Turkey’s bleeding wound: the Kurdish problem by Birol Başkan*

Turkey’s bleeding wound: the Kurdish problem by Birol Başkan*

Kurdish independent deputy Leyla Zana has recently been in the spotlight due to her statements regarding Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. (PHOTO AP)

July 11, 2012, Wednesday/ 16:38:00

Hers is a life pretty much wasted for the Kurdish cause. I am talking about Leyla Zana. This rebellious, restless and controversial Kurdish rights fighter has shocked Turks several times.

First, she uttered a sentence in Kurdish while taking her oath in Parliament. Another time, she counted Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the Kurdish terrorist organization, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), among the three Kurdish leaders to whom she said the Kurds “owe gratitude.”

Three weeks ago Zana shocked us again. In an interview with the Hürriyet newspaper, Zana said: “I believe that he will solve this [Kurdish] problem. I never lost my hope and believe in this. I do not want to lose it, either. Now what we all have to do is to make the prime minister feel that we are all on his side.”

She was talking about Turkey’s powerful prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan countered Zana’s great compliment with a meeting lasting one-and-a-half hours and listened to her recommendations.

Can he really do it?

Among all the problems Turkey faces, the Kurdish problem is by far the most complicated. First, there is, however limited it might be, competitive democracy in Turkey. Parties are primarily after winning votes. And Erdoğan has a competitor in the predominantly Kurdish areas -- Selahattin Demirtaş, the leader of the main Kurdish party, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP).

Not surprisingly, Zana attracted immediate reaction from Demirtaş. This new rising star, a young and ambitious leader, criticized Zana on multiple occasions. In his first reaction, for example, he said: “Whoever says ‘I am hopeful that the prime minister is going to solve [this problem], they are lying to themselves, they deceive themselves. This is naiveté. The prime minister’s statements and actions are obvious. Which of his policies can create hope for us? The solution is not with the prime minister, it is with the nation, the nation.”

Demirtaş, or any Kurdish politician seeking votes in the elections, cannot simply follow Zana’s advice and stand behind Erdoğan. That would amount to effectively terminating one’s own raison d’être. Second, what I will call the Kurdish civil-political rights movement always has pacifist elements within, but at least in the last 30 years, not the doves, but the hawks have dominated the movement. The PKK is the most critical player in this game. It has the capacity to destroy any peace initiative at a time of its own choosing. Immediately after Zana’s comments about Erdoğan, the PKK undertook a deadly attack, killing eight Turkish soldiers and wounding 16 soldiers stationed in a border military post in Dağlıca. It was a powerful message.

Worse, the pacifist elements in the Kurdish movement cannot distance themselves from the PKK. Zana is a case in point. She received her last three jail sentences for undertaking propaganda activities for the PKK. Can Erdoğan dare to walk side-by-side with such a controversial figure to the very end? I highly doubt it. Leyla Zana is not alone in having emotional or formal or informal attachments to the PKK. Many other Kurdish civilian leaders who are now in Parliament have not dared to criticize the PKK even after the latter’s deadly attacks.

Still, despite the painful memories the PKK evokes, Erdoğan dared to undertake clandestine meetings with the PKK. Voice recordings of Hakan Fidan, Erdoğan’s top intelligence officer, with PKK members are still available on the Internet. Yet, in disarming the PKK, Erdoğan’s record is just an abysmal failure. After coming to the brink of total extinction in the late 1990s, the PKK has recovered and become more capable in undertaking deadlier attacks.

Finally, Erdoğan has worked really hard, shown good will, made brave moves and adopted an empathetic approach to the problem. But still, his approach suffers from the exact problem that has turned the Kurdish issue into a quagmire. That is, Erdoğan’s approach has been one dimensional, but so was the military’s. The military had long viewed the Kurdish issue as primarily a security issue and tried to eliminate it through heavy-handed military measures. Many liberal and Islamist intellectuals have vehemently criticized such a security-only approach. But in its place they have promoted an equally one-dimensional approach, viewing the Kurdish issue primarily as an identity issue. Under their influence, Erdoğan also adopted this approach.

