The Kurds’ Struggle Goes Political in Turkey
The new face of the Kurdish rebel fight in Turkey could easily be Zeynep, a thirty-year-old university graduate with a full-time management job in Diyarbakir, the unofficial capital of the Kurdish southeast. Born in Bingol Province, in the mountains where rebels of the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party) regularly battle Turkish soldiers, she moved to western Turkey for university. There, she joined a Kurdish student youth group. Someone from the PKK came and told the students that they weren’t needed in the mountains to fight. “We were told, ‘Stay where you are, because you are more useful in the legal and civil areas. The mountains are full.’”
This made a lot of sense to Zeynep (not her real name). The rebel war had just been suspended by imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who was captured in 1999 after being force to flee his haven in Syria, so there wasn’t much need for more fighters. And anyway, it wouldn’t have occurred to her to question the PKK, which had launched its armed struggle in 1984 when she was two years old and was part of the mythology of her youth: “For me, history started with the PKK. If it wasn’t for people going to the mountains to fight, we wouldn’t have anything. But things changed and it was clear at a certain point that some new mechanisms were needed.”
Nearly thirty years after the PKK, which the US and EU list as a terrorist group, launched a guerrilla war to wrest control of the Kurdish region from Turkish rule, the battle with the Turkish state has been increasingly channeled into the legal and political arenas. PKK rebels haven’t given up fighting—according to official figures, more than three hundred rebels and close to one hundred Turkish soldiers have died in fighting since February and, over the summer, rebels held their ground for almost three weeks against Turkish troops in Hakkari Province. But the PKK knows its demands will not be won solely through arms. This is why the group has spent the past decade carefully working to assert itself as a political organization. Where it once sought to direct all political and cultural activism toward support for the rebel war—be it by raising money for the guerrillas or encouraging new military recruits—the PKK now understands the importance of the political battlefield.
Pro-PKK activists, especially those newly released from Turkish prisons, are encouraged to work within the civil society groups and umbrella organizations that dominate the Kurdish political scene, including the legal Kurdish political party, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). The presence of these trusted, respected, and experienced activists gives the rebel group a strong influence over BDP decisionmaking and ensures that Kurdish groups speak with one voice. At the same time, young men and women who once would have been pushed to go to a rebel training base in the mountains along the Turkish-Iraqi border now have the option of helping the PKK by staying in school and joining student groups and demonstrations for broader Kurdish rights, freedom for PKK leader Ocalan, and a comprehensive peace deal. By offering people a route to get involved and show support for the PKK without having to risk their lives in armed struggle, the rebel group has gained new adherents and respect. It’s not that the group has become democratic, but that it acknowledges the importance of (and in fact, need for) nonviolent activism, be it through the political party BDP or in a center teaching illiterate women to read.
“The PKK has become part of the people. You can’t separate them anymore,” said Zubeyde Zumrut (in Diyarbakir), co-chair of BDP, which won control of one hundred municipalities in the southeast of Turkey in the 2009 local elections and thirty-six parliamentary seats in the June 2011 national elections. “Which means if you want to solve this problem, you need to take the PKK into account.”
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a third consecutive term in the elections in June 2011, claims he wants to solve the Kurdish problem. But he’s put forward no plan and offered no process and as a result, after almost ten years in power, he has little if any credibility on this issue. Kurdish politicians from AKP and opposition parties say the sporadic interest Erdogan showed in grappling with the Kurdish problem during his first two terms has evaporated. Instead, he’s reverted to the policies of previous governments. But limited reforms, such as twenty-four-hour Kurdish television, and the newly announced elective Kurdish language courses in schools, fall far short of Kurdish demands for political autonomy, full cultural rights, and a negotiated settlement to end the guerrilla war. A refusal to negotiate these big issues—not just with the PKK, but even with the BDP—makes it hard for Kurds to take his peace calls seriously.
Erdogan insists that Kurdish rebels lay down their weapons, but he doesn’t say what will happen after they do. PKK fighters have good reason to be suspicious. In Erdogan’s second term, his government promised a “Kurdish opening” and negotiated the return of thirty-four PKK rebels and hardcore activists from Iraqi Kurdistan. But the “opening” quickly closed. Within a year, courts had indicted most of the returnees. Those who didn’t manage to flee back to Iraqi Kurdistan were later jailed. Similarly, while Erdogan repeatedly calls on BDP politicians to condemn PKK attacks as “terrorism,” he ignored Kurdish anger after thirty-four Kurdish men, most teenagers, were killed late last year in a Turkish air raid that mistook them for rebels.
