Common struggle required

The year is coming to an end amid great uncertainty, reports Esen Uslu

There were high hopes that 2009 would see a further easing of the straitjacket known as the ‘constitution, law and institutions’ imposed on Turkish society by the fascist military junta following the 1980 coup. The process of harmonisation with European Union legislation created expectations of gradual liberalisation.

Throughout 2009, however, the political Islam-based government of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) has been engaged in a power struggle with the military and civilian bureaucrats who hold sway over the regime and intervene in every aspect of social life. Sections of the military, with their anti-American, pseudo-nationalist rhetoric and illusions of a new world order centred on ‘the east’ and the Turkic republics of central Asia, have continued to harbour hopes of a return to the glory days of 1980. Especially in 2004-05 there was very threatening junta activity behind the scenes and this has resulted in the ‘Ergenekon trials’, where a few generals, a spate of lesser officers, members of the media and some hired thugs have been put on trial with the tacit approval of the high command of the Turkish armed forces.

Against this background of trying to establish its liberal credentials, the government has made moves on several fronts.

The so-called ‘Alevi overture’, which is supposed to resolve the grievances of the Alevi religious minority, has involved meeting Alevi organisations, religious leaders, intellectuals and politicians in order to gather information on the denial of Alevi rights (as if the AKP had never previously heard of them) and draw up proposals to resolve them. The AKP has also held monthly meetings over the last year to gather the opinion of the clerical establishment of official Sunni Islam, theologians, religious foundations, members of media, etc.

The talking shop nature of the overture soon became apparent, even to the diehard supporters of the government. Not a single practical step to meet the demands of the Alevis has been taken. Not even the order of the European Court of Human Rights condemning the compulsory religious teaching of official Sunni Islam to each and every student in the primary state education system has been complied with.

However, the open-ended talks managed to create sufficient discord among Alevi organisations of various political opinions to throw the joint struggle over previously agreed demands off balance. The leadership of the democratic associations vacillated between the idea of forming an independent political party and taking part in the liberal left party established by the independent member of grand national assembly, Ufuk Uras, with the participation of various lesser social democratic parties, trade unionists and former members of numerous left organisations.

In November the Alevi community took to the streets of Istanbul in answer to the call of the Alevi-Bektashi Federation to voice its basic demands once more. However, the prevailing discord rendered the demonstration less effective and added to the impression that the Alevi fight is not in touch with the other democratic struggles going on within Turkey, especially that of the Kurdish freedom movement.

The government, determined to remove obstacles to the free flow of Turkish capital and come in line with the foreign policies of the EU and USA, has reformulated its foreign policies. The new catchphrase is ‘zero problems with our neighbours’.

The first stage involved the mutual removal of visa requirements with Syria, Jordan, Libya and Albania. The new policy also involved better relations with sub-Saharan Africa, with particular attention paid to oil-rich Sudan.

Another important component was the attempt to reach a tentative initial understanding on establishing direct diplomatic representation with Armenia, plus the opening of rail and road crossings that have been closed since the Armenian war with Azerbaijan and the ongoing occupation of some parts of Azeri territory.

However, like a cat walking on a hot tin roof, the government faces growing Turkish nationalist discontent, backed up by powerful forces within the military-civilian bureaucracy, and whenever it makes a foray it must be prepared to beat a hasty retreat to protect itself from powerful blows from the opposition. In the case of the Armenian overture the retreat only served to confirm the worst fears of the Armenian side.

A memorandum of understanding was signed after considerable US pressure to smooth over the last-minute hitches and glitches. However, to go beyond the first tentative steps will require a far more determined approach, otherwise the ‘Armenian overture’ will come to an end for the foreseeable future.

Turkey has been looking over its shoulder to developments in Iraqi Kurdistan, especially concerning the future of the oil-rich Kirkuk region. As a post-occupation settlement draws near, Iraqi Arabs and Kurds have been moving towards a deal, albeit not one the Kurds have strived for. Nevertheless, in order to win its share of the post-war oil extraction deals as well as reconstruction projects, Turkey must improve its relations with the Iraqi Kurdish administration, as well as with the central Iraqi government.

