Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Beyond Bananas: Hopes for the Kurdish Minority in 2009

PHOTO from the New York Times

President Gül received praise from those serious about resolving the Kurdish problem when he invited Hakarri DTP deputy Hamit Geylati to Çankaya Palace this November. With Geylati, Gül discussed the status of the Kurdish minority with the president, including cultural and political rights. What made the meeting so remarkable was its contrast to the politics of Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose staunchly nationalist remarks in Hakarri in late October helped ignite protests against the prime minister throughout the region. Sparked by reports from imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan's attorney that the exiled head of the infamous separatist group is being mistreated, thousands of Kurds rallied against the prime minister's appearance, prompting stores to be shut down in protest and demonstrators to clash with police. The Prime Minister's failure to fully recognize and promote the cultural and political rights of Turkey's Kurdish minority has been a sore spot for Kurds for some time, and was quite palpable when I visited Diyarbakır last May.

The political differences between Gül and Erdoğan evince the incoherency of the government's policy toward the Kurds, especially at a time of considerable rapprochement, even cooperation, between AKP and the Turkish Armed Services. Like other contrasts between the policy positions the president and prime minister have taken, Gül is more willing to make fundamental reforms, escape from the vicious cycles of past politics, and move Turkey forward. Erdoğan, on the other hand, is playing a role more molded to the traditional statist/nationalist politician. Intellectuals like Mehmet Altan, Ece Temelkuran, Altan Tan, and Hasan Cemal, among scores of others, have expressed scorn at AKP policy as of late (see TDZ, Dec. 2; Yavuz Baydar, Dec. 1). Cemal, who writes for Milliyet, went so far as to compare Erdoğan's increasingly cozy relationship with the Turkish Armed Services (TSK) to Tansu Çiller, who served as prime minister as the state's war against the Kurds escalated in the early 1990s. Indeed, the prime minister's Kurdish policy is so bemoaned by Turkish liberals as to catch the attention of the not-so-long-ago enamored international press: both the New York Times and the Spiegel recently ran stories on the prime minister's disconcertingly nationalist proclivities.

AKP won re-election in 2007 with high hopes that the party would transform politics in the Kurdish southeast, thereby easing tensions between the Turkish state and the PKK terrorist group. The PKK assumed a dominant position in the 1980s following the reactionary-led military coup of 1980 that devastated its politics. Throughout the 1980s and the bitter war the organization fought with the Turkish state in the early 1990s, the PKK declared a right to self-determination for all Kurdish people to be secured by its winning full territorial and political independence from Turkey and forming its own state. Since then, the "Organization," as it is referred to by many Kurds, has expressed its willingness to negotiate a settlement with Turkey that provides the country's Kurdish minority with cultural and political rights to self-determination within the confines of the Turkish state. Since Öcalan's capture in 1999, the PKK is far from monolithic in its structure, ideology, and practical politics, and neither is the DTP (Demokratik Toplum Partisi), often recognized as its political wing. One might think of the DTP's relation to the PKK as similar to that between the IRA and Sinn Feín in Northern Ireland or ETA and Harri Batasuna in the Basque country, although its association is probably even more obfuscate and control weaker. The PKK is largely a destructive force in Kurdish politics, preventing more moderate, compromising voices from rising to power, and conflict between hardliners in the Turkish state and those in the Kurdish minority has the effect of further empowering the hardliners while undermining compromise. This is true in terms of military relations between the PKK and the Turkish military just as it is between nationalist politicians in Ankara and the more radical politicians in the DTP. (For further discussion of this dynamic, see my post on the DTP party conference from last August, as well as my assessment of Kurdish politicians' reactions to the Ergenekon investigation.)

