The armed campaign that was launched in 1984 for an independent Kurdish state carved out of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is not the start of the Kurdish problem in Turkey. There were Kurdish uprisings in Turkey under Ottoman rule, but those were mainly at the tribal level for tribal interests. But after the Turkish Republic was announced the nature of the Kurdish uprisings started to change in nature and gained nationalistic properties.
Following the first big one in 1925 (which resulted in the leaving of the Mousoul territory to Iraq under British pressure) Turkish governments tried to find ways to cope with this problem. Publicly denying the existence of the Kurdish problem or even the Kurdish identity itself, from time to time, Turkish governments wrote 16 detailed reports based on detailed surveys on weak and strong points of the problem.
“Contrary to general belief” one high-ranking government source explained to the Hürriyet Daily News, “most of the recommendations in those reports have been taken seriously and the necessary steps were taken. But when the diagnosis is wrong, the patient doesn’t respond to the treatment.”
The result is not only some 40,000 killed in three decades. The high-ranking Turkish official continues: “There are some 5,000 militants in the mountains; in Turkey’s, Iraq’s, Iran’s mountains. The security forces have killed thousands of them in clashes in between, but the number remains the same.” There is another dimension: If an illegal organization can gather tens of thousands of people at funerals and protest demonstrations, encourage people to attend election rallies and use votes to send deputies to the country’s Parliament, is it correct to call it just a terrorist organization, since it surely uses terrorist methods? The answer of the official is, “No doubt that it has a social base.”
There is an ongoing effort restarted by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan to find a dialogue base with the PKK for a political solution to the problem to put an end to the violence. To have talks (yet not at a negotiation stage) with the imprisoned-for-life leader Abdullah Öcalan of the PKK was something unthinkable even a few years ago. But now the majority of the people, Turks and Kurds, are giving silent consent to the process hoping for an end to the violence. The only opposition to the talks comes from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) on ideological grounds. But the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) passively supports the talks and the Kurdish problem-focused Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which shares the same grassroots as the PKK, is heavily involved in the process.
Actually Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT), and his aides have been talking to Öcalan for months, but the “İmralı process,” named after the island prison where Öcalan is kept, was exposed after two Kurdish deputies were given permission by the Justice Ministry to talk to Öcalan in December 2012. Following that contact, the BDP members have been reaching out to their grassroots not only in Turkey but in Europe and Iraq as well. The PKK headquarters in the Kandil mountains of Iraq is cautious but says in its statements that a decision to withdraw militants from Turkish territories by laying down their arms could be considered only after Öcalan says so. (Erdoğan vowed last week that if the PKK does so, the security forces will not touch them unless attacked.)
On the other hand Öcalan needs to get feedback from his organization’s nerve ends, from Kurdish civil society and from the BDP, to make a decision. After all, he is a man who has been living alone in an 11-square-meter room for the last 14 years. BDP deputies and symbolically at least one of its co-chairs (either Selahattin Demirtaş or Gültan Kışanak) will be his reference to make perhaps his first organizational contact with the outside world since he was put in jail.
On paper it is Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin who is to give permission about who will go to İmralı, but for such a critical decision it is fair to assume that Ergin will look to Erdoğan. Erdoğan’s choice can make a real difference in Turkey’s efforts so far to find a solution to the Kurdish problem.
This article was published in the Hurriyet Daily News on Feb. 1, 2013.
Murat Yetkin is the current editor-in-chief of Hurriyet Daily News and a columnist for Radikal, a Turkish publication. He is a political commentator on Turkish and Middle Eastern affairs and has previously worked for BBC World Service and AFP. He can be found on Twitter: @MuratYetkin2.