The Return of the Hardliners

Just a few years ago, it looked as if the government in Istanbul was embarking on a policy of reconciliation with Turkey's Kurdish population. But that dynamic of reform has long since stalled and trouble is brewing, as Ömer Erzeren reports

By Ömer Erzeren

At around midnight on 28 December last year, Turkish army warplanes bombed a convoy near the Kurdish town of Uludere. Thirty-five people died in the hail of bombs. They were Kurdish civilians, smugglers whose small-scale operation – bringing cheap Iraqi oil across the border on the backs of donkeys – was sanctioned by the local authorities and the military. This kind of smuggling is a basic livelihood for many people in the region.

After all the hope of a peaceful solution to Turkey's Kurdish question, the massacre at Uludere demonstrated both the appalling stage the conflict is at and the lack of political perspective within Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government. The state had deployed its air force within its own borders and killed innocent civilians.

An eerie silence

"No country deliberately bombs its own people": Prime Minister Erdogan belatedly expresses his regret for the deadly air strike by the Turkish army near Uludere

​​In any country with a normal society and a reasonably functioning democracy this would have been a day of national catastrophe: state mourning, flags at half-mast, the resignation of the politicians responsible. In Turkey, however, nothing whatsoever happened, at least to begin with. The country's media, practised in the art of self-censorship, didn't even report the terrible events for a full 18 hours.

Only after the news had spread via the social networks, on Twitter and Facebook, and the speaker of the governing party had declared his "regret", speaking of a "military operations mistake", did the media finally respond to the massacre.

There has still been no apology from any holder of political office. Prime Minister Erdogan finally managed to make a half-hearted declaration of sympathy and promised around € 50,000 to the relatives of the victims. No military personnel or anyone with political responsibility was held accountable. The investigations are likely to last a very long time, and a crystal ball is not necessary to see that they will probably come to nothing.

Collision course

The way it has dealt with the massacre in Uludere is illustrative of the political line Erdogan's government adopted in June last year. The conservative-Islamic governing party (AKP), which scored a major election victory with almost 47 per cent of the vote around that time, is focusing on the military destruction of the forbidden Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), in the tradition of previous governments since the military coup of 1980.

The end of the PKK's unilateral ceasefire, which was followed by violent attacks on military positions – a month after the election, PKK militants killed 13 soldiers near the town of Silvan – provided the government with a pretext to address the conflict using military means alone.

In the autumn of 2009, there were still high hopes for a peaceful solution. As instructed by the PKK leadership, dozens of guerrillas had laid down their weapons and crossed the Iraqi–Turkish border as "ambassadors of peace". They were briefly arrested, and were freed again within 24 hours.

There was reason to suspect that this action did not symbolize a unilateral declaration of goodwill by the PKK, but had been agreed in advance with the highest echelons of the Turkish state. Secret protocols between the head of the Turkish secret service, as the Prime Minister's special representative, and key members of the PKK leadership in Oslo were later leaked to the press, confirming that the "democratic opening" the government was propagating at the time was taking place in consultation with the PKK.

Open rebellion against Erdogan's government: after the deadly air strike by the Turkish army in the Kurdish-dominated border region between Turkey and Iraq, in which 35 people were killed, the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) called for an uprising


Disastrous peace mission

The jailed PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan, still an idol to millions of Kurds, was privy to what was happening and had been involved in discussions with the head of the secret service. But as hundreds of thousands of Kurds in the border region celebrated the arrival of the guerrillas, a wave of nationalist outrage was making itself felt in western Turkey. And so the Erdogan government backed down. The peace mission ended in disaster, and trouble has been brewing ever since.

The peace mission failed because Turkish society had not been prepared for it. For decades, the PKK has been the "incarnation of evil" and the ideological bogeyman for nationalists, who felt that the armed uprising could only be dealt with by force of arms. There was no peaceful dialogue with the Kurds because political, legal Kurdish movements were silenced by repression on the part of the police and the judiciary.

The Erdogan government, which just a few years ago was brave enough to seek direct talks with the PKK, has now retreated. It has handed over responsibility for dealing with the insurrection to the military. Apart from the fact that the military no longer constitutes a state within a state, not much has changed since the old days.

And that's not all. Members of the opposition who refuse to back the government's martial approach are to be silenced by means of a special judiciary, which has become a compliant tool of the government. The legal Kurdish party BDP, which has 35 members in parliament and represents millions of voters, is being systematically criminalized. More than 6,000 members of the party are currently under arrest for alleged membership of an organization allied to the PKK. Among them are senior party officials and an elected mayor.

The back garden of terrorism

Turkish nationalists still consider the PKK to be the "incarnation of evil" and their ideological bogeyman

​​And not only high-ranking party members are affected. Independent intellectuals, such as the renowned Ragıp Zarakolu, or the political sciences professor Büsra Ersanli, have been in detention since last October. They had appeared as speakers at the BDP cadre training school. From this, the public prosecutor derived allegations of "membership of a terrorist organization".

The Turkish Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin recently stated: "The terror organization has another pillar of support: scientists, artists with their paintings, poets with their poems. They fight the fight against terrorism. It is the back garden of terrorism in Istanbul, in Izmir: the lectern in the university, the association, the NGOs…!"

In September of last year, the news agency AP compared the official numbers of people throughout the world who have been legally convicted of membership in a terrorist organization. The result was staggering: Turkey headed the list with almost 13,000 convictions, followed by China with 7,000.

Occasionally politicians from the governing party back benches make statements promising that they have not stopped opening up to democracy, that reforms are imminent, and that concessions will be made to the Kurds – lip service, that comes across as mockery of a bitter reality.

Ömer Erzeren

© 2012

Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/