In Hakarri, Erdoğan declared that those who question the idea of "one nation, one flag, one state" should leave Turkey. This is exactly the kind of thinking that will empower hardliners in both the PKK and the DTP, and in an environment in which over 90 percent of Turks would rather live in Turkey than an independent Kurdistan, is likely to disenchant a significant number of Kurds before hopeful that their cultural and social rights might be accommodated within the Turkish state structure. Politicians as far back as the 1960s have recognized that the Kurdish problem affects all of Turkey, and that the only peaceful and just solution is an arrangement in which the Kurdish minority is assured cultural and political rights, and perhaps even given some measure of limited autonomy from Ankara. Just as there are similarities between Turkish and Kurdish citizens, there are also differences, and there is certainly room to negotiate smart, lasting solutions premised on multiple sites of sovereignty, identity, and participation, all secured by rights. Indeed, it is the denial of even the most basic political rights that pits Kurds against Turks (for example, see Lale Sarııbrahımoğlu on freedom of expression and the Kurdish issue), not to mention invasive practices of torture and police abuse that inflict severe psychological damage and ill will. And, while there are plenty of reformers -- Turks and Kurds alike -- who are determined to change the status quo, rhetoric like that from the prime minister in Hakarri is sure effrontery to the spirit of progress first engendered by the more conciliatory politics of AKP, especially when Gül exerted a leadership role within the party.

Disillusionment with AKP's commitment to cultural and political rights for Kurds was already greatly waning at this time last year following the PKK's renewed attacks in fall 2007. My description of the situation I wrote about last February for the most part holds true. Kurds continue to be prosecuted under restrictive speech codes as torture and detention of suspected PKK-members is on the increase. Further, AKP is less likely to offer its support to local efforts that promote Kurdish culture or education. Although the EU still has a very important role to play in implementing law that legalizes rights for Kurds to hold cultural gatherings and conduct Kurdish language education, AKP support for such undertakings remains half-hearted. Further, even though Turkey's recent efforts to make way for a 24-hour Kurdish broadcast channel are hugely laudable, 2008 brought with it more problems as well, including the recent conviction of Leyla Zana, an increase in "open air" torture and detention, and the continued prosecution of Kurds under draconian restrictions of freedom of expression. For the most recent examples, see the cases against journalist Veysi Sarısözen, who is alleged to have praised the PKK in his writings, and Kurdish politician Mahmut Alınak, who was recently sentenced to four months and five days in prison for organizing people to take part in civil disobedience. Harrassment of Kurdish politics is evidenced by the cases brought against Diyarbakir mayor Osman Baydemir and the city's DTP leader, Nejdet Atalay, for referring to members of the PKK as "guerillas" versus "terrorists." Violent protests during Newroz celebrations this March in Van and Hakarri further belie any claim that much progress has been made to stem state repression of Kurdish dissent and open the southeast up politically.

Instead of talking about political and cultural rights, Prime Minister Erdoğan is more keen to talk about economics. Turkish intellectual Ece Temelkuran has compared AKP policy in the southeast to giving out Islamist bananas, an attempt to perhaps bridge the development gap, but an approach that ultimately fails to address the demands of Kurds for the state to recognize their unique identity and standing in Turkish society. (For a similar argument, see Kerem Oktem, who assesses these Islamist bananas as tantamount to co-optation.) While some Turks far too often decry such a demand as separatism, other Turks and most Kurds see recognition as the foundation of basic human rights -- the right to address each other in their own language without state interference, to educate their children in the language of their grandmothers, to celebrate their culture in free assembly, and to enter politics as individuals with identities that might be both Kurdish and Turkish, and therefore, more difficult to negotiate than that of the average Turk. However, what Temelkuran identifies as "Islamist banana politics" and the politics that analyzes in his consideration of AKP policy, fall far short of meeting this demand. Nonetheless, AKP holds economic development and the creation of a state television channel as sufficient compromises, a secret battle plan to combat a war on terrorism that fails to extirpate the root of the problem. While AKP's realization of the need to develop the southeast is light years ahead of the thought asserted by other political parties, it still simply not enough, and as a result, likely to fail. Nonetheless, even when AKP's economic policies for the Kurdish southeast are highly dubious, they have often tacitly endorsed by some in the Western media (see the New York Times' treatment of GAP this March).

