25 March 2013
Listening to Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” may help to lift your mood because this post is probably going to worsen it.
Last Thursday, 21 March, was Now Ruz (new day), the traditional celebration in Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries that marks the arrival of spring. This Now Ruz was especially important for Turkey because Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish militant group PKK, called upon his followers to lay down their arms and leave Turkey. “Silence the weapons,” declared Mr. Öcalan, “let ideas and politics speak.”
The PKK has waged a bloody conflict against Turkish security forces for almost thirty years, a war that has claimed nearly 40,000 lives. Formed partly in response to human rights violations (such as the systematic torture in Diyarbakır prison and banning the Kurdish language in public under the military regime in the early 1980s), the militant group’s original objective was to establish an independent state in southeast Turkey. More recently, the PKK and Kurdish political groups in Turkey have moderated their position to demand autonomy similar to the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq.
There’s every reason to hope that tears and bloodshed might come to an end in Turkey. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has responded to the PKK leader’s message with cautious optimism and called it “very positive,” a sentiment shared by many of his fellow citizens.
As Nina Simone would say, it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life. But unlike Nina, I’m not feeling good.
Here’s why: having studied Mr. Erdoğan and Mr. Öcalan very closely for the past 10 years, I am convinced that they are only interested in their own political well-being. Both men have said and done things that lend credence to my suspicions.
For example, when opponents criticized his government for its inability to respond to the PKK’s attacks last summer, Mr. Erdoğan cited the high number of dead PKK militants and the low number of dead Turkish soldiers to underscore the effectiveness of government forces. The real criterion for success, of course, is eliminating the conditions that give rise to violent groups like the PKK. The prime minister also blamed media outlets for reporting their reports on the attacks, which he equated with supporting “PKK propaganda.”
Moreover, since the 2007 elections, Mr. Erdoğan has overseen the largest clampdown on journalists and free speech in Turkish history. Turkey is now considered the “world’s biggest prison for journalists” and it is at the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index. It’s highly questionable if Turkey’s Kurdish question could be resolved without substantial improvements to its troublesome democracy. It’s highly debatable if Mr. Erdoğan is the man for that job.
Mr. Öcalan, for his part, led the PKK with an iron fist before his capture in 1999. He demanded absolute obedience from his subordinates and eliminated those who wouldn’t budge. A sad joke relates that Mr. Öcalan doesn’t just share a taste in large moustaches with Stalin.
Looking at the bigger picture, the two leaders give me cause to be pessimistic. Given Prime Minister Erdoğan’s constant flip-flopping on virtually every issue of significance, it is not unlikely that he will ride the wave of positive sentiments until he reaches his aim to become president next year. Furthermore, with his ultra-nationalist and ultra-religious stance on virtually every issue–not to mention his dislike of liberal democracy–it is unlikely for the Turkish Prime Minister to cut a meaningful deal with the Kurds.
As for Mr. Öcalan, although he languishes in prison, he does hold a few trump cards. For one, if he isn’t released from prison as part of a deal with the Turkish government or if he is not guaranteed a wide space in politics after his release, he might call upon his followers to take up arms again. Mr. Öcalan’s deputy, Murat Karayılan, has already signaled that laying down arms and withdrawing PKK militants from southeast Turkey is not a foregone conclusion.
And if hostilities recommence in Turkey, the next round of violence will make the 40,000 dead of the past 30 years look like a rosy dream. In order to avoid that outcome, Turkey needs a “feel-good” peace.
In my next post, I will discuss the general contours of that peace.
Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.