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January 08, 2013, Tuesday

Changes and challenges to understanding the Kurdish problem

As regards the optimistic aura that quickly generated high hopes for a solution to the age-old “Kurdish problem” of Turkey, one can only repeat the famous dictum of Victor Hugo, “Nothing is stronger than the idea whose time has come.”

It seems the majority of people who have been under the spell of the official delusion that has pit people against each other as “owners” of the country (namely the Turks) and those who are inclined to betray the national cause (namely the Kurds) have had enough of the price they have paid for decades. The conflict fabricated by the bureaucratic rulers of the country to maintain their central place in the political system based on unaccountability and the consolidation of power stretched out the conditions of the Cold War, which ended in the West in the 1990s. The ascent of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) to power with strong popular support started the process of more openly facing the Kurdish problem in Turkey in 2002.

Basic preconceptions that construed the old paradigm for understanding the Kurdish problem are changing. These are firstly that Turkey belongs to the Turks. The new constitution in the making will alter this statement to “Turkey belongs to all of its citizens.” There will be no legal or factual hierarchy between citizen groups based on ethnicity, faith or culture.

The second is that there is no Kurdish problem as such; the problems of our Kurdish citizens emanate mainly from the violence of the notorious terrorist organization, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In fact, the so-called “Kurdish problem” is a matter of an immature democracy that is marked by its majoritarian and statist character. The country’s electoral politics is rather limited by authoritarian party structures and an illiberal constitution that has drastically restricted individual rights and freedoms. The authoritarian nature of the legal and administrative systems hardly leaves room for robust local participation and government. Kurds demand more say in the running of their daily affairs and the communities where they constitute the majority. Increasingly grasping this reality, the government is proposing an “integrated approach” that unites soft and hard security measures, in addition to negotiable options.

The third paradigm in Turkey’s Kurdish issue is that Kurdish political actors are either self-serving (the PKK), unreliable (the Kurdistan Communities’ Union [KCK]) or have no clout (the Peace and Democracy Party [BDP]). So it is best to reach a negotiated settlement with the leadership to which all of these actors express allegiance. This is a practical presumption, but the PKK has learned to exist and to operate in the absence of its founding leader, Abdullah Öcalan, who has been in detention for the past 13 years. Furthermore, it has developed ties with state and non-state actors in the Middle East and elsewhere and procured a steady flow of recruits and finances. The other PKK-affiliated civic organizations mentioned above are organized in the form of a surrogate state structure. They will insist on being in the bargaining process alongside Öcalan, with perhaps differing agendas between the two. These agendas may very well bring in dimensions that can add to the difficulty of securing a settlement within the negotiation’s limited parameters.

The fourth preconception is that the Kurdish problem is basically a matter that concerns Turkey, and as such can be settled in Turkey. This is a naive presumption. The Kurdish problem is a regional one encompassing several countries harboring Kurdish enclaves with populations in the millions. National policies may not suffice; a wider approach with regional implications may have to support it.

Given these factors, let us be optimistic but with a great deal of caution and patience.

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