Five years ago, Abdullah Öcalan was kidnapped in dramatic circumstances with the help of foreign Security Services after a long period in exile in Europe. The arrest of the political leader of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) heralded a historic change in the bloody conflict that has destabilised Turkey since 1984. Unexpectedly, he called on his party to renounce violence, leading the PKK to declare a unilateral armistice and withdraw its troops to Northern Iraq. But for a few skirmishes, peace has returned to south-eastern Turkey and the Kurdish issue has disappeared off European governments’ radar. But how can this peace be explained and just how stable is the situation in reality?
Ataturk and the army
The causes of the civil war touch on two cornerstones of the Republic of Turkey: the Kemalist conception of the state and the role of the army in politics. The nation’s founder, Mustafa Kemal, declared that the Turkish people were one and indivisible, denied the existence of the Kurdish language, culture and identity and made every claim to the contrary an offence punishable as separatism. The Kurdish issue was undeniable, but it was explained away by referring to the underdeveloped nature of the remote mountainous regions and was therefore to be seen as an economic, not a cultural problem.
The army saw itself as the guardian of the constitution and claimed the right to control policy and take corrective action where necessary. Through the National Security Council, a shadow government devoid of legitimacy and dominated by the army, it ruled unchecked over the Kurdish areas during the war. While the violent assimilation of the Kurds was legitimised by the myth of a one and indivisible people, the war served to justify the army’s dominant position. Any solution was directly dependent on rejecting the Kemalist notion of the state and driving the army out of politics.
As a result of pressure from the EU much progress has been made, particularly under the pro-European Justice and Development Party (AK). It has dedicated several hours per week to Kurdish programming on state TV and radio and authorised Kurdish lessons, thereby recognising the existence of the Kurdish language for the first time. A further flagship government project is to strip the National Security Council of much of its power. It is still resisting, but the army slowly seems to be coming round to the realisation that does not have a role in politics.
But that move alone won’t solve the Kurdish issue. Thousands of Kurdish refugees are still unable to return to their villages, because their land is illegally occupied by local militia loyal to the state. Kurdish areas are still the scene of attacks by the security forces, because the policy shift in Ankara has not filtered down to local police. Leyla Zana and the other three Kurdish politicians, arrested in 1994, are still behind bars. The Kurdish language is still not taught in schools – you can only take private lessons, in your own time and at your own expense. And official tolerance of Kurdish in the media cannot conceal discrimination against Kurdish journalists, intellectuals and politicians.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has set legal frameworks for the two peoples to coexist peacefully, but police, officials and judges persist in the old ways of thinking. It is true that now, for the first time, laws exist that recognise the existence of the Kurdish minority and entitle it to certain fundamental rights; but these laws will remain mere words for as long as those who represent the nation continue to flout them. The government in Ankara must now ensure that they are implemented across the country and enforced.
A lack of trust in Europe
The EU has a pivotal role to play. It has long turned a blind eye to widespread human rights’ abuses out of consideration for its NATO partner. There was a certain amount of bitterness amongst the Kurds when NATO intervened to help the Kosovan Albanians because, not without good reason, they saw this as evidence of double standards. For their part, NATO claimed to have intervened on humanitarian grounds. Kurds have largely lost confidence in the EU and NATO. So the EU must now be all the more rigorous in pressing Turkey to implement these laws on the ground. For, while poverty and underdevelopment may in part explain the Kurdish resistance, lasting peace will only be achieved if Ankara fully respects their cultural and political rights.