Firstly, let me make it clear from the beginning that it is not my aim to discuss here whether there is a Kurdish issue in Turkey, or whether the approach of the Turkish government/state towards the Kurds living in Turkey is right or wrong.
What pushed me to write this article is the vast literature of analysts arguing the similarities between the Albanians and the Kurds, or better to say the fight that the Albanians fought during the 1990s in Kosovo and the fight that the Kurds have been fighting in Turkey for more than 30 years. The solution of the Albanian question in Kosovo came after the intervention of the Western powers in 1999, and these analysts argue that there is a double standard as to why the Western powers do not intervene on behalf of the Kurds in Turkey. These analysts are of various categories, from heavyweights like Noam Chomsky to analysts of a lighter category, in my level. In fact what they miss is not something new, but is something that we see very often among the international relations analysts, those who analyze countries like Kosovo, Turkey, Bosnia and other countries in the Middle East and Africa from Washington, D.C., New York, London or Paris. For me it doesn’t seem right to analyze, or compare, a situation without being in the field, speaking to people, knowing the language and being directly engaged.
Let me again repeat that it is not my aim to be an advocate of Turkey, or any other state or group. My aim is to put forward the differences between the Kurds in Turkey and the Albanians in Kosovo. These differences, I think, make the issue of the Kurds and the issue of the Albanians fundamentally different.
I understand when people compare and find many similarities between Kosovo and Bosnia, as they are many similarities, starting from a popular support of the fighting from the people, and continuing with others. Nevertheless, arguing on the similarities between the issue of Albanians in Kosovo, or Yugoslavia, and the Kurds in Turkey is not so relevant, for the following reasons:
The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) was formed and was operating in a self-defense. It did not have an ideology other then freedom for its oppressed people. Formed in the mountains of the villages where its members were from, the KLA had no important heavy arms, rather rifles and arms from the villagers. Unlike the KLA, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was firstly established as a Marxist organization, then later came to espouse an ethnic ideology. The PKK organizes offensives against security forces’ stations and imports heavy arms from different countries.
2. The popular support for the PKK and the KLA
When I first came to Turkey in 2004, five years after the war had finished in Kosovo, I wanted to understand the Kurdish issue in Turkey. Firstly, coming out of a freedom war, I was sympathizing with the Kurds’ quests for their rights in Turkey as I want all the people to have their rights and freedoms. But when I started digging into the issue more I found out the differences. When the war started in Kosovo and the KLA was formed in the mountains, the whole Albanian population supported them. I must remind you that the Albanian population in Kosovo is majority Muslim but the war in Kosovo and the KLA had nothing to do with religious affiliations. The KLA saw the same support from the Albanian Muslims and Christians; in fact that was never a question discussed.
After I came to Turkey I understood that the Kurdish population living in Turkey does not support the PKK. In fact only a small number of people supports the PKK and finds its acts righteous. This is understood when speaking to people and friends in closed conversations, and publically. Even though they were prosecuted for doing so, no Albanians were hiding their public support for the KLA, including intellectuals, artists, civil servants and all others. Although some analysts might argue that the Kurdish people cannot publically support the PKK, in eight years I have met many Kurdish friends who are against the acts of the PKK, and you can see that many Kurds condemn the acts of the PKK and its existence, including Kurdish intellectuals, civil servants, artists and others.
3. The violation of the rights and liberties
Why the KLA was formed is because the 10-year pacifist struggle to resolve the Albanian issue in Kosovo did not show any particular result and the Serbian forces increased their violation of the Albanians’ human rights. The Albanians tried to resolve their issue by political means, peacefully, for more then 10 years, under the leadership of Ibrahim Rugova. The Albanians were kicked out of their jobs in 1993, and they were forced to leave Kosovo, as asylum seekers in Europe mostly, but also other places in the world. The Albanian intellectuals were prosecuted; the only Albanian university, the University of Pristina, was closed; and many Albanian high schools were also closed. With the formation of the political movement in 1989, and then the KLA, what the Albanians requested were their constitutional rights under the 1974 constitution of Yugoslavia. They were requesting the return of the rights they had up until 1989, revoked by Slobodan Milosevic’s regime.
