Tag Archives: Kurdish question

Is Turkey Really Ready For Peace?


5 April 2013

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What word that belongs to yesterday
Is gone, my dear, with yesterday
The time to say new things is today

In my previous post, I had explained why I was pessimistic about Turkey despite the positive aura borne out of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan’s Nowruz message. In a nutshell, I argued that given Öcalan’s and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s past statements and actions praising violence, a tough path awaited Turkey.

Another reason why I’m pessimistic is because even though a majority of Turkey’s citizens want violence to end, I don’t think they’re ready to face the requirements of a resolution, a real peace.

Before going into the resolution, it’s useful to diagnose the problem.

The problem is violence itself. For 30 years, handing Kalashnikov rifles over to Kurdish kids to fight G-3-holding Turkish kids has neither improved the lot of Turkish Kurds nor eliminated the risk seccesion for Turkey. On the contrary, violence bred a vicious circle: every dead militant, soldier, policeman, or civilian alienated Turks and Kurds from each other. Every death flamed more hatred among those left behind.

As such, the first thing to do is to end violence, to put down the guns. This truthism, however, brings us to a point that PKK sympathizers will not like: it is the PKK that has to cease its activities, not the state. It is also the PKK that has to lay down its guns, not the state. After all, states throughout the world have to maintain national security and public order irrespective of whether they are dealing with militant groups or not. Thus, PKK has to go beyond its peaceful Nowruz rhetoric and actually renounce violence.

In order to persuade PKK militants to give up on violence, the Turkish state and the AKP government have a very important duty. I’m not talking about another law for “amnesty, regret, returning home,” half-hearted measures from the 1990s and early 2000s that failed to stop the bloodshed. Nor am I talking about the so-called “wise men committee” that was recently announced. What Turkey needs is a mechanism similar to South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

This commission should comprise experts on conflict analysis and resolution (not just flashy names that would make the public feel good) and should be responsible with listening to the testimonies of PKK members and record their statements. More important, when feasible, the commission should find a way to bring PKK militants together with the victims of their attacks or their surviving family members. That way, the commission would give perpetrators and victims a change to apologize and forgive.

Turkey’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission would not only handle the cases of PKK militants but also government agents who committed crimes (especially those involved in extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, and torture) during operations against the militant group. Just as in the case of militants, these agents would also be encouraged to meet with their victims or their surviving kin for mutual apology and forgiveness.

I am aware that many people would find this idea of a commission unacceptable and that it would not bring back the dead. I am not naive and certainly not stupid. At the beginning of this post, I expressly pointed out the possibility that few people in Turkey would accept this idea.

But if we don’t want the 40 thousand people we’ve lost in the last 30 years to turn into 400 thousand or 4 million in the next three decades, we all need to draw lessons from our mistakes. Only if we can forgive ourselves and “the others” can real peace come to Turkey.

Are we ready to forgive ourselves? I’m not sure about that.

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.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).


Nowruz and Peace in Turkey: It’s a New Dawn, It’s a New Day, It’s a New Life, but I’m not Feeling Good


25 March 2013

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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.

apo joeLooking 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.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).


AKP and “Back to the Future” Turkish-Style

[For the Turkish version of this post, click here.]

Minister of Interior Affairs İdris Naim Şahin: "All dissident journalists are in jail. We've never been this free."

The NGO Reporters Without Borders has demoted Turkey by 10 places in its World Press Freedom Index rankings for 2011-2012. The report’s statement that “the judicial system launched a wave of arrests of journalists that was without precedent since the military dictatorship [of the early 1980s]” reminded me of the “Back to the Future” movie series.

In the trilogy, the heroes use a time machine to go back and forth between the past and the future, which causes them to inadvertently change events and cause new problems. As Turkey tries to solve its old problems with outdated means, it faces the same contradiction as the heroes of “Back to the Future”: without learning from the mistakes of its past, Turkey seems destined to repeating them.

To continue reading, click here.


The Crazy (and Naïve) Oracle: Some Wishful Thinking for 2011


January 7, 2011

A favorite story that I like to tell my students goes as follows:

One day in 1928, friends of the smartest man in Munich asked him to predict the city’s future. “In 1933,” the man starts, “the city, like the rest of the country, is run by the thugs who had tried to carry out a coup five years ago.” His friends are not impressed. “But ten years later,” the man continues optimistically, “Munich will be the leading cultural and commercial center of the German Empire stretching from the North Pole to North Africa.” Joyful, his friends ask him to say more. “Five years later, however, Munich, together with the rest of Germany, will lie in ruins.” The comment displeases his audience.

“Oh, don’t look so depressed,” the man goes on, “by 1953, we would have rebuilt Munich with American aid, and, by 1963, more than half of Munich residents will be so well-off that they’ll own boxes that show movies and pictures like in the cinemas.” His friends, bewildered, then hear the most shocking bit: “Look, we’ll end up having so many jobs in Munich by 1963 that we’ll have to bring in hundreds of thousands of workers from other countries to maintain our prosperity.”

The man’s friends, of course, lock him up in a lunatic asylum, even though events would prove him correct.

In the same spirit as the crazy wise man, here are my predictions for 2011:

–          The international community finally understands the nature of the insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan and shifts its attention to rebuilding the two countries’ socioeconomic infrastructure with long-term project and not “quick impact” ideasthat are of little use. Building schools, hospitals, dams and roads seems to cost a lot less than guns and bullets.

–          Realizing that its own well-being can only go hand-in-hand with its neighbors’ security, the Pakistani government shows greater resolve to curtail insurgent activity on the Afghan border. The security situation in both countries shows marked improvement.

–          The Iranian government and the P5+1 group start making real progress on the nuclear question. Iran grants the IAEA full access to all of its nuclear facilities; the UN Security Council begins lifting the sanctions. American and Iranian diplomats lay the groundwork for a direct meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi. Re-establishing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran seems on the horizon.

