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Interview: Will Turkey's 'Kurdish Initiative' Succeed?

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's initiative would give greater rights to Kurds
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's initiative would give greater rights to Kurds
The government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has launched what it calls a comprehensive approach to ending Turkey's "Kurdish problem." The proposal is believed to include greater cultural rights for Kurds, some form of local autonomy, and incentives to PKK fighters to lay down arms. Why is the initiative being launched now, and what are its chances of success? RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel spoke with regional expert Henri Barkey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.

RFE/RL: The Turkish government has yet to reveal any details of its initiative for ending the separatist conflict in the southeast of the country. But there has been much public speculation about what the plan would likely include, or have to include, if it is to be successful. What are some of the major points?

Henri Barkey: Number one is some revision of the constitution in a way that would allow the definition of citizenship to be more inclusive, rather than for Turks only, which is the implication of the current constitution. The problem with that, and the reason this is very hard, is because it goes against the very definition of the Turkish state as conceived by the founder of the state [Mustafa Kamal Ataturk] and there is a large group of people that thinks anything the founder has said is sacrosanct and it is unchangeable, you can't touch that.

Number two has to do with cultural reforms, that is to say to make the Kurdish language far more acceptable in everyday life, giving broadcasting licenses to individuals to have television or radio stations and newspapers [in Kurdish] without the state intervening, interfering, or censoring stuff, the teaching of the Kurdish language. Also, the use of Kurdish in some state-sponsored activities. For example, can a politician in Kurdish-inhabited areas make his political speech in Kurdish. At the moment that is illegal and immediately punishable by prison.
The Turks have finally come to the realization that the Iraqi Kurds are not a threat to them. In fact, the Iraqi Kurds are in many ways their best friend in Iraq and potentially an ally

Third has to do with some devolution of powers to localities. At the moment, Turkey is one of the most centralized states in the world. Every decision has to be taken in Ankara. A teacher in the smallest village has to be appointed by Ankara, by the center. The other problem, of course, is that law-enforcement officials are also sent from the center and it is always not the best people who go [to the provinces and] especially to the Kurdish areas because it is seen as a hardship post.

RFE/RL: There is, of course, also a fourth point, which would be one of the most difficult of all for the government to include and still win political support for its initiative. That is: some kind of amnesty or other incentive to the PKK to lay down arms. The form of such an offer is reportedly being worked out between the government and the military and we can't try to anticipate it. But why do many people see an amnesty as necessary?

You need a decent amnesty law to allow people to come back to their villages, to their hamlets, and also to release a lot of people who are in prison. There are a lot of political prisoners, people who have been in prison for 17, 19 years for essentially political acts because they were charged with belonging to an illegal organization.

RFE/RL: The government, which is led by the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), has requested talks with Turkey's main opposition parties before it tries submitting the initiative to parliament. But so far, only the Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) has taken part. The Republican People's Party (CHP) says it will wait for the government to first publicly announce the details of its plans, and the nationalist National Movement Party (MHP) says it already has made it own -- negative -- views about the "Kurdish initiative" clear. That gets things off to a mixed start. But if the government does manage to win parliamentary approval, is that all that is needed -- or are there additional hurdles beyond that?

The great danger here is that many of these changes can be overturned by the constitutional court. The constitutional court is not really an independent body. It is a very ideological body that tends to act against anything the AKP does, so it is quite conceivable that even if you pass things through parliament then the constitutional court will overturn it.

RFE/RL: Many observers view the constitutional court as sensitive to the feelings of the military, which sees itself as the guarantor of Turkey's secular constitution and Kamal Ataturk's founding vision of the country as a Turkish state. How do you characterize the military's position in all this?

The military has finally come to the realization that it cannot win this war with the PKK, or with the Kurds, I should say, and 25 years after the beginning of this latest insurrection -- and there have been scores of insurrections over the course of the Turkish republic, but this insurrection is the longest-lasting one -- it is still going on and there are as many folks in the mountain fighting as there were 25 years ago, almost.

