Didem Aykel Collinsworth of the International Crisis Group reported on a recent Kurdish movement conference in Switzerland. What were the portends within the Kurdish activist community that recent talks between the Turkish government and jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan would actually lead to peace after decades of violence? What was necessary for this to happen? Would the Kurdish movement, particularly the armed PKK forces in northern Iraq under the command of Murat Karayılan, follow Öcalan’s lead in his island prison? Will the Turkish public, that is still fed vitriolic anti-PKK rhetoric in the media (“terrorist gang chieftain”, “baby killer”) and that until recently reacted violently against any revelations of talks between the state and the PKK, accede to this new round of talks?
Surprisingly, it seems that both the war-weary Turks and Kurds are open to peace this time, despite (legitimate) suspicions and ingrained ideological habits. The bottom line, as summarized by the ICG, is that:
…the Kurdish movement is open to a settlement; that the government is right to think that Öcalan has decided to act to end the war; that Öcalan remains critically influential in the organization; but that Öcalan cannot simply order everybody in the PKK camp to comply with his orders, absent real confidence-building reforms from Ankara to deliver justice and equality for Kurds in Turkey.
What do Turkey’s Kurds want? They are demanding rights to education and public services in their mother languages (not all of which are mutually comprehensible, as the author discovered at the conference), lowering the electoral threshold for a party to enter parliament from 10 per cent to 5 per cent. Collinsworth believes that the Turkish public would support these moves. A lower threshold would allow more parties to participate in democracy. Turkish would remain the official language and is under no threat of being pushed aside (the Kurdish movement conference languages were Turkish and English). Kurds also want an end to the profound ethnic discrimination of which, Collinsworth, speaking as a Turk, said most Turks are unaware.
A Kurdish parliamentary deputy said she received hostile looks in the airport lounge on her way to Switzerland and always has to wait especially long at Istanbul airport because of extra security checks.
I have read and heard of many incidents myself of people asked to leave a bus or, worse, being attacked by bystanders simply for speaking Kurdish (see my posts under the category “Kurds”). One way to address this is through the new constitution currently being drafted (and re-drafted) by a four-party parliamentary commission. Some want an explicit recognition of Kurdishness, while Öcalan appears to support more neutral language. This speaks to a debate among some Turkish scholars about whether the constitution should acknowledge group rights or whether guaranteeing individual rights would have the same effect of ensuring equal rights.
It appears that a new anti-terrorism law is in the works that would clarify the difference between free speech and terrorism so that people cannot be detained as “members of a terrorist organization” for simply having made public statements or holding up posters. Hundreds of Kurds would be released from jail under this new law. The Kurds also would like some form of self-governance. This could be addressed by decentralisation and strengthening of local governance with which the over-centralized Turkish government has grappled as part of modernizing the state. Kurds seem divided about the issue, with some still demanding “democratic autonomy”, an unclearly defined bureaucratic autonomy unlikely to be granted by the Turkish state.
The AKP has distanced itself from the Kemalist threat paradigm — the belief that outside powers (Europe, the US) are continually angling to undermine and divide Turkey in order to take over its resources as they had tried to do in WW I. That paradigm includes non-Muslim Turkish citizens and Kurds as pawns manipulated by outside powers to accomplish this. While this is still a powerful belief in the general public (where it is reproduced through the educational system, the media, and conspiracy mongering), the government is acting on the basis of a different definition of the nation, a Turkey whose founding moment is not 1923, but 1453 when the Turks conquered Constantinople and became a world power. This more expansive understanding of Turkish national identity allows the government to deal with minorities and the outside world on the basis of potential benefit, not potential threat.
Still, decades of vitriol, terror and bad faith will have to be overcome for this peace to work, for the PKK to lay down its arms, for the fighters to return to their families, for the Kurds to feel comfortable in a nationalist Turkey that for almost a century has denied them their identity, and for Turks to forgive the PKK which has shed the blood of thousands of Turkey’s young men and terrorized communities. The advantage of the moment is that Öcalan is willing to negotiate and he appears to have a Turkish partner willing to listen and deal, and that the two publics are weary of death and want a taste of prosperity. As countries around Turkey spin out of control, it makes complete sense for Turkey to gather all of its eggs (and that includes a vibrant and populous Kurdish population) and stow them safely in a sheltering national basket where citizens can find common ground and where citizenship can be nurtured. That is what will keep Turkey strong and resistant to the violent divisions infecting the region, not a brittle unity based on the myth of one Turkishness over all others.