BACKGROUND: The Turkish National Security Council has traditionally been the venue where the once all-powerful generals exercised their supervisory role over the nominal, civilian rulers of the country; most crucially, the generals ensured that the popularly elected governments did not stray from the nationalist-secularist founding ideology of the republic, known as Kemalism. Since the Justice and development party (AKP) came to power eight years ago, the National Security Council has become more civilian in appearance, and the government has like no previous government asserted the authority of the elected rulers over the generals. Yet when the council met on December 29, the statement that it issued suggested that old ideological habits of thought remain as engrained as ever at the helm of the Turkish state.
The National Security Council, chaired by President Abdullah Gül, stated that no attempt to challenge the Turkish nationalism of the state was going to be tolerated, solemnly reiterating the allegiance to “one flag, one nation, one fatherland and one state”. The strongly worded declaration was prompted by what the Turkish state elite, and the Turkish public, have come to perceive as a dangerously growing assertiveness on the part of the Kurdish minority. A couple of weeks earlier, the leader of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy party (BDP) had caused an uproar when he stated that bilingualism was going to be unilaterally promulgated in the Kurdish-run municipalities in the Southeast of the country, provoking the General Staff to break its long public silence; posting a new e-memorandum in what has by now become classical style on its website, the General Staff reiterated that the military will continue to ensure that the republic adheres to the tenets of Turkish nationalism.
Then, the discussions held during a gathering of Kurdish politicians and NGO representatives on December 20-21 in Diyarbakır dumbfounded the Turkish state elite and public. The workshop was organized by the Democratic Society congress (DTK), which is co-chaired by the veteran Kurdish politician Ahmet Türk and Aysel Tuğluk, who is the lawyer of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK); both leaders were ousted from parliament and were banned from politics for the duration of five years after a decision of the Constitutional Court in December 2009. They nonetheless continue to play a crucial role as prominent representatives of the Kurdish movement. The discussions during the workshop were centered on a proposal to further Kurdish self-determination; a blueprint was presented for “democratic autonomy”, with a Kurdish “self-defense force” being deployed in a future, self-governing region in the Southeast of Turkey that would host a regional assembly and have its own flag.
As it were, the idea of a Kurdish “self-defense force” in particular met with stiff opposition from several of the participants. The chairman of the business association of Diyarbakır remarked that such a force – which would be drawn from the PKK – would in fact exercise repression over dissenting Kurds; in fact, the blueprint, which was inspired by earlier suggestions of PKK leader Öcalan, was generally deemed too rigid. However, those nuances largely went unnoticed on the Turkish side, where politicians and pundits were quick to jump at the conclusion that the Kurdish movement is united in the intent to promote not only regional autonomy, but that it furthermore seeks eventual secession from Turkey.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reacted with vehemence; in his view, the proposition of autonomy was nothing less than an “attack on democracy”, and a “scheme against the AKP”. While claiming that he favors free discussion, Erdoğan nevertheless stated that he was not going to allow anyone to conduct a “surgery” on the territory of Turkey.
The Daily Taraf screams out the headline
"Mother tongue is a right, and will be recognized".
IMPLICATIONS: The “one nation” declaration of the National Security Council and Erdoğan’s statements in the same vein were met by approval by the opposition parties; the representatives of the Kurdish movement meanwhile defended that “democratic autonomy” does not constitute any threat to Turkey’s national integrity. The leader of the Kurdish BDP maintained that the Kurdish movement is not challenging Turkish as the sole official language, and that democratic autonomy is only a suggestion that is open for discussion.
The nationalist call to order issued by the National Security council was cause for consternation among the Kurdish representatives; addressing President Abdullah Gül at a breakfast meeting during his visit to Diyarbakır on new year’s eve, the chairman of the business association of the city remarked that the reference to “one nation” amounted to an unacceptable denial of the existence of the Kurdish people in the country. Indeed, the declaration of the National Security Council has occasioned leading liberal Turkish commentators to conclude that the governing AKP is surrendering to old fashioned, Kemalist Turkish nationalism.
