The PKK and the Closure of Turkey's Kurdish Opening

by Alexander Christie-Miller | published August 4, 2010

At a community hall in Diyarbakır, a majority-Kurdish city in southeastern Turkey, a shrine is draped with the illegal flag of the Kurdistan Workers Party, otherwise known as the PKK. On top of the flag is a framed photograph of Özgür Dağhan, a young man who died fighting for the outlawed rebel group. Looming above, a poster shows the grinning visage of the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, whose organization’s war with the Turkish state has so far claimed more than 40,000 lives. Since the PKK canceled its one-year ceasefire on June 1, scenes such as this one are once again common.

Dağhan was one of 46 fighters killed in clashes with the Turkish military in the month leading up to July 14. Protests marked the return of his body to the city, and the day afterwards, a photograph of him taken by his family was run on the front page of the local Günlük newspaper. His body lies stretched out on a stainless steel morgue table, a dark swirl of chest hair standing out against pale, discolored flesh. The worst details are pixelated, but the belief in the city is that he and other militants were mutilated after death by the army, a practice dating from the dark days of the 1990s, when the southeast was in a virtual state of civil war. The banner headline reads: “Why this horror?”

The latest return to violence is underpinned by a deep sense of pessimism among Kurds, born of the knowledge that a door has slammed on what many believe was the best chance ever to resolve a conflict that has blighted Turkey for more than a quarter of a century. “This will never end,” said Dağhan’s cousin, Suna, a university graduate with a degree in tourism. “Before, I was thinking it would finish and we would see our friends and cousins again, but now I don’t believe it.” In different forms, observers are asking the same question posed by Günlük as they pick through the bones of what was known as the “Kurdish opening” -- the promise in the summer of 2009 by Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government to formulate a plan to address the long-running grievances of the Kurdish minority, which is fighting for greater cultural rights and limited regional autonomy.

What embitters many Kurds is that even as the government was talking up a possible solution to the conflict, a parallel process was set in train that appeared directly counter-productive. Since April 2009, more than 1,500 Kurdish politicians, activists, lawyers and NGO workers have been jailed for alleged links to an organization called the People’s Confederation of Kurdistan (KCK), which Turkish authorities claim is an urban wing of the PKK. The defining moment came on December 25, the day after a round of police raids in which more than 80 people were arrested. A now infamous photo hit the press of 35 suspects, including eight mayors from the Kurds’ main political grouping, lined up in handcuffs outside Diyarbakır’s courthouse waiting to give testimony. Those charged include Osman Baydemir, the popular mayor of metropolitan Diyarbakır, who is facing charges carrying a total of 36 and a half years imprisonment.

Even as it speaks of peace and dialogue, the Turkish government seems intent on cutting off the legal face of Kurdish activism, on locking up perhaps the only people who can spare it the necessity of negotiating directly with the PKK. This prospect, politically toxic because of the intensity of Turkish nationalism, the government wishes to avoid at all costs. The Kurds, meanwhile, have received a depressing message from the omnipresent image of their democratically elected mayors in handcuffs, flanked by police: The path of non-violence is a dead end.

Conciliation

Early in 2009, the AKP government seemed willing to listen to the Kurds, at least more so than its predecessors. In January, it opened the first state-run Kurdish language TV channel, TRT 6. The previous year it launched an initiative, the GAP Action Plan, supposedly to channel assistance and investment to the economically deprived southeast. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan often made noises about settling the grievances of the Kurds; it made sense to do so not just to aid Turkey’s push for membership in the European Union, but also to win Kurdish votes for the AKP. The parties of the Kemalist establishment had nothing to offer the Kurds, but as outsiders to the state-secularist order themselves, the Islamist-rooted AKP could appeal to the minority, especially if it showed sympathy for their complaints of discrimination and repression. In 2005, Erdoğan had announced in Diyarbakır that “the Kurdish problem is my problem.”

On March 29, 2009, the Democratic Society Party (DTP), the Kurds’ main legal political grouping, won decisive victories in a round of local municipal elections. Two weeks later, on April 13, the PKK announced a ceasefire, touting the DTP’s electoral success as a sign that the time was ripe for a democratic solution to the simmering conflict. But Erdoğan’s words of conciliation soon came to seem like a dangerous game of raising expectations beyond his intent to deliver.

