Turkey needs to recover the initiative after the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) insurgency’s aggressive escalation of violence and implement a long-term conflict resolution strategy that addresses Kurdish grievances.
Turkey: The PKK and a Kurdish Settlement, the latest International Crisis Group report, warns that the number of lives being lost in Turkey’s conflict with the PKK is rapidly rising. More than 700 have been killed in fourteen months, the highest casualty rate in over a decade. PKK hardliners have initiated prolonged clashes with the army, kidnappings and attacks on civilians. A decade of government reforms have faded since 2009. The government is legitimately fighting back, but in the process opportunities to address the conflict peacefully risk being overshadowed.
“The government and mainstream media should resist the impulse to call for all-out anti-terrorist war and focus instead on ensuring rights and justice together with Turkey’s legitimate Kurdish leaders, principally working through parliament and political parties”, says Hugh Pope, Crisis Group’s Turkey/Cyprus Project Director. “The Kurdish movement must pressure the PKK to halt its terrorist attacks, and the government must reform oppressive laws that jail non-violent Kurdish movement politicians”.
The government has zigzagged in commitment to Kurds’ rights since it initiated a “Democratic Openning” in 2005, which began to falter in 2009 and crumbled in 2011 with the end of negotiations with the PKK. At times, it gives positive signals, including scheduling optional Kurdish lessons in schools and agreeing to work in parliament with other parties on more reforms. But as part of its anti-terrorist effort it also detains for long periods and prosecutes thousands of peaceful Kurdish movement activists, including elected officials, journalists, academics and students, many with no links to violent acts.
To rebuild trust with the Kurdish community and strengthen Turkey’s democracy, the government should act on four main Kurdish demands. These are shared by many outside the Kurdish movement, whose representatives win less than half the Kurdish vote. They are the right to education in mother languages for all in Turkey; an end to all discrimination in the constitution and laws; a fair chance of political representation by reducing the threshold for election to parliament from 10 per cent to the European norm of 5 per cent; and implementing decentralisation of power to all Turkey’s 81 provinces.
The Kurdish movement, however, needs to speak with one voice and clarify its vague and sometimes more radical formulation of such demands if it is to be taken seriously in Ankara and its grievances are to be heard sympathetically by the rest of the country. Mixed messages have convinced mainstream public opinion that Turkey’s Kurds seek an independent state, even though most of the country’s Kurdish speakers – 15-20 per cent of the population – just want full rights within Turkey.
“Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should seize the opportunity to return to the track of democratic reforms”, says Sabine Freizer, Crisis Group’s Europe Program Director. “If the government can guarantee the Kurds of Turkey full equality and rights, support would drop for armed struggle and the PKK, and Turkey and the PKK would be much better placed to negotiate disarmament and demobilisation”.