Instead of working with democratically elected Kurdish officials to develop a credible answer to Kurdish demands for broader political and cultural rights, Erdogan is going after these activists. The center of the fight is a state-of-the art courtroom in a five-story, sand-colored building partly ringed by iron gates and armed guards just across from the mayor’s office in downtown Diyarbakir. Here, one hundred and fifty-two Kurds, among them elected mayors, human rights workers, lawyers, women’s activists, and top BDP officials, are on trial for alleged membership in the PKK’s urban wing, the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK).
The evidence largely rests on the transcripts of garbled telephone conversations, information provided by a secret informant, code-named “Papatya” (Turkish for “Daisy”), and tedious lists of the daily activities of the defendants. This includes organizing press conferences to protest the imprisonment of teenagers for throwing stones and the isolation of PKK leader Ocalan; extending condolences to families whose children died fighting for the PKK; filing court briefs for imprisoned PKK militants; and signing petitions to demand mother-tongue education in Kurdish. The state’s logic is that because these activities reflect PKK goals and interests, then the defendants must be taking orders from the PKK. What the state’s case misses is that the defendants don’t need to take orders from the PKK. They share the same interests, the same overall goals, and the same support base.
Most days it seems that what’s really on trial is Kurdish identity itself. In an interactive political gambit, the defendants refuse to address the court in any language but Kurdish, and the judges will only accept testimony in Turkish. (Defense lawyers in the Kurdish region say that courts sometimes will accept Kurdish testimony, but only if the defendant doesn’t know any Turkish.) The clash over language is one reason the trial has dragged on for almost a year. The other is that the indictment is more than seven thousand pages long and the judges read every paragraph, and question the defendants about every accusation. But the lengthy proceedings suit the state just fine.
Most of the defendants have been jailed since being arrested in April 2009, and the trial didn’t start until December 2011. Their supporters still come, week after week, to attend hearings. “She is our representative. We won’t leave her,” said forty-eight-year-old housewife Gul Peri Bozyigit, waving across the guards to Gulcihan Simsek, the imprisoned BDP mayor of Bostanici District, in Van Province. “The goal here is to pressure Kurds, to break them. It won’t happen.”
The trial is part of a large sweep against Kurdish activists and their supporters across the country. Some eight thousand people have been detained since the arrests began in force in 2009, and, of those, more than one thousand have been charged with working for the KCK. In July, another mass trial started in Istanbul, where one hundred and ninety-three people stand accused of aiding the PKK. The evidence there rests largely on lectures that Kurdish activists gave in so-called political academies (like other political parties in Turkey, the BDP has its own programs to teach supporters the fundamentals of political activity and party ideology) and on political demonstrations in support for Kurdish rights and the PKK. Reading the indictment is like reading a very long and very dense history book centered on the birth of the Kurdish nation and the PKK’s role in modern times.
The state’s mistake is that it’s still fighting the PKK as if it were the 1990s, at the height of the guerrilla war. At that time, the state didn’t distinguish active fighters from everyone else—from civilian militia who provided intelligence and logistical support, sympathizers who gave bread and money, family members and neighbors, and even journalists who wrote about the conflict. They were all viewed as being PKK and they were arrested, tortured, shot, or chased out of the region. Those methods helped turn bystanders into PKK supporters because, as many people told me during those years, if you were going to be arrested or killed anyhow, you might as well fight back.
Now, the state is doing the same, only through mass arrests of nonviolent activists who are fighting, so to speak, in the legal, democratic field. Like before, there’s no distinction made between those who are actual PKK operatives, those who knowingly give their support to PKK dictates, and everyone else, including, again, journalists (mainly Kurdish ones) documenting all this. Instead of weakening the PKK, the state’s response strengthens the group by boosting those who say Turkey will only listen to armed struggle and bringing in new support from families whose relatives are jailed.
While Turkey seems trapped in a failed pattern of response, the PKK is always re-evaluating and refining its tactics. When Ocalan founded the group in 1978, it was a very brutal militant organization that attacked Kurdish rivals and killed its own members when such extreme measures were deemed necessary for the cause. The goal was independence, and it was going to be won by armed struggle. Ocalan’s capture in 1999 and his decision to suspend fighting forced the PKK to rethink its strategy. While Turkey announced the Kurdish problem solved, the PKK focused its attention on building up its presence and ensuring its dominance in the legal, democratic arena. The gains made by the legal Kurdish political party (then called HADEP) in the April 1999 local elections, two months after Ocalan’s capture, gave the militants new avenues for raising revenue and extending their influence.
