Kurds could revolt if grievances aren’t fixed (Al Jazeera)

Turkey’s leaders must face up to Kurdish concerns, or risk provoking Middle East-inspired civil unrest.

In 1923, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the Republic of Turkey from the ashes of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire, there were two significant groups that opposed the formation of a secular nation state: Islamists and Kurds.

Whereas Islamists supported the continuation of sharia law and the sultanate and were against the westernisation of society and politics, Kurds realised that there was no place for their ethnic and cultural rights in the newly established Turkish nation state.

Kemal’s right-hand man, Ismet Inonu, made a speech in 1925 in which he summarised the Turkification campaign aimed at other ethnic groups: “As Turks are in the majority, other groups do not have any power. Our mission is to Turkify non-Turkish groups in the Turkish homeland. We are going to eradicate groups who oppose Turks and Turkishness.”

Indeed, Turkish nationalism prompted the reaction of Kurds, who revolted numerous times during the early republican period against the assimilation campaign and each time were harshly suppressed by the Turkish military.

Language banned

Until the 1980s, Turkey’s political establishment had refused to recognise the existence of Kurds and instead used the derogatory term “mountain Turks”. The Kurdish language was banned in education, media and in parliament.

However, this policy of ignoring the existence of a distinct Kurdish identity started to be challenged by the Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), founded by Abdullah Ocalan in the late 1970s.

The PKK, classified as a terrorist organisation by the European Union and the United States, waged an armed campaign against the Turkish state in southeast Turkey that aimed at independence for the Kurds. Compared with ETA in Spain and the IRA in Northern Ireland, whose armed campaigns killed hundreds respectively, the PKK’s armed insurgency was bloodier and the death toll has reached more than 40,000 people since 1984.

The intensity of the conflict decreased significantly after 1999, when Ocalan was captured. He has since been serving a life term. Since then the PKK leader has prioritised the political struggle rather than the armed one, renounced separatism, and announced that the Kurdish problem would only be solved through the autonomy of Kurds in “a democratic republic”.

However the Turkish political establishment, mainly the military and judiciary, considered the recognition of Kurdish rights as a first step that would lead to the collapse of Turkey and ultimately independence of the Kurds. In the last two decades the Constitutional Court banned four Kurdish parties because of links with the PKK.

Enter Erdogan

The deadlock between the PKK and the Turkish state continued until the rise to power of Erdogan – an outsider to Turkey’s ruling elite – in 2002. This changed the political balance significantly. The AKP (Justice and Development Party), having originated in the Islamist movement, was accused by the secular-nationalist establishment of pursuing a secret Islamic agenda.

The clash between the two camps peaked in 2008 when the AKP narrowly escaped being banned by the constitutional court for alleged anti-secular activity.

Erdogan’s distance from the Kemalist establishment has made the AKP acceptable to many Kurds.  He became the first Turkish prime minister who recognised the Kurdish problem as a problem of ethnic identity rather than economic backwardness.

In 2005, in a ground-breaking way, Erdogan acknowledged that “the state made mistakes about the Kurdish issue”. The AKP’s reformist approach had a deep impact on Kurds in the 2007 general election. In the predominantly Kurdish south-eastern part of Turkey, the AKP surpassed the Kurdish Party and doubled its vote from 26 per cent to 53 per cent.

Indeed, with its Islamist-conservative discourse, the AKP succeeded in overcoming the conflict between Turkish and Kurdish nationalisms and became the party of all people in Turkey from different ethnic backgrounds.

In 2009, in an effort to find a lasting settlement, Erdogan launched “the Kurdish opening”: improving cultural rights for Kurds, launching the first state television channel in Kurdish language, and encouraging PKK fighters to lay down their arms and return from the mountains.

‘Treacherous project’

When 34 PKK members returned to Turkey from the mountains of northern Iraq dressed in guerrilla outfits and joined “victory celebrations” at mass rallies in October 2009, the two main opposition parties, the secularist CHP (Republican People’s Party) and nationalist MHP (Nationalist Movement Party), branded the “Kurdish opening” a “treacherous project”, declared that AKP was negotiating with the “enemy” and would pay the price for its “treason”.

Soon the rapprochement with the Kurdish side stopped and the PKK resumed fighting. Erdogan’s biggest concern was the upcoming general elections and the possible loss of votes from those inflamed by the nationalist campaign of the opposition.

To appease the growing Turkish nationalist reaction, the government arrested hundreds of Kurds, including politicians, and accused them of being the urban wing of the PKK.

The most crucial issue after the general election will be the writing of the first civil constitution that will mark a clear break from military tutelage, since the current constitution is a product of the military regime which came to power after the coup of September 1980.

During that process, the cultural and political rights of the Kurds will be fiercely debated by Kurdish and Turkish nationalists, secularists and conservatives. According to recent polls Erdogan is expected to form a majority government and he has showed signs of stepping back from his previous reformist stance on the Kurdish problem.

