Dancing with the Kurds

October 20, 2008

How should one interpret Ankara’s recent openings to Arbil? It seems that Turkish diplomacy has finally given up the silly notion that Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq can be ignored. The decision to co-opt rather than confront the Barzani camp reflects visionary neo-Ottoman instincts.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that such efforts to talk to Arbil are not likely to go hand in hand with political reforms addressing the “identity” aspect of the Kurdish problem at home. In other words, Turkey is now talking to the Iraqi Kurds at the expense of Kurdish domestic dissent.

Ankara is once again torn between its Kemalist and neo-Ottoman tendencies. This is mainly because the Justice and Development Party (AKP) does not have the courage, wisdom and leadership to go to the heart of the problem: to end assimilation-oriented policies and embrace multiculturalism. On this most sensitive issue the Erdoğan government is not willing to test the Kemalist norms of the Turkish Republic. To the opposite, there seems to be a growing convergence between the AKP and the military. And the premise of this convergence is that the Kurdish problem can be “solved” simply by social and economic development.

A couple of weeks ago, I argued in this column that the driving forces behind Turkey’s Middle East policies are neo-Ottomanism and the Kurdish challenge. Turkey’s Middle East policy is increasingly shaped by the tension between these two alternative priorities. Neo-Ottomanism is at odds with the Kurdish-centric focus for a simple reason. Turkey’s Kurdish challenge is defined by the Kemalist norms of the republic, which neo-Ottomanism seeks to transcend. Kemalism considers Kurdish ethnicity and nationalism as existential threats to the national and territorial integrity of the Turkish Republic. Even Kurdish language and cultural rights are deemed dangerous, on the grounds that they make the assimilation of Kurds into the Turkish nation — the official policy of the Kemalist republic since 1923 — much more difficult.

Neo-Ottomanism, by contrast, seeks to rise above this Kemalist paradigm. Compared to Kemalism, neo-Ottoman instincts are more self-confident and less focused on the Kurdish threat. Neo-Ottomanism embraces a grand geostrategic vision of Turkey as an effective and engaged regional actor, trying to solve regional and global problems. Since the concept of neo-Ottomanism may evoke an imperial agenda, one important point needs clarification: Turkey, in this neo-Ottoman paradigm, does not pursue a neo-imperialist policy aimed at resurrecting the Ottoman Empire. Instead of imperial nostalgia, neo-Ottomanism is essentially about projecting Turkey’s “soft power” — a bridge between East and West, a Muslim nation, a secular state, a democratic political system and a capitalistic economic force. Like French Gaullism, it seeks Turkish “grandeur” and influence in foreign policy. Today, Turkey appears torn between these two alternative visions of foreign policy. While the Kurdish challenge makes Ankara reactive, cautious and sometimes overly insecure, neo-Ottomanism motivates Turkish policy makers to be more audacious, imaginative and proactive.

Yet, what we are witnessing in the last couple of months is that Turkey’s Kemalist instincts and neo-Ottoman tendencies share the main objective as far as the Kurdish question is concerned: to stop the emergence of an independent Kurdish state in the region and to deny the ethnic nature of the problem. In the past, the nationalist-Kemalist position was not even open to dialogue with the Iraqi Kurdish authorities, mainly because of the PKK presence in the Kandil Mountains. When he was president of Turkey, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a staunch Kemalist, objected to any dialogue with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani mainly because the latter was Kurdish. Only when Abdullah Gül became president did Turkey invite Talabani to make an official visit in early 2008. One can argue that Gül’s presidency and new leadership in the Turkish military with Chief of General Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ softened the Kemalist resistance to dialogue with Arbil. In that sense neo-Ottomanism and Kemalism found some common ground and agreed that Ankara needs to talk at Arbil. This is a remarkable departure and it needs to be welcomed.

Yet it looks like such good news comes at the expense of the “ethnic dimension” of the problem at home. In other words, there seems to be a quid pro quo between the AKP and the military — or between neo-Ottomanism and Kemalism. The bargain seems to be the following: in return for dialogue with Arbil, the AKP will have to stop talking about Kurdish identity and multilayered and multicultural citizenship in Turkey. It is not hard to understand why such a deal with the military appeals to a political party which barely survived the secularist establishment’s last attempt to destroy it. In that sense, the AKP wants to pick its fights with the Kemalist camp wisely. If the Kurdish issue is the price to pay for good relations with the military, the AKP will pay that price. Too bad for the Kurds.