Turkey's Kurdish Achilles' Heel

Ankara's biggest challenge is not from Damascus or Israel—those who will end Erdogan are much closer to home.

Western media focus on Turkey has lately been on civil-military tensions and Ankara’s diplomatic pressure on Syria. Yet the country’s most urgent problem remains stubbornly the same one since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923: the Kurdish question. Last month alone, rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) killed a total of forty Turkish soldiers. In retaliation, Turkish F-16 jets have bombed Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq and launched a new military campaign in Turkey’s southeast. All the dynamics for a vicious cycle of PKK attack leading to Turkish retaliation and a low-intensity war seem to be in place. Although both Kurds and Turks know there can be no military solution to this problem, addressing Kurdish discontent with a new and more democratic constitution has become a daunting challenge for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. Prime Minister Erdogan scored yet another landslide electoral victory in June 2011, but he appears reluctant to spend his political capital on this issue. As the classic Turkish mantra goes: “there can be no democratization when the country is facing terrorism.”

Making things all the more difficult is the fact that the political aspirations of Turkey’s 15 to 20 million Kurds (around 20 percent of the total population) reached unprecedented levels in the last ten years. The AKP has done more than previous Turkish governments to improve the living standards and cultural rights of Kurds in Turkey. Yet, such reforms also increased Kurdish expectations. To be sure, the PKK insurgency is not as strong as it was in the 1990s when more than twenty thousand lives were lost. But Kurdish nationalism, as a political force, is alive and well across Turkey. Kurdish ethnic, cultural and political demands are fueled by a young and increasingly resentful generation of Kurds who are vocal and frustrated not only in Eastern Anatolia but also in Turkey’s large Western cities including Istanbul, Izmir, Mersin and Adana.

Half of Turkey’s Kurds now live in western Turkey, where they constitute an underclass. They are often blamed by the Turkish majority for supporting the PKK. Under such circumstances, the nightmare scenario is Turkish-Kurdish ethnic violence in western urban centers such as Istanbul, Izmir, Mersin and Adana. It certainly does not help that the Kurdish youth of Turkey feels particularly close to the PKK and its jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan, who still exerts considerable political influence over the movement. The formative experience of this youth contingent has been the PKK insurgency that began in the early 1980s. Although most Turks consider the PKK a terrorist organization, a significant segment of Turkish Kurds romanticize the movement. It is indeed very telling that Turkey’s main Kurdish political party, the BDP, is unable to distance itself from the PKK.

This should not be surprising. Many Kurds give credit to Abdullah Ocalan and the PKK for their willingness to take on the Turkish military. In their eyes, without the PKK or Ocalan the Turkish national-security establishment would never have recognized the ethnic existence of Kurds in the country. From 1923 to 1990, Kurdish language and ethnicity was heavily suppressed in Turkey. Under the assimilation-oriented precepts of Turkish nationalism, Kurds were denied cultural rights and forced to become Turkish. In many ways, the Kurdish nationalist movement developed in reaction to Turkish nationalism and assimilationist pressure.

Most Turks are confused about what the PKK want really wants. The PKK is often referred to as a separatist movement. Yet, there are clear signs that the movement has given up the unrealistic dream of an independent Kurdish state; the main agenda of both the PKK and the BDP is now expressed as democratization and autonomy, probably along the lines of federal system.

Today, Kurdish political aspirations are thwarted by legal obstacles that are largely the remnants of Turkey’s 1982 Constitution, which was written under military rule. The current dynamics of ethnic violence, increased Kurdish expectations and limited political space for Kurdish demands create a combustible mix. In 2009, in an attempt to address the root causes of the problem, the AKP launched a “democratic opening” process which involved partial amnesty for PKK fighters. This was a step in the right direction. Yet, soon after a border incident, when former PKK fighters returning to Turkey from Iraq were given a hero’s welcome by the local Kurdish population, the opening turned into an impasse. The AKP faced the worst-case scenario: an angry Turkish majority greatly alarmed by Kurdish audacity.

Not surprisingly, Turkey’s far-right nationalist opposition party, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) exploited the situation and blamed the AKP for mishandling the whole process. Ever since the failure of this democratic opening Prime Minister Erdogan has adopted a much more nationalist political discourse. Eighty-eight years after its foundation, the Turkish Republic is still struggling to find a peaceful solution to its Kurdish problem. And despite Ankara’s growing self-confidence and regional soft power, the PKK remains a daunting domestic challenge. The Kurdish issue remains Turkey’s Achilles’ heel.