At 4 am on April 14, one day after the ceasefire, Turkish police carried out raids in 13 provinces in the country’s southeast, arresting more than 100 Kurdish lawyers, activists and politicians, including 53 DTP members. The authorities had been watching Kurdish civil society movements since February 2007, when they launched an extensive wiretapping operation, including in the offices of the DTP’s Bureau for Local Administration -- a body set up to coordinate the activities of party-controlled municipalities. Few familiar with the DTP doubted that organic ties exist between the legal Kurdish party and the illegal guerrilla group headquartered south of the border in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, but for those hoping for a lasting solution to the conflict the wave of arrests was disastrous. “The party has been considered the legal representation of the Kurds in the process for the solution of the Kurdish question,” said Emin Aktar, the head of the Diyarbakır Bar Association, reacting on the day of the arrests. “This has destroyed hopes of a peaceful solution.”

To many observers the raids smacked of revenge. In the municipal elections the AKP had spectacularly failed to win its hoped-for victory over the DTP, despite having courted the Kurds for months. In Diyarbakır, where campaigning had been especially intense, the AKP’s defeat in the mayoral election was crushing. Osman Baydemir, the DTP incumbent, won with 65.4 percent of the vote. The result seemed to reinforce the DTP’s status as the legitimate face of Kurdish activism. According to Emrullah Uslu, a former policy analyst at the Turkish National Police’s counter-terrorism headquarters who is now an assistant professor in political science at Istanbul’s Yeditepe University, the police had wanted to make the arrests before the elections, in order to avoid the tricky situation of arresting someone who had been elected. The government, however, did not want to be the villain in the eyes of the Kurds ahead of the polling and insisted that the raids take place afterwards.

After the vote, the AKP continued to talk peace. In May, President Abdullah Gül kicked off the latest “Kurdish opening” when he declared: “The biggest problem of Turkey is the Kurdish problem…. It has to be solved.” He added that the country had a “historic possibility to solve it through discussions.” Despite the arrests, the atmosphere appeared favorable: The PKK’s leader Murat Karayılan said in an extended interview with Milliyet columnist Hasan Cemal that the guerrillas were ready to lay down their arms and that, if necessary, the DTP could negotiate in its stead.

Dissolution

Meanwhile, the arrests of Kurdish activists continued. By June 18 around 500 DTP members were in custody, along with Kurdish lawyers, academics and NGO officials. On the political front the government continued to show a tentative willingness to speak to the party. In August, Erdogan dropped his demand that the DTP condemn the PKK as a terrorist organization, and met with its leader Ahmet Türk. Interior Minister Beşir Atalay, who was coordinating the peace effort, visited Diyarbakır and met with Kurdish politicians. “Let us have confidence,” he pronounced afterwards. “We can solve this, as long as we have self-confidence.” Türk was more circumspect: “We are at the beginning of a process. We hope that this journey toward peace will not result in frustration.”

These encounters took place amidst a growing clamor of disapproval from Turkish nationalists. The leader of the main opposition People’s Republican Party, Deniz Baykal, accused Erdoğan of talking to terrorists and described the DTP as “the embodiment of the PKK in other formats.” The army weighed in, with a message posted on its website from the chief of general staff, İlker Başbuğ, who warned: “You cannot put martyrs who sacrificed their souls for their country and terrorists in the same corner.” What will the government had to persevere appeared to dissolve. The fatal blow came on October 18, when the PKK sent a “peace group” of eight guerrillas and 26 refugees across the Iraqi border. After being allowed to enter by Turkish authorities, the returnees got a reception by jubilant Kurdish crowds that played like a kind of PKK victory parade on Turkish television -- and sparked outrage. It probably did not help that ten MPs from the DTP were in the crowds to meet the returnees as they came through the Habur border crossing.

Two events soon afterwards drove the final nails into the coffin. On December 11, the chief prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals succeeded in a two-year quest to have the DTP banned and dissolved. The court decision was not in itself particularly surprising -- previous incarnations of the party had been banned four times since 1994 -- and its members had already prepared a new body, the Peace and Democracy Party.

More shocking was that its leader, the parliamentarian Türk, one of the most moderate, well-respected Kurdish politicians, was personally barred from politics for five years. Less than two weeks later, the police raids reached a climax with the arrest of the mayors.

In retrospect, therefore, the opening was foredoomed to failure. The closure case against the DTP was opened in November 2007; the AKP opposed it, but could not stop it. More damaging was the decision by police investigators to begin their extensive wiretapping operation targeted at Kurdish civil society figures in February 2007. By the time the police were ready to make their first arrests around the time of the March 2009 municipal elections, they had secretly recorded more than two years of phone conversations. “The police thought that such an operation would cut the link between the Peace and Democracy Party and the PKK,” said Uslu. “It’s very likely that the government shared this view.” But in hoping to rid the Kurdish political scene of the influence of the PKK, they radically underestimated its degree of entrenchment in Kurdish society.

