Friday, 18 July 2008

Finding a Place: The PKK's Efforts to Remain Relevant

Published in Articles

By Svante E. Cornell (vol. 1, no. 11 of the Turkey Analyst)

In early July, the PKK terrorist organization abducted three German climbers on Mt. Ararat, in an apparent revenge for Germany’s decision to ban the PKK’s mouthpiece, Denmark-based television channel Roj TV. The episode points to the PKK’s continuous difficulties in maintaining its claim to represent Kurdish opinion, faced with multiple challenges – from both the Turkish military and governing party, who otherwise agree on little; as well as the EU’s refusal to grant the PKK legitimacy and the Iraqi Kurdish parties’ success in making Iraqi Kurdistan the beacon of Kurdish hope, eclipsing the PKK.  It remains to be seen whether the PKK will be successful in taking advantage of the current Turkish crisis.

BACKGROUND: The PKK’s relationship to Europe has always been complex. On the one hand, Europe shares with northern Iraq the distinction of being a safe haven and base of operations for the PKK. Its operatives, financiers and recruiters have been able to operate relatively freely in Europe for decades. The organization built up a sophisticated network across the western Europeans states with substantial Kurdish populations, which was key to its survival. Much of the PKK’s income derives from donations or extortion from Kurds in Europe; a perhaps even larger number comes from the PKK’s heavy involvement in drug trafficking, as it controls a significant portion especially of heroin trafficking from the eastern Turkish borderlands into Europe. And finally, the PKK has used Europe as a key platform for its propaganda activities. It has reached out to Kurds via its European-based newspapers, radio and TV channels, and engaged in often successful opinion-building vis-à-vis European governments and societies. 

But on the other hand, the PKK has failed to establish itself in Europe as a legitimate representative of Turkey’s Kurds – negating its long-standing aim to take a place at the negotiating table with the Turkish government over the Kurdish question. Recognized as a terrorist organization by European governments, the PKK has been shunned. European governments, pressured by Turkey and the U.S. has castigated the PKK’s violence and urged it to drop its weapons. That said, the PKK has been tolerated by European countries, as long as it did not engage in overt acts of violence. 

Yet, the PKK’s often vicious treatment of defectors – two were shot dead publicly in Sweden in the mid-1980s and others elsewhere – drew the attention of law enforcement and political leaders, as did its drug trafficking connections. Yet European governments have only rarely gone after the PKK, perhaps because of the organization’s undisputable clout and organizational skill. The fact that there has been sympathy for the Kurdish cause may also have played in. Instead, a kind of implicit understanding seems to have existed to the effect that the PKK will be left alone as long as it keeps its head down; and the PKK’s various front organizations even more so, as their claim not to have anything to do with terrorism has often been taken at face value by European governments eager to protect freedom of speech and assembly.

The prelude to the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan at the Greek embassy in Nairobi, with the assistance of Israel and the United States, illustrated Europe’s ambivalence. No European country was ready to host Öcalan, given his obvious terrorist credentials. But neither were European governments ready to hand him over to Turkey, ostensibly over concerns of fair treatment and the death penalty, but in all likelihood more in fear of the substantial Kurdish crowds of support that the PKK could muster across Europe.

In any case, the capture of Öcalan was a heavy blow for the PKK. Öcalan’s meek performance at the court, asking for forgiveness and recanting all his principles in a desperate attempt to save his life, demoralized an organization reared on a Stalinist personality cult centering on Öcalan. Meanwhile, the ensuing political reforms in Turkey helped reduce much of the Kurdish support for the PKK, which had always been partial at best. The rise of the AKP, in particular, gathered substantial support among Kurds, showing that Kurdish identities were not immune to being transcended by Muslim solidarity. Hence the PKK-aligned Kurdish political parties, who grew to a formidable and often unchallenged force in municipal elections in the Kurdish southeast, rapidly lost ground to the AKP.

The PKK’s years in the wilderness seem to have ended with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the subsequent chaos in that country, making the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq virtually independent. As they were the only calm areas of Iraq, the Kurdish leaders had substantial leverage with the U.S. until the Iraqi situation stabilized in 2007. Hence the PKK was again able to operate freely in the Kandil mountains near the Turkish border, while the Turkish military was unable to follow its recent practice of regular incursions into Iraq to deny the PKK a safe haven. As had happened in the early 1990s, the PKK was able to utilize northern Iraq as a base for its escalating terrorist campaign against Turkey.

