
According to the programme, the AKP would leave behind the policy of repression from 2001, and will pursue and develop the policy of soft recognition which was introduced by the former government as part of reforms for EU accession. However, the first deliberations and acts of the AKP in power revealed that the party was not very enthusiastic to develop these policies at that stage; there was no mention of the Kurdish question in the programmes of the first two AKP governments.[vii]
This low priority accorded to the Kurdish question continued throughout the first few years of the AKP in power. In some instances, the AKP even denied the existence of the Kurdish question. In a visit to Moscow in December 2002, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said there was no such thing as the Kurdish question. Similarly, in an interview with CNN Turk on 24 February 2004, he wrapped up his views on the Kurdish question with the comment: ‘At the foundation of the question lies economy, not politics.... Let the citizen make his or her living, and then you will see if such a question remains or not.’[viii]
This apathy towards or conservatism on the Kurdish question was due to three reasons. First, reformism on the Kurdish question would increase the tension between the AKP and the still mighty traditional republican elite. Second, the AKP devoted much of its political energy to implementing EU reforms, which would reduce the power of the regime in Turkish politics. Lastly, that there were no armed clashes between the army and Kurdish groups; the withdrawal of the PKK had thus allowed the AKP to ignore the Kurdish question.
However, despite this conservative attitude, it would be unfair to say that the AKP remained entirely indifferent to the Kurdish issue. A few significant reforms were introduced in those first years in power. For instance, the twenty year long emergency rule in the southeast was lifted immediately after the AKP came to power. Thereafter, the AKP introduced legislation to remove bans against broadcasting and teaching in Kurdish.[ix] Further, the compensation law was enacted in 2005.[x] However, the fact that these reforms had already been spelled out by the previous government in the famous national programme indicated that the AKP’s engagement with the Kurdish question did not go further than the former government’s politics of ‘weak recognition with no repression’.
In the meantime, although the termination of the guerrilla warfare in the southeast lessened the importance of the Kurdish question in Turkish politics, there were signs that this was temporary. In the 2202 elections, the pro-Kurdish HADEP received 6.2 per cent of the national vote, the highest percentage ever that a pro-Kurdish party had received in a national election. Thus, the Kurdish question quickly returned to the Turkish political agenda. In May 2004, the PKK decided to resume the guerrilla warfare, resulting in armed clashes between the PKK and the army.
In this context, the AKP began devoting more energy to the resolution of the Kurdish question. In a historic speech delivered in Diyarbakir in 2005, Erdogan used the most liberal discourse a prime minister has ever employed in Turkey on this issue. Conceding that the Turkish state had made mistakes, he used the term ‘the Kurdish question’ and promised to resolve it by means of more democracy, more citizenship laws, and more prosperity.[xi] However, the liberal talk was not followed by a firm policy of recognition. In fact, the AKP sinmply changed its manner of engagement with the Kurdish question only in 2007 when, in a National Security Council meeting, it was decided to contact the PKK and to introduce reforms concerning rights.[xii] In other words, in 2007 the AKP decided to follow a firm policy of recognition and negotiation.
This change in approach yielded results only in 2009 when all the main roleplayers involved in the Kurdish question renewed their positions. First, the chief of staff emphasised that the army would endorse the recognition of cultural rights at individual level. Similarly, he announced that the army would prefer to disband the PKK rather than liquidating it. In the same vein, the AKP government began taking important steps tiwards recognition. Early 2009, Turkish Radio and Television Cooperation (TRT) launched a twenty-four hour Kurdish language channel, TRT 6,[xiii] and the Higher Education Board (YÖK) resolved to establish Kurdish language and literature departments at universities.[xiv] These still rank among the most radical gestures on the road to recognition of Kurdish identity in Turkish history.
It was not long before the PKK also indicated its willingness to change its position. In a 2009 interview, Murat Karayilan, then head of the Koma Civakên Kurdistan (KCK),[xv] said the PKK was ready to engage in dialogue with the aim of disarmament.[xvi] Meanwhile, local elections in March 2009 resulted in the absolute victory of the pro-Kurdish DTP in the southeast.[xvii] Immediately after the elections, in May 2009, the PKK announced a ceasefire.