Gaze of the PKK

It has always been difficult for Kurdish activists to tread a line independent of the PKK. They are squeezed by the state on one side and the militant organization on the other. “If I’d been killed on the way home, my friends wouldn’t have known whether it was the PKK or the government,” said Ümit Fırat, a Kurdish activist and intellectual who has successfully steered an autonomous course, as he recalled the hottest years of the conflict in the 1990s. Up until then, the PKK was a fundamentally rural organization, relying on a network of supporters in the Kurdish villages. But when the Turkish army began its policy of emptying the villages in the mid-1990s, two to three million Kurds moved to Turkey’s cities, creating a new generation of Kurdish activists and an expanded environment for activism that was more difficult for the PKK to control. As Turkey strove to meet the “Copenhagen criteria” for EU accession under the AKP government, the cities increasingly boasted a climate of relative political freedom.

In the 2007 general elections, the DTP’s predecessor Democratic People’s Party became the first Kurdish party in a decade to win significant representation in Parliament. The party ducked the law excluding parties with less than 10 percent of the national vote by running its candidates as independents. Despite being dissolved by the courts, the grouping (reformed as the DTP) has shown growing clout in the southeast. In the 1999 local elections it won 37 municipalities; in 2004 it increased its share to 54; and in 2009 to 99. The party’s mayors have used their limited power and resources to battle for Kurdish cultural rights long denied by the Turkish state. Abdullah Demirbaş, the popular and dynamic mayor of Diyarbakır’s Sur district, made Kurdish the formal working language of his administration and printed tourist brochures in Kurdish. In taking such steps, he and other mayors were constantly testing a legal system that severely restricts markers of Kurdish identity. One can be fined simply for using the letters W, X or Q, which appear in the Kurdish but not the Turkish alphabet.

To the guerrillas of the PKK, however, the emerging politicians were something of a threat. Rather than being stuck in the mountains of northern Iraq, they were on the ground in the cities and towns of the southeast, canvassing for popular support.

Osman Baydemir, for instance, attracted the suspicious gaze of Öcalan himself just before the 2004 local elections. Baydemir was then a 33-year-old lawyer and human rights activist who had cut short a course of English-language instruction in San Francisco to run for mayor of Diyarbakır on the ticket of the Democratic People’s Party. “Is Osman honest? Is he affiliated?” Öcalan asked his lawyer during one of their regular meetings on the island of Imralı in the Sea of Marmara, where the PKK chief has been held since his capture in 1999. “It is said he is the preferred candidate because he has a civilian background,” the lawyer replied. “That is what I am criticizing,” said Öcalan. “The fact that he comes from a civil society background is a weakness.” A transcript of this conversation was subsequently posted on the Internet.

Baydemir was one of a number of candidates without links to the PKK who upset Öcalan. “Do these men respect me? Do they understand me?” he asked his lawyer the following week. “Tell these men they have to be worthy of the people, and that if they are not, I will chase them away.”

Just as an image of Öcalan overlooks the shrine of Özgür Dağhan, his face is seldom absent from posters and banners at demonstrations in the southeast. The jailed leader of the PKK continues to exert powerful influence over Kurdish society and the leaked interviews from Imralı are read as oblique orders by his followers. This fact puts the Kurdish legal party closest to the PKK in a position of simultaneous strength and weakness. Since Kurds cannot actually vote for the PKK itself, many vote instead for what is perceived to be its legal affiliate; however, in staking a claim to represent the PKK’s constituency, the DTP and its successor Peace and Democracy Party are inevitably bound both to Imralı and to the rebel fighters ensconced in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Indeed, organized PKK representation has flourished within the new civilian political scene, and according to other observers there is more than shared goals and supporters that links the rebels to legal Kurdish politics. “The PKK doesn’t see any kind of firewall between itself and civilian politics,” said Aliza Marcus, a journalist and expert on the group. “And it’s hard to dictate to an armed organization, especially one that has so much respect and is so well entrenched.” The KCK itself was created by the PKK as the latest in a series of political “umbrella” organizations for the disparate elements of the Kurdish nationalist movement. It is the successor to the similar National Liberation Front of Kurdistan and was founded around the mid-2000s. Chaired by Karayılan, it is ideologically and administratively tied to the PKK, and gives voice to the group’s support base in Turkey, Europe and elsewhere. “It aims to solve the Kurdish question peacefully and democratically,” said Roj Welat, a KCK and PKK spokesman. He added: “The mayors who have been arrested have nothing to do with the KCK.”

