BACKGROUND: It was a striking confession: In an interview accorded to the daily Yeni Çağ last week, Turkey’s Chief of the General staff, General İlker Başbuğ acknowledged, “I cannot sleep at night. I wait for news (of further PKK attacks) to arrive from the Southeast.” General Başbuğ, like others in Turkey’s state leadership, has been shaken by the recent attacks of the PKK. Yet Başbuğ is defiant in the face of an insurgency that the Turkish state has been unable to put down for a quarter century; he conveys a determination to stick to tried out habits in confronting the challenge.
The belligerent Turkish Chief of the General staff makes it clear that he considers it absolutely necessary that the bases of the PKK in northern Iraq be stamped out; he calls on the Kurdish regional administration in northern Iraq to assume its responsibility, with the implied threat that Turkey will otherwise take unilateral action.
Meanwhile, the escalation of the PKK attacks has sealed the fate of the year-long attempt of the governing Justice and development party (AKP) to explore a new path to deal with the Kurdish problem, one that combined traditional security measures with a readiness to meet Kurdish demands. Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdoğan accuses the PKK of serving the interests of unnamed “foreign powers” – that are generally assumed to be Israel and the U.S. – and of acting in collusion with the “Ergenekon cabal”, with the intention of sabotaging the democratic reforms of the AKP government. Inspecting the combat area bordering to Iraq, Erdoğan inadvertently confirmed the impression of being beleaguered: the photograph of the Prime Minister, crouching down in a trench, with a worried look in his eyes, was quickly capitalized by the opposition. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the Republican people’s party (CHP) vowed to “stand upright”, in contrast to the supposedly defeatist Prime Minister.
He accordingly showed up in another trench for a photo-op that was designed to market an upright Kılıçdaroğlu as a strong leader that has the guts to defy the PKK. General Başbuğ, who was present at both occasions, explains that the trench to which Erdoğan was taken was within the range of PKK snipers, hence the precaution to let the Prime Minister crouch down. However, Başbuğ did not explain why the military did not deliver Kılıçdaroğlu to a similar location, where the risk of being shot at would have called for the same kind of precautionary measures.
As it were, Kılıçdaroğlu was offered the opportunity he had sought; the posturing is sure to endear him to Turkish nationalists and will serve him in his quest to establish himself as the alternative to Erdoğan. Having been put on the defensive by the attacks of the PKK, Prime Minister Erdoğan has trouble fending off the accusations of the opposition that the government has put the integrity of Turkey at risk with its Kurdish opening a year ago.
It is however unlikely that the politicians’ showing off in trenches will enable Turkey to find its way out of the Kurdish impasse, any more than lashing out at foreign powers will help the country avoid a wider conflagration. Indeed, the gravity of the situation was underscored by the exhortation of Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the Nationalist Action party (MHP) to the cadres of the party to abstain from turning the funerals of fallen soldiers into political manifestations. Until now, MHP sympathizers have regularly showed up at such occasions, chanting angry Turkish nationalist slogans.
IMPLICATIONS: Even though Turkey seems to be preparing to deal a “decisive” blow to the PKK in northern Iraq, the conclusion that has imposed itself on the Turkish state after a quarter century of fighting the PKK is that military measures ultimately fall short of eradicating the challenge posed by the demands of the Kurdish population. The Kurdish opening was an expression of that recognition; it was also an attempt to channel the aspirations of the Kurds away from the militancy of the PKK.
Opposition politicians and nationalist hotheads claim that the PKK has gone on the offensive because it has been encouraged by the “concessions” of the government; it is a reading of recent events that is opportunistic from the vantage point of the opposition. Sensible commentators, on the other hand, make the more convincing argument that the PKK has on the contrary recognized that the opening was an attempt to bypass it, and that it has resorted to renewed violence in order to reassert its importance. At some point, Turkey may be forced to accept the currently unthinkable, negotiating with the PKK. Several prominent commentators are now raising that prospect; above all, however, they call for recognition of the fact that the PKK does indeed represent the identity aspirations of the Kurdish population, even though the majority of the Kurds of Turkey do not endorse the violence of the PKK.
In a recent, joint declaration by the representatives of nearly one hundred NGO’s in the Kurdish Southeast of the country, the PKK was invited to cease fire, together with the Turkish state. That declaration was seized upon by some on the Turkish side as proof that the PKK does not enjoy the support of the Kurdish population; indeed Prime Minister Erdoğan has asserted that the AKP is more representative of the Kurds than the Kurdish nationalist parties, a claim supported by the fact that roughly two thirds of the Kurds voted for the AKP in the latest general election. Yet the call of the Kurdish NGOs to the PKK to cease fire and the Kurdish votes for the AKP notwithstanding, the identity demands and expectations of the Kurdish population in general and those of the PKK do converge: there is hardly any difference between what Dengir Mir Mehmet Fırat, one of the most prominent Kurdish deputies of the AKP asks for – education in Kurdish, constitutionally enshrined Turkish-Kurdish equality – and what Selahattin Demirtaş, the leader of the Peace and democracy party (BDP), which has close ties to the PKK, demands in terms of equality. Turkey is yet to face up to the reality that the Kurdish issue is not a “terrorism” problem, but one that calls for a reassessment of the identity of the republic.
CONCLUSIONS: One commentator, İsmet Berkan of the daily Radikal, noted that “the problem is that the steps that would solve the problem would inevitably make the Turkish side feel defeated”. Ahmet İnsel, a prominent leftist intellectual, has pessimistically predicted that the Turkish majority will never accede to the Kurds’ identity demands, as it is supposedly historically non-disposed toward envisioning a state that is equally shared with other ethnic groups, one that is not defined by the identity of the majority. İnsel asserts that Turkey’s problem has been the same since the nineteenth century, when the attempt to introduce equality as the guiding principle of the state was undermined by the opposition of the Turkish Sunni Muslim majority. “Turkish Sunnis just cannot imagine giving up their dominant position”, claims İnsel.
However, Turkish nationalism has less to do with the preservation of ethnic superiority than it has to do with shoring up the state. In this sense, it is instrumental rather than exalted. A typical Turkish reaction in response to the demands of the Kurds is to ask what would happen if everyone else in Turkey – Circassians, Bosnians, Arabs and all other ethnic groups – asked for the same rights, if they also demanded education in their own languages. Turkish attitudes to ethnic pluralism are basically informed by insecurity, by the primordial fear that allowing societal diversity to express itself would result in the state being undone. That fear has deep roots in Turkish and Islamic history. Whereas the liberal Western tradition of thought posits that it is the duty of the state to defer to civil society, it has been the other way around in Turkish and Islamic political philosophy, ever haunted by the specter of “fitna”, internal strife: it has been, and remains axiomatic that the absence of an omnipotent state regimenting society would inevitably invite disintegration.
“The state fetishism of the religious conservatives – although not as pronounced as that of the secularists – is the greatest obstacle to Turkey’s democratization and normalization”, a senior AKP deputy recently told the Turkey Analyst. While that is indeed a remarkable statement, the fact that the Kurdish opening of the government has provoked strong opposition among the core conservative base of the AKP as well as among secularist-nationalists does seem to bear it out.
Yet in the long run, socio-economic trends work against state fetishism in Turkey: Sustained economic growth over the last two decades has laid the ground for societal emancipation from the state. It holds generally true that as civil society is empowered, individuals become less inclined to view the state as their sole insurance; it can thus be assumed that eventually, the Turks will not feel threatened by the weakening of the grip of the state on society. However, in the short run it is more probable that Turkey will resort to tried out belligerent habits as it continues to grope for a way out of its Kurdish impasse.
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".