It was in this context that the famous opening up of the Kurdish question began. However, demonstrations by Kurds on the return of thirty-four PKK militants at Habur prompted nationalist opposition to the process, and the AKP decided to slow it down. Nevertheless, the fact that the PKK did not renounce the ceasefire implied the opening process was still on track.[xviii][xix]The ceasefire and the negotiations lasted until the June 2011 elections which saw both the AKP and the DTP being successful. This caused the negotiating actors to become more uncompromising. Clashes between the PKK and the army resumed after the elections. While the PKK claimed it would implement a Revolutionary People’s War aimed at defeating the state in the Southeast, those supporting the government insisted that Turkey would defeat the PKK as Sri Lankan government forces had defeated separatist Tamil guerrillas.[xx]
However, neither the PKK nor the government reached their objectives. The government remained cautious enough not to return to the 1990’s policy of repression, and the PKK then failed to convince Kurdish civilians to participate in clashes with the army. But the government did not defeat the PKK. Despite heavy losses, the PKK was able to recruit new militants, and, despite a massive campaign to discredit the PKK, it sustained its positive image in the eyes of the Kurdish masses.
The ‘Peace Process’
Within this context, the PKK and the state resumed negotiations, though it was not the context itself that had convinced the parties to do so. The context was, in fact, sustainable for both parties. However, developments abroad revealed that there was a conjunctural change on the horizon. The battle in Iraq between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Nouri al-Maliki regime, and the Syrian crisis, produced a new situation that could result in a fundamental shift in the PKK leadership and programme. As the crises in Syria and Iraq deepened, it seemed that the PKK’s loyalty to Öcalan and to its long-standing principle of Turkish territorial integrity was at risk. This was in the interest neither of Öcalan nor the PKK, and certainly not in the Turkish state’s interest.
The risk to Öcalan was obvious: if he were ‘freed from the leadership of the PKK’, he would be political persona non grata. The risk for the PKK was not smaller; ‘freed from the leadership of Öcalan’, it would risk serious division. Besides, abandoning the principle of loyalty to the territorial integrity of Turkey would likely risk the loss of some support from Kurds in Turkey. Lastly, the AKP did not want to confront a PKK freed from Öcalan’s leadership and from the principle of unity. A resumption of negotiations was desirable for the AKP due to another reason as well. Erdogan wanted to amend the constitution to empower the presidency and elect Erdogan as the new president. Thus, in 2014, Erdogan needed to garner at least fifty per cent of votes in two referenda. If negotiations did not start, it was likely that the AKP would be challenged by a political front composed of the Republican People’s Party, Nationalist Action Party, Peace and Democracy Party and, possibly, the Gülen community. With the commencement of negotiations, the PDP has potentially become a good ally for the referenda. Realising that potential will depend on whether the AKP includes certain PDP demands in the constitutional amendments.
The current peace process has been ongoing for almost a year without major problems. After a set of meetings with deputies from the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, and after communication with senior PKK cadres, Öcalan convinced the PKK to withdraw its armed forces to Iraqi Kurdistan.
It is now expected that the AKP government will introduce a set of reforms concerning the Kurdish question, with a reduction of the ten per cent election threshold and the release of imprisoned Kurdish politicians being the first steps. After these reforms are introduced, the final stage of the resolution process is expected to take place. This will likely involve the disarmament of the PKK in return for major moves towards recognition, such as allowing education in the Kurdish language and implementing decentralised administration. It seems the AKP is now convinced that it should address the Kurdish question by means of negotiation and recognition instead of repression and denial.

[ii] The traditional elite of the Republic was mainly composed of the top cadres of the military, the judiciary, and the foreign affairs segments of the bureaucracy. The state-sponsored bourgeoisie backed this bureaucratic coalition with strong secular inclinations.