And not surprisingly, Erdoğan’s brave moves have not worked. The Kurdish problem has remained with us, growing even more serious, and the PKK has made an even more threatening comeback. Erdoğan does not look at the Kurdish problem as an identity-only problem any more. But this realization came only recently.

An incomplete analysis

Still, Erdoğan seems to miss a critical component that has sustained the Kurdish problem. And that component has to do with economics. It should be noted that successive governments in Turkey have long recognized that economic problems such as poverty and unemployment aggravate the Kurdish problem. Several of them, including those of Erdoğan, have even improved the material well being of the Kurdish people through active economic and social policies. However, their efforts have not been enough.

The Kurdish provinces are still among the least economically developed in Turkey. The latest statistics are available for 2001. In that year Turkey’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita was $2,146. On the other hand, the Kurdish provinces fared badly: $568 GDP in Agri, $578 in Mus, $646 in Bitlis, $795 in Bingol, $836 in Hakkari, $855 in Iğdir, $886 in Kars, $983 in Mardin, $1,008 in Urfa, $1,111 in Siirt, $1216 in Batman and $1,313 in Diyarbakir.

Yet the economic component of the Kurdish problem is not that simple. There is another dimension to the problem that the state has repeatedly failed to address. It does not seem that Erdoğan gets it. That is the extreme societal and economic inequality among the Kurdish population.

Well until the 1980s Kurdish society in Turkey had remained by and large feudal-like. Neither the Ottoman Empire nor the Republic of Turkey has undertaken any economic and political reform to change this feature. Rather, both simply accepted that and acted accordingly.

Whatever benefits the state has transferred to the region went through the hands of powerful clans and their leaders. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s brutal suppression of the Kurdish rebellions in the 1920s and the 1930s was primarily targeted at disarming and pacification of the Kurdish tribes. Atatürk did not go further than that, but rather left the feudal-like system intact in the Kurdish region.

The second president of the republic, İsmet İnönü, introduced a land redistribution program which might have undermined Kurdish feudalism. But he could not pull it off, and this initiative cost him dearly. Turkish democracy was in fact born in the midst of this unfortunate failure. The big landlords of his party rebelled and formed an opposition party, saving not only their own wealth but also Kurdish feudalism. Since that time, no one has taken the initiative, and Turkey has failed to produce its own Gamal Abdel Nasser.

In the biographies of Öcalan and many PKK militants, it can be readily seen that the PKK was also a reaction to Kurdish feudalism. It should not be surprising that the PKK’s founding ideology was Marxist and remained that way for a while.

Today Kurdish society is not as feudal as it used to be. Urbanization and globalization have greatly changed all that. But there is one thing that has not changed: the primary beneficiaries of Erdoğan’s strong governments among the Kurdish population are still the same people who had long enjoyed the economic and political benefits the state provided to the region. Turkey should not be ignorant of this problem of inequality -- political, economic and social -- among the Kurdish population. Turkey’s movie industry, Yeşilcam, has produced many movies about it. Even such popular Turkish comedians as Şener Şen, İlyas Salman and Kemal Sunal have played in black comedies touching on inequality that have appeared on Turkish TV channels innumerable times.

Yet, no Turkish government has seen or addressed it. Erdoğan will not, either. He is a populist politician, having his own ambitions and who is busy realizing them. He cannot make a brave and radical move that might seriously hamper them.

In short, Turkey’s chronic Kurdish problem is an extremely complicated problem. It requires intensive work in multiple dimensions. A healthy solution should not compromise on security, but also should not forget identity. It must bring economic and social development to the Kurdish region but also address the historical problem of inequality.

For many poor and young Kurds, the PKK is attractive precisely because it provides what the Turkish state cannot: not only an identity and a job, but also dignity in light of what they have seen as gross inequality.


* Birol Başkan is an assistant professor of government at Georgetown University, School of Foreign Service, in Qatar

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