IMPLICATIONS: The PKK had to choose, effectively, between continuing to dominate the Kurdish movement in Turkey, and gaining legitimacy. By following the PLO or IRA examples, the PKK could have made itself a legitimate interlocutor, had it once and for all given up terrorism. But it was clear to the PKK that doing so risked plunging it into irrelevance. As the AKP’s electoral successes show, Turkey’s Kurds were not reliably nationalistic at the voting booth, and their votes could easily split between Kurdish and moderate Islamist parties. The PKK’s Marxist-Leninist ideology, in fact, prevented it from gaining legitimacy and support both locally and among the Kurdish diaspora in Europe. This implied that coercion and polarization were its only way to continue to dominate the Kurdish movement. Only by implicit or explicit threats of violence could the PKK control Kurdish political parties and NGOs and force them to tow the line; and only by polarizing the situation through continued acts of terrorism provoking inevitable retribution was it able to prevent Kurds from slipping away from Kurdish nationalism. By raising tensions in the southeast once again, the PKK succeeded in preventing alternative and peaceful expressions of Kurdish political identity from emerging – not least by ensuring continued control over the Democratic Society Party (DTP), represented in parliament by ca. 20 members elected as independent candidates in 2007.

In Europe, the PKK once again met with obstacles as a result of its terrorist approach. The European Union in 2005 explicitly pointed to the PKK as the main cause of unrest and violence in southeastern Turkey. European ambassadors in Ankara refuse to meet the DTP unless it condemns PKK terrorism, something it has refused to do, apparently on orders from Öcalan. Moreover, as a result of strong U.S. pressure, European governments did go after the PKK slightly more than half-heartedly. A series of arrests in 2007 disrupted the PKK’s training camps and financing operations, though most operatives were released rather than tried or extradited. In particular, Austrian authorities released the alleged head of the PKK’s financial operations, Riza  Altun, in July 2007, allowing him to flee to Iraq.

More seriously for the PKK, European governments have lately been paying closer attention to its media and propaganda operations. After British authorities banned its first television mouthpiece, MED TV in 1999, Medya TV had been allowed to broadcast from France. But in 2004, French authorities closed it down, forcing the operations to move to Denmark, where Roj TV began broadcasting in March 2004. By 2005, both Washington and Ankara were exerting pressure on European governments, particularly Denmark, for the closure of Roj TV. Turkey filed numerous court cases in Danish courts, which were all rejected. But in 2008, the tide began to turn. In March, Belgian authorities fined Roj TV almost 4 million Euros, and in July, German authorities closed down the station’s facilities in the country. Denmark is now under increasing pressure by both Turkey and the U.S. to act, given that other European countries – from Britain and France to Belgium and Germany – have now acted against PKK-controlled media outfits, compromising Denmark’s high-profile commitment to the struggle against terrorism.

It is in this context that the PKK’s growing provocations against European interests should be seen. Seizing three Germans climbers following the ban on Roj TV was a blatant attempt to blackmail Germany and warn other European governments of the damage that the PKK can still inflict on them. In this sense, the PKK seems to have learnt from Islamist movements that European government are prone to be blackmailed – as the widespread rioting following the Muhammad cartoons showed. But in the past, the PKK’s attempts to blackmail European governments have tended to backfire on it.

CONCLUSIONS: The PKK is obviously seeking to remain relevant in a rapidly developing scene, faced with a deteriorating climate for its operations in Europe. However, it is likely to seek to benefit from the current political troubles in Turkey. Indeed, the fact that both the DTP and the AKP are facing possible closure  by Turkey’s constitutional court serves the PKK’s efforts to polarize the Kurdish issue in Turkey. To begin with, the bans are likely to affect Turkish-EU relations negatively, something the PKK hopes to benefit from. More importantly, the Kurdish vote in the 2007 elections went overwhelmingly to these two parties. Banning both of them may well be interpreted by large parts of the Kurdish electorate as a move to disenfranchise the Kurds. This is a message that the PKK is sure to capitalize upon in order to stir up tensions yet further.

The risk of growing and more intense PKK provocations should therefore not be discounted. The PKK has clearly embarked on a strategy of seeking to intimidate European governments, something that is likely to continue. It is therefore crucial for Europe to stay firm, and to keep marginalizing the PKK. For the future, two issues will be of paramount importance. First, to ensure that the next Turkish government to emerge from the current political crisis and the likely banning of the AKP engage in conciliatory and positive policies toward Turkey’s Kurdish population; and second, to seek to cultivate political movements among Kurds that are willing to break with the PKK and condemn terrorism and violence.

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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