A long road to peace for Turkey and the Kurds
ISTANBUL // Passers-by stared in disbelief at the image printed on the flags being waved by a 500-strong crowd ringed by riot police against the backdrop of an Ottoman statue inside Istanbul’s Gulhane Park.
It was the grinning face of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and a divisive personality within Turkish society who is deemed either a hero or a terrorist depending on whom one asks.
“If they’d dared to try this ten years ago their tongues would have been cut out,” said an angry onlooker, as he watched the flags flutter just a kilometre from Istanbul’s main tourism district. “But now these terrorists have been given so much freedom that they parade and romp before our eyes.”
The demonstration was one of a series of nationwide events commemorating what is known among Kurds as the February 15 Conspiracy, the date when Turkish intelligence agents detained Abdullah Ocalan in Kenya 16 years ago. Although the sight of PKK flags in Turkish streets remains unusual, the state now tolerates their appearance at large demonstrations as part of a policy of preparing Turks for the prospect of reconciliation with the Kurdish movement.
Authorities had denied the organisers permission to hold the demonstration in the central Taksim Square, so they arranged to meet in a park adjoining a major thoroughfare, expecting the police to let them march on. Instead, riot police surrounded the park on all sides to ensure the protesters and their flags went nowhere.
Alper Yilmaz, a Kurdish tailor in his 40s, was one of the protesters. Originally from Diyarbakir, the Kurdish-dominated regional capital of south-east Turkey, he has lived in Istanbul’s working-class Kasimpasa district, a pro-government bastion, for the past 25 years.
“We weren’t given the opportunity to learn Kurdish at school because it was prohibited by the state,” he said, “so we are protesting in the hope that our children will.”
Teaching Kurdish as an elective language in schools was permitted in 2013, but delivering the whole curriculum in Kurdish remains banned.
The Kobani factor
Since coming to power in 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government initiated a peace process and instituted reforms. More recently, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bid to reinforce his power base by embarking on a campaign to suppress former allies turned rivals failed to dislocate the process; nor did the resignation of Hakan Fidan, the head of the national intelligence organisation (MIT) and chief negotiator with Ocalan in late January, to enter politics.
It was the months-long struggle between PKK-affiliated fighters and ISIL militants over the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani that focused attention away from the negotiations. The Kurds accused the Turkish government of implicitly supporting the militants because they feared that a Kurdish victory would lead to resurgent calls for separatism in Turkey. When defeated ISIL fighters withdrew from Kobani in January under bombardment by a US-led coalition of allies, celebrations ensued in Kurdish communities across Turkey.
“The PKK has become one of the main actors in the Middle East,” said Samil Altan, a Kurdish politician representing the Istanbul Democratic Congress, an assembly set up by the Kurdish movement involving several civil society organisations and political parties.
“It is accepted by the US as representing the Kurdish people, and they collaborated tactically during the fighting.”
The PKK’s battlefield successes captured the world’s attention and gave the armed group renewed relevance after almost two years of a ceasefire inside Turkey. The PKK is also deployed in northern Iraq to support Iraqi Kurds battling ISIL along the border of what they hope will one day become Kurdistan.
The victories have also resulted in a deep rift between the PKK military leadership based in northern Iraq’s Qandil Mountains, and Ocalan, who is jailed on Imrali island off Istanbul.
Not only do the PKK’S military leaders doubt the wisdom of disarming, but they oppose a controversial security bill which would give sweeping powers to Turkey’s security forces.
“We are going through the most critical juncture in the process, over the internal security reform package which has created a stalemate in the peace dialogue”, said Ozge Genc, director of the democratisation programme at the Istanbul-based TESEV think tank.
With its recent military victories, its solid grip on armed Kurdish youth groups inside Turkey, and talk that the US might be constructing an airbase in northern Iraq at the expense of Turkey’s Nato base at Incirlik, the PKK’s star appears to be rising.