Kurdish Turks/Turkish Kurds?? protest in Ankara. PHOTO FROM REUTERS

Islamist banana politics gained further legitimacy this fall when the government and military began working more closely together. As indicated by the recent resignations of former AKP deputy chair Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat, an ethnic Kurd, banana politics are likely to become even more entrenched as the government further eschews cultural and political rights . As Lale Sarııbrahımoğlu elucidates, his replacement, Abdulkadir Aksu, also Kurdish, "has been widely viewed as a reflection of the AK Party's shift in policy from one that supports the greater engagement of Kurds in the political process to one that has further narrowed the room for maneuver for Kurds to express their political opinions." Further signalling this new era of cooperation and consensus on the Kurdish issue, the military top brass, typically quite reticent on political approaches to the Kurdish problem, has publicly agreed with the prime minister that the solution is economic. While this is undeniably in-part the case -- and, despite the TSK's discussion of non-military solutions being a positive step -- the danger is that too exclusive a focus on the economy is incapable of leading to a comprehensive political solution, thereby risking failed policy, and likely more violence as a function of resulting frustration. Not only are banana politics not fair to Kurds, but they are not pragmatic.

Insidious defenses of banana politics cite AKP's decisions as made in agreement with Kurdish public opinion (though the polls are dubitable, and show only the slightest of majorities placing economic over cultural/political concerns), in addition to an exaggerated disconnect between Kurdish intellectuals/political leaders and the overwhelming majority of Kurds, who are overwhelmingly very poor people. The myopia of the banana defenders is on full display in arguing the last point since any amelioration of the living conditions of Kurds will likely raise consciousness of cultural repression, not diminish it. For examples of banana defenses, see Abdulhamit Bilici and Mümtaz'er Türköne. In one defense, Türköne argues,
"For [DTP], the victory of the AK Party, especially in Diyarbakır, will be a
nightmare. If the AK Party wins in southeastern Anatolia, the Kurdish question
will enter a new phase. The PKK and the DTP will not remain the sole powers
designing pro-Kurdish politics. Pro-Kurdish politics will be ‘pluralized.’"
Plural societies value multiculturalism, and rarely does one see pluralism used as a verb; what Türköne means is more closely approximated by the term assimilation, and prosperous, multi-ethnic societies are just as, if not more, likely to resist assimilation and make self-determination claims (see Quebec, the Basque Country and Cataluña, Northern Ireland, Belgium, etc.).

Further undermining its credentials in the southeast, AKP has failed to take a strong stand against DTP's potential closure, leaving many Kurds, even those not necessarily fond of DTP, feeling betrayed. DTP is in the process of preparing itself for potential closure, including forming a backup party, though it is possible that the Constitutional Court will not reach a decision until after March's local elections (see Bianet, Dec. 18).

In an interview this Novemeber in the Spiegel, DTP co-chair Ahmet Türk, a moderate within the party who has denounced PKK violence, characterized the Turkish state's treatment of the Kurdish minority as cultural and social genocide. Although such claims are difficult to adjudicate, they do reveal just how oppressed many Kurds feel by a state that has historically been reluctant to even recognize the fact of a distinct Kurdish identity. It is important to remember that Turkey has gone leaps and bounds from where it was in the 1980s in its treatment of the Kurds (and, this is not to discount the work of leftist before the coup), but it has further to go still. (See Nicole Pope's column from yesterday wherein she recounts remembering a time when "Kurd" was not kosher in policy discussions).

And, while Erdoğan's remarks in Hakarri give cause for concern, President Gül's actions give reason to be hopeful. There are indeed other reasons for hope. In the course of ongoing preparations for local elections, political parties are undertaking intense efforts to win Kurdish votes in the southeast. AKP's recent release of TRT-6 -- and Erdoğan's interview introducing the channel, in which he wishes for its success in Kurdish -- is just one example of the progressive reform that might come about if such competition for Kurdish votes continues. AKP and CHP both have welcomed the recent opening of departments of Kurdish literature at Dicle and İstanbul University, a bill introduced in November by DTP deputy Siirt Osman Özçelik. For its part, CHP has also attempted to court Kurdish voters, though the party, as AKP-leaning Today's Zaman concludes, is less likely to win large percentages. Even so, that the party is making a serious effort despite knowing it is unlikely to have much success is even more indicative of the importance of the Kurds' burgeoning vote in the country.

