On the Kurdish and Armenian initiatives...

Sunday, December 13, 2009
One of the biggest stories to have emerged from Turkey this year was the so-called "Kurdish initiative" (Kürt açılımı, or Kurdish 'opening'). 
The "Kurdish opening" was announced in the Spring of this year, but has actually been around for a while. On January 1 of 2009, the Turkish government set up TRT 6, a television channel which broadcasts in Kurdish. Then, during the municipal election campaign earlier this year (nationwide municipal elections in Turkey are treated as referenda on the performance of the sitting national government in a manner similar to midterm elections in the United States), Prime Minister Erdoğan went even further in his efforts to woo Kurdish voters to his party. Prior to the March 29 elections, Erdogan not only promised that he would allow Kurdish-language radio, but also spoke Kurdish himself publicly at a campaign rally--something which is actually illegal in Turkey. 

Over the course of the summer, manifestations of the Turkish government's supposed new thinking on the Kurdish issue could be detected in the form of a variety of mostly small but symbolic cultural initiatives, such as allowing: a Kurdish-language sermon to be broadcast on television, a play to be performed in Kurdish, the reversion to Kurdish of place names which had previously been changed to Turkish, the naming of children with distinctly Kurdish names, and even adding the Kurdish letters Q, W, and X (which don't appear in Turkish words) to the Turkish alphabet. On November 12, Erdoğan's AK Party called for increased freedom for Kurdish broadcasting and education, igniting brawls on the floor of parliament. Meanwhile, local municipalities in the southeast began constructing bilingual Turkish and Kurdish roadsigns reflecting the different names used for villages. These and other developments have been discussed frequently in the writings of Jenny White, Yigal Schleifer and others. 
The "Kurdish Initiative" was undertaken alongside a parallel "Armenian Initiative," which was devoted primarily to improving relations with the state of Armenia, while certain cultural concessions such as those granted to Kurds were likewise offered to Armenians living in Turkey (as a non-Muslim community considered unassimilable, however, Armenians in Turkey have long held many of the cultural rights that Kurdish organizations could only dream of).   
As was the case with the Kurdish Initiative, the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement drew enthusiastic support from the United States, with Hillary Clinton attending the signing of the Turkish-Armenian protocols in Zurich last October (Clinton was not the only international observer attending the signing, which also brought Russia's Sergei Lavrov and Javier Solana of the EU). While the United States and other international observers cheered on the rapprochement, the government of Azerbaijan--which has had a very close relationship with Turkey since gaining independence in 1991--fumed publicly over Turkey's apparent sell-out of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, while the political opposition and large numbers of citizens in Turkey, Armenia, and the Armenian diaspora also opposed the agreement. 

Under the watchful eyes of Hillary Clinton, Sergei Lavrov, and other foreign observers, Turkish FM Davutoğlu and Armenian FM Nalbandian sign a set of protocols promising to move ahead with diplomatic relations. Zurich, October 2009
With respect to both of these "openings," my main question concerns the motives of the Erdogan government. What was the Turkish government attempting to get out of these initiatives? Should the two initiatives be grouped together coherently, as a pair, or else do they simply represent two separate sets of policies that Erdogan's government has adopted for different reasons? And what are the chances for these initiatives of advancing, on the one hand, the cause of peace and prosperity in the Caucasus, and, on the other hand, improving relations between the Turkish state and its Kurdish citizens? 
I've already written quite a bit about the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, so today I'm mostly going to discuss the Kurdish initiative, which is in the news right now because the self-styled "Kurdish party" in Turkey, the DTP (which translates into "Democratic Society Party") has just been closed down. The closure occurred after Turkey's constitutional court ruled in favor of a petition for closure which had been brought to by Chief Public Prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalçınkaya on November 16, 2007.   
First of all, it is important to distinguish the political government in Turkey--that of the prime minister and political parties--from the permanent government. In Turkey, the position of public prosecutor is not a political appointment. Indeed, Yalçınkaya is the very man who, just four months after he had opened his case against the DTP, opened a closure case against the sitting government--that is, against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan's AK Party. In March of 2008, the closure case against the AK Party was launched, with Turkey's Constitutional Court deciding in July of 2008 against closure. Six of the ten justices voted in favor of closure, with the petition needing seven votes in order to pass. 
