Turkey must reopen political dialogue with the Kurds
The trajectory of Kurdish politics in Turkey appears today to have reached a turning point, fuelled by the tensions between Turkey’s reforms, its quest for further democratisation, and its desire for EU accession.
There is also Turkey's role in the region. If Ankara truly wishes to play a constructive role in the region, a focus on its Kurdish issue and a solution-based approach combined with mutual compromises is crucial.
Resolution can be achieved only through governmental will to find an internal balance given Ankara’s foreign policy’s chaotic trajectory; indeed, external imperatives such as the Copenhagen Criteria as EU’s directives can only go so far.
A breakthrough in this direction can further elevate Turkey to the position of a leading force in the Middle East and consolidate its role as a productive political power rather than as a military challenger, given the subversive and undemocratic connotations of the latter. This modus vivendi that can only be achieved through political and diplomatic means could stand as a facilitator of successful diplomacy for the entire region.
"Since victory in the Turkish context involves Kurdish engagement as Turkish statements reveal[...], there is the need to realise that Turkey cannot hope to play a positive role in the region without resolving its Kurdish issue. "
Turkey’s persistent framing of the Kurdish issue through the lens of terrorism is only one side of the coin. The ongoing Kurdish issue and political Islam – at least up to the Justice and Development Party’s (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) rise to power in 2002 as its representative – have been traditionally viewed throughout the 20th century as a threat. However, the nature of AK Parti’s policy evolution especially in the past years, and the Kurdish case remain the two most sensitive matters in Turkish politics.
Turkish responses to the Kurdish case are a symptom of the departure from the allegiance to the early 1990s’ discourse set out by Turgut Özal. However, Turkish politics is today, at a dead-end, among others, due to Turkey’s foreign policy tendency for overextension, domestic dissatisfaction, and the exclusion of the Kurdish role as an intrinsic part of the state’s development, given successive failures of Ankara to end the ongoing conflict with its Kurdish citizens. The Sevres Syndrome (1920) along with the intensification of the Kurdish struggle, which has led to a prolonged instability within and along the state’s borders in demand for a constitutional role within the Turkish political structure have wide-reaching implications in this regard.
One sign of this rupture can be attributed to the understanding of the ‘Kurdish citizenship as distinct from the Kurdish institutions’ according to current political discourse. This separation attempts to align the Kurdish issue with the problem of terrorism. However, the Turkish state’s multiple political initiatives in recent years to open a Kurdish dialogue highlight the fact that the Kurds are a distinctive case in Turkey that should be addressed holistically.
Recent history has proven that the separation between the Kurdish issue and the Kurdish ‘problem’ – often identified as one of terrorism – has only exacerbated the thirty years’ old tension within the state.
Take for example the role of the PKK both inside and outside Turkey, which shapes the regional political setting and creates implications for Turkey’s stability at the centre of the regional and international security agenda.
Thus, with the Turkish military intervention in northeastern Syria, the actors and the issues surrounding the crisis were seen in isolation from the wider problem, given the shifting attitudes of international players towards the region.
In domestic politics, the AK Parti’s steady decline since 2015 and the HDP’s (The Peoples’ Democratic Party, Partiya Demokratîk a Gelan) inability to materialise its commitment as a founding contributor to the state’s democratic development are impediments in the evolution of the Turkish- Kurdish relationship.
Today’s changing political scenery and the power vacuum that is gradually emerging appear to be moving towards the fulfilment of the HDP’s call to form a democratic alliance based on the 11 principles declaration. This promising initiative for a democratic solution that also includes addressing the Kurdish issue, should be foregrounded in advance of the June 2023 elections.
Since victory in the Turkish context involves Kurdish engagement as Turkish statements reveal, there is a need to realise that Turkey cannot hope to play a positive role in the region without resolving its Kurdish issue. This now makes addressing the Kurdish issue inevitable. Constitutional changes along the lines of the citizenship’s democratic checks and the re-framing of the domestic balance of power are needed, with Kurdish support for any structural changes or reforms. Through this path and others, it's time Ankara acknowledged the importance of gaining the cooperation of the Kurds.
Dr. Marianna Charountaki is a Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Lincoln (UK). She is a BRISMES Trustee and convenor of BISA Foreign Policy Working Group. Her research lies at the intersection of International Relations theories, foreign policy analysis, and area studies with an emphasis on the Middle Eastern region. She has written extensively on non-state actors through the Kurdish case(s) as well as on the state-non-state interactions in international relations.
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