–          Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally ends the coalition with the far-right Avigdor Lieberman and forms a new coalition with the centrist Kadima. Netanyahu’s move convinces Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas to restart direct talks. Both parties show unprecedented flexibility with respect to sensitive issues: Jerusalem, Israeli settlements, and the return of Palestinian refugees. Progress with the Palestinians encourages the Israeli government to renew peace talks with Syria.

–          The last U.S. forces withdraw from Iraq as scheduled. With American forces out, the Obama administration can allocate more resources for economic recovery and reduces the federal deficit. The U.S. economy finally starts to improve, followed by the rest of the world. Republicans and Democrats in Congress begin to address some of America’s most pressing problems, much to everyone’s surprise.

–          In Turkey, the PKK declares a permanent ceasefire against Turkey and agrees to turn over its arms to the United Nations. In turn, the AKP government, with support from CHP, passes a law giving full amnesty to the organization’s rank-and-file and conditional amnesty to high-ranking officials in Northern Iraq. With the violence coming to an end in Southeast Turkey, democratic standards improve and the region’s economy begins to boom.

–          North and South Korea tone down their rhetoric and mutually suspend all military exercises. The North Korean leadership, aware of their country’s despondent situation, begins talks with its southern brothers to end the country’s now-58-year-old division.

(Other actual and potential conflict zones can be added to this list with similar “predictions”: Bosnia-Herzegovina; China-Taiwan; Congo; the Ivory Coast; Kosovo; Northern Mexico; Sudan.)

Do such predictions make me sound crazy? Of course they do.

But if you’re going to lock me up like the man from Munich, bear in mind that if a good deal of these prophecies do not work out, not many of us will survive to tell me that I was wrong.

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.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com). 


President Abdullah Gül’s Diyarbakır Trip Begs the Question: “What is Wrong with Turks and Kurds?” (or “Why Did We Eat This Thing?”)


January 1, 2011

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Citizens’ reaction to President Abdullah Gül’s Diyarbakır visit and the images that the trip conveyed were quite positive. The President frequently underlined the importance of Turkish as the official and national language of Turkey while underlining how Kurdish and other languages are Turkey’s cultural riches. Kurdish politicians concurred.

All of that was nice and pleasant. But if Diyarbakır and the southeast can convey such positive scenes – if we can sit down and discuss our problems in a civilized manner – then we need to ask ourselves this question: What was wrong with Turks and Kurds for the last 26 years that we lost nearly 40,000 citizens – military personnel, police officers, government functionaries, militants, and civilians? Or, as it says in a Turkish joke, “why did we eat this thing?”

The crux of the matter is this: Violence is not solving the Kurdish question. Neither PKK’s attacks nor internal security operations by the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) have ended the problem for the last 26 years. TAF is not going to finish off the PKK nor is PKK going to secure autonomy or independence for the Kurds.

How is the Kurdish question going to be solved, then?

One’s solution for the Kurdish question depends on how one defines its source: If you believe that the Kurdish question springs from the profound poverty in Eastern Turkey (as I do), then we’ll continue to discuss these matters until the eastern portion of the country reaches socioeconomic parity with the rest.

Or maybe you’re one of those who think (as I do) that at the root of the Kurdish question lies the Turkish state’s imposition of an identity and ideology to its citizens – above and beyond the necessities of civic education. In that case, we will continue to argue over the Kurdish question until the day we redefine state-citizen relations in Turkey and start treating the citizen as a human being who has a right to lead her life as she deems fit – rather than an object whose ideas, clothes, and speech is determined by the state.

Or maybe you’re among those who think (as I do) that at the core of the Kurdish question lies Kurds’ reaction to the “there are no Kurds; only Turks” idea that came out in the early days of the Republic; an idea that was amplified by the military regime of 1980-83. Accordingly, we’re going to have to wait and suffer until Turkey finds a way to integrate Kurdish identity to Turkish identity (or, as Kurdish parties like to call it “Türkiyeli“person from the country of Turkey”).

But if you’re sick and tired of waiting (I am), there is a way to normalize – even solve – Turkey’s Kurdish question. It’s going to happen by being realistic.

So let’s be realistic: since 1984, the PKK’s “struggle” has brought nothing but blood, death, and tears to Kurds. Let’s be realistic: the Turkish state’s exclusive reliance on security forces has delivered blood, death, and tears to the entire country. Let’s be realistic: just as violence won’t solve the Kurdish question, neither will a childish shouting match in the form of “you said this, you did this.”

Realism means that, at a time when the PKK refuses to disband itself – and threatens to resume violence – the idea of regional autonomy is simply impractical. At any rate, if we’re realistic, we’ll see that Ankara has to delegate authority and responsibility to local governments, not only in the east and southeast, but throughout the country. And we can see that this need is borne out of pragmatic considerations rather than political calculations – if we’re realistic.

Being realistic is to lift the language restrictions in daily life, commerce, and education in the east and southeast – where life is already bilingual – without changing the official language. Of course, realism is to work out how we’re going teach languages other than Turkish and Kurdish to our children so that they can compete in a world that is globalizing rapidly and mercilessly.

To be realistic means understanding that so many people in Turkey do not see Kurdish demands as a desire to live as equal citizens but as PKK’s machinations to accomplish its political goals. But realism also necessitates the government and political parties listening to Kurdish proposals rather than dismissing them. Kurdish politicians won’t listen if they get yelled at: they can hear the message only if they’re calmly told why some of their demands (especially about autonomy) are misguided.

In the final analysis, if we use our wits and senses, we’ll accept that this thing that we’ve been eating for 26 years doesn’t taste so good. If we’re realistic.

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.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).