Unlike the Albanians in Kosovo, the Kurds in Turkey did not have a political party, prior to the formation of the PKK, that could resolve the issue of the rights of the Kurdish minority in a peaceful manner. The political force of the Kurds, which I argue that does not represent all the Kurds, was formed after the initial formation of the PKK. In fact the PKK was firstly established as a Marxist and socialist organization, and only afterwards did it leave its revolutionary ideology to be transformed into an ethnic organization. Although I don’t omit the wrong policies of Turkish governments at different times towards its population in southeastern Turkey in general and the Kurdish population in particular, the main difference between them and the Albanians in Kosovo is that the Kurds did not have any particular right revoked recently, as was the case in Kosovo. The Albanians in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, were kicked out of their jobs just for being Albanian, whereas I don’t recall reading or hearing anywhere that a civil servant was kicked out of his job in Ankara or İstanbul just for being a Kurd. I think that there should be a Kurdish University in Turkey, where all the subjects and departments are taught in Kurdish, but nevertheless such a university did not exist prior to the advent of the PKK, or the Kurdish issue, only to be revoked by the Turkish authorities, as was the case with the University of Pristina. No constitution, like the 1974 Yugoslavian constitution, had given autonomic rights to the Kurds in Turkey that were abolished later. It is different to ask for your rights, although they might be legitimate, for the first time, versus asking for rights that existed prior to their abolishment.
In fact what the Albanian political movement, and then the KLA, wanted were the rights that were violated by the Serbs, including the right to life, as the Serbians were killing the Albanians in their homes. They wanted their jobs, their university, and other things that were taken away by the Milosevic regime. So, it was a self-defense movement. Only after did they start to ask for the autonomy in Yugoslavia, but with the continuous rejection by the Serbian government and the start of the war, when more then a million Kosovar Albanians were forced to leave Kosovo, massacres and genocide happened, ethnic cleansing took place and the NATO forces started the first-ever humanitarian mission, independence was inevitable and in fact that is what happened.
Another very important difference between the KLA and the PKK is that the KLA did not strike at any civilian during the war. The KLA did not attack the civilian population and rarely struck first against the Serbian forces. The KLA was mostly a defense organization answering the strikes of the Serbian forces against the Albanian population. The operations of the PKK, on the other hand, are mainly strikes against bases of the Turkish military. But the PKK also targets civilians, including terrorist strikes in İstanbul and elsewhere, including ones using suicide bombers, ones against civilians and planned assassinations. So, the PKK is more of an offensive organization. It is a well-known and common complaint of the people living in southeastern Turkey that the PKK runs a racket that hurts the people of the region, closes their shops and even takes their children to fight for it, and this, I think, decreases the support of the Kurds towards the PKK.
If we sum up the fundamental differences between the Albanian question in Kosovo and the Kurdish question in Turkey, we can name several key points. There are the distinct foundations of the PKK and the KLA, in which the PKK was founded as a Marxist-socialist organization and only afterwards transformed to an ethnic organization. The Kurdish party was also formed only after the guerilla organization was formed. The KLA, on the other hand, was the result of a 10-year peaceful political struggle, as a last resort of self-defense. Secondly, and for me this is the most important point, not all of the Kurds in Turkey support the PKK, the political party that supposedly represents the Kurds in Turkey. We can see this in the large number of the Kurdish citizens who voted for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. In Kosovo, on the other hand, all the Albanians, despite their political, religious or ideological differences, supported the formation and the actions of the KLA, publically. Thirdly, the Kosovar Albanians wanted back what was recently taken away from them. Although I support the arguments that Turkey should give more rights to its Kurdish citizens, like education in the mother tongue, the Kurds have never had these rights before, and they were not taken from them. Finally, the PKK targets civilians, and most of their operations are offensive operations, whereas the KLA did not strike any civilians, and most of their operations were of a defensive nature, defending the civilian population in the villages. This, I think, is the main element that makes the PKK a terrorist organization, and the KLA a freedom-fighting organization. During the war in Kosovo the KLA detonated no bomb in a city, and there was no operation towards any civilian group, Serbian or otherwise.
*Erdoan Shipoli is a research assistant at Fatih University in Istanbul, and the co-director of the İstanbul Leadership Institute. He can be followed on twitter @erdoan