Also, as the Christian Science Monitor's Yigal Schleifer reports, worthy of note is that the competition for votes is also affecting DTP's politics. In the course of campaigning, DTP has boosted efforts to appeal to religious Kurds and shed its Marxist secular image. DTP's transformation is just as groundbreaking as that of CHP or AKP, if not more so, as a vote-savvy, politically conscious DTP courting religious Kurds is less likely to be beholden to the PKK, and from a stronger position of power, more capable of participating in a political solution to end PKK violence. As Schleifer notes, Kurds are among the most religious of Turkish citizens, and as DTP moves to win Kurdish AKP-voters, AKP will feel even more pressure to win religious Kurds who also demand cultural and political rights. According to Taraf, DTP deputy Hasip Kaplan has already proposed a law allowing that the Kurdish letters Q, W, and X in government correspondence, and attention is focused on the continued prohibition of the use of Kurdish by public officials, including parliamentarians.


Anonymous said...

I'll offer one more angle. Some of Erdogan's hawkish-looking statements can be explained by his desire to keep his votes in the Western part of the country. Even in Istanbul I know some AKP-voters who have been grumbling about what they perceive to be light-handed treatment by the police of the PKK rioters. Erdogan's expression of his understanding of the situation of that store-owner with the shotgun might also be geared towards maintaining his support among Turkish voters in mixed and potentially volatile areas. (I believe that guy's property elsewhere got burned down later though. Some far-leftist site was bragging about that 'punishment.')

This issue is as almost much about the Western part of the country as it is about the SE. Managing the perceptions and maintaining the support of the Turks in West, especially in areas where there might be volatility because of economic competition, is just as important as getting votes in the SE. So far violence has been kept under control despite rather obvious attempts at provocation like the Gungoren bomb. The situation is still delicate nonetheless, and will remain so for a long time. There's relatively little to be shared by an increasing population in the Western urban centers, giving rise to tensions among people with not much to lose.

"They have large families and think nothing of sacrificing a few siblings to get a foothold in this business/area and the gov't favors them" is something I have heard more than once. While this perception of 'them' is not new, questioning the side the government takes is new and any party in power will need to take that into account.

Part of the problem is that MHP, BBP and to an extent CHP are more hawkish than AKP and can turn the ethnic Turkish discontent into votes but there's no party with an appreciable Turkish voter base on the doveish side. I believe elements within the DTP realize this and recognize that alliances with the marginal left (like the ODP) will not be sufficient. Perhaps occasional calls for a Kemalist-DTP alliance could be taken as evidence of this recognition. (A bunch of OP-EDs by Aysel Tugluk of DTP in Radikal are what I have in mind as examples).

Anonymous said...

I dug up the link for one of Tugluk's offers. She refers not only to Misak-i Milli and how it ought to be protected but also has a rather transparent hint that Turkish Kurds (via DTP no doubt) can pull in the Iraqi Kurds and thus realize the 'real' Misak-i Milli (which included the Mosul Vilayet).

She penned another piece offering an alliance agaist what she (roughly) characterized as the 'imperial' US-backed moderate Islam project.

I'm not sure if these got translated but if not, I think they ought to be.

Wladimir van Wilgenburg said...

Interesting article and interesting response Bulent. Lot of people forget that Erdogan also said Kurds can be proud on their own identity during that speech. But the media only talked about the ya sev, ya terk et crap.

Ragan Updegraff said...

After Güngören, it indeed really is noteworthy that violence did not escalate. The grumblings about the lion's share of government social spending going to the southeast, and Kurds exercising an unhealthy influence in government are strong, and I understand that. I am curious what you think of the calculus political parties are taking in terms of courting votes in the southeast? Obviously, party leaders must think that the potential votes they might win by taking a softened line on Kurdish issues outweigh potential losses among nationalist Turks. Most intriguing to me is the CHP position: The party has little hope of making serious inroads in the southeast, and yet it is talking about negotiating concepts such as the singularity of the Turkish nation -- ideas anathema to where the party stood only a short time ago. How do you think CHP's posturing will play for them come spring? Will the hardline nationalists, even those who have are discomfited by MHP's Sunni religious taint, be driven further to the right?