[iii] It is estimated that more than 35 000 Turkish citizens were killed during the clashes between the PKK and the security forces in Turkey between 1984 and 2012. Of these, more than 20 000 were PKK militants. For figures see http://siyaset.milliyet.com.tr/28-yilin-aci-bilancosu-35-bin-300-kisi-teror-kurbani-oldu/siyaset/siyasetdetay/16.08.2012/1581690/default.htm. In these same clashes, more than a million Kurdish citizens were displaced and more than 3 000 villages or hamlets in the southeast were evacuated. A research conducted by the Population Studies Institute in 2006 indicated that more than a million Kurdish citizens were subsequently displaced. Likewise, a report prepared by the Turkish Assembly Commission said that more than three thousand villages or hamlets were evacuated. For these two reports, see Hacettepe Universitesi Nufus Etutleri Enstitusu (HÜNEE), 2006, Turkiye’de Göç ve Yerinden Olmu Nufus Aratrmas, Ankara and Turkiye Buyuk Millet Meclisi (TBMM), 1998, ‘Dou ve Guneydou Anadolu’da Boaltlan Yerleim Birimleri Nedeniyle Göç Eden Yurttalarmzn Sorunlarnn Aratrlarak Alnmas Gereken Tedbirlerin Tespit Edilmesi Amacyla Kurulan Meclis Aratrmas Komisyonu Raporu’, Tutanak Dergisi, Dönem:53, Cilt:20, Ankara.
[iv] For the amendments made in August 2002 see http://webarsiv.hurriyet.com.tr/2002/08/03/161165.asp.
[vi] In the Turkish constitutions of 1924, 1961 and 1982 citizenship and Turkishness are not identical. Turkishness has been ‘more’ than (Turkish) citizenship in Turkish constitutions. For an examination of the gap between citizenship and Turkishness see Mesut Yegen “Citizenship and Ethnicity in Turkey”, Middle Eastern Studies, v. 40 n. 6, 2004, pp. 51-66.
[vii] For the programs of the 58th and 59th governments founded by Ak Party in 2002 and 2003 see http://www.tbmm.gov.tr/hukumetler/HP58.htm and http://www.tbmm.gov.tr/hukumetler/HP59.htm.
[viii] Mithat Sancar “Kürt Aç?l?m? Dinamikler, ?htimaller, ?mkanlar”, Birikim, No. 246. http://www.birikimdergisi.com/birikim/dergiyazi.aspx?did=1&dsid=381&dyid=5635.
[ix] See http://www.milliyet.com.tr/uyum-paketi-ne-meclis-ten-onay/siyaset/haberdetayarsiv/20.06.2003/13863/default.htm.
[x] The aim of the law was to compensate the losses of those who were displaced during the clashes betweeh the PKK and the security forces. For a work on displacement and the Compensation Law see Dilek Kurban and Mesut Yeen Adaletin Kysnda: ‘Zorunlu’ Göç Sonrasnda Devlet ve Kurtler 5233 sayl Tazminat Yasas’nn bir Deerlendirmesi – Van Örnei, (Istanbul,TESEV Yaynlar: 2012).
[xii] See ?smet Berkan Asker Bize ?ktidar? Verir mi (?stanbul: Everest, 2011), pp. 156-7.
[xv] KCK (Koma Civaken Kurdistan – Union of Kurdistan Communities) is an umbrella organisation involving the PKK
[xvii] While DTP had won mayorship in 52 towns in 2004 elections, it won in 99 towns in 2009
[xviii] In due course, the Minister of Interior Affairs, Be?ir Atalay, organised subsequent meetings with the journalists, authors and the NGO’s to open a public debate on the resolution of the Kurdish question. Likewise, the PKK sent 34 of its militants to Turkey with the aim of expressing its support for the opening process in November 2009.
[xix] Meanwhile, as the secret negotiations between the PKK and state went on, the police and the judiciary pursued a relentless politics of pressure on Kurdish politicians. Thousands of Kurds, including BDP mayors, politicians, journalists, trade unionists were arrested in almost two years with the charge that they would work for the KCK. Despite the KCK trials and the reluctance of the Ak AK Party to deepen the politics of recognition, the ceasefire and negotiations lasted until the elections held in June 2011.
[xx] See for instance http://www.sabah.com.tr/Yazarlar/safak/2009/02/04/PKK_ve_Tamil_Kaplanlari. Also, ?skender Okyay, the first-ever Turkish ambassador to Sri Lanka stated immediately after the current peace process started that ‘“Sri Lanka's experience in fighting against terrorism could be a good example for Turkey’. See http://www.todayszaman.com/news-304935-sri-lanka-good-example-for-turkey-in-fighting-terrorism.html.
Last modified on Thursday, 19 February 2015 09:20

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