Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Turkey's emerging Kurdish crisis (Henri Barkey)

The editors' title for this Foreign Policy piece by the Turkish-American analyst Henri Barkey describes its subject as a "Silent Crisis" (that probably should have been "Hidden Crisis") because it has been building up to the boiling point without getting much attention from the outside world. It's certainly true that many of the developments that Barkey discusses here are news to me; and while I don't pretend to be any kind of expert on Turkey, I do read the newspapers and follow the other usual sources. But Barkey argues that we may all have to pay attention soon, because this situation is increasingly serious and potentially explosive: "Turkey is slowly and inexorably moving toward a crisis point."

If he's right--and Barkey's readings of Turkish society and politics always have to be taken very seriously--this may be an important wake-up call. And that's true even if his diagnosis proves to be overly alarmist.

Read the whole piece, but here's the heart of it:
As he sat down to have coffee on a sweltering August day in Istanbul, the first words my interlocutor, a well-known Kurdish intellectual named Orhan Miroglu, uttered were about the death of his three cousins in his ancestral village in Batman, a province in the heart of the Kurdish region of Turkey. The previous night, his cousins and a fourth villager had gone to investigate a suspicious fire on the outskirts of their village. As they approached, a mine destroyed their vehicle, killing them all. All of them had been members of Kurdish political parties or human rights groups. They were the latest casualties in a war between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), an insurgent group that enjoys a great deal of support among Kurds.

Turkey is in the grip of a summer of senseless violence. A little over a week before the attacks in Batman, on July 25, a clash erupted in the western town of Inegol when an ordinary quarrel between a Turk and a Kurd quickly spread after assuming a racial undertone. Just a few days later, four police officers were murdered in the southern province of Hatay. This was a mirror image of the Batman event; it appears as if rogue elements in the security forces had set up an ambush to blame the other side. This killing, however, was followed by intense interethnic clashes as local Turks took to the streets to exact revenge on their Kurdish neighbors.

These are some of the events that made headlines; there were other cases that were averted by local authorities working with the Kurdish political party. And the atmosphere is thick with stories of daily humiliations, minor taunts, and discrimination in housing and employment.

Turkey is slowly and inexorably moving toward a crisis point. Unlike in the 1990s, when the PKK was far stronger militarily and the insurgency was primarily concentrated in the majority Kurdish southeastern provinces, today Kurds are everywhere. That period's counterinsurgency campaign caused a massive outflow of refugees that dispersed throughout the country. Istanbul, home to an estimated 3 million to 5 million Kurds, is now the world's largest Kurdish city. This fact means that the Kurdish issue reverberates far beyond the traditional Kurdish strongholds in Turkey's southeast and eastern regions, increasing the chance that violence could erupt anywhere, at any time.

The children of Kurdish refugees, who have grown up in shantytowns outside Turkey's urban centers, represent a combustible addition to the country's fragile ethnic mix. Young, alienated, and angry, they are easily prone to violence. Even Kurdish political party leaders admitted to me that they are afraid of these youths, over whom they have no control. This is why the interethnic clashes in Inegol and Hatay are harbingers of larger and more serious future clashes. Complicating matters, of course, are equally mobilized and agitated Turkish youths -- often egged on by the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) -- who are prepared to confront the Kurds on the streets. [....]
That's a dramatic new factor. And I can see how it might transform the whole character and significance of Turkey's "Kurdish question." In this piece, Barkey can't do much more than touch on it. But that should be more than enough to catch our attention.

Meanwhile, the familiar perennial crisis in predominantly Kurdish southeast Turkey remains intractable. And the conflict there, Barkey tells us, is once again heating up.
Kurdish rebellions in Turkey are nothing new; they have occurred with some regularity since the inception of the Turkish republic. Since 1984, the PKK has engaged in a violent struggle for the rights of the Kurdish minority, estimated to be as much as 20 percent of the population -- exact figures are impossible to obtain. But after 26 years, 40,000 deaths (the vast majority of which have been Kurds), and billions of dollars, and despite the capture of the PKK's leader, Abdullah Ocalan, the Turkish state has been unable to contain this latest insurrection.

The Turkish army, the second-largest force in NATO, has little chance of defeating the insurrection through force of arms alone. Kurdish leaders are becoming increasingly more assertive and are furiously organizing their constituencies. Their demands include official recognition of their ethnicity, the freedom to use their language and culture -- which includes freedom to broadcast, publish, and teach in Kurdish -- and a greater devolution of powers in what is one of the world's most centralized states.

The Turkish state is aware of the political aspect to the Kurdish issue and is doing everything in its power to contain the growing political challenge. It has launched a war of attrition against Kurdish activists, employing mass arrests, never-ending court cases, and long prison sentences even for the most innocuous verbal or written critiques of the status quo. However, these methods are not serving as a deterrent to political activism, but in fact are deepening the alienation of Kurds and increasing their determination to carry on.

To its credit, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to initiate in 2009 a "Kurdish opening," an attempt to acknowledge that the Kurdish problem is one that defies military solutions and requires political, cultural, and economic remedies. Unfortunately, it also mismanaged the effort: It did not prepare the public for the initiative, did not consult any Kurdish leaders, and was thoroughly ill-equipped to respond to the reaction of the Kurds and the Turkish public. Faced with a backlash and the prospect of impending elections, the AKP backtracked, and the opening was shut down in everything but name. Both the party and the prime minister have retreated behind the safety of a combative nationalist discourse that has only served to further aggravate tensions.

The end of the Kurdish opening has also served to consolidate Kurdish attitudes toward the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the primary legal Kurdish political organization. The BDP has close ties to the PKK and increasingly sees itself as the Turkish equivalent of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.

In the absence of political progress with the government, the BDP and Kurds in general are also beginning to put together the rudimentary institutional structures of self-governance in the southeastern provinces. The prosecution's 7,500-page indictment against members of the BDP, largely resting on conjecture and unsubstantiated allegations, nevertheless manages to sketch the contours of a parallel self-governance structure the Kurds have been attempting to put into place -- independent of Ankara.

For most activist Kurds, the PKK's armed insurrection is of secondary importance. [....] At least in the southeastern provinces, Kurds now have an important advantage: control of the municipalities. This provides them with organizational capabilities to deepen their political struggle for recognition. Psychologically, the Turkish state may have already lost these provinces. [....]
In short,
The Kurdish question remains Turkey's Achilles' heel, influencing all aspects of political and cultural life, from civil-military relations to democratic reforms to foreign policy.
True. And if Barkey's prognoses are even half-right, "Achilles heel" may be turning into an understatement. You can read the rest of his piece here.

--Jeff Weintraub