Crying “Wolf”: Why Turkish Fears Need Not Block Kurdish Reform
Crying “Wolf”: Why Turkish Fears Need Not Block Kurdish Reform
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Turkey and Russia’s Complicated Relationship
Turkey and Russia’s Complicated Relationship
Report 227 / Europe & Central Asia

Crying “Wolf”: Why Turkish Fears Need Not Block Kurdish Reform

Turkey’s government needs to recover lost momentum, press forward with democratic reforms and constitutional revision, and recognise that steps that benefit the country’s Kurds must be decoupled from disarmament talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

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Executive Summary

Negotiations underway since late 2012 between Turkey’s government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) are stalling. A ceasefire announced on 23 March 2013 remains precarious, as maximalist rhetoric gains renewed traction on both sides. While the PKK should be doing more to persuade Ankara that it wants a compromise peace, the government has a critical responsibility to fully address the longstanding democratic grievances of Turkey’s Kurds. One reason it frequently gives for its hesitation is fear of a nationalist backlash. In fact, the peace process has already demonstrated how willing mainstream Turks would be to accept steps towards democratisation. A much bigger risk for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), as it heads into a two-year cycle of local, presidential and parliamentary elections, would be if the three-decade-old conflict plunges into a new cycle of violence.

While the nationalist political opposition, including the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Action Party (MHP), has largely been against negotiations with the PKK and Kurdish reforms, the public has mostly accepted them. The AKP government’s steady stream of political gestures toward Kurds – including Kurdish-language television, legalisation of private Kurdish language courses, elective classes in schools and, most recently, plans to introduce education in Kurdish in private schools – has roused little noticeable public anger. Government-appointed delegations that fanned out across the country reported back that explanation and dialogue often changed public perceptions and readiness for compromise. Nationwide anti-government protests that broke out in May even unexpectedly triggered displays of solidarity toward Kurds from Turks in the west of the country, who had largely been dismissive about Kurdish grievances.

But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has taken an increasingly nationalist line, even if still mixed with an outreach to Kurdish opinion. He has shied away from the easiest reform to make, a lowering of the 10 per cent national election threshold for parties to enter parliament. This would allow fairer political access for the main party of the Kurdish national movement, which typically wins 6-7 per cent of the national vote. In a positive move, he has announced plans to introduce education in their mother language for Turkey’s Kurds in private schools, though avoiding a commitment to full education or public services in Kurdish, a main demand of the community that makes up 12-15 per cent of the population. His government has failed to redraft the constitution so as to remove any hint of ethnic discrimination. And lack of movement on the long-criticised anti-terrorism law still keeps thousands of non-violent Kurdish activists in preventive detention, some now for four years.

Officials and commentators offer a number of explanations for this inaction. They include the failure of the PKK to fully withdraw from Turkey and disarm, the season of unrelated domestic protests and turmoil across Turkey’s Middle Eastern borders, but, above all, the idea that Turkish voters will punish any government that pursues major Kurdish reforms.

It is true there are deep-rooted fears among some Turks that the negotiations have emboldened the PKK and that concessions would only pave the road to a separate Kurdish state. Others worry that the country would lose its Turkish identity. There is also considerable public resentment at offering concessions to the insurgency: for decades militants have been officially described as terrorists and traitors, and they have indeed used terrorist tactics; but the public has not been informed that Kurds themselves have suffered the bulk of casualties, destruction of property and violation of rights.

However, most of the Kurdish community still wants a settlement within Turkey. PKK leaders and the Kurdish movement, including the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), need to stop issuing threats that fuel the Turkish public’s concerns about secession or a resurgence of violence. They should also denounce parallel state formations inside Turkey, including local militias, and signal the Kurds’ desire to live in Turkey alongside Turks, with whom they share a common history. Given the unique opportunities of the current process, the PKK should maintain its commitment to the ceasefire and restart withdrawals.

Turkish leaders, at the same time, must recommit to democratic reform, including a new constitution and laws that eliminate any ethnic bias. A new constitution could balance natural references to the Turkish nation with clear emphasis on equal citizenship for all in the Republic of Turkey and guarantee the full right to use mother languages in education and public life. Other reforms need to include a more decentralised government structure, changes to anti-terror laws, and a lower election threshold. The leaders should also explain to public opinion the advantages of this road to an enduring peace and refrain from populist, accusatory statements towards the Kurdish movement simply for the sake of chasing the marginal Turkish nationalist vote.

Above all, Turkey does not have to – and should not – link Kurdish reform steps to the negotiations with the PKK. Such democratisation would improve access to rights, education and political life for all in the country. And it would help build the trust vital to ending a conflict that over three decades has killed 30,000 and inflicted enormous long-term damage on the economy, society and political culture.

Istanbul/Brussels, 7 October 2013

Podcast / Global

Turkey and Russia’s Complicated Relationship

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker and Hugh Pope talk to expert Eleonora Tafuro, a research fellow at ISPI, to make sense of the complicated relationship between Russia and Turkey that has veered from collaborative to adversarial, often landing somewhere in between.

Russia and Turkey’s complex relationship sometimes baffles outside observers. In many respects, Turkey and Russia are fierce competitors: Moscow and Ankara back opposing camps in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh, and Turkey is a member of NATO – the alliance Russia views as both adversary and threat. Nevertheless, this has not prevented collaboration between the two powers, who share profound economic and cultural ties and have made concerted efforts to deepen diplomatic relations, often to the frustration of Turkey's Western allies. 

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker and Hugh Pope talk to Eleonora Tafuro Ambrosetti, a research fellow at ISPI, about Russo-Turkish relations. Eleonora helps unpack the two countries’ complex relationship and sketch out the deep economic and cultural ties connecting them, as well as the numerous sources of tension pitting Ankara against Moscow. She discusses Turkey’s juggling act in balancing relations with the EU and the Kremlin, and how Russo-Turkish relations and soft power shape geopolitics in Central Asia, the Caucasus and Africa. Mainly recorded prior to the massive invasion of Ukraine by Russia in late February, this episode also includes a brief addendum to reflect those events.

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

N.B. Please note that this episode was recorded in late January 2022.

For more on Turkish foreign policy, check out our Turkey regional page. For analysis on the Ukraine crisis and its global implications, make sure to explore our Ukraine page and read our latest Q&A: “The Ukraine War: A Global Crisis”.

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