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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Europe > Turkey-Cyprus > Turkey > Crying “Wolf”: Why Turkish Fears Need Not Block Kurdish Reform

Crying “Wolf”: Why Turkish Fears Need Not Block Kurdish Reform

Europe Report N°227 7 Oct 2013


Negotiations underway since late 2012 between Turkey’s government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) are stalling. A ceasefire announced on 23 March 2013 remains precarious, as maximalist rhetoric gains renewed traction on both sides. While the PKK should be doing more to persuade Ankara that it wants a compromise peace, the government has a critical responsibility to fully address the longstanding democratic grievances of Turkey’s Kurds. One reason it frequently gives for its hesitation is fear of a nationalist backlash. In fact, the peace process has already demonstrated how willing mainstream Turks would be to accept steps towards democratisation. A much bigger risk for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), as it heads into a two-year cycle of local, presidential and parliamentary elections, would be if the three-decade-old conflict plunges into a new cycle of violence.

While the nationalist political opposition, including the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Action Party (MHP), has largely been against negotiations with the PKK and Kurdish reforms, the public has mostly accepted them. The AKP government’s steady stream of political gestures toward Kurds – including Kurdish-language television, legalisation of private Kurdish language courses, elective classes in schools and, most recently, plans to introduce education in Kurdish in private schools – has roused little noticeable public anger. Government-appointed delegations that fanned out across the country reported back that explanation and dialogue often changed public perceptions and readiness for compromise. Nationwide anti-government protests that broke out in May even unexpectedly triggered displays of solidarity toward Kurds from Turks in the west of the country, who had largely been dismissive about Kurdish grievances.

But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has taken an increasingly nationalist line, even if still mixed with an outreach to Kurdish opinion. He has shied away from the easiest reform to make, a lowering of the 10 per cent national election threshold for parties to enter parliament. This would allow fairer political access for the main party of the Kurdish national movement, which typically wins 6-7 per cent of the national vote. In a positive move, he has announced plans to introduce education in their mother language for Turkey’s Kurds in private schools, though avoiding a commitment to full education or public services in Kurdish, a main demand of the community that makes up 12-15 per cent of the population. His government has failed to redraft the constitution so as to remove any hint of ethnic discrimination. And lack of movement on the long-criticised anti-terrorism law still keeps thousands of non-violent Kurdish activists in preventive detention, some now for four years.

Officials and commentators offer a number of explanations for this inaction. They include the failure of the PKK to fully withdraw from Turkey and disarm, the season of unrelated domestic protests and turmoil across Turkey’s Middle Eastern borders, but, above all, the idea that Turkish voters will punish any government that pursues major Kurdish reforms.

It is true there are deep-rooted fears among some Turks that the negotiations have emboldened the PKK and that concessions would only pave the road to a separate Kurdish state. Others worry that the country would lose its Turkish identity. There is also considerable public resentment at offering concessions to the insurgency: for decades militants have been officially described as terrorists and traitors, and they have indeed used terrorist tactics; but the public has not been informed that Kurds themselves have suffered the bulk of casualties, destruction of property and violation of rights.

However, most of the Kurdish community still wants a settlement within Turkey. PKK leaders and the Kurdish movement, including the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), need to stop issuing threats that fuel the Turkish public’s concerns about secession or a resurgence of violence. They should also denounce parallel state formations inside Turkey, including local militias, and signal the Kurds’ desire to live in Turkey alongside Turks, with whom they share a common history. Given the unique opportunities of the current process, the PKK should maintain its commitment to the ceasefire and restart withdrawals.

Turkish leaders, at the same time, must recommit to democratic reform, including a new constitution and laws that eliminate any ethnic bias. A new constitution could balance natural references to the Turkish nation with clear emphasis on equal citizenship for all in the Republic of Turkey and guarantee the full right to use mother languages in education and public life. Other reforms need to include a more decentralised government structure, changes to anti-terror laws, and a lower election threshold. The leaders should also explain to public opinion the advantages of this road to an enduring peace and refrain from populist, accusatory statements towards the Kurdish movement simply for the sake of chasing the marginal Turkish nationalist vote.

Above all, Turkey does not have to – and should not – link Kurdish reform steps to the negotiations with the PKK. Such democratisation would improve access to rights, education and political life for all in the country. And it would help build the trust vital to ending a conflict that over three decades has killed 30,000 and inflicted enormous long-term damage on the economy, society and political culture.


To the government of Turkey:

1.  Pursue democratic reforms to address Kurdish grievances independently of negotiations with the insurgent PKK and its jailed leader, by:

a) committing to the full use of mother languages in education through embracing and explaining the benefits of education in mother languages and sharing international research showing it is an essential building block for academic achievement and better future command of other languages, in this case Turkish;

b) ensuring that the definition of Turkish citizenship in a new constitution is clearly not based on any single race, ethnicity, language or religion;

c) leading a countrywide debate about local government, with the goal of eventual devolution to elected local bodies of some powers, including aspects of education, policing and budgets; and

d) lowering the 10 per cent electoral threshold for parties to enter parliament to at least the EU norm of 5 per cent, to allow fair political representation for Turkey’s Kurdish movement and other parties.

2.  Use language in public statements that de-demonises Kurdishness and explains the roadmap for planned democratisation, so as to allay the concerns of Turkey’s Kurds about the process and to answer Turks’ demands for transparency.

3.  Reform the education system’s curriculums to include a common history of Turks and Kurds, as well as full information about different cultures and peoples in Anatolian and regional history.

To Turkey’s Kurdish national movement:

4.  Reiterate commitment to the ceasefire and PKK withdrawal from Turkish soil.

5.  Spell out the goal of full PKK disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration, making no linkage between democratic reforms and renewed acts of violence.

6.  End the creation of parallel state formations inside Turkey, including local militia (“public order units”) that conduct road checks.

7.  Ensure unified commitment to the peace process from all Kurdish legal and insurgent organisation spokespersons, particularly in their public statements.

8.  Reassure Turkish public opinion by actions that the Kurdish movement seeks a future for Kurds as equal citizens inside a democratising Turkey.

9.  Specify and explain to public opinion Kurdish demands for decentralised local government.

Istanbul/Brussels, 7 October 2013

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