[Originally published in Turkish Daily News]
What strikes me these days is not the bold effort the Turkish military is taking against the terrorists of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) in the mountains of northern Iraq. From a Turkish perspective, it is a necessary case of a the-best-defense-is-offense type of operation – something that we are used to. What I find really striking is what took place within our own borders: While our armed forces were cracking down Kurdish separatists, thousands of sympathizers of those separatists demonstrated in the streets or Diyarbakır and Van to denounce “the Turkish onslaught.”
This points to something that everybody knows in Turkey but few openly dare to say: The PKK is not some guys – and girls – in arms; it has support and grassroots among some, not all, of our Kurdish citizens. If the PKK had consisted of only its terrorists – in other words if it were something like a mafia – then our state could take care of it by killing or capturing its members one by one. But you can’t finish off a force which is rooted in an unfriendly population. The more you kill their guerrillas, the more they recruit ones. That’s precisely why we haven’t been able to finish off the PKK since 1984.
Political solution, but how?
That’s also why the U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was right when he pointed out that Turkey needs a “political solution.” (And I very much hope that United States itself – and its best ally, Israel – realize the same fact in their own circumstances.) Actually quite many intellectuals in Turkey, too, have been saying the same thing all along. But to accept that you need a political solution does not solve your problem overnight. The next question is what kind of a political solution you need. And to find answer, you have to first find out what kind of a demand you are facing.
Generalizations are always somewhat misleading, but I still think that the “Kurdish demand” that Turkey faces can be divided into two broad categories.
First, there are Kurds who would be satisfied with broader cultural rights and better economic opportunities within a unified and democratic Turkey. They have been detesting the suppression of their identity by the Turkish state – and they are right. But a liberalized and developed Turkey – and especially one which becomes, or at least looks likely to become, an EU member – would be enough for them to be loyal citizens.
In the second category, there are Kurdish nationalists. They believe that Turkey’s Kurds are not only an ethnic group within the Turkish state. They rather think that Kurds are a separate nation that deserves its own nation-state. They realize that they can’t have it overnight; so they should go step by step. They need to do some cultural nation-building, while looking for political opportunities that will grant them the right moment to carve a “Kurdistan” out of Turkey – perhaps as an autonomous region first, and an independent state later.
The next question is how many Kurds of Turkey can be counted as Kurdish nationalists. It is impossible to be precise, but we can get an impression from election results. In Turkish politics, since the early 90s, there is always a political party which represents Kurdish nationalism and which sounds as if it is the political wing of the PKK. And these political parties never have got more than 5 percent of the votes. But polls indicate that people whose mother tongue is Kurdish make up of about 15 percent of the population. This roughly means that only one out of three Kurds is interested in Kurdish nationalism. The others just want decent lives. In the latest election, the great majority of them voted for the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP).
The fact that most Kurds are not nationalist might be considered as good news. But it doesn’t make life much easy, because the nationalist ones are zealous enough to prevent the peaceful integration, let alone the assimilation, of the others into Turkish society. Actually that’s why the PKK is still active and violent during an era in which Kurds have gained unprecedented rights and, therefore, became less and less nationalist. For the PKK, the best Kurd is a nationalist Kurd. Others are either traitors to be eliminated or, at best, fools to be indoctrinated.
Therefore the PKK, and its base, stands as on obstacle to the solution of Turkey’s Kurdish problem. Unless they change their minds, they won’t be settled with a “solution” which paves the way for an independent Kurdish state.
The best we can do
“So why don’t you consider giving them a state,” you might ask. For many people in Turkey, that would be the ultimate heresy. I tend to be more pragmatic on these national issues, and could well have said, “yes, indeed, let’s give them a few cities in the southeast and move on.” That region, after all, is not the most attractive part of Turkey. We would actually be much better off without it.
But things are not that simple. Turkey is different from Iraq, in which ethnic lines between Kurds and Arabs are relatively well defined. Turkey’s Kurds are much more integrated into the country, and more than half of the Kurds now live in the West. The most populous “Kurdish city” in Turkey is not Diyarbakır or Van, but Istanbul. In such a highly mixed population, creating ethnic borders will be a very dangerous experiment. Remember just what happened in Bosnia, or, to India and Pakistan during the partition. Creating a “Kurdistan” in the southeast of Turkey, even as a federal state, would provoke nationalism all around the country and lead to a horrible Turko-Kurdish clash.
So what can Turkey do? The best hope is to try to win Kurdish hearts and minds as much as possible with a much better democracy and economy. This might marginalize Kurdish nationalism, whose armed wing, the PKK, must be dealt with both counter-terrorism (i.e., sticks) and methods of disarmament (i.e., carrots.).
Even if we do all this, we can’t be sure that the Kurdish question will be solved. It is really the toughest problem for Turkey. In the Islam-secularism conflict, there are fierce words and clenched fists. But in this ethnic conflict, there are 35 thousand dead bodies.