However, in a speech in parliament on December 26 Erdoğan pointedly distanced the AKP from both the Turkish nationalism of the ultra right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and the Kurdish nationalism of the BDP. In fact, while the Kemalists have denied the existence of the Kurds, and while Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP), still hasn’t been able to bring himself to pronounce the word Kurd – even though he is a Kurd himself – Erdoğan frequently refers to the Kurds, and he has gone as far as acknowledging the very existence of a Kurdish people in Turkey. Indeed, according to one press report, President Abdullah Gül stated that “the use of the mother tongue is a right, and it will eventually be granted” when he held his breakfast meeting in Diyarbakır on New Year’s Eve. Although the press spokesman of the President subsequently denied that Gül had said anything of the kind, the fact remains that the position of the AKP – and of the Turkish state – on the Kurdish issue has steadily evolved, and it can be expected to continue to do so. The negotiations that are being conducted with Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, would have been unthinkable a few years ago; they strongly suggest that pragmatic considerations have trumped ideological dogmatism in the state establishment. It is also noteworthy that the government has halted the military operations against the PKK.
However, the AKP must nonetheless tread carefully, taking care not to provoke Turkish nationalist anger while at the same time ensuring that the Kurds are not alienated. There is reason to assume that Erdoğan’s recent hard line statements, as well as the nationalist declaration that was produced by the National Security Council are above all determined by electoral concerns and short term tactical considerations; by appropriating the Turkish nationalist discourse of the ultra right MHP, which is its only rival in the conservative Anatolian heartland, the AKP may be gambling that it can outdo it, perhaps even ensuring that the MHP falls below the ten percent threshold to parliament in the upcoming general election. Conversely, the AKP seems to be haunted by the fear that the MHP can mount a successful challenge in the June election. Yet trying to outdo MHP entails the risk of repelling the Kurds. What could prove even more fateful is that the AKP government is neglecting to prepare the ground for the changes with which its Kurdish opening – announced in 2009 – is pregnant.
As it yields to Turkish nationalism in its rhetoric, the governing party helps sustain the illusion among the Turkish nationalist public that national uniformity will and can be maintained against all odds. And while Prime Minister Erdoğan takes upon himself to delineate the limits of what can and cannot be pronounced in the political debate, effectively demanding that the Kurds keep quiet and refrain from voicing demands and making suggestions that risk harming the electoral prospects of the AKP – by provoking the ire of the Turkish majority – he makes no effort to engage in a conversation with the Turks either. Indeed, even though Erdoğan is not ideologically beholden to Turkish nationalism in the old, Kemalist mould, he is nonetheless heir to a Turkish state tradition which precludes societal participation and democratic deliberation.
CONCLUSIONS: The representatives of the AKP never tire of assuring that the Kurdish opening of the government is a “state project”, intimating that it is backed by the state establishment, and that its aims are in accordance with the interests of the state. The Turks are historically devoted to the state, and they remain haunted by a visceral fear that allowing societal diversity to express itself would undo it. The Turkish state elite has however gradually, over the past decade, come to recognize that shoring up the state requires that societal diversity somehow be accommodated; the Kurdish opening is the ultimate expression of that belated recognition. Yet just as Turkey was once designed by the state elite, without the population being consulted, it is now being redesigned by a state elite, which although it recognizes the imperative of reconciling statism with freedom, nonetheless still has little appreciation of democratic deliberation; the Kurds are expected to remain quiescent and await the state to eventually extend its benevolence, while the Turks are misled by a nationalist discourse that veils the policies and intentions of the state.
What has been conceived as a state project ultimately stands little, if any chance of succeeding if it is not appropriated by society; keeping Turkey together requires a societal concord, which in turn can only be reached after a deliberative process has taken place among a citizenry that is empowered, and with which an enlightened leadership has engaged in an edifying conversation. That is not what the AKP is currently offering.
Halil M. Karaveli is Managing Editor of the Turkey Analyst and a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".