An Analysis Of Turkish And Kurdish Tensions Politics Essay

Since taking office in 2002, the Justice and Development Part (AKP) has introduced a series of reforms to democratize the social, economic and political life in Turkey. After being elected one more time in 2007, the AKP government has committed to solve Kurdish issue which can be seen as one of the most intractable conflict of Turkey continuing for over 30 years. Popularly known as the “Kurdish opening” (Kurt AcA±lA±mA±) process, the initiative is the first systematic attempt to get through identity-based discontents of the Kurds.

There's a specialist from your university waiting to help you with that essay.
Tell us what you need to have done now!

order now

This study presents a brief history of the conflict, the windows of opportunity that supported the AKP government, the analysis of the Kurdish opening process. In order to provide a holistic perspective, the historical, political, socio-psychological, legal and cultural dynamics of the Kurdish issue will be touched here. At the end, a series of recommendations are also discussed that are consistent within the analytic perspective of the paper.


The conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan) [1] can be seen as an intractable one that been continuing for over three decades and caused more than 30,000 deaths from both sides. Basically, the conflict is the “byproduct” of the Turkish nation building process. The beginning of the politicization of Kurdish cultural identity corresponds to the shift from multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural realities of the Ottoman Empire to the nation-state model. [2] According to Ergil, the Turkish official state policy was based on the idea of “civic nation” referring to the geographical region in which all the peoples of Turkey lived, rather than “ethnic-nation” (the dominant Turkish ethnic group). However, soon after, the ruling military elite, intellectuals, and bureaucrats shifted from this “civic nation” idea towards “homogenization” which acquired meaning in the “Turkification” policies which also became a major source of the Kurdish issue in Turkey. [3] After the major Kurdish rebellions of the 1920s and 1930s in Turkey’s southeast where the population were predominantly Kurds, Turkish governing elites began viewing the utterance of a separate Kurdish identity as a threat to the nation-state. [4]

Change in the governance style at the beginning of the Republic might prevent the escalation of conflict in the country. Instead, the structural violence emerged in the form of “assimilation policies”; “Kurdish people were resettled, places and people’s names were changed, the use of language was restricted, and the very existence of a Kurdish identity was denied” [5] . Burton emphasizes that “aˆ¦to go one step further and to eliminate structures and policies which generate conflict, violence and crimeaˆ¦societies would need to be transformed from centralized systems, top-down administrations, to centralized, bottom-up decision makingaˆ¦” [6] . In that line, the decentralization that would have the potential of strengthening the local administrations could not be tolerated in the nation building process.

Under these assimilation policies, the Kurdish resentments had turned into a “reaction” in the form of Kurdish movement against the state. On the relationship between the state development and social movements, Tarrow argues that “some aspects of state development facilitated the rise of movements”. [7] In Turkey, the consolidation of centralist and unitary state ideology facilitated the Kurdish resentment. The Republican repressive and exclusionary politics in social, economic, cultural and political life against Kurds propelled those people into a collective movement. [8] 1970 and 1980s military coups and their spatial repressive policies incited the Kurdish contentious politics into an emergence of “distinctive nationalist/secessionist armed movement of Kurdistan Worker Party (PKK) [9] .

The conflict peaked at the end of 1990s and the death toll had reached over 30,000 in total-half of them PKK militants, one-fourth civilians, and the remaining one-fourth members of the security forces. [10] The conflict was seen as a zero-sum game and emergency military measures instead of parliamentary decisions were seen as the only legitimate way of responding the PKK attacks. In that sense, the Kurdish reaction had to be responded by “repression”. The conflict between Turkish state and the PKK, therefore, should be analyzed in a chain of “action-reaction model”. Metin Heper analytically defines the theory of change in this conflict as “(a) the Turkish state has relied on forced assimilation of ethnic elements, including Kurds; (b) that Kurds have resisted the state’s efforts to force assimilation; and (c) that in response to the rebellious elements, the state has used suppression.” [11] The thing worthwhile to think about the AKP government’s new initiative of “Kurdish opening” is that the theory of change in the state policy related to the resolution of the conflict is changing. There is an observable shift from military solution to a political solution and the dynamics supporting this shift has to be analyzed.