Thus, there is nothing obviously self-contradictory about the parliamentary government of Erdoğan pursuing one set of policies towards the granting of more Kurdish cultural rights and freedoms, and the closing of the DTP. Indeed, I have often suspected that one of Erdoğan's goals in pursuing the Kurdish initiative was to strengthen the AK Party's position in the southeast at the expense of the DTP. 
As I wrote back in March, gains made by the DTP in the southeast represented a large part of the AK Party's loss in support. Then, after Erdogan's party lost ground nationally and especially in the Kurdish-dominated southeast of Turkey, there was a government crackdown against the Democratic Society Party (DTP in Turkish), a political party known primarily for its demands for Kurdish cultural rights in Turkey. Then, just a few weeks later, over 50 DTP members, including 9 provincial chairmen and 5 district party chairmen--were arrested. [Once again, it's important to distinguish between the parliamentary government and the judiciary and police, which are part of the permanent state. However, in this case the distinction is a bit murkier, since the police are under control of the Ministry of the Interior, which has been in the hands of the AK Party since 2003]. 
The crackdown on the DTP may or may not have been connected to people in Erdogan's government, but in any event it was public knowledge that a case had been levied by public prosecutor Yalçınkaya and that a decision would likely be made by the Constitutional Court sometime this year. By getting out ahead on the Kurdish issue and building upon the gestures towards Kurds that Erdoğan had been making in the run-up to the municipal elections in the Spring of 2009, it seems likely that the AK Party had to have been thinking at least somewhat in terms of expanding its base in the southeast with its dual message of Islamic piety and Kurdish cultural rights. 
Moreover, there is an intellectual consistency to a party that is 'liberal' (in the Turkish stance) with regard to the public display of Islamic piety (meaning that the AK Party promotes 'individual choice' with regard to the wearing, for example, of headscarves). By taking on secularism as it has traditionally been understood in Turkey, and also by taking on the military and much of the opposition through the Ergenekon investigation, the AK Party is taking on the system, the whole düzen. And the Erdogan government's approach to the Kurdish and Armenian initiatives--while also without question each motivated by a number of other factors--likewise represent, I think, an effort to undermine this system, the operating logic upon which the state has largely been based during the republican era. I'm not saying this is necessarily a good thing or a bad thing, but that's how I read these developments to at least some extent. 
What seems particularly clear to me, however, is that the Erdogan government's approach to the Kurdish initiative seems to have been, at best, incompetently undertaken, and at worst doomed to failure from the start--and perhaps deliberately so. With respect to the Armenian initiative, for example, people in Turkey are not, by and large, against the idea of establishing diplomatic relations with Armenia per se. What bothers some people is that, a) it doesn't seem like a strategically intelligent choice to trade oil-rich Azerbaijan for "untrustworthy" Armenia as a partner in the region, and b) closer cooperation with Armenia may lead the Turkish government in a direction on the genocide issue that many Turks might not be prepared to follow. Nevertheless, nothing of substance has really been accomplished on the Armenian front (Azerbaijan and Armenia are still talking about the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh), and at any rate the fate of Azerbaijan will not send lots of people into the streets in Turkey. But what would really outrage large numbers of people in Turkey would be if the Turkish government were to appear to express anything but the most generic form of regret for the "events of 1915." 
And the reason why large numbers of Turkish citizens would be opposed to any apparent softening on the genocide issue is that they are the products of the Turkish educational system. While the Turkish Ministry of education ultimately halted distribution of Sari Gelin, a film which argues that the Armenians committed genocide against "Turks," there is still nothing that most schoolchildren learn in their history lessons that will ever prepare them for discussing the Armenian genocide issue or the Kurdish issue in a complex way. I'm not saying that no one in Turkey talks about these issues in a complex way--many people do, no thanks (in most cases) to what they've learned in their history lessons and from their government-published history books. How are people supposed to react if, after seeing Sari Gelin, they hear that their government is expressing remorse for what "Turks" (actually, Anatolian Muslims of various ethnicities) did to Armenians? If the Turkish government were really serious about putting the Armenian genocide issue behind them, they would do something about the way this issue is discussed in schools in Turkey. 
This is also the case with respect to the Kurdish initiative. It's one thing to change a few laws and grant a few more freedoms, but it's quite another to actually work to change people's thinking on an issue. For as long as official Turkey--and the ministries of Education and Culture in particular--are talking about the Armenians, the Kurds, and the Turks in the ways that they do, it will be extremely difficult for many Turks to accept attempts to mollify the Kurds and the Armenian state with a series of mainly small and symbolic measures that never really address what Kurds and Armenians consider to be the main issues. Unserious or incompetent reforms aren't going to make anyone happy, excepting (for a time, perhaps) well-meaning foreigners who don't know much about the region.  
And things haven't been going well for the Kurdish Initiative. The largest opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP) has campaigned against the initiative, and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which will surely factor largely in the next elections, has held a series of rallies against the initiative as well. In what marked one of the last positions adopted prior to the Constitutional Court's ruling on its closure, even the DTP had pronounced the initiative 'over,' with DTP leader Ahmet Turk now linking the success of the initiative with the conditions of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. 
Meanwhile, a hero's' welcome was granted in October to returning PKK guerillas who had accepted the Turkish government's promise of lenient treatment to PKK fighters surrendering themselves to government forces. Images of enthusiastic crowds in southeastern Turkey treating the PKK fighters as heroes were broadcast all across Turkey, and even a number of Kurdish activists criticized the DTP for poorly organizing (sabotaging?) the reception. Now, with the closure of the DTP, rioting has been occurring in cities all over the country
The decision by the Constitutional Court to ban the DTP did not occur in a vacuum. Indeed, there have been a number of instances in which local officials have not been entirely getting with the "Kurdish initiative" program, even harassing children who appeared to be breaking long-standing taboos. In many instances, it seemed clear that local officials were by no means on the same page as that of Erdoğan's government when it came to easing restrictions on the Kurdish language.  
This disconnect between the state and civil servants can also be seen with respect to the proposed policies of the Kurdish initiative and the attitudes and sensibilities of many people in Turkey. The Erdogan government is attempting to deal with the Kurds in a rather Ottoman way-- through the granting of collective rights (though ethnic rights, as opposed to religious ones, which was the Ottoman style). But what the government really needs to do is explain to citizens of Turkey of all ethnic and religious backgrounds how everyone can gain from a more liberal cultural, social, and political environment. Liberalization is difficult to achieve in an illiberal setting. Without hitting the issues of nationalism, the state, and personal freedom head-on, putting Kurdish on roadsigns or TV will do little but prompt Kurdish groups to ask for more, while others will challenge these concessions at every turn.  
In other words, in order to succeed the Kurdish Initiative shouldn't be framed simply in terms of granting more rights to the Kurds, but rather as part of a larger initiative dedicated to treating everybody in Turkey like human beings who deserve respect in relation to a wide variety of issues both large and small. But this is something that people in power in most countries--not only Turkey--often have a difficult time accepting. Frankly, there are a lot of people in Turkey (again, Turkey is not unique in this respect) who are crushed by forces beyond their control--this happens not only to Kurds, but to others as well. My sense is that if the Kurdish Initiative were discussed within a broader context of freeing Turkish citizens from corruption, torture, intimidation by government officials and police, powerlessness in the face of wealth, economic exploitation, and a host of other problems, people other than Kurds would be a lot more receptive to it. 
With respect to both the Kurdish and the Armenian initiatives, I think the time for symbolic gestures has passed. If Turkish people are going to accept these initiatives, I think a lot more will have to be done to explain why such gestures are not simply concessions, but rather important to the interests of everybody in the country. 
One last point: I do think that it's admirable to bring these issues up, and maybe something truly is better than nothing--if having Kurdish village names written on signs is a positive step for some people, then great. The problem I have is with bringing up these issues in an unserious way. Why did the AK Party leadership wait until the DTP was on the execution block before the idea of a 'Kurdish opening' began to make sense? Maybe Erdogan and the AK Party government are interested solely in brining an end to bloodshed and the repression of Kurdish culture in Turkey. If so, that's great, and I wish them the best. If, however, this initiative was simply the product of political posturing without political courage, a real plan, or a genuine commitment to get people to accept change, then it will fall apart because a real plan is what the Erdogan government needs now.
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