One other question: Out of the more youthful CHP supporters I met who were the most fervent in their opposition to the headscarf amendment, many were less than enthusiastic for Baykal's hardcore nationalism. This reluctance to embrace CHP, and even scorn of Baykal, was sometimes expressed to me in terms of the party's simple thinking of the Kurdish question. Many young people -- self-identified "Kemalists" if you will -- were able to differentiate the PKK from the Kurds at-large, and many were quite open about the issue of cultural/political rights and their systemic denial. This thinking was miles ahead of some of the thinking on the right among AKP supporters, and especially among the few MHP cohorts I interviewed, which was premised on the idea that the only people who demand cultural/political rights do so because they are intent to weaken the Turkish state. In an approximate 3/4 with whom I spoke who shared this opinion, they expressed this intention as a function of many Kurds' being in collusion with, or interestingly enough, deceived by the PKK. CHP has been more hawkish, but do you see this changing--is CHP's new rhetoric made only for short-term gain? Are there doveish groups open to accomodating cultural/political rights demands who might come to power anytime in the near future?

One more thought/question: If DTP does win huge victories across the southeast in local elections, will Turkish parties give up efforts to court Kurdish voters? Will political parties re-work the calculus under which they are currently operating, and in a complete reversal, take more hawkish stances toward the southeast? With the left largely marginalized, and CHP seeming to take any policy position it finds politically expedient, what will become of the Kurdish question in the coming years, especially if European accession concerns become more removed from equation?

Anonymous said...

After Güngören, it indeed really is noteworthy that violence did not escalate.

Also noteworthy is that a foreign intelligence agency uncharacteristically made a public statement about it and our conspiracy-loving press didn't pursue the matter.

The grumblings about the lion's share of government social spending going to the southeast, and Kurds exercising an unhealthy influence in government are strong, and I understand that.

I'm thinking that it might go beyond that. In mixed urban areas the PKK might be turning into something like what the US mob is reputed to have been for immigrants (ie running protection rackets and/or offering 'justice' services etc). To an extent this has been (or must have been) true before, but more than one person I talked to told me about a new twist: non-Kurdish people needing to be associated with the AKP or favored cemaats to get the state institutions to perform their duties in case of disputes where Kurds are on the other side. This is still mere gossip but I don't think it is totally made up. We've had a similar experience with the MHP before. Perhaps any political movement linked to long-lasting organized violence tends to get involved in such things and in turn triggers actual or the perception of political corruption in law enforcement.

Obviously, party leaders must think that the potential votes they might win by taking a softened line on Kurdish issues outweigh potential losses among nationalist Turks.

What the 'state' policy is or perceived to be would be a huge factor. If people sense 'the state' is likely to take a certain softer attitude, they'll probably not complain much as long as there is no violence. We already do have some reason to assume that the state policy is changing. It may also depend on what happens in Iraq and whether the US policy will change (not that I undertand what the US policy is at the present time). All this softening process can turn on a dime if conscripts' funerals start being held every other day in small towns again and Barzani or Talabani start saying the wrong kinds of things with perceived or real US backing.

So I think the nationalist sentiment can be kept under control if there's nothing substantial feeding it, but perhaps not so easily otherwise. This is especially true if the economy keeps worsening and people start getting deeply frustrated. (It is and has been so easy to think up disasterous but plausible circumstances and scenarios for this country that I sometimes wonder if we should be praising the powers that be rather than poking fun at their inanities.)

Most intriguing to me is the CHP position: The party has little hope of making serious inroads in the southeast, and yet it is talking about negotiating concepts such as the singularity of the Turkish nation -- ideas anathema to where the party stood only a short time ago.

I wasn't aware of that shift. When did they say it? The 'left' that can get votes elsewhere in the country had a very bad experience when they allowed Zana et. al. to be piggybacked onto their party. Note that in the Ankara municipality race, the AKP candidate is already talking about the CHP candidate's past favors to the PKK. So the coalition/alliance that Tugluk hints at or even some measure of convergence of ideas isn't that likely to happen easily. On the other hand I don't think the far-left-leaning DTP would lose votes in the SE to another left-leaning party. The 'right' can use religion, tradition (about women's issues and such) and/or promises of money from Ankara, but the 'left' in the form of CHP or the likes of the milder SHP and such cannot credibly do so under the present circumstances. That said, there might be some value in not being positively detested as a party even if it doesn't translate into numbers from the ballot box in the SE. It may have implications for the voter behviour in the West too. I'm just musing, of course.