Turkey’s larger aims of becoming a regional power cannot explain the underlying logic behind the “Kurdish Opening” policy. Turkey’s internal and external dynamics, which can be seen as a “windows of opportunity,” support the government in this process.

Removing the PKK from Turkey’s political equation, however, is not a novel endeavor. However, international and regional circumstances have never been favorable to that objective. At the current juncture, there is a more favorable environment to addressing the many challenges of the Kurdish question. The Turkish leadership as well seems to have grasped the new situation and has thus changed its conventional perception of the problem.

1) Domestic

Since the early days of the Republic, all Turkish governments have refrained from upsetting the balance of power that favors the political role of the military over that of democratic reform that may be reacted by the military. According to Candar, “any sort of Kurdish opening would have either been doomed to failure from its very beginning, or deterred from starting at all.” [12] The only path for democratic reforms that will reduce the power of the military in politics is through “very strong domestic and international backing”. [13]

Such domestic support is enabled by the “Ergenekon Case,” which was aimed at eliminating “the closed, dark, intolerant and secret communities friendly with the military bureaucracy and state officials but insidiously devoted to destroying the government” [14] Firmly grasping the influence that these elements have on state establishments through the Ergenekon investigation has given way for the governing AKP to create a platform through which the Kurdish issue can be discussed without military means. [15]

As Cizre discusses, “the question now is whether the AK Party can emerge from the Ergenekon episode newly positioned to renegotiate a robust role for itself and articulate a new relationship between Kurdish actors and Turkish politics.” [16] The political arena in Turkey is now in the hands of the AKP government, as it received 55 percent of public support in the last referendum. Other political actors appear to be excluded from the “Kurdish Opening.” [17] The steps taken until now are being debated by many, as with this public support behind the government comes a greater expectation for the government to take bolder steps toward the solution.

2) International

Since Turkey’s EU candidacy was entered into consideration in 2005, the EU has had a tendency to see Turkey’s Kurdish issue from a human rights perspective in that the minority rights of the Kurdish population must be granted as a pre-requisite for membership. Along those lines, Turkey has sought to meet the Copenhagen criteria for membership and supported reforms in cultural rights. EU membership became a “democratization tool” in the hands of the government against the state establishment. The EU praised the government by indicating that “the reform process in Turkey and the accession process are closely linked to each other,” as argued by EU term president and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt during the annual Turkey-EU Troika meeting in Istanbul. [18]

After the initiation of the new policy, both the West and East supported and appreciated the AKP government’s democratization. After initiation of the Kurdish Opening policy, the economic ties between Turkey and Iraq’s Kurds increased. Washington and Baghdad agreed to work closer with Turkey on the rapid intelligence [19] that is believed to weaken the position of the PKK. The democratic credentials of Turkey are increased in the eyes of the West, and according to Somer and Evangelos, “the Kurdish question is an important piece of what Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet DavutoAYlu has dubbed the ‘zero problems with neighbors’ policy.” [20]

Kurdish Opening

Making choices in a conflict plays a significant role in the escalation-de-escalation of the conflict. Tjosvold argues that “the conflict does not just happen nor does conflict escalate by itself. People make choices that escalate conflict of lead to more constructive outcomes” (Tjosvold 2006, 91). The AKP government, with the help of public support, decided to transform the conflict by taking bolder steps toward bring fundamental solutions to the Kurdish issue.