That gave impetus to the Kurdish overture, and initially it involved nothing more than improving relations with the Iraqi Kurdish administration. Soon the scale of the approach to Iraq became apparent, however. Turkey not only established official contacts with the Iraqis and Kurds, but there have been joint Turkey-Iraq cabinet meetings. And those efforts culminated in the signing in mid-October of a total of 48 agreements, memoranda of understanding and protocols, on issues ranging from river-water management and cooperation on energy projects to various trade arrangements. Turkey is to open new consulates in Basra and Mosul, as well as in Erbil, one of the major cities of Iraqi Kurdistan. The deal is referred to as a ‘strategic cooperation agreement’ oriented to ‘integrate both countries’ and has the approval and participation of the Kurdish administration.

One of the ‘side benefits’ was to persuade the Kurds to put pressure on the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) to end their cross-border raids into Turkey, and seek a peaceful solution to the eternal ‘Kurdish problem’. The government was prepared to make certain concessions, compared to the ruthless attitude that has been adopted by the security apparatus.

The first move was to appoint the minister for interior affairs as coordinator of the process and he attempted to seek opinion from other political parties without putting forward any concrete proposals on the part of the government. The nationalist opposition saw through the deception, and started to play the ‘I’ll show you my hand if you show me yours’ game itself.

Eventually the government put forward its six-point plan for the initial stage of the process. Providing that the guerrillas agreed to forgo their arms, the ‘remorse clause’ of the Turkish penal code would be applied to those guerrillas who “did not take part in any atrocities” and they would not be prosecuted on their return to Turkey.

The government further promised to end the isolation of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, by revamping existing facilities on the prison island of Imrali, where he is held and by transferring a small number of hand-picked prisoners to join him. Also the government proposes to restore the citizenship of expelled Kurds living abroad, including those who are in UN-administered refugee camps in Iraq, which are effectively under the control of guerrillas. The security forces will be more (!) compassionate in their dealings with the local population in Kurdistan. Finally legal barriers against the wider use of the Kurdish language will be removed and Kurdish place names restored.

These meagre concessions in exchange for terminating the armed struggle will be acceptable to the guerrillas only if they are regarded as (inadequate) preliminary steps towards a settlement that fully recognises Kurdish national rights. Meanwhile the nationalist opposition whipped up a campaign that bordered on direct incitement to violence against Kurds.

Security forces waded in by killing a young Kurdish girl with a stray rocket or mortar round, and then botching the attempted cover-up. The government pressed on with token gestures such as the prosecution of more members of the army and gendarmerie for crimes (such as summary executions, kidnapping and unlawful confiscations) that have remained unsolved since the 90s.

Ocalan’s initiative

The government seemed to be playing for time, but Abdullah Ocalan used the truce declared by the guerrillas over the summer to draw up a ‘road map’ for a peaceful settlement, the details of which have not been officially revealed.

He also made a masterly political move to regain the initiative by inviting his supporters from Kandil Mountain on the border between Iraq and Iran, where the guerrillas are based, as well as from refugee camps in Iraq and from European countries, to come to Turkey as peace emissaries. The move was designed to put to the test the resolve of the government and resilience of its proposals.

Within a very short time the Kurds declared that 35 people from the refugee camps in Iraq, including nine guerrillas from Kandil Mountain, would come to Turkey. When they arrived at the border they were greeted by a demonstration in excess of 50,000 people waiting in the open air despite the harsh conditions of Kurdistan. The government had arranged for a mobile court to be moved to the border post in order to evaluate the case of arriving Kurds with a view to applying the ‘remorse clause’ and facilitating their entry.

The triumphant arrival of the guerrillas and the cordial welcome extended to them by the Kurdish people on the road from the border-crossing, as well as at the massive solidarity demonstration in nearby Diyarbakir, were made available to Turkish and international television channels. The facilitating attitude adopted by the security and justice apparatus was certainly noteworthy. Especially in view of the fact that, when the guerrillas were asked if they wished to express remorse, each made a carefully worded declaration to the effect that they felt no regret for past actions: they had arrived in Turkey on the instructions of their leader as peace emissaries to further the ongoing process of finding a solution to end the armed conflict.

There was an immediate backlash with the organisation of nationalist, racist and Kurd-hating demonstrations. The opposition parties withdrew cooperation from the government, while the judiciary and armed forces started to show their discontent.

