The Independent Gateway to Kurdish News and Analyses

Turkey’s Shortchange: Dashed Hopes in Anatolia

Kurdish Herald Feature - Vol. 2 Issue 1, February 2010


The Turkish government’s “Kurdish opening”, later renamed the “Democratic initiative”, began with enthusiasm and introduced a new open debate among Turkey’s intellectuals and scholars on how to solve the age-old Kurdish question. In recent months, however, Turkey’s bad habit of censorship through mass arrests of some of the initiative’s most important players – elected Kurdish politicians – have caused unrest and deep mistrust to resurface in the Kurdish region of Turkey. While the ruling party moves ahead with its plans, the wavering support may ultimately kill the initiative and make the conflict unsolvable.


While Turkey’s bid for membership in the European Union (EU) has moved forward slowly, some visible progress has been made in the country with respect to the process of democratization. Particularly, the government introduced a series of plans and measures to address the perennial Kurdish question as part of the larger process. Many military checkpoints in the country’s Kurdish region were abandoned, and restrictions on the expression of Kurdish identity and culture were relaxed, albeit still with strict limitations. A so-called Kurdish opening led by the popular Justice and Development Party (AKP) was introduced last year to solve the Kurdish question. However, along with these changes is the paradoxical policy of shunning and even apprehending pro-Kurdish politicians and some of the prominent voices in the move for change in Turkey. While the AKP government vows to continue with the inexplicit plans in its democratization package, the road being taken to get there is hardly democratic. The exclusiveness of the opening has dampened the hopes of many people who were once supporting the project, and without their backing, the changes may be short of success.


It was less than a year ago when the AKP made an unprecedented move by announcing a plan to address and solve the Kurdish question outside the bounds of military operations. The introduction of the first 24-hour state-run television channel in the Kurdish language was unveiled, the Kurdish names of some villages in Turkey were allowed to be restored, and planning for the first post-graduate program in Kurdish studies is underway.


While these steps were certainly significant as well as historic, perhaps the most important and yet overlooked development was an overdue willingness by Turkish political parties, such as the AKP, to engage with members of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) last summer. DTP members had been previously shunned from the mainstream political process, and the changing attitudes in Turkey in 2009 helped to gather their support and those of their constituents for the government’s Kurdish initiative.


Angelo Lopez © Kurdish Herald 2010

The DTP – built on the ashes of previously banned pro-Kurdish political parties – entered Turkey’s parliament in July 2009, after their candidates ran as independents to circumvent Turkey’s unusually high 10% threshold for gaining parliamentary representation. The DTP followed its entry into parliament with a near sweep of the predominantly Kurdish areas of the country in the Turkish municipal elections on 29 March 2009, and the Turkish establishment became keenly aware that the DTP – by the will of the millions of people it represented – was now an irrefutable presence on Turkey’s political map.


In May, Turkish President Abdullah Gul began talk of a true effort to address the Kurdish issue. Predictably, a number of Turkish nationalists were, as a matter of principle, opposed to the AKP’s stated goal of addressing the Kurdish issue. As the process became deadlocked, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan, stated that a ‘peace group’ consisting of several rebels and Kurdish refugees in Iraq would enter Turkey as a gesture of peace. Prosecutors took adult members of the group into custody for questioning but all 34 people were eventually released, including five of them who were required to go through short court hearings. The event was historic and the AKP credited the unarmed rebels’ willful return to the government’s new Kurdish initiative.


Tens of thousands of people in the Kurdish region gathered to give the rebels a hero’s welcome, which in turn stirred up sentiment and public backlash among Turkish nationalists. Subsequently, a second group comprised of politically active Kurdish exiles in Europe was set to leave from Brussels on 29 October 2009 but found itself unable to receive visas to enter Turkey. The peace group overture went as quick as it came, and the simultaneous demonstrations in support of the PKK by hundreds of thousands of Kurds only embittered more Turks.


The Kurdish opening suffered its greatest blows in December. Kurdish rebels attacked a military convoy in Tokat in the Black Sea region of Turkey, leaving seven soldiers dead and at least three wounded. In a statement released after the attack, the PKK stated that the raid was a response to the killing of 23-year old student, Aydin Erdem, by security forces during a demonstration in Diyarbakir as well as the government’s treatment of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. In response to this attack, leaders of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and Republican People’s Party (CHP) – the most vocal opponents of the Kurdish initiative – cited the event as evidence that the AKP plan is failing.