I think all bets are off if the DTP gets shut down. Factions within it occasionally appear to be trying hard to get it shut down. I don't know what the polls say but if it looks like the AKP will increase their votes in the SE, they may choose to try to make it impossible for the verdict to come out in their favor. (Food for thought: if the AKP's vote potential were in the low teens tops in the entire SE, would it still be legal?)

Will the hardline nationalists, even those who have are discomfited by MHP's Sunni religious taint, be driven further to the right?

The MHP has a problem of both watching its right flank and appearing sane enough to remain above the 10% threshold. I'd guess their ability to organize grass roots support and muscle is being replaced by more religious 'cemaat's who can now offer gov't contracts and employment. I'd say somebody ought to look into this but after the treatment Toprak et. al. got for merely daring to mention Gulen I doubt we'll have many takers.

I have no idea on the Kemalist youth question. If you have done field work, you know far more than I do (is that written up?). I'll just re-iterate something you probably have already concluded: the "Kemalist" caricature offered by much of the press is bogus -- regular people on the street are not as ridiculous as that. I'd also be cautious about the fake history that goes along the lines that people once thought Kurds were Turks and such. The official line may have implied or asserted it, but I don't know anyone who actually thought that.

One more thought/question: If DTP does win huge victories across the southeast in local elections, will Turkish parties give up efforts to court Kurdish voters?

I don't think that's a realistic scenario. The system itself tends to evolve in a way that, say, DTP polling consistenty at 60-70%+ DTP in the entire SE doesn't happen. If that kind of alienation from all of the mainstream parties happened and the votes concentrated on one local party, I don't think we'd be talking about efforts by regular political parties any more but about something else entirely. Flawed as the existing system of government might be, voter inclinations do count for something here in terms of the the stance of the mainstream parties and 'the state' as it were. If the AKP didn't exist, there would be other mainstream parties with ballot box potential in the SE. Now, of course, bear in mind that I might be making all this up because I personally find the alternative too scary (including what that would imply for Istanbul and the rest of the ethnically mixed cities).

Ragan Updegraff said...

Thanks for another thoughtful response, and it will be interesting to follow these questions into the future.

As to the young Kemalists, I sought out several students who were opposed to the headscarf amendments simply to get a feel for how they articulated their arguments. In the course of so doing, I also asked them broader questions about CHP, Baykal, the left, and CHP/the "left"'s stance on a variety of issues, one of the most interesting being the Kurdish question.

I am going to post briefly today on CHP's shifting positions. As someone with a life-long experience in Turkish politics, you have more insight than I do here.

As to DTP and the election scenario, I think you are probably right that it is unlikely a mainstream party will not find a modicum of success sufficient to allow it to continue justifying vote-seeking efforts in the southeast. I also think this in many ways separates the situation of the Kurdish minority apart. Although other stateless nations have been equally disunified in terms of party organization, the religious conservatism of Turkey's Kurdish minority is at rather established odds against the DTP's ideology/politics. Granted, the potential for violent conflict and an even stronger sense of national solidarity can undermine these differences, but it is unlikely that the DTP will ever be capable of becoming so much the sole representative of the Kurdish minority as to preclude Kurds finding representation in other parties. If this ever were to become the case, the situation in Turkey's cities -- where Kurdish populations are growing fast -- would surely be transformed.

Kurdish immigration also changes the way in which we consider the larger situation of the Kurdish minority, and rights-based reconciliation efforts to take place between it and the state. There are more Kurds in Istanbul than Diyarbakir, and this is something the Basques, Irish, and Quebecois could not say about Madrid, London, or Toronto. Such demographics seem to belie a territorial-based solution based on limited autonomy, or perhaps more accurately, demand a solution that not only takes into account the southeast, but the situation of the Kurdish minority throughout the country.

Ragan Updegraff said...

And, do you have a news link to the foreign intelligence report on Gungoren?

Anonymous said...

Here's what could find about the Germans saying it wasn't the PKK.

Ragan Updegraff said...

Thanks a ton! I remember seeing something to this effect, but a passing reference and something I never followed up on.