During the election campaign, Erdogan put forward the socio-economic development of southeast Turkey and did not discuss the political reforms for Kurds. He said “there is no Kurdish issue but problems of the Kurdish people”.

Nevertheless, the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) emphasised that the new constitution should recognise autonomy for Kurds and education in the Kurdish language. Moreover, Abdullah Ocalan, who retains his power over the Kurdish movement even from his jail cell, warned that “all hell will break loose” if fully-fledged negotiations for a settlement between himself and the Turkish government do not commence after the elections.

Erdogan’s nationalist tone in the election campaign aims to lure voters away from the opposition parties, and presumably will change after the election as the AKP will need the support of the Kurdish MPs to write a new constitution.

However, many Kurds consider Erdogan’s stance as a strategy to stall reforms demanded by Ocalan. If a new constitution fails to address Kurdish concerns, the PKK might renew its struggle, not only through an armed campaign, as happened in the last two decades, but also through a campaign of civil disobedience, which has become very popular in the Middle East in the recent months.


The end of an era in Turkish politics (Al Jazeera)

Recent resignations by Turkish military generals may mark a change in the military’s historic role in politics.

Anyone reading about the politics and history of Turkey is likely to be struck by the role played by the Turkish military. The Republic was established in 1923 under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and other soldier-statesmen. Since then the military establishment has positioned itself above civilians and acted as the guardian of the newly created Turkish state.

Until the end of the 1980s, six of the first seven presidents of Turkey were generals that had allowed the military to supervise politicians and intervene in politics whenever it was “necessary”. The military had staged four coups – in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997 – imposing its rule by overthrowing elected governments and devised constitutions in order to guide politics. The Turkish military elite legitimised its privileged status in politics by basing the duty of the military on two crucial premises: Westernisation and defending the republic against external and internal “enemies”.

The military has been the staunchest supporter of Ataturk’s ideal: a modern, secular and advanced nation-state. The aim of the Kemalist Revolution was to elevate the Turkish society to the level of advanced Western civilisation, and ambitious reforms transformed traditional cultural, legal, and educational institutions. This was revolutionary in that the nation was disassociated from Islam and God as the community of believers and was anchored to the Turkish state and homeland. The military was committed to guard these top-down reforms and the secular nation-state, and any opposition attempt against them had been eliminated.

Protection against communisim

After the Second World War, establishing a democratic system became an indispensable part of this ideal since Turkey dedicated itself to enter into the “Free World” against the communist bloc. Under the pressure of the West, Turkey’s political regime was changed to a multi-party system with implementation of free and fair elections. Nevertheless, the military-bureaucratic establishment argued that European democracies cannot set the example for Ankara.

Turkey, facing the “communist threat” and “Soviet expansionism”, should be a “special democracy.” According to this rationale, the country is located in a vulnerable region surrounded by internal and external “enemies” next to the Soviet Union, and therefore the military should have a very special role defined by the Turkey’s unique geopolitics. This rationale was internalised by civilians and significantly justified the military’s authoritarian political supremacy and its refusal to reform Turkey’s “special democracy.”

In line with other Mediterranean countries in the Western bloc including Spain, Portugal, and Greece, the Cold War’s dichotomous international structure allowed Turkish generals to contain the competition over politics by restricting comprehensive democratic participation. Left-wing opposition and intellectuals, demanding a more egalitarian political and economic system, were accused of working as the fifth column of communism in Turkey and were labelled as traitors.

Towards the end of the Cold War, whereas the above-mentioned Mediterranean countries ended the military tutelage over politics and restored the liberal parliamentary democracy, the Turkish military stalled further democratisation and preserved its hegemony even after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

During the 1990s political Islam and Kurdish separatism replaced the “communist danger” and were identified as the main threats for the country’s security. The military, the self-appointed “guardian of the republic”, considered the fight against the PKK and political Islam as necessary duties to defend Turkish nationalism and secularism, the two main pillars of Kemalism.

Recent times

In the past decade, the civil-military balance has changed dramatically as a result of economic and political liberalisation, reinforced by the developing relations between Turkey and the European Union, which, in 1999, opened Ankara’s long path towards full membership. The disagreement between pro-EU actors and parties, and the military elite crystallised over the adoption of international societal norms, such as cultural pluralism and linguistic rights for ethnic groups, as well as the rejection of the traditional national security state. AKP’s rise to power in 2002 started the process of de-politicisation of the military that was required for Turkey’s accession to the EU.

The recent resignations of Turkey’s Chief of General Staff, as well as the Commanders of the Army, Navy and Air force at the protest of the jailing of 250 officers on charges of conspiring against the ruling AKP, revealed the end of the privileged position of the military in Turkish politics. For the first time in Turkish history, top military commanders decided to quit their positions rather than seizing power and deposing the elected government. This unprecedented development symbolises the end of the military’s supremacy and the beginning of a new era, in which Ataturk’s famous motto written on the wall of the Turkish parliament is truly cemented 88 years after the establishment of the republic; “sovereignty belongs without reservation or condition to the nation”.