The policy popularly known as the “Kurdish Opening” was launched at the end of the summer of 2007. [21] The government published a report entitled “The Democratic Opening Project with Questions and Answers: The National Brotherhood Project” [22] in order to publicize the benefits that democratic opening would bring to Turkey. In the booklet, some of the issues mentioned included

the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Ocalan, would not benefit from any type of amnesty,

military operations against the PKK would continue unless its members are disarmed,

the ideal of “unitary state, nation and flag” would be maintained, although “unitary nation” does not mean a nation composed of a dominant race, and

the official language would be Turkish forever.

Although the government was framing the policy with this broad approach, some sections of society were discussing bolder steps that had to be taken by the government for a permanent solution to the Kurdish issue. This included negotiating with the leader of the PKK and cooperating with its political extension, the Democratic Society Party (DTP) [23] .

AKP’s Double-Discourse

Turkish political scientist Kirisci has defined the initiative as “several confidence building measures,” [24] However it is unclear what “building confidence” means for peace. Pruitt discusses “working trust” as one of the necessary preconditions for peace, which is “a belief that the other party also wants to escape the conflict and has reasonable or flexible aspirations” [25] .

Looking at the parties, it can be argued that both the AKP government and the PKK sought to abandon armed conflict and begin a peace process. However, this process is quite complex for both sides. The PKK has sought to case armed conflict, arguing that with violent means, the Kurdish people living in Turkey will not get their rights. The imprisoned leader of the PKK, Ocalan, who also sees himself as a mediator between the state and the PKK, is continuously sending messages arguing for peace. According to him, “we are in favor of disarmament in principle as long as legal-constitutional safeguards are provided.” [26] The organization also wants to see the pro-Kurdish political party, DTP, at the negotiation table with the government for the advocacy of Kurdish rights. [27]

Alternatively, however, many unclear questions regarding the communication between the PKK and the AKP have arisen. As Ocalan is arguing that “the biggest obstacle in front of the peace is the AKP,” [28] and “the approach of the state is much more positive than the AKP government,” [29] questions of who is the state and who is the government are emerging. According to Pruitt, “making secret contacts with the other side” is one way to motivate for the peace process. The government is clearly deferring to public support, choosing to use two different discourses in order to guarantee both public support and success in the peace process.

The government has received strong reaction from the public after the Habur incident in May of 2009. “Pro-Kurdish DTP supporters welcomed a group of PKK members arriving in Turkey with excitement, chanting slogans in favor of the PKK and its jailed leader Abdullah A-calan”. [30] All media channels portrayed the event as a part of the Kurdish Opening process. The minister of the interior announced at a press conference that “the “return home” is part of the democratization process and that there would be more good news soon. [31] However, the leader of PKK, Ocalan, declared his leave from the movement at the end of the month. It is unclear what has happened after the Habur incident and why Ocalan declared his leave from the movement, but the PKK called an end to the ceasefire that was declared earlier in the same month.

After the Habur incident, the government was forced to re-evaluate its strategy and choose instead a double-discourse strategy. Since that time, the conciliatory signs between the government and the PKK have reduced. The government understood that trust-building between the parties regarding the Kurdish issue may taken a long time, as it requires a “transformation of a war system into a peace system, inspired by a quest for the values of peace and justice, truth and mercy.” [32]


The timing of the government’s Kurdish Opening policy also deserves a brief discussion. One of the most widely respected ideas about the timing of the initiation of the peace processes comes from the Zartman’s idea of “ripe moment” moment in which “the parties’ perception of a mutually hurting stalemate, optimally associated with an impending, past, or recently avoided catastrophe”. [33]

Launching the Kurdish opening policy has nothing to do with “ripe moment,” however. The “ripe moment” in Turkish Republican history is the AKP government’s ascension to power. If the history of the conflict is considered, the 1990s were the era in which the parties should have sought “a way out” since “the parties found themselves locked in a conflict from which they couldn’t escalate to victory and this deadlock was painful to both of the parties”. [34] However, domestic and international conditions did not allow the governments to achieve “a way out” at that time. The conditions that ripened the conflict and made it open ot resolution corresponded to the domestic and international conditions that led the AKP government to speak about “Kurdish Opening.” In that sense, the conditions that prepared the AKP to initiate steps toward democratization are an objective reality rather than a perceptual event, as Zartman identifies [35] .

