Turkey’s Kurdish Question: Pitfalls For The Peace Talks

Turkey’s chronic “Kurdish problem” has always been a central issue in both the republic’s domestic and foreign policy since its very foundation. However, the armed opposition of Kurdish ethno-nationalism has become one of the biggest challenges to the Turkish state and democracy in only the last two or three decades following the emergence of the PKK. The question of Kurds in Turkey is not an easy-to-solve problem mostly because of the legal status of Kurds in Turkey. First of all, according to the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, Kurds, who now constitute 10 to 15[1] or 13.2 to 15.6[2] percent of the total population, are not accepted as a minority group but rather as principal elements and first-class citizens of the republic. Secondly, the concept of minorities has been interpreted very differently in various time periods and in different contexts. Thirdly, although Kurds are not accepted as a minority group and some of them are strongly against the idea of defining themselves as a minority group, their demands to take advantage of minority group rights in accordance with European Union criterion make the situation even more complex.


Although Turkey has always had a Kurdish question or Kurdish problem starting from the late Ottoman period with around 16 Kurdish revolts beginning from the Sheikh Said Rebellion of 1925[3],due to conditions of the Cold War, which necessitated a military-centered policy in Turkey against the communist bloc for the protection of the Western world as well as the feudal and anti-intellectual nature of the Kurdish movement, Kurdish separatism was not able to become an influential political movement until the 1980s. The Kurdish question came on the agenda again in the 1980s with the emergence of PKK[4] terrorism as a part of the radical left in Turkey.[5] Having rooted from the radical left, the PKK’s real ideology was Kurdish nationalism and its aim was to establish an independent Kurdish state in the southeastern part of Anatolia where the majority of Kurds in Turkey live.


After the horrible bloody events of the 1980s, beginning with the Social Democratic Populist Party’s (SHP) famous “Southeastern Report” of 1989 and the deeds of the coalition government of 1991 (DYP-SHP), the Turkish state began to make democratic reforms regarding the Kurdish question. This happened by erasing the bad memories of the Sep. 12, 1980, military coup and its restrictive legal and constitutional attitudes toward Kurds. The democratic openings and reforms were generally slowed down and stopped due to anger aroused among Turkish people due to the terror. The 1990s did not become very fruitful for the solution of the problem. In the early 21st century, Turkish governments accelerated their reforms vis-à-vis the Kurdish problem with the aim of becoming a full-member of the European Union. In accordance with the democratic pressures and principles of the European Union the Turkish state began to grant cultural rights to Kurds, although group rights and federalism claims have always been considered too risky by the state.[6]


In recent weeks, dialogue efforts between the Turkish government and Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the armed Kurdish separatist movement, have intensified with the official aim declared as the disarmament of the PKK after three decades of conflict and over 40,000 deaths. The process was led by the head of the Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MIT) Hakan Fidan and took the full-support of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP). Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), with its new leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has been giving positive messages for the process, although there are different voices within the party. The Nationalist Action Party (MHP), on the other hand, in accordance with its Turkish nationalist ideology has been criticizing the process though the party’s leadership seems very careful in not creating political rivalries that could easily turn into street clashes as was seen in the 1970s. The Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the party of Kurds alleged to have links to the PKK, seems supportive but also passive and ineffective. Although the majority of people in Turkey seem very hopeful and supportive for the peace process nowadays, a critical look is still needed since the media, likely due to government request, cannot provide a critical look at the process.

The first and obvious problem of the process is the negligence and inability of the government and MIT to use political psychology methods in convincing people on both sides about the unsustainable nature of the current situation. It’s no surprise to see that two of the most important actors representing Turkish and Kurdish nationalisms, the MHP and BDP, do not seem very influential and willing in the process, which makes achieving a real peace very difficult. Forcing TV channels and newspapers to make propaganda for the process is not enough to change the logic and feelings of people, especially those who are negatively affected by terror. There should be more efforts to convince people of the rightness of this process.


The second problem is about the nature of the peace talks. The peace talks include negotiations with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan with a focus on Öcalan’s imprisonment conditions as well as the PKK’s disarmament rather than Kurdish rights. The recent assassination of three women connected to the PKK in Paris clearly shows that there are and could be more varying factions within the PKK. It also shows that Öcalan might not be able to control his whole organization. Moreover, although in time the PKK has turned into an economic organization rather than a militia party, it still has some political purposes and the imprisonment conditions of Öcalan and disarmament negotiations might not be enough for Kurdish political activists in the long run. What is needed is forging a real peace with Kurds.


Thirdly, the conjuncture and timing of the process seems to be very bad and unfortunate since Turkey has serious political problems with its neighbors, including Syria, Iran and Iraq after the failure of its “zero problems with neighbors” policy. In addition, Turkey’s problems with Israel, the negative image of Turkey in European countries due to the freezing of its EU membership bid are all evidence that shows this may not be the best time for such a bold policy open to provocations. It is also highly questionable why the government did not take these steps even though Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has an uncontested power in his hands since 2007.


Fourthly, Turkish public opinion and Turkish political actors don’t seem ready or conscious about what could take place if these peace talks turn out to be successful and PKK members (especially Öcalan) become legitimate political actors. Since peace talks do not provide a final solution agreed to between the state and the PKK, the politicization of the PKK’s aim means a more intense and dangerous political atmosphere that is open to provocation. This lack of preparation may cause the transformation of the Kurdish question into the Turkish question in the near future.

Fifthly, since the negotiations and peace talks are directed by MIT, this could be perceived as a state policy rather than a civilian democratic opening. The Turkish Grand National Assembly could be the right place for such a policy, but the government seems to forget about basic democratic principles and the sanctuary of democracy that is Parliament in this process.


For all these reasons, the process brings many risks and pitfalls. For a real political solution to Turkey’s Kurdish question and the disarmament of the PKK, it could be better to focus on a general agreement regarding the legal status of Kurds and their democratic-cultural rights rather than Öcalan’s imprisonment conditions. Although being pessimist is not a very good character trait, being realistic is strongly needed in Turkey, especially on an important issue like this.

[1] Ergun Özbudun. 2000. Contemporary Turkish Politics: Challenges to Democratic Consolidation, p. 143.

[2] Metin Heper. 2008. Devlet ve Kürtler. İstanbul: Doğan Kitap, p. 13.

[3] Metin Heper, Devlet ve Kürtler, p. 13.

[4] The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan) is a Kurdish terrorist organization that was founded in the 1970s and led by Abdullah Öcalan until his capture in 1999. The PKK’s ideology is based on a kind of synthesis of Marxism-Leninism and Kurdish nationalism.

[5] Metin Heper, Devlet ve Kürtler, p. 233.

[6] Metin Heper, Devlet ve Kürtler, p. 268.

About Ozan Örmeci

Political scientist at Usak University