Others familiar with the organization, however, characterize it as the body through which the rebel group seeks to control the Kurdish milieu. Fırat described KCK operatives within the DTP as “commissars” guiding and monitoring the activities of elected politicians. “They are never left alone,” he said. “They are always under the control of the organization -- that’s the totalitarian character of it. They [the Turkish authorities] thought if they took the commissars away the politicians would be free to operate. They didn’t take into account that when one was removed another was appointed, and if you arrest one, you move against them all.”

Therein lies the fundamental problem of trying to uproot the PKK from the “civilian” ground of the Kurdish political scene: The roots are sunk so deep as to be unbreakable. Equally, in harrying the Kurdish activist community in pursuit of the PKK, the Turkish authorities failed to respect the crucial ideological difference separating the politicians from the guerrillas: the decision to pursue their goals through non-violent means. Denying that his party has any literal ties to the rebels, Mahmut Dağ, the stand-in mayor of Kayapınar, said: “We’re both struggling for the same thing…. But we are a legal political party run according to the laws of the state. We were elected by the public.”

Guilt by Association

When the KCK indictment finally appeared on June 18, it bore unfortunate hallmarks of the Turkish justice system. Many of the 151 named defendants had spent 15 months in prison without knowing the evidence on which they were being held, and were thus unable to prepare a defense or even question the reason for their detention. Longer than 7,500 pages, the indictment was apparently put together on the principle that quantity compensates for lack of quality. The majority of the evidence was garnered from the tapped phone conversations of the 151 defendants, statements and “confessions” of secret witnesses, PKK and KCK material from the Internet, and documents seized during raids. The indictment paints a portrait of a hidden hierarchy within Kurdish civil society that aims to direct the activities of its most prominent members. “Judgments” are handed down to DTP politicians who fail to adhere to PKK directives, the prosecutors claim. Overall, the state took as aggressive a stance as possible toward the inevitable interactions between the politically active Kurdish community and the PKK in its manifestations. Framed in the extremely vague terms of Turkey’s anti-terrorism laws, the majority of the charges allege criminality by association or ideological stance, according to defense lawyers. “With this standard of evidence, they could have arrested anyone,” said Emrullah Akyürek, the lawyer representing Zülfikar Karatekin, the elected mayor of Kayapınar.

Among the accusations against Karatekin is that he went to the Eighth Diyarbakır Cultural and Arts Festival, along with 200,000 other people. Members of the crowd displayed PKK slogans, rendering the gathering technically illegal. Karatekin is accused of attending ten such events, trips that could earn him ten years’ incarceration, and of being a member of an illegal organization, which could get him another seven and a half years. The writer and human rights lawyer Muharrem Erbey, vice president of a prominent Kurdish NGO, the Human Rights Foundation, is another defendant in the case. Evidence against him includes tapped transcripts in which he discusses helping the families of dead guerrillas retrieve their bodies. “In a democratic country you cannot blame people for having these kinds of conversations,” said the Diyarbakır Bar Association’s Aktar, who is another defense lawyer on the case. “But in Turkey you can be imprisoned and tried for this.”

The DTP does also face the more damaging charge of funding terrorism. DTP mayors routinely donate 10 percent of their salaries every month to the party, and the prosecution alleges that the party treasurer, Huseyin Yılmaz, was in fact operating an exchequer for the KCK. According to Cihan Aydın, the head defense lawyer, the only evidence backing up this charge is a sheaf of legitimate bank receipts showing the transfers from the mayors to the DTP treasury. According to Uslu, who is also familiar with the indictment, it provides no paper trail showing money flowing from legal Kurdish bodies to the PKK.

Many of the defendants were drawn into the case solely as a result of having dealings with bodies claimed by the prosecution to be KCK fronts. “Considering the general perspective and how it is phrased, the indictment results in criminalization of an opposition party [the DTP] and all the organizations which have parallel and similar political activities directly or indirectly,” said Aydın. “For instance, all the civil society and legal organizations doing legal activities, such as DTP women and youth branches, city and street councils, human rights associations and the Democratic Society Congress, which is an umbrella organization for hundreds of civil society organizations in Diyarbakır, are shown as branches of the KCK. All the activities of these organizations are considered illegal in this framework.” In a way, the trial can be regarded as an attack by the Turkish state on the progress of non-violent Kurdish activism within civil society.

What Next?

“Don’t suppress my will,” reads a banner draped over the Sur municipality building, alongside the notorious photo of the handcuffed mayors. Most of the defendants in the KCK trial remain in jail, with the date for the first proceedings set for October 18.

