Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Closing of the "Kurdish Opening"?

The winds of political change in Turkey often tend to change direction quite abruptly. This seems to be the case with the government's recently announced "democratization initiative," popularly referred to as the "Kurdish opening." The initiative, which is being rolled out in small bits, consists of various reforms designed to give Turkey's Kurds increased political and cultural rights and put at end to the decades of bloody conflict that the Kurdish issue has resulted in. (For some more background on the initiative, take a look at this previous post. To get a sense of how Turkey's foreign policy ambitions are helping push Ankara's new approach to the Kurdish issue, take a look at this post.)

The government's reform plan certainly represents an important break from previous approaches to the Kurdish issue and has led to the discussion of topics that only a few years ago would have been off limits. But now there is some concern that the initiative could be in serious trouble. From a Eurasianet article of mine looking at recent developments regarding the Kurdish reforms:
Official rhetoric in recent months has fostered hope that Turkey can implement a civilian - rather than a military - solution to its decades-long Kurdish problem. Those hopes, however, remain fragile -- a fact underscored by the opening of a court case that could result in the banning of the country’s major pro-Kurdish political party.

Over the summer, Turkish Interior Minister, Besir Atalay, speaking during a nationally televised news conference, said that the government is actively working on a comprehensive plan, one based on democratization and expanded rights. "We have the intention to take determined, patient and courageous steps," he said. "This can be seen as a new stage."

On November 13, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government unveiled in a historic debate in parliament parts of this "democratization initiative," which include the easing of restrictions on private Kurdish-language television stations and Kurdish language faculties in universities, as well allowing towns and villages to use their original Kurdish names once again.

"Today is the beginning of a new timeline and a fresh start," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told parliament. "We took a courageous step to resolve chronic issues that constitute an obstacle along Turkey’s development, progression and empowerment, and we are very sincere."

But now there are growing concerns that the government’s efforts could be undermined by renewed tensions in Turkey’s predominately Kurdish southeast.

Protests were held in several cities in the region this past weekend, including one where a 23-year-old university student was killed by a bullet to the back. The trigger for the protests were reports that conditions have worsened for jailed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan since he was moved into a new facility on the island prison that has been his home since 1999.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s highest court on December 8 started hearing a case which could lead to the closure of the Democratic Society Party (DTP), the only pro-Kurdish party in parliament. Prosecutors contend that the party has violated Turkey’s constitution and has acted as a front for the outlawed PKK. An indictment seeks not only the party’s closure, but also the banning of some 220 of its members from participating in political activity.

The DTP is the latest incarnation of a string of pro-Kurdish parties that have been previously closed by court order, and observers worry that its closing could further stoke tensions among Turkey’s Kurds.

But there is also concern that the party itself is standing in the way of the government’s Kurdish reform program. Although party leaders initially supported the government’s initiative, members are now distancing themselves from it, with DTP chairman Ahmet Turk recently calling it "insufficient."

"For us, the ’democratic initiative’ is over," Emine Ayna, a top DTP official recently told the Radikal newspaper....

....Despite the recent hardening of the DTP’s rhetoric, observers say that shutting the party down would be a mistake. "I totally disapprove of their behavior but I oppose the party’s closure," said Sahin Alpay, a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University.

"It was such a mistake to close down these Kurdish parties in the past," Alpay continued. "Had they not been closed down, they would have become much stronger than the armed wing of the Kurdish movement. But what we have here now is the opposite."
(You can read the full article here. Click here for an informative Human Rights Watch Q&A on the DTP closure case.)

The government's reform plan right now seems to endangered by both Turkish and Kurdish nationalists. Turkish leaders, to their credit, have publicly stated their intention to continue with the reform process. But there are clear challenges ahead. The closing of the DTP (though flawed, the party is an important political force in the southeast) will leave the government once again searching for a Kurdish interlocutor and will be a major setback for the development of a mature Kurdish political movement in Turkey. Meanwhile, if the tension and violence surrounding the Kurdish continue to rise, Ankara may find that moving ahead on the Kurdish reform program might simply be too costly a move for the time being.

(Photo -- a Kurdish demonstrator clashing with police. AFP)

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