Thursday, December 29, 2011

Reform, Not Militancy

At a rally in Yuksekova (Hakkari), BDP leader Selahattin Demirtas again declared that Kurds want autonomy, and again, voiced implied support for violent struggle. According to Demirtas, Kurds will continue to wage resistance and fight against government pressure. The comments were made in response to government preparation's to reform laws that have increasingly been used to target nationalist Kurds who express opinions contrary to that of the government.

The government announced earlier this week that it has prepared a package of laws aimed to address the Kurdish question, including limited rights to freedom of expression and protest, as well as the possibility of an amnesty for "repentant terrorists." Though the reforms are far from a wholesale solution to current problems and come at a time when the government continues to target Kurdish nationalist politicians and journalists, as well as some Turks and Kurds whose ideas on the Kurdish question run contrary to that of the government, they are a step, however small,  in the right direction. The AKP has proposed provisions to a current law restricting speech that "incites hatred," as well as an amendment to a law that allows individuals charged with making symbols of terrorism to be sentenced to 10 years in prison and a stop to prosecutions of Kurdish nationalist activists who use "Sayin" (a term of respect) to address PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

On Dec. 22, just one week before the reform plan was announced, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc declared that denying the identity of the Kurdish people was tantamount to denying their existence to people. He promised constitutional and other legal reforms that would protect Kurdish identity, and it seems the AKP may be intent on delivering.

Arinc's statement and the AKP's reform plans comes on the back of the detentions of 51 assumed Kurdish nationalist activists, mostly journalists, who are alleged PKK associates. The detentions seek to repress journalists offering support (or, what is conceived by the government to be support) of ideas shared by the PKK. The journalists are accused of working in cahoots or being members of the press arm of the KCK, the political organization setup by the PKK to penetrate Kurdish civil society and political life. Yet, as with other KCK sweeps, in many cases the evidence against the alleged PKK associates is slipshod and/or condemns journalists for writing reports that might be considered to support the organization. The problems with this approach are numerous, and reflect flaws in the government's larger approach to prosecute and imprison (for very long periods of time) political actors who have not actually engaged in terrorist offenses.

That said, Demirtas' remarks echo the militancy of BDP rhetoric in recent months and will contribute little to a solution. Turkish politicians and civil society are already in the midst of a serious debate as to whether "poems, songs, and art" can be considered terrorist acts as put forward by Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin (see Ahmet Hakan in Hurriyet). Arinc offers a potentially alternative take, and though it is still unclear in what direction the AKP will go, the BDP is making no progress on the issue by adopting a rhetoric of militancy rather than reform.

Rather than following a hardline in doubt shaped by Kandil and perhaps Imrali, Demirtas would be better to follow in the steps of fellow BDP member Serafettin Elci, who welcomed Arinc's remarks as a step forward and asked the government to produce concrete measures. The government did, showing that Elci and moderates within the BDP could be more powerful than the hardliners if given a chance.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Trouble with Leyla Zana

I stopped posting on this blog just over six months ago to focus on other projects with a post-election consideration of the BDP in the aftermath of last June's elections. Much to the chagrin of some of its followers and fellow Turkey observers, this post featured a photograph of Leyla Zana, a leading Kurdish activist representing the hardline segment of the "legal Kurdish nationalist movement" who had just been elected to parliament. It seems in some ways appropriate to pick up where I left off then, and this after six months of stirring political developments in the Turkish government's relationship with the BDP, the PKK, and the KCK, the political organization founded by the terrorist PKK between 2005 and 2006 and that has increasingly complicated the Kurdish political landscape, further blurring the boundaries between the BDP and the PKK.

In a recent interview with the Danish website Rudaw, which is supported by forces friendly to KRG president Massound Barzani, Zana declared that Kurds were no longer demanding simple autonomy, but rights to self-determination (for coverage in Hurriyet, click here). The troubles with Zana's claim are many, and not least is that "autonomy" is an instrument to actualizing rights a nation possesses to self-determination. In the interview, Zana says that a referendum ought to be held to let Kurds decide whether they want a federal system, an autonomy, or secession from Turkey. While many Kurds do understand themselves as belonging to a distinct nation, understood here as a unit exerting a demand to determine its own political future based on a common sense of belonging to a group, Zana is quite wrong to declare that somehow a territorially-based autonomy agreement or something else of the sort somehow falls short of recognizing Turkish Kurds' right to self-determination, which might be accommodated through any variety of scenarios.

First, I would like to say that there is nothing in my mind wrong with Kurdish nationalist politicians and activists articulating a right to self-determination and putting forward various political agendas to that affect. Though the Turkish state is far from ready to seriously discuss any such scenario and the AKP-led government unlikely to recognize a Kurdish right to self-determination and embrace a normal politics through which that right might be accommodate through minority rights-based policy solutions, Kurdish nationalism is a reality that will eventually have to be addressed. At the same time, Zana's understanding of how a right to self-determination might be asserted and thereby accommodated reveals a larger immaturity on the part of the Kurdish nationalist movement, and when accompanied by a significant number of Kurdish nationalists' unwillingness/inability to denounce violence, is greatly problematic and likely to lead simply to more violence. Here, it is also important to note that likely more than half of the Kurds in Turkey do not necessarily share such nationalist aspirations, and of those, far fewer, likely far less than 10 percent, support secession from Turkey. Kurdish Turks are more likely to look to Turkish cities in the West, in which about half of Turkey's Kurdish population now lives, than to cities in the north of Iraq. Kurds are tied to Turkey through politics, economy, culture, and family relations.

Further, the trouble with Leyla Zana is her dismissal of individual rights-based solutions to solve the conflict. While she acknowledges the government is attempting to solve the Kurdish question through providing for individual rights for Kurds (honestly, something that is still quite lacking), she dismisses these efforts as hopeless, declaring that Kurds "are not individuals but a nation." Just as assertive varieties of Turkish nationalism threaten individual rights and liberties, so does the predominant understanding of Kurdish nationalism that exists in most Kurdish nationalist circles. Ironically, Turks (including Turkish Kurds) have moved to embrace liberalism, as revealed by the rapid face of liberal reforms passed since Turkey began its EU accession process in 1999. Though the struggle for individual liberties is ongoing in Turkey and has suffered serious setbacks in recent years, from Zana's comments, one might conclude that liberalism (and with it, liberal nationalism) has a lot further to go in the predominantly Kurdish southeast than it does in the rest of Turkey.

In the past six months, the BDP's rhetoric has become increasingly militant and separatist, and to such a degree that it is difficult to recognize the party in comparison to the Democratic Society Party (DTP) that preceded it, and which was shut down in December 2009. The DTP, though far from liberal nationalist, was more reform-driven, more open to compromise, and in many ways, up against much greater odds than the current DTP. When the DTP was in power, the opposition CHP was dominated by assertive Turkish nationalists, and the AKP, though in some ways more accommodating than it is now after two summers of violent terrorist attacks and a failed liberalization initiative, much less able to fully tackle the problem. Now that the government has made significant headway in achieving civilian dominance over the army, a reasonable, responsible Kurdish nationalist party could in many ways accomplish a great deal, albeit with considerable resistance and back-peddling. Though the AKP government might in many ways be blamed for Kurdish nationalists' drift toward militarism and alienation, this in no way alleviates the BDP from responsibility, nor can the Turkish government be blamed for being reluctant to fairly deal with a political party that continues to endorse the utility of violence and align (perhaps even coordinate) itself with terrorist activity that has in recent months targeted civilians.

A solution to Turkey's Kurdish question is possible, but not without liberalism.