The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Thursday, 29 July 2010

How to talk to the Kurds?

The Economist reports on increased tension in the Kurdish populated areas of Turkey and Iraq. This is not a new problem but any increase in tension - and potentially violence - would come at a very difficult time for the Turkish government and the AKP ruling party.

From an international perspective, the concern has always been that Turkey - which has the second-largest standing army in NATO - could become too distracted by its campaign against Kurdish guerrillas to fulfil its international commitments. Having said that, while Turkish troops play important roles in ISAF, KFOR and EUFOR Althea, in terms of numbers their contributions are not (proportionately) among the most significant.

There are other - very real - possibilities which could arise from increased tension and/or violence between the Turkish Army and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party). There is the fear of increased conflict between Turkey and Kurds across the border in Iraq, just as the US is drawing down its presence in Iraq. Moreover, as the Economist article points out, any PKK resurgence would leave Prime Minister Erdogan in a very difficult position.
As next July’s parliamentary elections draw nearer, Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is unlikely to risk nationalist ire by openly talking to a group deemed by Turkey and its Western allies to be terrorists. On the other hand, as Mr Erdogan knows, abandoning reform in favour of war will only strengthen the hand of his opponents within the army. He is, as an old Turkish saying goes, holding a stick with shit at both ends.
That is reason enough for the international community to be concerned at this potential development - and also reason enough for the international community to encourage and/or pressure Turkey to solve this as reasonably and effectively as possible, admittedly not an easy task.

On that subject, there are some questions to raise. The article states that secret talks have been going on with Abdullah Ocalan. While it may well be true that he retains huge support and affection from the rank-and-file, the fact remains that he has been in solitary confinement for eleven years. How can he be expected to have a clear understanding of the situation on the ground as it is now? Does he know the mood among the Kurdish rank-and-file (a different generation from the one he knew)? Does he know the key players on his side and on the Turkish side? Does he know the public mood in Turkey, notably in the context of next year's elections?

Furthermore, these secret talks have apparently been led by security and intelligence operatives and the PKK have - understandably and rightly - stated that they want to talk to politicians.

One could make a comparison to the discussions held in Algiers in 1989 between ETA and the Spanish government. ETA were represented by Antonio Etxebeste, who was released from prison for the occasion. The Spanish government was represented by the Interior Minister, José Luis Corcuera, but also by Rafael Vera, director of State security, who was said to have close links to the government black ops unit known as the GAL. Vera had previously participated in discussions with ETA, also in Algiers, accompanied by Jorge Argote, a lawyer who had defended men accused of torturing ETA prisoners, and Jesus Martinez Torres, chief of intelligence for the national police, who was suspected of actually having participated in torture.

With interlocutors like that, it is no surprise that the talks went nowhere but the real point is that the Spanish government and ETA alike displayed a failure to recognise the political nature of the problem. Both sides sent in security and/or intelligence operatives (on the ETA side, Etxebeste was accompanied by two operatives from the Madrid commando) who neither understood nor cared to understand the political realities of the situation or public opinion in the Basque country and in Spain (ETA's lack of political nous is a subject previously covered on this blog).

That is an approach which the Turkish government would do well to avoid - assuming that it is serious about finding some kind of solution to the Kurdish issue - but also because, as the Economist points out, if they let the military and security apparatus of the State take the lead then the civilian government could find itself undermined in the ongoing existential debate over what kind of State Turkey should be.

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