This piece first appeared as a op-ed in Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel on September 9, 2010
As Turkey heads into a high-stakes constitutional referendum, is there a real chance of finally resolving the long-standing tensions surrounding the place of Turkey's Kurdish citizens? It is clear that counter-insurgency is not the answer. The outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) has long since transformed itself from a purely insurgent group to a political actor that has a popular base. The Kurdish issue is primarily an issue of democracy and should therefore be resolved through democratic means. This requires a new constitution, which takes equality and freedom as a basis, prioritizes a democratic approach, upholds rule of law for all and accepts different cultures within Turkish national identity.
However, constitutional changes cannot alone succeed without addressing the status of the PKK. When Turkish soldiers are killed in PKK operations every day, no Turkish government can afford to talk about recognition of cultural diversity, granting cultural rights, and strengthening democratic participation as a solution. The PKK's declaration of a unilateral ceasefire against Turkish military forces for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in August, which will be effective until Sept. 20, should therefore be seen as an important opportunity to act.
While tensions are currently high, in fact the conditions are ripe for all the main actors to take important steps regarding the Kurdish issue. The militarist view that considers the Kurdish issue a terror issue has been the main stumbling block to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. This security-oriented paradigm lost its primacy due to a series of reforms that curbed the Turkish military's power and influence in politics. Between 2002 and 2004, based on a consensus between the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), Parliament adopted constitutional amendments that removed the legal basis for the political role of the military.
With the latest Supreme Military Council (YAS) appointments, there is now a new military cadre that has a different approach to the Kurdish issue. The new Chief of General Staff Gen. Isik Kosaner, in a statement he made in 2006, says that the problem is not a terror problem anymore but is essentially a political problem and the PKK does not need terror to give voice to its demands. Although what started out as a gesture of reconciliation in the summer of 2009 has ended in the death of AKP's Kurdish Opening (due to an increase in PKK attacks, severe criticisms from the opposition, mismanaging the process and having unclear goals), the opening launched a debate on the legal, social and political dimensions of the issue. Today the Kurds' right to an education in Kurdish and the extension of cultural rights for the Kurds are being discussed in the public sphere while even their existence as a separate ethnic group was denied throughout the history of the Turkish Republic.
The vast majority of Kurds want peace. They have come to understand that war has not solved anything for 26 years and that change will come through effective use of democratic means -- not violence. This view is voiced more and more everyday by Kurdish civil society, which has become more active in the last few years. The killing of four human rights activists and prominent members of society in Batman, a Kurdish populated city in the south east of Turkey, in a mine blast (that was perpetrated by the PKK in August), as well as the ethnic rift that erupted in Hatay's Dörtyol district in July (that was triggered by the killing of four policemen in the town in a PKK attack) sparked strong public reactions within the Kurdish community and civil society. Civil society organizations in the southern provinces of Diyarbakir, Batman, Van, and Mardin gathered together and called on the PKK to lay down its weapons. At a meeting of the Democratic Society Congress (DTK), a joint platform of Kurdish intellectuals, members of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), civil society groups and PKK-affiliated organizations, the participants urged both the state and the PKK to stop the violence.
Under growing pressure from its base to stop terrorist attacks, the PKK declared a unilateral ceasefire against Turkish military forces for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan -- which will be effective until Sept. 20. The PKK has offered conditions for extending this period. It demands a halt to military operations in the southeast, the release of pro-Kurdish activists, lowering the 10 percent election threshold, starting negotiations and accepting Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, as an interlocutor in the peace process.
The political demands the PKK raises for a lasting ceasefire indicate that the PKK wants to pursue a political path in the resolution of the conflict at a time when it is facing increasing reactions from its base in regards to its violent methods. A delegation from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and the Democratic Society Congress (DTK) held talks with Iraq's President Jalal Talabani on Sunday in Sulaimaniya, a city in Kurdish controlled Northern Iraq. The delegation will have a meeting with Necirvan Barzani, Masoud Barzani (aide to the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq), and would like to have another meeting with Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan after the referendum on Sept. 12. These moves are the continuation of a process that gives primacy to Kurdish civilian politics in the resolution of the Kurdish issue. They aim to determine the contours of "democratic autonomy," a concept that was brought forward at the meeting of the Democratic Society Congress (DTK) after the PKK's declaration of a ceasefire in August as one of the steps to resolve the Kurdish question.
Kurds are pushing for a peaceful resolution but it does not mean that they will settle for a few cosmetic changes in state strategy toward Kurdish language -- such as allowing Kurdish broadcasting and the teaching of Kurdish at private language institutions or allowing parents to give their children Kurdish names. The national awareness has been rising among Kurds. As I visited Diyarbakir and Urfa in August, this has become one of the most striking facts. It is not an identity artificially generated by PKK or Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). It is deeply rooted in their collective memories and everyday lives. Today Kurds seem to have a clearer attitude about their identity than they had two decades ago. And they are vocal about their demands both from the government and Turkish society. Although they have been marginalized by the system, they still have faith in the democratic process. Despite the PKK's and BDP's call for a boycott of the referendum set for Sept. 12, many of those with whom I talked said they would vote "yes" since the amendment package -- drawn up by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) -- is aimed at curbing the powers of the military. The referendum package includes 26 articles, such as amendments that would grant civil servants the right to conclude collective agreements and go on strike. But it seems the package means one thing for Kurds: the end of military tutelage that kept the Kurdish issue unresolved for decades.
All these developments point to a historic juncture in the Kurdish issue. If the AKP government does not backpedal in its desire to find a civilian solution, resist from abandoning the process under the pressure of the upcoming national elections, or if the PKK extends the ceasefire and gives a chance to civilian Kurdish politics to play the leading role in the process -- then the ceasefire can be turned into an opportunity to solve the most pressing issue in the history of Turkish Republic.
Assertions and opinions in this editorial are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.