Every Thursday -- the day on which the mayors were arrested -- protesters gather outside their various municipality buildings. Anger still runs high, but these days there are lots of things to be angry about. The weekend after Özgür Dağhan’s funeral, 5,000 people took to the streets of Diyarbakır and clashed with police, protesting the alleged mutilations and the failure of the army to return the bodies of other guerrillas. “He’s not just my son,” said Dağhan’s father. “He’s the son of all the Kurdish people.” On the other side of Turkey, there is equal anger at the deaths of Turkish soldiers. A bombing in Istanbul claimed by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, a radical offshoot of the PKK, killed four soldiers and the 17-year-old daughter of an officer, as they were being taken by bus from the compound where they lived. With the military option once again in the ascendancy, the Turkish army has begun launching air raids on PKK bases in northern Iraq and the government is drumming up the support of its allies for applying more pressure on the rebels and their European aid network. “Our fight will continue until the terrorist organization has been annihilated,” vowed Erdoğan on June 21, the day after 11 soldiers and 12 rebels were killed in a single clash. Turkey is again caught in a cycle of violence that is hardening attitudes on both sides. As the failed “Kurdish opening” proved, however, the two sides are also caught in another kind of vicious circle.

The Turkish state is in the grip of a mentality that sees Kurdish activists who seek their ends through legal mechanisms as insidious weapons deployed against them by the PKK. The government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may not have the same ideological qualms as their Kemalist opponents about granting the Kurds greater rights and limited autonomy, but they have calculated that the electoral cost of doing so is prohibitive. Any further significant efforts to address the Kurdish problem will likely have to wait until after the 2011 general election.

In the meantime, the more the government stymies peaceful manifestations of the Kurdish activist movement, the more Kurds regard the guerrillas in the mountains as the only force capable of championing their cause. This dynamic, in turn, feeds the power the PKK holds over the Kurdish people and the political scene. “I am afraid my son will join the PKK because he sees what is happening to me, and says that there's no point trying to do anything through legal channels,” Demirbaş told Marcus in June 2009. A few weeks later his fears came true, and his 17-year-old son did join the guerrillas. Equally, the PKK finds itself in a bind: By pulling back from the political process, and allowing the Kurdish politicians the independence they need to negotiate meaningfully with the Turkish state, it risks augmenting their power and so losing the position as the voice of the Kurds it believes it has earned through armed struggle.

The Kurdish politicians themselves remain pinned between an oppressive state and a controlling armed organization, which between them ensure that the democratic path remains a narrow one. As stalemate deepens, the PKK has announced a “fourth phase” of its 26-year insurgency, one in which it says it will seek greater autonomy irrespective of Turkey’s cooperation. At the end of June, the PKK leader Cemil Bayık announced that it was fighting for “democratic autonomy,” an idea first raised by Öcalan in 2007. The notion is derived from the European Charter of Local Self-Government, which allows local municipalities to claim greater autonomy. But Turkey’s application of the charter is limited by conditions put in place when Ankara adopted it into Turkish law in 1991, and some analysts believe the PKK move is an attempt to bring Turkey into conflict with the EU. It is not the first time the PKK has created state-like bodies to legitimize the Kurdish struggle in the eyes of the world. Unlike on previous occasions, however, this effort will aim to appropriate the structures of the Turkish state itself -- the municipalities of the former DTP.

In Diyarbakır, exasperation at the prosecutors’ relentless use of wiretapping to track what many regard as “thought crimes” seems to be prompting a new frankness among Kurds. “The way to solve this is to speak about everything on the phone,” said Aktar. “We’re trying to say that we’ve got nothing to hide.” Meanwhile, the Kurdish politicians appear to be moving in tandem with the PKK, openly declaring their own aspiration for “democratic autonomy” at the same time as Bayık’s announcement. At a panel discussion in Tunceli on July 31, Baydemir outlined what such autonomy might look like. “There will be the parliament in Ankara, but there will also be parliaments in the Marmara region and in Kurdistan,” he said. “Our yellow-red-green flag will fly next to the star and crescent.” The authorities offered a swift response, and the following day Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Çiçek described the idea as “nonsensical.” On August 2, the Tunceli prosecutor’s office opened yet another investigation into Baydemir, after receiving video recordings of his comments from the police department. As Baydemir summons the image of the Kurdish colors running up the flagpole of his municipality headquarters, it seems unlikely that Turkey would accept even this symbolic move. If Ankara wishes for a lasting resolution to the 26-year conflict with the Kurds, however, it will sooner or later have to accept their elected representatives, regardless of who they are linked to.

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