Insurgencies may not die, but at least, like old soldiers, they usually fade away. Well, that seemed to be the case with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK.
For the best part of five years between 2000 and 2005 there was a truce in Turkey’s bitter and savage civil war. But it did not last.
The Kurdish “problem” goes back to the Ottoman Empire. The rugged mountains where Turkey, Iraq and Iran meet have been called Kurdistan since the early 13th century, and the Kurds’ roots can be traced back at least 2,000 years. Most of the world’s 20m Kurds live in the region, although well over a million have emigrated to Istanbul, Baghdad, Tehran and Beirut, often assimilating well with the local people.
Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan blames the PKK for its provocations. However, it is the army that often has done the provoking, even on occasion using agents provocateurs, and dragging the government into the fray. Erdogan often had to bow before the army in order to check the generals’ urge to run Turkey.
The Kurds of Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Syria, Russia and Lebanon might as well be six different peoples. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, a casualty of the First World War, undermined by British arms and intrigue, most of its subject peoples knew what they wanted.
Greeks, Arab, Armenians, Jews and Palestinians all demanded their own homelands, claiming a right to nationhood. The Kurds, distinct but indistinct, lacked the resolve that comes from possessing a single ethnic origin, religion, language or leadership, and thus were relegated to the sidelines of the nationalist drama.
Despite that lack of unity, when Saddam Hussein made his notorious effort to bomb northern Iraq’s Kurds in the wake of the ending of the first Gulf war they poured across the mountains into Turkey the Turkish Kurds helped them. (As is happening today, the US betrayed them, refusing to help them even though they had been an ally in the war against Saddam Hussein.) And, post-Saddam, after the Iraqi Kurds had entrenched their autonomy in the new Iraqi constitution there was a lot of buzz on the Turkish side of the mountains about building a new, united Kurdistan. But most of the time Kurdish leaders from these countries do not meet, do not talk, and often speak different languages.
Even in the remote villages of the stony landscape of the southeast, villagers preferred to talk to me about their urge for Turkey to be part of Europe than for a link up with their Kurdish and Asian brethren.
Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, thought that it would be relatively easy to make a Faustian bargain with the Turkish Kurds, offering them full and complete citizenship in exchange for demanding they give up their language, traditions and identity.
But many Kurds never sat easy with this arrangement. From the beginning they resented the banning of the use of the Kurdish language in schools and law courts.
Their first major revolt broke out in 1925 and was brutally repressed. Yet it was not so simple as this history suggests. In Turkey’s 1996 general election, the Kurdish People’s Democracy party was for the first time allowed to contest the election without harassment. Nevertheless, out of the 6-7m potential Kurdish votes, it received only 1.2m.
It seems that the Kurds in the larger cities voted principally for the mainstream parties and there was a significant rejection of Kurdish nationalism, even of the democratic variety, much less than that of the PKK.
The message for the PKK was that the cause it solicited and the means it chose to use were not widely shared. For the authorities there was also a message: that they exaggerated the potency of the PKK and misled the public on why they had to be so unsparing and tough on those Kurds that did rebel.
Neither side absorbed the message, and the war went on for another four years until the PKK’s elusive leader Abdullah Öcalan’s capture in 1999. He called off the war.
The quid pro quo for a truce- the introduction of reforms- began well. Kurdish nationalists were allowed to administer the main cities in the ethically Kurdish area.
Kurdish-language newspapers were now on sale, Kurdish-spoken broadcasting was allowed although it was limited to an hour or so a day. Kurdish music on the radio became more common. However, there was little effort to introduce Kurdish in primary education.
But then the reform effort fizzled out. Erdogan blamed the PKK for its continuous provocations. However, it was the army that often had done the provoking, even on occasion using agents provocateurs, and dragging the government into the fray.
Few I talked to in the southeast 14 years ago seemed convinced that this revived PKK insurgency would simply fizzle out, and it hasn’t. The politics was complicated by the lure of the EU. Most Kurds wanted Turkey to get into Europe as fast as it could.
They knew that the EU, besides offering jobs and investment, also offered copper-bottomed minority rights. They also knew that PKK activity might scare off the EU. But, the big but, the EU turned Turkey down. The momentum that had been generated in the Turkish attempt to ingratiate itself with the EU on human rights issues dissolved.