So, they are finally coming to the conclusion that this is not going to end and the only way it will end is as a political solution of some sort. But a political solution for the military is one that gives minimally from the basic principles and tenets of the Turkish state. So, it is a very hard fight that is awaiting the government and, frankly, where I am a little bit doubtful is that [while the government] is committed to some kind of reform, how deep is its commitment to do it once and for all? If it is another cosmetic attempt at reform, it is not going to go anywhere.

RFE/RL: This initiative comes at a time when Turkey continues to fight the PKK, which launches its armed operations from safe havens across the border in Iraq. Ankara has invested a lot of effort in recent months in trying to convince the Iraqi Kurdish authorities to curb the PKK in hopes this could fatally weaken the organization. The regional approach, backed by the United States, seems to be going well. How strong is the emerging alliance between Ankara and the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, and what's behind it?

PKK fighters in Iraq close to the Turkish border in 2007
The Turks have finally come to the realization that the Iraqi Kurds are not a threat to them. In fact, the Iraqi Kurds are in many ways their best friend in Iraq and potentially an ally when you deal with the Turkish domestic Kurdish problem. Because -- and the Iraqi Kurds have for a long time been signaling this -- they are very interested in a strong relationship with Ankara. Of all their neighbors, the Turks are from the Iraqi Kurds' perspective the most advanced, the most reliable, the ones who are part of the West. Turkey is a member of NATO, it is a candidate country for the European Union. So, in Turkey they see their lifeline to the West.

It is an unexpected development, especially for the Turks, because the moment the Iraq war started and Iraq became a federal state with a separate enclave in it that was recognized by Baghdad, the Turks said "OK" this is going to be [a dangerous] model for us, the [Turkish] Kurds are going to look for autonomy or federation in Turkey. And the Turks really went berserk to some extent on this issue, they were very tough on Iraqi Kurdistan. But with time they realized that this is not really what was going on and that having an Iraqi Kurdistan was helping them. And to their credit, I have to say, the Turkish government did switch policies about a year ago and it is almost a 180-degree turn that they implemented from a hard-line, anti-Iraqi Kurdish position to now cooperating with Iraqi Kurdistan.

RFE/RL: The one player we haven't talked about is the PKK's jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan. He has said he is going to issue his own "road map" for solving the Kurdish issue on August 15, which is the date the PKK first took up arms in 1984. It is not clear whether he supports or opposes Erdogan's initiative. How much do his views matter at this point?

It is both relevant and irrelevant at the same time. It is irrelevant as far as the government is concerned. The government cannot be seen to be engaging with Ocalan because that is the one thing that will sink any reform attempt, because there is such a virulent hatred for Ocalan among the Turks. By contrast, of course, for the Kurds he is still a hero. I mean, for many Kurds, even those Kurds who don't like the PKK or its tactics or its ideology, the PKK is the institution that got them this far. They believe that without the PKK the Turks today would not be contemplating a reform package.

If Ocalan says abandon the armed struggle then it is going to be much easier to demilitarize the PKK and also to have a meaningful amnesty law. So, [Ankara] will ignore [what he says] but use it at the same time.

RFE/RL: Even as the PKK keeps fighting today, politicians that are widely considered to be linked to it have done well in the southeast in elections and now seem positioned to be part of an eventual political solution to the conflict. How would you characterize the mood of Turkish Kurds toward the kind of initiative -- a political solution -- that Erdogan is putting forward?

We already have seen that Kurdish politics in Turkey has become far more engaged and far more robust. They control mayoralties in the southeast -- even if it is minimal [power] because of the way mayors don't have much power in Turkey -- but minimally they do control a little bit their fate so they realize that politics will give them certain dividends and they don't need the armed struggle anymore, they have already achieved what they need to achieve with the armed struggle.

Henri Barkey is a visiting scholar with the Middle East program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. and a professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania