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Can Explosions Be a Blessing in Disguise in Resolving Turkey’s Kurdish Question?

Turkish-Kurdish woman waves a PKK flag during a demonstration in support of Syrian Kurds, in the southeastern Turkish town of Nusaybin, near the Turkish-Syrian border (REUTERS/Sertac Kayar).

Two minor explosions Tuesday night in Turkey’s capital city of Ankara come at a critical juncture. The Turkish government has been negotiating with the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, to bring an end to an almost decade long violence. These negotiations are taking place at a time when the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) have seen its support among Kurds diminish considerably. The Kurdish vote had played an important role in helping the AKP come to power back in November 2002. These votes have reacquired importance as the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, contemplates whether to take a new constitution that would replace Turkey’s parliamentary system with a presidential one to a national referendum. The new constitution is expected to redefine Turkish citizenship in more liberal terms to the benefit of Kurds but also enable Erdogan to circumvent a self-imposed ban on serving more than three terms as a member of parliament. The negotiations are also seen as a means of addressing questions about the quality of Turkish democracy and concerns about rising authoritarianism. When these developments are put together with a growing recognition both among Kurds as well as Turks of the need to bring the violence to an end, it may well enhance the likelihood of this round of negotiations achieving where earlier attempts failed.

Öcalan had been leading a separatist insurgency since 1984 with the objective of setting up an independent Kurdish state in parts of Turkey and in neighboring countries populated by Kurds. Syria provided him with sanctuary until 1998, when he was forced out of the country following a threat of Turkish military intervention in Syria. After attempting to seek asylum in a number of countries, Öcalan was eventually caught in Kenya (with CIA assistance) and sentenced to life imprisonment on the island of Imralı near Istanbul. This was followed by a unilaterally declared cease-fire by the PKK and a difficult European Union (EU) led reform process which contributed to the granting of cultural rights to Kurds in Turkey. These rights ranged from the recognition of Kurdish identity, to the right to use the Kurdish language publically and in broadcasting. These were revolutionary developments in a country that had denied and repressed Kurdish identity since the early days the Turkish republic and had seen almost 40,000 people killed by violence since 1984.

The gradual emergence of new leadership from the ranks of the PKK, accompanied by a vacuum created by the U.S. intervention in Iraq led to the return of violence in the summer of 2004. This violence led to the deaths of an ever growing number of young Turkish conscripts, some of them inevitably of Kurdish origin, as well as PKK militants and coincided with a period when Turkey’s relations with the EU weakened. Nevertheless, in 2009, the Turkish government launched a “Kurdish initiative” with the intention of solving the “Kurdish problem” for good. The government did succeed in negotiating the laying down of arms by the PKK and their return to Turkey from northern Iraq where they continue to hold bases to this day. This initial step was meant to start a political process to “solve” the Kurdish problem in Turkey but it went haywire when militants put on a show of force as they entered Turkey from the border post of Habur in the fall of 2009. The pictures from Habur immediately provoked a nationalist backlash and Erdoğan, who had once adopted a reconciliatory discourse on the Kurdish issue chose to revert to a traditional anti-Kurdish populist stance used in the 1980s and 90s prior to the reform process. In sharp contrast to his 2005 position where he publicly acknowledged the sufferings of Kurds at the hands of the Turkish state and promised a political solution, Erdoğan argued there was no longer a Kurdish problem in Turkey. He argued that at most, there were problems experienced by individual citizens of Kurdish ethnicity, and that these problems would be addressed with increased ‘democracy and rule of law’.

These remarks led to a sharp decrease in popularity for the prime minister among Kurds and to the founding of the BDP, a Kurdish nationalist political party, which was elected to power at the local and national levels in 2009 and 2011. The rise of the BDP led to the virulent articulation of Kurdish political demands ranging from the use of the Kurdish language in the provision of local government services in Kurdish populated regions of Turkey to the introduction of education in Kurdish. These demands were also accompanied by increased calls for territorial autonomy for the Kurdish inhabited regions of Turkey which was also supported by Öcalan. Together with the explosion in violence, these developments led to the introduction of repressive policies by the Turkish government where an ever growing number of local Kurdish officials, politicians and journalists being imprisoned, deeply tainting Turkey’s democratic credentials. These developments created a very tense situation in Turkey at a time when the Arab Spring had just begun and Turkey was being presented as a model for the Arab world’s transformation by some, while others drew attention to Turkey’s inability to resolve its own Kurdish problem.

The pressure to address the Kurdish problem in Turkey was compounded by a growing level of frustration and fatigue from violence felt across the country as well as a constitution writing process that was going nowhere. It is against this background that the prime minister sought to bring an end to the violence with a cease-fire by authorizing the head of Turkish intelligence to hold secret talks with PKK counterparts in Oslo between 2008 and 2011. Opponents of the prime minister and this scheme, however, leaked records of these talks, provoking an abrupt suspension of the talks. The prime minister, having emerged triumphant from the national elections in the summer of 2011, persevered and in late 2012 he was able to engage the BDP in a similar but more open exercise that came to be known as the “Imralı process” which allowed repeated visits by BDP representatives and Turkish officials to Öcalan. An early attempt to derail talks by assassinating three long standing female PKK militants in Paris in January of 2013 failed as both sides of the process remained committed to it. The two explosions on Tuesday night clearly had the intention of undermining the “Imralı process” but also of preempting Öcalan’s long awaited Newroz announcement on Thursday. The question of who might have mounted these two attacks may very soon be revealed as the perpetrators have been promptly caught.

The fact that these attacks have only caused minor injuries to two individuals and some structural damage to the headquarters of AKP, may turn out to be a blessing in disguise as the initial signs appear to suggest that the “Imralı process’ will not be adversely affected. Actually, it does not look like that these explosions will unravel the negotiations. Instead they will remind the public once more about their revulsion against violence and are likely to reinforce both parties commitment to the process. Right now neither AKP nor BDP want to be seen as the spoiler. However, whether the “Imralı process” will finally lead to a political resolution of the Kurdish problem in Turkey beyond just another cease-fire is yet to be seen.

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