Kurdish reforms in Turkey should not be weighed with grim days of the past
Just decades ago against a backdrop of assimilation policies, repression and Kurdish phobia, many of the democratic rights and freedoms that the Kurds enjoy today would have been unthinkable.
Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) assumed power in 2002, it is fair to say that the party has taken a number of bold steps to resolve the countries long-standing Kurdish problem.
The reforms packages of the past decade instigated by Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, may prove historical when placed into context but it is difficult to compare an era of improved rights to times when the existence of the Kurds was denied altogether or when even Kurdish names were banned.
Fast forward to 2013 with the PKK war reaching close to 3 decades and when the peace process and the new political climate in both Turkey and the wider Middle East has made the stage ripe to finally resolve the Kurdish conflict.
This year has been the least deadly in almost 30 years of conflict as imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan assumed a position of peacemaker. The PKK forces began to withdraw and a ceasefire was put in force. This time there was renewed hope and optimism that Ankara could finally Ankara take on its aged old Kurdish problem head-on with a dose of reality and away from an outdated nationalist ethos.
However, as the months have rolled on without concrete measures, Kurdish anxiety has steadily increased leading to disgruntled and disenchanted voices within both the PKK and the Peace and Democratic Party (BDP) and war of words between the Kurdish groups and the government.
By the time Erdogan announced his much anticipated democracy package on 30th September 2013 a new climate had already taken fold with the PKK halting their withdrawal from Turkey as retaliation for the labored nature of the peace process and the political and social scars that the highly-publicized Gezi Park protests inflicted on Erdogan’s government.
Of course, in relation to the past, the latest reforms announced are historic and a significant milestone. But this is the 21st century. Thousands across the Middle East are fighting for their rights and ever-expectant populations are not ready to settle for second-best.
The Turkish Kurds see their brethren in Iraq go from strength to strength with de-facto independence, new economic power and strategic and political clout. To the south, they see their Syrian Kurdish counterparts sowing the seeds of unprecedented power and autonomy.
Simply put, after a long wait, Erdogan’s package disappointed and is unlikely to ap- pease long-term Kurdish aspirations or build meaningful bridges with the PKK that will see a genuine end to armed conflict.
Erdogan’s changes include allowing education in Kurdish in private schools, towns and villages now able to use their Kurdish form, abolishing the long-standing pledge of allegiance by school children, lifting of the ban on Kurdish letters not present in the Turkish alphabet and a promise to review the 10% threshold designed to hinder Kurdish footing in parliament.
Many key demands have not been met, especially in the field of judiciary. There can never be justice, social harmony or peace while antiterror laws remain in their current form or judicial reforms are not enforced.
As long as such laws remain in place, an element of Kurdish phobia will always prevail.
Whilst the reform packages may disappoint, the timings and the implication of the announcements echoes beyond the short-term.
Erdogan came out of the summer protests bruised but not defeated. However, a backlash over the summer has placed Erdogan into a difficult predicament with elections just months away. He has to balance the secular, nationalist and minority voices in a way that almost gets him past the crucial milestone of upcoming local elections in March, presidential elections in August and parliamentary polls in 2015.
More radical reforms to appease Kurds would almost certainly have been met with a nationalist backlash. At the same time, a lack of reform would have threatened an abrupt end to the peace process and an almost instant return of violence.
The same dilemma applies to appeasing secular voices whilst at the same time not betraying the Islamist principles of his party and his millions of Islamist supporters.
Clearly there was a lack of real consultation with the various groups including the Kurds and the reforms will not please all sides but it’s a gamble and balance that Erdogan is prepared to take.
The PKK and BDP were quick to criticize the reform package but it’s not clear whether it will derail the peace process altogether or merely delay and hinder the initiative.
The latest reforms can only be labeled as a new dawn if they serve as the precursor and basis for future reforms rather than a solution in itself.
An ever expectant and resurgent Kurdish population will not settle for token democratic gestures that they should never have been deprived of in the first place.
Furthermore, minority rights have to be put in perspective. You cannot apply equal weight or the same brush to Alevi, Assyrian or Christian demands and the much deeper and fundamental Kurdish question.