Turkey wins new space for Kurdishness
Turkey wins new space for Kurdishness
Turkey and Russia’s Complicated Relationship
Turkey and Russia’s Complicated Relationship
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

Turkey wins new space for Kurdishness

Turkey's nationalist media had a field day after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan's Kurdish gala in Diyarbakır, southeastern Turkey, on Nov. 16. “He who gives his hand today will lose his arm tomorrow,” screamed the headline of the mass-market Sözcü newspaper. “Tayyip has recognized Kurdistan to get some votes, and wiped out the Turkish Republic,” it continued.

Fears for national unity, and a lumping together of the region's diverse Kurdish groups in a “separatist” bloc, are nothing new in Turkey. But outside small nationalist networks, there was no significant negative public reaction to the dramatic scenes of Turkish-Kurdish togetherness in Diyarbakır. Ethnic nationalism is out of fashion. Traditional red lines have moved.  

Angry insults in the columns covered up a lack of substance. For the right-wing Yeni Çağ, Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani -- the Turkish government's guest of honor in Diyarbakır -- is a “patron of terrorism.” The one real argument in a half-page of emotional anti-Kurdish rhetoric by one of Sözcü's lead commentators, for whom Barzani is a “murderer,” was that Erdoğan's policy would lead to a greater Kurdistan, principally carved out of Turkey, as part of a notional (American) “Greater Middle East Project.”  

Such rhetoric shows how far nationalists' fears can be divorced from the realities of Turkey's Kurdish-speaking communities, which account for 12-15 percent of the population. Yet this psychology remains a problem. It is hard to find a Turk -- secular or pro-Islamist, conservative or liberal -- who has not been at least partially indoctrinated with reflexive patriotism through the education system, media and political culture.


Lack of empathy

A lack of Turkish empathy for their Kurdish compatriots is deep-rooted. The outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) has used terrorist tactics and has killed several thousand soldiers, police and civilians on the Turkish side. There is also the resilient ghost in the national psyche of the defunct Treaty of Sevres imposed by the Allied powers after World War I to divide up the defeated Ottoman Empire. It was never implemented, but is still seen as proof that Western powers want to carve a Kurdish state out of Turkish territory.  

The paradox is that, while mainstream Turks may be guilty of being misinformed or lacking interest -- they tend not to know, for instance, that at least two thirds of the conflict's casualties are actually Kurds -- few actively oppose democratic reforms that would benefit the Kurds and others. Yet fear of a Turkish nationalist backlash has so far persuaded the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to avoid publicly committing to a full strategy of reform.  

To win over a majority of Turkey's Kurds, the government needs to give full rights to mother languages, decentralize more power, change an anti-terrorism law that punishes non-violent dissent and keeps people in preventive detention for years, remove ethnic discrimination from the constitution and other laws, and lower the 10 percent national electoral threshold (currently the highest in Europe) for party representation to at most 5 percent.  

Proof that the government can be braver does not just come from general acceptance of the Diyarbakır gala. Erdoğan's taboo-breaking steps -- education in Kurdish in private schools, devolution of some power to municipalities, including Kurdish ones, and open negotiations with the outlawed PKK -- have triggered little or no public opposition. Even some nationalist politicians now cite the all-Kurdish government TV channel (broadcasting since 2009) -- an idea they once stoutly rejected -- as proof of Turkey's tolerance.  

Nationalist rhetoric is often harsher than the beliefs of the constituencies they claim to represent. Surveys show that less than half of Turks identify themselves primarily with nationalist ideologies. Mainstream Turks do fear losing their Turkish identity if other ethnicities are recognized, and see elevating the role of the PKK and its jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan as a sign of disrespect for government forces who died. Indeed, the government should not link Kurdish reforms to disarmament negotiations, an amnesty for PKK militants or the fate of the 50,000-strong pro-government Kurdish militia, the Village Guards.  

Senior Kurdish-movement leaders can help. Kurdish politicians did meet Erdoǧan in Diyarbakır, and Kurdish singer Şivan Perwer ended 37 years in exile to perform there. All can do more to lessen the Turkish public's fears about separatism and a resurgence of violence. For instance, since the movement has given up the goal of a separate state, and since most Turkish Kurds do not want one, Kurdish leaders' statements and actions should underline Kurds' wish for a future as equal citizens in a democratized Turkey.  

The negotiations between the state and the PKK since late 2012 may have lost momentum, but they are the best chance yet to end the three-decade-old armed conflict. The fragile cease-fire declared by the PKK in March 2013 -- although broken several times -- has so far prevented any new deaths from conflict. As sustainable peace seems within reach, society's enthusiasm for the process will also increase.

Both sides are clearly benefitting from the calm: The government needs to maintain this ahead of a cycle of elections over the next 19 months. The PKK uses it to gain legitimacy at home and abroad. Of course, an accident can still spoil everything. The AKP's greatest risk is not losing the marginal nationalist vote. It is that a resumption of hostilities brings funerals back onto newspaper front pages. But for now, as the space for diversity widens and fears decrease, the once-implacable “grey wolf” of extreme Turkish nationalism is becoming more a figment of politicians' imagination than a real threat to domestic peace. 

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”.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.