To head off a serious escalation of the armed conflict, Turkey and the Turkish Kurd nationalist movement must immediately step back from the trap of a new cycle of tit-for-tat military and terrorist attacks that have killed 110 people since June.
Turkey: Ending the PKK Insurgency , the latest report from the International Crisis Group, describes how the Turkish government began implementing concrete reforms to give Turkish Kurds long-denied universal rights but warns that this progress risks being derailed by recent violence. The authorities need to concentrate urgently on radical judicial, social and political measures that advance the legitimate claims of the country’s largest ethnic community, while the Turkish Kurd nationalist movement should take up its seats in parliament and commit to peaceful, legal avenues of struggle.
“A hot war, militaristic tactics and attacks over the Iraqi border did not solve the Kurdish problem for either side in the 1990s and will not now”, says Hugh Pope, Crisis Group’s Turkey/Cyprus Project Director. “While justified in blocking new threats to public security, the government should push ahead faster and farther with the democratic initiatives it started and not allow gains to be swept away by armed conflict that has already killed more than 30,000 people since 1984”.
The Democratic Opening developed by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) counts as Turkey’s most credible attempt to heal the open wounds of conflict between the state and its estimated 15-20 per cent Kurdish-speaking population. It involves concrete steps including broadening access to Kurdish-language television, legislating the right to make political speeches in Kurdish and overseeing an end to almost all torture in Turkish jails.
But while making reforms, the authorities also arrested hundreds of Turkish Kurd nationalists, including many elected municipal officials and other nationalist party members. More than 3,000 nationalist activists are behind bars, many punished as “terrorists” for the non-violent expression of opinions under laws for which AKP is responsible. A ground-breaking amnesty for the insurgents also failed in October 2009.
The parliament is the best place to overcome the obstacles over which the Democratic Opening stumbled. Eventually a full ceasefire and negotiations are the only way to disarm the insurgent PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), whose 3,000-5,000 fighters are mostly based in the mountains of northern Iraq. The Turkish Kurd nationalist parties should end the practice of political boycotts, allow the nationalist independent deputies to enter parliament and work wholeheartedly on constitutional and legal reform. The Turkish Kurd movement must recognise that attacks on civilians, civil servants, police or military on routine patrols will not win them the greater rights they crave.
The process has also featured productive direct negotiations between the authorities and the PKK to end the insurgency. The outline of a deal that was nearly agreed – an end to the fighting, major legal reforms, an amnesty and Turkish Kurd acceptance to work within the legal Turkish system – remains the best long-term outcome for both sides.
“The government’s planned constitutional reform and other legal changes should address many of the legitimate Turkish Kurdish grievances”, says Sabine Freizer, Crisis Group’s Europe Program Director. “Removing hints of ethnic discrimination, broadening the use of Kurdish while retaining Turkish as the official language and opening the political space by lowering the 10 per cent national threshold to get into Parliament could all go a long way to reduce tensions”.