The major motivational factors in the Kurdish Opening included pressure from the EU, Turkey’s ambitious “zero-problem” policy with neighbors in order to be a regional power, and Turkey’s internal dynamics, including the Ergenekon case and decreasing power of the military in politics. In that sense, the Kurdish opening can be seen as the beginning of a peace process since, as Pruitt identifies, what is necessary for the peace process is the “motivation (that is, a goal) to end the conflict, which is fed by (a) a sense that the conflict is unwinnable or poses unacceptable costs or risks and/or (b) pressure from powerful third parties such as allies”. [36]

Conciliatory Signs

According to Pruitt, another significant factor for the peace process is that “optimism is about the outcome of conciliation and negotiation.” [37] Conciliatory gestures are critical messages given by both parties to build trust. As discussed above, the government has begun using different discourses, as the general elections are approaching. However, at the beginning of the process, it was publicly supporting peace. For example, the leaders of both the AKP and the DTP, which is believed to be the extension of the PKK in the Turkish Grand Assembly, [38] had a meeting in May of 2009 right after the announcement of the government’s Kurdish Opening policy. The leaders discussed their optimism and motivation for the future of the project. [39]

Corresponding to the moves from the government, the PKK has declared a ceasefire that was to comprise of the dates between August 12th and September 20th, 2010, to end before the religious month of Ramadan and the referendum [40] . This ceasefire was aimed at amending the constitution, which was written by the military authority after the 1980 military coup. Ceasefires are important for the peace process, as according to Pruitt, if conciliatory gestures between the parties “increases in strength, the party’s behavior becomes increasingly conciliatory and may eventually take the form of a cease-fire and entry into negotiation.” [41]

In October of 2010, Ocalan sent a letter to the leader of the PKK, Murat Karayilan, [42] and the government, asking for an extension of the ceasefire that was declared on August 12th. Karayilan argued that that “we extended the unilateral ceasefire against Turkey after receiving a letter from Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan till 2011 general elections in Turkey.” [43] Although Ocalan, in his latest messages, has been arguing that the state is more candid than the government for the peace process, it is unclear why he initiated the extension of the ceasefire until the general elections, which is directly related the future of the AKP government.

It is still unclear what this final ceasefire means for the peace process. According to Aydintasbas, the Kurdish Opening was started based on reciprocal distrust between the parties of the Kurdish Conflict. When the Habur incident turned into a “festival,” public rage interrupted the peace process. This latest ceasefire will lead to the continuation of the process and a “return home” for the PKK, which also strengthens Oclan’s position for the movement. [44]

Concrete Steps

The EU Commission’s 2010 Annual Report for Turkey [45] is the most valuable tool in order to see how much progress the government could make. As the report indicates although the AKP government made public statements of commitment for the progress in Kurdish initiative, there is no actually strong evidence that the democratic opening was followed through.”

Seen developments as the Report mentions;

As regards freedom of expression, an increasingly open and free debate continues on a wide scale in the media and in the public on topics perceived as sensitive, such as the Kurdish issue, minority rights, the Armenian issue, and the role of the military. [46]

As regards cultural rights, the Regulation on the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) was amended in November, removing all restrictions on broadcasting in Kurdish and other languages by private and public channels at the local level. [47]

For the first time, the DiyarbakA±r Municipal Theatre staged a play in Kurdish. In June, the State Minister for EU Affairs invited all EU embassies to a Kurdish literature event in the village of Bahcesehir (Van). Mardin Artuklu University established the first Kurdish and Assyrian language departments, and began accepting students to post-graduate programs organized by these departments. [48]

The amended law on fundamental principles of elections and the electoral registry entered into force on 10 April 2010, de facto allows the use of Kurdish in election campaigns. [49]


