Why democratic transition does not lead to secession by ÖZGÜR ERKAN*

Why democratic transition does not lead to secession  by  ÖZGÜR ERKAN*

October 16, 2009, Friday/ 16:55:00
Throughout the past couple of weeks, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government has taken commendable and courageous steps in solving the country’s prolonged Kurdish problem, a matter regrettably ignored by previous Turkish governments.Most certainly, the determination of the AK Party government in completing the democratic transition process in Turkey will not only serve to put an end to an internecine conflict in the country but also to grant greater linguistic and representational rights to ethnic groups and eliminate one of the greatest obstacles Turkey faces on its way to EU membership; namely, improving the rights of ethnic groups. Despite its merits, however, as known from recent events, circles with nationalistic fervor inveighed against the process of democratic transition by criticizing the “Kurdish opening” as a minatory process that would undermine the fundamental principles of the republic and eventually lead to secession. Nationalists, however, omit the fact that there have been successful and “peaceful” examples of democratic transition in contemporary history. Spain, a European country and whose internal socioeconomic and political dynamics are similar to those of Turkey, had exemplified through its transition in the late 1970s that granting extensive rights to ethnic groups does not lead to secession, but just the opposite -- it strengthens the upper-level /civic identities of ethnic groups.

In Spain, Gen. Francisco Franco, who ruled the country for nearly 40 years after the Spanish Civil War, used military coercion to suppress ethnic nationalism. Spanish was declared the sole official language, eliminating the use of the long-existing Catalan and Basque ethnic languages. Moreover, although a genuine “Spanish” identity did not exist throughout Spain’s history, Francoist repression constructed an artificial Spanish identity, which served to deny historical nationalities (Basque, Catalan and Galician) in Spain.

As a result of this oppression, Basques and Catalans in particular did not embrace the common/upper-level Spanish identity. While Catalans sought a peaceful transformation of the regime, Basques stood against the Francoist system by invigorating a historic Basque nationalist movement and, by the late 1950s, converting it into an armed movement through ETA, which reached its apex in terrorist activities through the assassination of Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, the general who replaced Franco, in 1973.

In the post-Francoist era, the Adolfo Suárez y González government launched a democratic transition and took determined steps in recognizing the linguistic rights of Basques, Catalans and Galicians as well as in granting these ethnic groups the right of limited self-governance through regional autonomy, amid threats of a coup d’état from ultranationalists.

Contrary to expectations that nationalists in Turkey espouse, the extension of rights for ethnic groups did not lead to secession in Spain, as shown through the studies of Guibernau (2006) and Moreno (2001), but rather created a greater embracement of the common Spanish identity. Creating regional autonomies in Spain as part of the democratic transition made it possible for many Basques and Catalans to identify with the Spanish state. The Basques and Catalans had at the time of Franco’s dictatorship perceived the Spanish state as an oppressive and alien tyranny and thus did not embrace the common Spanish identity, as indicated by Montserrat Guibernau in “National Identity, Devolution and Secession in Canada, Britain and Spain,” Nations and Nationalism.

Democratic transitioning: a tool to end ethnic conflicts

Furthermore, according to Luis Moreno in his “Divided Societies, Electoral Polarisation and the Basque Country,” particularly between 1990 and 1995, 57 percent of Basques and 68 percent of Catalans reported identifying with dual identities, that of Basque and Spanish and Catalan and Spanish, respectively. A sharp decline in the ETA’s terrorist activities following the Spanish transition also demonstrates that democratic transition and recognizing the rights of ethnic groups reduces internecine ethnic conflicts. Between 1975 and 1977, the ETA claimed 45 lives. From 1978 until the end of 1980, 225 people died in Spain as a result of the ETA’s terrorist attacks, yet once the coup attempt of ultranationalist generals was blocked in 1981 and democracy was irrevocably restored in Spain, ETA terror weakened significantly by 1982. [1]

In quelling its own ethnic tensions, Turkey has so far pursued a strategy similar to the one followed in the pre-democratic era of Spain. While Turkish identity was declared the sole civic identity, other cultural and ethnic identities, making Turkey a cultural mosaic, were denied. Moreover, as known from a famous credo of the coup of Sept. 12, 1980, “Speak Turkish, speak a lot,” ethnic languages were oppressed as part of this strategy. As a result, just as in Spain, Turkish citizens belonging to a non-Turkish ethnic group in Turkey hardly embraced this civic Turkish identity and, as a reaction to state policies, ethnic secessionist movements emerged.

A solely militarist strategy, which continuously created an ethnic reaction against military action, was deemed appropriate in quelling these movements. By leaving out a political solution, however, Turkey has so far failed to gather all ethnic groups under a common identity, without suppressing their ethnic and cultural identities. Therefore, the current attempts of democratic transition in Turkey provide a significant opportunity to win the hearts and minds of ethnic groups and help these groups embrace the common Turkish identity, in addition to their ethnic identities.

As the Spanish example clearly shows, the process of democratic transition in Turkey will lead to a greater self-identification with the common Turkish identity, contrary to the expectations of nationalists, because Turkey’s ethnic groups will after a long period perceive the state as recognizing their rights and doing something good for them. By using the findings of Guibernau and Moreno as an anchor, it would not, therefore, be unrealistic to expect that a greater proportion of ethnic groups in Turkey, who have so far refused to embrace the civic Turkish identity as a result of state oppression, will increasingly report possessing dual identities by the end of the democratic transition process, with Kurds being Kurdish as much as they are Turkish, for example.

There is no doubt that the process of democratic transition in Turkey could be complemented through economic steps, since high levels of unemployment and indigence in eastern Turkey also underpinned separatist movements. An introduction of regional minimum wages that takes into consideration the discrepancy in labor productivity between different regions of Turkey and helps create jobs in impoverished areas could be a starting point.

Viewed from a predominantly political perspective, however, the democratic transition will help oppressed ethnic groups report greater identification with the common Turkish identity rather than engendering ethnic conflicts and secession. As shown above, the peaceful example of the Spanish transition should serve as a guide in overcoming our fears of secession.

[1] History and Evolution of ETA (I), in Spanish, Oct. 30, 2002, El País.

*Özgür Erkan is an alumnus of the graduate program at the European Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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