Amid Middle East protests, stakes are high as Turkey confronts Kurds


Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he speaks during a conference in Istanbul on Aug. 17, 2011.


Mustafa Ozer

ISTANBUL, Turkey — The upheavals of the Arab Spring have led many to cast their eyes toward Turkey, where a movement of moderate Islamists, shored up by an economic boom, have shown that faith can be reconciled, however imperfectly, with democracy.

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But while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan flashes his party’s democratic credentials and encourages regional counterparts to heed the voice of their people, at home he is facing growing unrest, and demands for reform, from the country's minority Kurdish population.

“A Turkey that cannot solve its Kurdish problem cannot be a real democratic model for anyone else,” said Henri Barkey, a professor of international relations and an expert on Turkey at Lehigh University.

Barkey calls the Kurdish question the single most important problem facing Turkey today, and this summer has made clear just how high the stakes are.

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On city streets across the country’s southeast, young Kurds clash regularly with the police, the force of their stones returned by water cannons. Fighting between the army and the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), meanwhile, continues to escalate — more than 100 lives have already been lost in clashes this year. Eight more Turkish soldiers were killed on Wednesday when their military convoy struck explosives believed to have been place by the PKK.

On the political front, many Kurds are losing faith in the promise repeatedly made by Erdogan that a resolution to the conflict would be found and reforms ensuring equality enacted.

“It seems quite clear that all of this is heading towards increased polarization, ethnic antagonism and violence,” said Fadi Hakura, a Turkey specialist at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London. “Should this current escalation continue it could lead to a mass mobilization of Kurdish nationalists against the government.”

A separatist campaign launched by PKK rebels has been raging since 1984. Three decades of conflict has left more than 40,000 dead, most of them Kurds.

Slow, incremental changes have occurred, mostly under the Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). The prime minister made headlines in 2009 for concessions like initiating the first national Kurdish-language television station and allowing Kurdish to be taught in private universities. National elections this summer gave Kurdish-backed candidates record gains.

The cheers, however, were short-lived. The mainly Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, boycotted Parliament after the vote because an elected legislator, due to a prior conviction, had his seat taken away by the election board and given to the AKP.

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Five other Kurdish-backed candidates who won their seat from prison were refused release. Then came the declaration of regional autonomy by a Kurdish umbrella organization that brings together some 850 Kurdish politicians and other notables.

Add to the mix increased bitterness and a growing social divide and it’s a volatile cocktail.

After a deadly PKK ambush killed 13 soldiers in July, protests erupted against the rebel group. For almost a week the streets of Istanbul’s Zeytinburnu were the scene of clashes between supporters and opponents of the PKK. The night after the attack, renowned Kurdish singer Aynur Dogan was booed off the stage for singing in Kurdish at the city’s annual Jazz Festival.

“I think the whole country is reaching this point of hysteria,” said Alp Biricik, a Turkish student who attended the concert.

Erdogan himself has assumed a more hawkish stance lately, announcing plans to strengthen Turkey’s special-operations forces within the police. Some worry that such a move could signal a return to the excesses of the past, when more than 3,000 Kurdish villages were forcibly evacuated and thousands were imprisoned, murdered or disappeared.

“If we look at the government’s rhetoric, it seems reminiscent of the 1990s, returning to security rather than moving toward peaceful coexistence,” Hakura said.

Others see the move as a response to more recent events.

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“War against the PKK is a raison d’etre for the military,” Barkey said. “This is another way for Erdogan to take as much leverage away from the military as possible.”

The mass resignation of Turkey’s military leadership on July 29 was confirmation of an ongoing shift in power away from the once omnipotent military and into the hands of the civilian authorities.

Much hangs on plans to rewrite the country's constitution. Drafted in 1982 after a military coup it has long been seen as a straightjacket to transformation in Turkey. For the Kurds, a new constitution represents a chance to secure more political, social and cultural rights, and to feel represented as full-fledged citizens of the republic.

“You have to think of this as a process, it won’t happen overnight” Barkey said. “But what exists now doesn’t fit 21st century Turkey, it’s the most important bulwark against real change.”

It’s a long way from 1982 though, and influence over this next chapter has swung into Erdogan’s hands.

“The policy initiative over the Kurdish issue now sits firmly with the government, not the military,” Hakura said. “And so does the responsibility.”