Identity-related conflicts such as the Kurdish issue have deeply-rooted historical, cultural, emotional, economic and political dimensions; therefore, there is no magic solution to address all these issues. There are, however, many potential steps that would help eliminate obstacles to social and political reconciliation. Although legal and political reform is crucial for eliminating structural inequalities, there is a need to initiate a holistic reconciliation process over the long term by also continuing conciliatory gestures that are likely to address certain cultural and psychological sensitivities. Along those lines, the recommendations outlined below for the continuation of the peace process and establishment of a peace agreement are aimed at providing a perspective for a multi-layered and multi-actor intervention.

Transforming the public discourse

Transforming the public discourse is critically important during the peace process. As this conflict has been used by politicians for years as a tool to gain public support, discourse based on enemy images and dehumanizing on both sides pervades the people’s cognition. In order to institutionalize the socio-psychological infrastructure [50] , the healthy exchange of information between the parties, the use of cultural products to eliminate enemy images, and changes in educational materials will be necessary. The Truth and Reconciliation Commissions established to investigate “mystery murders” in 1990s will help to transform the discourse as well. The role of the civil society is quite important in this process of discourse transformation with the help of the media.

Understanding that “the Peace Process is non-linear”

During the peace process, due to a lack of information exchange or misunderstanding gestures, the conflict may escalate or deescalate, or ceasefire may continue and further steps may not be taken. In any situation, including a change in leadership, the stakeholders in the process should stay in the process and move forward.

Solving Spoiler Problems

As Stedman argues, “a correct diagnosis of spoiler type is crucial for the choice of an appropriate strategy of spoiler management.” [51] Regarding Kurdish initiatives, the most critical opposition to the government comes from the opposition parties in the Assembly. [52] It is also known that there are some factions in the PKK that do not seek disarmament. [53] Therefore, if the AKP government and the PKK are in fact targeting a peace agreement, they must both learn how to manage opposing groups and create a grand peace coalition that includes all parties related to the issue.

Having a Perception of “the peace process is a win-win situation”

In order to be optimistic about the future, each party must lower its aspirations and see how a compromise will be beneficial to both. The results that are aimed at must be divisible into small pieces. Walter cites that, “if the stakes are chiefly indivisible, so that neither side can get most of what it wants without depriving the other of mots of what it wants, negotiations are less apt to be successful.” [54] Although the Kurdish armed movement’s goals are less rigid than before, focusing more on a rights-based discourse, there is always a question about the secessionist ideals of Kurdish nationalism among non-Kurdish populations. Therefore, instead of discussing unrealistic territorial demands, the ethnic-cultural rights appear more feasible at the negotiation table.

International and National Legal and Political Arrangements

Those reforms must include both international and national reforms, as widely addressed by TESEV’s latest report. [55] International instruments and mechanisms have a significant role in the protection of human rights through their effectiveness and functionality. Regarding the constitution, any phraseology based on Turkish ethnic identity must be eliminated from all articles, as it is against the pluralist nature of Turkish society. [56] Moreover, a comprehensive review of the legislation must be undertaken and references to Turkish ethnic identity in various laws must be removed. [57]

Positive Economic Discrimination for South-East Anatolia

The relative economic deprivation is quite clear in the Kurdish regions in comparison to the rest of Turkey. Sustainable economic development projects must concentrate on such regions and positive economic discrimination must be provided for the region.


Addressing the Kurdish demands should not just be a matter of political pragmatism for the AKP government; it is rather a historical opportunity to appease the tensions continuing for a long time. It is not clear whether the AKP government will be able to accommodate the Kurdish requests during their tenure because of the enduring social, political, legal and psychological obstacles. And it is also unrealistic to expect a resolution of complex historical problems within a relatively short period of time. However, if the Kurdish opening process is managed constructively, the peace process will have a positive impact at the political as well as at the grassroots levels.