Despite acts of provocation on both sides, the AKP vowed to move ahead with its initiative. However, just a few days later, Turkey seemed to take a dramatic leap backwards when on 11 December 2009, the constitutional court outlawed the pro-Kurdish DTP and banned at least 38 prominent Kurds from political life for five years, including the party’s vocal and charismatic leader, Ahmet Turk. The court found the DTP guilty of cooperating with the PKK. The decision, based on no more than a series of speeches made by DTP members, drew sharp criticism from the European Union (EU). The EU described the closure as an “obstacle in front of democratization in Turkey.”


35 people including elected mayors are handcuffed while on their way to testify.


In Turkey, critics of the court decision call it politicized. Curiously, veteran Kurdish politician and former political prisoner Leyla Zana was included in the court’s ban despite not officially being a member of the DTP. Subsequent raids against offices of members of the DTP and the mass arrests of elected Kurdish officials further tarnished the veneer of credibility of the government’s democratic initiative.


After the DTP’s closure, 94 mayors, members of provincial assemblies and members of city councils joined the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) on 23 December 2009. Less than a day later, a coordinated operation was carried out by security forces against the newly-born BDP. More than 80 people were taken into custody. Photos and video footage of DTP-turned-BDP politicians being handcuffed and arrested generated outrage in the Kurdish region, and the protests throughout the country intensified. Among the many mayors arrested in this sweep was the mayor of Diyarbakir’s Sur Municipality, Abdullah Demirbas, who spoke to Kurdish Herald in July 2009 about his plans to promote the Kurdish language among the children of Diyarbakir. Mayor Demirbas and at least 23 of his colleagues, including 7 mayors, remain in prison today.


A major point of failure in the government’s Kurdish initiative has been its characteristic of exclusiveness. Prime Minister Recep Erdogan created the initial excitement by urging the various segments of civil society to engage in discussions and debates about how to address the Kurdish issue through the government’s new initiative. However, the closure of the DTP and subsequent arrests of politicians who represent the nation’s Kurdish movement – as evident by Turkey’s most recent elections and by the mass demonstrations – has effectively shut out some of Turkey’s most important actors who the initiative may need to succeed. Without the participation and support from the representatives of Turkey’s aggrieved Kurdish population, plans carried out in accordance with the government’s initiative are likely to fail. Furthermore, despite protests and rallies in the Kurdish region favoring dialogue with the PKK, the government has also refused to address the PKK directly and has dismissed the idea of a general amnesty for rebels, making it unlikely that the Turkish government will be able to convince rebels to give up armed struggle.


The operations against the BDP also demonstrate an inconsistency in how the laws are applied in Turkey. While members of the PKK were allowed to return freely, elected Kurdish officials are being handed hefty prison sentences for their speeches and public statements allegedly in support of the rebel group. Furthermore, children are still being sent to prison under the anti-terror legislation much to the dismay of human rights organizations. Just last week, a 14-year old child, Serkan Akbas, was handed a 5-year prison sentence for allegedly throwing stones at police during a rally in support of the PKK. According to the Diyarbakir Human Rights Association, at least 737 minors have been charged under the anti-terror legislation since its introduction.


Thus, a clear shortcoming of the government’s initiative is the slow move to change some of Turkey’s most undemocratic laws. The AKP did reveal for the first time last month some of its plans for the democratic initiative in an official booklet. Among the various issues that would be addressed is the amending of Turkey’s anti-terror law under which many DTP/BDP members have been charged. If this plan is carried out and the results are in favor of the DTP/BDP, this could help regenerate some trust among the Kurdish population for a political option. However, past reform measures did not achieve such desired effects. Furthermore, Prime Minister Erdogan responded to the DTP court closure last December by saying that individuals should be punished and not parties, implying he was not entirely against the laws being applied in the court.


Thus far, the AKP government has not given the Kurdish dissidents options that they are likely to accept. Banning DTP-turn-BDP politicians that represent millions of Turkey’s harshest critics from participating in the political process will lead Kurds to believe that they lack political options in Turkey. In such a case, one of the long-term goals of the Turkish government in the initiative project – the disarmament of the PKK – will be difficult to reach. Furthermore, even with the BDP in parliament, the lack of engagement with the party and the exclusivity of the initiative project make the prospects of a lasting solution difficult to envision..


Unfortunately, the damage inflicted by the series of events that have taken place over the last few months will be difficult to overcome. A fragile hope that swept across the Kurdish region late last year, as real change seemed within reach, has been replaced with deep mistrust and disappointment. Changes already implemented are commonly viewed as falling short of expectations. Turkey needs to change its course and speed up reform before the little progress that has been made is lost indefinitely.


Kurdish protestors clash with Turkish police in protests this month



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