This caused the government to backtrack. The arrival of peace emissaries from European countries was indefinitely postponed. And further Kurdish arrivals at the southern borders were stopped dead in their tracks. The government complained that the guerrillas had not kept their promise and had acted in a provocative, triumphalist manner.

The government stated that it was not making an overture to the Kurds as such: it was trying to advance democracy in Turkey as a whole. However, it did not offer any new proposal to back up that claim. And ‘democratic overture’ remained an empty phrase, while the media remained full of the Kurdish overture.

When the matter was eventually discussed at the national assembly, the CHP (the social democrat Republican People’s Party, a member of Socialist International) announced its opposition to the policies of the government, and proposed instead a return to the (genocidal) policies implemented in the war against Alevi Kurds of the Dersim region in the late 1930s.

The Kurdish and Alevi masses were in uproar. At the same time Abdullah Ocalan was moved to a new cell, which is considerably smaller then his previous accommodation. So in the name of ending his 10-year isolation he was placed in a more confined space. Suddenly there were large-scale demonstrations, as well as impromptu street battles between the police and stone-throwing youth.

Meanwhile the ongoing case before the constitutional court to proscribe the DTP (Democratic Society Party, the main legal Kurdish political party represented in the national assembly) on the grounds of aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation was coming to its final stages after two years. One of the hawkish ministers of the government made a statement comparing the DTP case with the Herri Batasuna case of the Basque country, and indicating that the DTP has come to the end of the road by showing disrespect to the government’s overture.

The constitutional court promptly banned the party, stripped its co-chairs of their immunity as members of assembly, and imposed a five-year ban on participation in party politics for 39 leading DTP members. The president of the court made a passionate speech explaining how meticulously the case had been examined. Then soon after it was revealed that one member who was banned for five years was not even a member of the DTP. Leyla Zana, a prominent Kurdish politician and former member of the assembly, who has spent 10 years in jail following the previous expulsion of Kurdish members from the assembly in March 1994, was not allowed to be a member of DTP. But she is now banned for a further five years and there is no legal facility to overturn the order.

The 21 DTP members of the assembly participated in the Democratic Society Congress held in Diyarbakir at the weekend. There, with the approval of the participants, they decided to collectively resign as MPs.

Meanwhile the BDP (Peace and Democracy Party), formed as a ‘spare wheel’ party ready to take part in any elections, even if an early one is called, immediately started to take over the premises of the former DTP. The language used by Kurdish politicians indicates that they will continue to meet any progress towards a peaceful solution midway. But the streets are becoming quickly ungovernable once more. There could be a return to a campaign of atrocities committed by the state security apparatus and its rightwing auxiliaries. While this article was being written, two people were killed and several wounded when a part-time police ‘helper’ opened fire on a demonstration in Mus province.

Overtures or finale?

While the Armenian, Alevi and Kurdish overtures have come to an abrupt end, the government and the ruling class have no other realistic option but to continue with the slow and controlled process of liberalisation. Foreign and economic policy considerations oblige Turkey to pursue a peaceful, gradual approach.

The nationalist-racist parties may have succeeded in holding back government policies, but today they have no realistic prospect of being elected to office. For the officer corps and civilian bureaucrats now is not the opportune moment for direct intervention, as they continue to exert their pressure behind the scenes.

The Kurdish people are weary of the armed conflict that has lasted more then a quarter of a century, and believe they have seen the light at the end of the tunnel. Their hopes for a quick solution may have been dashed, but their belief in victory has not been diminished in any way. The expectations of the progressive sections of Alevi community also remain unfulfilled.

So, in a nutshell, the stalemate that prevailed at the start of the year has returned at the end of it, despite the quite dizzy speed of development. However, a year of experience has enriched the collective mind of the proletariat of Turkey. The main lesson is, do not expect any voluntary moves towards democracy from the ruling classes or their government. Every inch of concession gained requires hard struggle.

The second and equally important lesson is that the democratic demands and struggles of different sections of society all point in the same direction. The separate struggle for sectional demands in isolation from the whole leads to a dead end. What is required is a joint struggle around a common programme for a secular, democratic republic. And in that sense the fate of Kurdish people is intertwined with the fate of democracy in Turkey.