The PKK didn’t stop after that, transitioning right into the twenty-first century, with Twitter accounts, YouTube channels, and links to sympathetic websites. The PKK promotes environmentalism, women’s rights (women make up around half of BDP candidates, more than in any other political party in Turkey), and a certain tolerance, at least in the media, of gays and lesbians. The PKK has also taken on Prime Minister Erdogan in an area where he claims to be supreme: Islamic piety. PKK supporters and BDP politicians have encouraged attendance at the alternative Friday prayer services run by Kurdish imams and Kurdish Islamic scholars in Diyarbakir and other cities in the region. The prayer services began in April of last year, led by Kurdish religious figures who were frustrated by the state’s longstanding requirement that salaried imams recite the prayers in Turkish and give their weekly speech in Turkish (reading from a prepared text sent by Ankara). Barred from the state mosques, these Kurdish imams and scholars started holding services in empty lots, construction sites, and in courtyards near mosques. In Diyarbakir, these weekly Friday prayers can attract thousands of people.
Erdogan’s AKP party first tried to dismiss the Kurdish prayer services and then defame them. Finally, the AKP was forced to loosen restrictions on the use of Kurdish in mosques. But it seems to be a case of too little, too late. The Friday prayer services are now another popular way of showing support for Kurdish identity. And for many of the Kurdish religious figures involved, this is about identity as much as it’s about Islam. “If people don’t learn prayers in their own language, they won’t understand anything when they get to heaven,” said Abdullah, forty-two, a religious scholar who is involved in the alternative weekly prayer service in the city of Cizre, about a three-hour drive from Diyarbakir. “We didn’t do this for the PKK or for the BDP, but the reason we can do this is because of the people who have struggled, fought, and shed blood.”
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s loss of control of his country has given the PKK a new arena where it can raise its political stature, further complicating Turkey’s efforts to delegitimize the rebels and Kurdish political demands. When PKK leader Ocalan was based in Damascus from 1980 to 1998, Syrian Kurds were allowed to join the group as long as Ocalan didn’t turn them against Damascus. After Ocalan fled, PKK fighters left the country, but the network of local supporters remained. About ten years ago, just as the PKK began its real push inside Turkey for political legitimacy, its sympathizers inside Syria formed an affiliated party called the Democratic Unity Party (PYD). It’s the strongest single Syrian Kurdish party and now it has effective control over much of Syria’s Kurdish region. Should Kurds in Syria emerge from the conflict with their autonomy intact, the PKK will be the political winner. For Kurds in Turkey, the PKK’s ability to guide Kurdish politics in Syria will further cement the group’s stance as the one party that can be trusted to deliver to Kurds in Turkey the autonomy they too are demanding.
Even observers of the Turkish scene who are not particularly sympathetic to Kurdish aspirations are beginning to say that it is time for Turkey to take a new approach to what is now a very old problem. This view holds that Prime Minister Erdogan needs to make some accommodations to the Kurds. But what does this mean? It doesn’t mean, as some Turkish commentators still insist, better economic opportunities for Kurds. Nor is there any new political party that can displace the PKK’s influence. It is increasingly acknowledged that working with Kurds to end the conflict means winning their trust and reinforcing the validity of nonviolent actions. This can only be accomplished by ending the judicial assault on nonviolent Kurdish activists operating in the legal, democratic sphere. As part of this, the Turkish state should arrange the release of those now jailed and standing trial for speeches and interviews they have made. However, while these initiatives would win Erdogan much-needed goodwill, they won’t be enough. Erdogan needs to make clear a commitment to a negotiated solution, and lay out a plan for getting there.
Such a solution also requires the prime minister to give up his mistaken belief that it’s possible to break the PKK’s influence over Kurdish politics, just as the PKK has given up the idea that it can win full control of the Kurdish region through armed struggle alone. Erdogan should think like the successful politician he otherwise is, considering carefully what it would take to create the democratic autonomy that Kurds are demanding, and shore up the state itself by removing the economic and political irritant of the PKK’s war. He doesn’t have to like the PKK, but he needs to engage with them, whether through direct talks or by using BDP, the Kurds’ elected representatives, as an interlocutor. By putting forward an actual plan for negotiations—one that doesn’t exclude, at the outset, Kurdish demands (or the legitimate Kurdish representatives)—Erdogan can also hold the PKK to democratic standards of behavior. Given that the PKK is sure to dominate any Kurdish autonomous region in Turkey, it’s important to acclimate the group to the rigors of democratic norms in advance—a lesson the Turkish government could usefully learn as well.
Amid the uncertainty of how this all can or will play out, one thing is certain: Turkey will never solve its Kurdish problem as long as it remains wedded to the mistaken belief that it can destroy the PKK. Cabbar Leygara, a lawyer and former mayor of Baglar, a tough neighborhood in Diyarbakir, puts it bluntly: “The only way to kill the party is to kill the people.”
Aliza Marcus is a Washington-based writer and the author of Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence.