March 21 is celebrated as the beginning of spring across the Middle East and Central Asia. Turks, Kurds, Persians, Kazaks, Uzbeks and others welcome the Nowruz, “New Day”, with local and national festivals. It is a joyous day of a new beginning, renewal and welcoming the fresh spirit of the spring. This year’s Nowruz had a special meaning in Turkey.
On the Nowruz day, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)’s jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan made a call from his cell on the PKK to end its armed battle and enter the phase of “political struggle”. The call, a result of Prime Minister Erdogan’s determined work over the years, was read in Turkish and Kurdish in Diyarbakir and broadcast live on TV channels. History was made before the eyes of the public.
The call for PKK’s disarmament heralds the beginning of a new era in Turkey. The PKK and its offshoots have fought a bitter and bloody war against Turkey since 1984, killing over 40,000 people, costing billions of dollars, and creating a dangerous sense of separation between Turks and Kurds. The deep psychological wounds PKK terrorism has caused among the public will not disappear overnight. It will take a large degree of political maturity, social rehabilitation and collective mourning. But March 21, 2013, marked a pivotal moment.
No other issue has caused Turkey as much suffering and trauma as the Kurdish question. Erdogan addressed the issue shortly after coming to power in 2003. In a famous speech in Diyarbakir in 2005, he became the first Turkish Prime Minister to officially acknowledge the existence of the Kurdish problem. Winning the support and confidence of Kurdish voters in five elections and two referenda since 2002, Erdogan introduced what we might call his “2+1 strategy”.
The 2+1 strategy comprises two key policies and one major outcome. The first is providing services to the Kurdish-populated areas in order to bridge the development gap between the eastern and western parts of the country. The second is addressing the political grievances that have deepened over the years as a result of the failed policies of official denial, forced assimilation and collective punishment. The expected outcome, the “plus one” component, is the disarmament of the PKK.
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Erdogan’s politics of service paid off. He invested billions of dollars in public projects in the Kurdish-populated areas and encouraged the private sector to do so. Despite PKK’s terrorist activities, the region made a quantum leap in infrastructure, agriculture, transportation and education. New roads, airports and universities have allowed greater degree of social mobility. Poverty and unemployment have been significantly reduced.
The politics of service has been complemented by addressing identity-based grievances. Thanks to the “politics of acceptance”, which Erdogan introduced against the fierce opposition of the ardently secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Turkey is finally coming to terms with her tapestry of multiple identities and cultural pluralism. Restrictions on the use of Kurdish language in prisons, media, political campaigns, etc have been lifted. Optional Kurdish language courses have been introduced in public schools. TV6, a state TV channel, currently broadcast in Kurdish 24/7, and licences have been granted to private channels – something deemed impossible just a few years ago.
It is not possible, however, to solve the Kurdish issue in isolation from the conditions that produced it in the first place. This entails a major revisiting of such fundamental notions as the role of the state, national security perceptions, democracy and political representation in Turkey. What is certain is that solving the Kurdish issue will liberate Turkey from decades of misplaced statism, petty nationalism and societal antagonism. While seeking to solve the Kurdish issue, Turkey is also rebuilding her identity.
The call for the disarmament of the PKK is historic but must be followed up with concrete steps on the ground. Despite the noise and political threats from the neo-nationalist corners, the vast majority of the Turkish public has welcomed the call. Forcing the PKK into a “phase of political struggle” will not be easy. Many PKK members have known nothing but fighting for years on the mountains. Furthermore, PKK’s outdated Marxist-Leninist ideology combined with a belated Kurdish nationalism presents difficulties for a comprehensive process of normalisation.
Nevertheless, a new page has been turned in Turkey’s modern history. Erdogan’s 2+1 strategy has already delivered. With political acumen, societal maturity and collective determination, Turkey can leave the Kurdish issue behind and look forward to the deepening of the democratic process and civilian rights for all of her citizens, including the Kurds.
Dr Ibrahim Kalin is the Deputy Undersecretary of State and Senior Adviser to the Prime Minister of Turkey.
Follow him on Twitter: @ikalin1