Europeanisation of the Balkans? (Al Jazeera)

The historic Europeanisation of the Balkans has resulted in the development of a renewed political landscape.

Leon Trotsky, the most prominent figure of the Russian Revolution of 1917 after Lenin, was sent to cover the Balkan War as a war correspondent by the Russian newspaper Kievskaya Misl. In the Fall of 1912, Trotsky entered the areas populated by Muslims after the retreat of the Ottoman armies and was shocked by the massacres:

“[T]he komitadjis (Bulgarian/Serbian rebels) began their work the moment the sky grew dark. They broke into Turkish and Albanian homes and did the same thing, time and again: Stole and slaughtered. Skopje has 60,000 inhabitants, half of whom are Albanians and Turks. Some of them had fled, but most of there were still there. And they were now victims to the nightly bloodbaths.”

While Trotsky had expected to report the victories of the Slav armies, after seeing the brutal massacres he decided to return to Russia: “I had no strength to endure the atmosphere any longer; I couldn’t breathe. My political interest and enormous moral curiosity to see what was going on was gone, vanished. All that remained was the wish to get away as fast as possible.”

The forgotten frontier: The Balkans

The tragedy and sufferings experienced by the Muslims during the Balkan Wars was not an exception in the last two centuries. In the course of the century between the Greek War of Independence and World War I (1821-1918), 5.5 million Ottoman Muslims lost their lives and another 5 million became refugees.

Although this tragedy was Europe’s largest loss of life and emigration since the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century, it has been largely disregarded by European press and intellectuals.

In European orientalist literature, the Balkans were regarded as the irrational and violent “other” under Ottoman rule, and often contrasted with the peaceful and democratic West. Orientalists invented the term Balkanisation to describe the division of a state into smaller states that are hostile towards each other.

Balkanisation is also used pejoratively as a synonym of the primitive, the backwards and the barbarian. During the last two decades, the flowing number of immigrants and the multicultural environment in European metropolises have been labeled as the ‘Balkanisation’ of Europe.

On the other hand, another process, the Europeanisation of the Balkans generated great human tragedies for Balkan societies. What happened during the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire was the replacement of the imperial paradigm that encouraged cultural heterogeneity and tolerance with the new European paradigm of the nation-state.

Indeed, the importation of European type of nationalism to the Balkans necessitated the transformation of the heterogeneous imperial space inhabited different ethnic and religious groups into a homogenous national homeland and therefore the ethnic-cleansing of “unwanted” minorities.

As a result of this Europeanisation of the Balkans, the percentage of Muslims in the region decreased from 43 per cent to 12 per cent during the past 150 years. Although some of the 8 million Muslims in the Balkans live in their independent states in Bosnia, Albania and Kosova today, Muslim minorities in Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia and Serbia still face discriminatory policies and persecution.

The Balkan nation-states have considered their Muslim minorities as the ‘backward’ and ‘uncivilised’ legacies of the despised Ottoman past. Hence, ruling elites have sought to either assimilate these ‘alien’ and ‘dangerous’ elements, or to get rid of them by forcing a mass exodus to Turkey.

Muslims of Bulgaria: The other or one of us?

Muslims in Bulgaria, composed of Turks, Pomaks (Bulgarian speaking Muslims) and Muslim Romanies (Muslim Gypsies) have been subjected to an assimilation campaign in the past five decades which has been termed as a modernising “regenerative process” by the Bulgarian state. During the 1980s, the communist regime forced Muslims to abandon their religion, traditions, language, and even their names.

With the collapse of communism and the emergence of democracy, Muslims gained their cultural, political and education rights. They were represented by the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), which is the third largest party in the Parliament, holding 37 seats out of 240. Especially in the 2000s, the MRF became a coalition partner in different governments and played an important role in the reconciliation of different ethnic and religious groups.

In recent years however, Bulgaria experienced the rise chauvinistic nationalism of ATAKA (‘attack’) Party, similar to such groups in Austria and France which employ offensive stances against minorities.

ATAKA’s leader Volen Siderov, who gained popularity on account of his television talk show, announced that his party’s nationalism was aimed at ‘the Turkification of Bulgaria’. Moreover, Siderov criticised the coalition governments including the MRF and emphasised that ATAKA “would not allow the Prime Minister to put fezzes (Ottoman hat) back on Bulgarian heads.”

Recently, a traffic accident in a small Bulgarian town where Bulgarians and Roma live together caused violent protests in major cities that targeted minorities. Protesters said that “we are marching against all parasite communities”, and carried banners of “Gypsy terror: How long will it take, how long we will be quiet!”

ATAKA’s leader, Siderov, who is running in the presidential elections scheduled for October 23, participated in the protests rallies and called the dismantlement of “Gypsy ghettos” and the formation of militias. The recent events revealed that the manipulation of the fragile political balance could have disastrous results for Bulgaria.

Bulgaria and the EU should not let the chauvinist parties like ATAKA free to incite ethnic and religious hatred that would be harmful for minorities.