“The biggest difference in the Kurdish movement since the 2000s is that the PKK could control society but now it’s a mass movement and the young people are mobilised,” said Behlul Ozkan, an assistant professor of Turkish politics and foreign policy at Marmara University. “We saw it on 6-7 October  when even the politicians couldn’t control the youth.”
Two days of nationwide unrest were sparked by anger at the Turkish government’s closing of the border crossing with Syria as ISIL forces attacked Kobani last year. The events brought to the fore the generational cleavage between an older political class and a young urban demographic ready to express their anger in the streets.
A statement by Ocalan calling for peace calmed things down, but some 47 people had already died, and it is uncertain whether fresh agitation would be defused so easily. The next round of violence is widely expected to happen on March 21, the Kurdish feast of Nevroz.
“This is a youth movement and a highly armed and angry youth movement,” said Isil Sariyuce, a journalist who recently spent three weeks in Kurdish-majority southeastern Turkey. “So it’s unpredictable.” Young pro-PKK Kurds are represented by the Patriotic Revolutionist Youth Movement (YDG-H), a nationwide Kurdish youth organisation active in Kurdish districts and controlled and armed by the Qandil-based leadership.
Aside from organising demonstrations, clashing with police and offering social services, they have proven the most effective group in identifying and harassing religious radicals in mosques around Istanbul. Turkish intelligence is believed to have infiltrated the group and may be behind some of its more egregious provocations with the intention of discrediting it and fuelling mainstream anger against the Kurds.
Kurdish de facto autonomy
The Turkish government is also walking a tightrope in its efforts to hold on to electoral constituencies not traditionally within its voter base while ensuring that opposition, currently running at about 50 per cent, does not coalesce. But while Mr Erdogan was anxiously crushing dissent in the form of the “parallel structures” he claimed infiltrated the state, the Kurds were busy in parts of the south-east creating actual parallel governing structures.
In towns such as Cizre and Nusaybin, Kurdish courts have tried, sentenced and executed alleged collaborators with the Turkish state. Local businesses pay their taxes to the PKK, which also provides security in the form of plainclothes militants patrolling on foot and on mopeds and controls the lucrative cigarette and gasoline cross-border smuggling.
AKP electoral domination
Until now, AKP electoral successes were based on the Turkish economy’s strong performance, the construction of fresh infrastructure in neglected areas, and a dominant narrative of empowering ordinary, pious Turks against the secular proponents of the Kemalist project.
But the party has been increasingly riven by dissent since last August, when Mr Erdogan moved from the prime-ministership to the presidency. That presidential election was also marked by Selahattin Demirtas the candidate of the HDP, a leftist Kurdish party, finally bridging the century-old gap with the Turkish mainstream by claiming significant electoral support from secularist Turks, even as segments of the Kurdish population cast their vote for Mr Erdogan in an act of support for the peace process.
Now, with parliamentary elections scheduled for June 7, the HDP is hoping to cross the 10 per cent threshold for entry into the 550-member parliament that was instituted in the aftermath of the 1980 military coup. Such a victory would make a significant voting bloc of the HDP representatives.
“If we pass the 10 per cent mark, we can block the change of the system to a presidential one,” said Mr Altan, who is also one of the HDP founders. “With an estimated 60 candidates, you become a real force in the political scene, you change the mind of those who thought that voting for you led nowhere.”
“But it’s also a great gamble because if we fail, we get nothing and all our efforts are wasted.”
The pro-Ocalan demonstration was coming to an end and groups of participants were walking away, when some young Kurds tried to break through the police cordon. There was a scuffle and a riot unit jogged over. Something detonated and idle cameramen shouldered their gear and ran over. A group of young Kurds started following them, then suddenly stopped.
“No, they’re not our guys,” one of them said, and they all turned away.
Rather than revealing a lack of solidarity between different Kurdish youth groups, the episode highlighted the depth of distrust created by the suspicions that state security has infiltrated Kurdish groups and manipulates them.
This remains another challenge on the road to Turkish-Kurdish peace.
Updated: February 21, 2015 04:00 AM