Kurdish peace process: The latest phase of de-securitisation politics

The reshuffling of Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy over the last decade has finally led to a solution for Kurds.

Turkey''s PM Erdogan waits during his mother Tenzile Erdogan''s funeral in Istanbul
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was once imprisoned for reciting a religious poem [Reuters]

Conceiving of the Kurdish issue in political terms – rather than security ones – represents the third and final phase of de-securitisation politics in Turkey, which is an indication of the growing normalisation of the country.

Since the beginning of 2013, Turkey’s political agenda has been dominated by the Kurdish peace process initiated through negotiations between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) incarcerated leader, Abdullah Ocalan, and the chief of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation (MIT), Hakan Fidan. So far, the process has progressed smoothly. Some important milestones have been reached. First, a ceasefire has effectively been in place since the start of negotiations. Second, on March 21 – a symbolic day, Newroz, celebrated to mark the beginning of spring in Mesopotamia and Central Asia – a letter written by Ocalan was read aloud to a crowd of one million gathered in Diyarbak?r – the largest Kurdish city in southeastern Turkey – to celebrate the day.

In his letter, Ocalan declared two things: first, the PKK seeks a solution to the Kurdish issue within Turkey’s borders and through further democratisation. Second, the era of armed struggle has come to an end. In the new era, the struggle for Kurdish rights will be advanced through political means. To that end, Ocalan called upon PKK members to withdraw from Turkey in order to demonstrate their commitment to the peace process and clear the way for further negotiations and democratisation steps. The PKK leadership in the Qandil mountains in Iraq responded positively. They held a press conference on April 25, 2013 in which they declared that the withdrawal would commence on May 8, 2013. Withdrawal from Turkey constitutes the first of a three-phased process. In the second phase, the government will undertake legal, constitutional, and democratisation steps, and the third phase will focus on the reintegration of PKK members into society.

The speed and nature of the process have puzzled many people, both inside and outside Turkey. That Turkey attempts to solve its most intractable issue through open political dialogue – and with no serious public backlash to date – has further surprised many.

PKK leader calls for ceasefire in Turkey

To comprehend this thoroughly, one needs to analyse carefully Ocalan’s message and then situate this latest initiative within a historical context, starting from 2002. Among all of Ocalan’s statements, his pronouncements that the era of armed struggle is over and that any solution will be sought within the boundaries of Turkey – effectively renouncing any irredentist claims – are the most important ones. These two messages alone illustrate Ocalan’s transformed mindset in seeing the Kurdish issue strictly through political, not security, terms. It is unlikely that Ocalan’s view would have evolved unless he perceived a similar trend of de-securitising the Kurdish issue among Ankara’s political elite. In fact, de-securitisation politics in Turkey did not begin with the Kurdish issue; rather, it marks the latest phase of broader de-securitisation politics that have defined Turkey’s political landscape over the last decade. The process began with geography – the Middle East – and extended later to ideology – Islamism. With the Kurdish peace process, the de-securitisation process now extends in its final phase to identity – Kurdishness.

Nation-state building and politics of securitisation

After the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, and the establishment of modern Turkey, the republican elites embarked on a process of fashioning a cohesive nation-state. This project required significant social engineering, and maintenance of it depended on the guardianship of a military-bureaucracy alliance. The main tenets of this newly crafted idea of nationhood were Turkishness, laicism, and Western orientation.

From this perspective, Kurds – the largest non-Turkish ethnic group in Turkey – have been regarded as a potential threat to Turkishness, and thus to the territorial integrity of the state. Islamist ideology had been perceived as a central threat to laic-secular nature of the state. The Middle East, as the geography of both of these respective identity-ideologies, had been seen as antithetical to country’s Western orientation.

Republican Turkey’s policies and approaches pertaining to the Middle East, Islamism and Kurdishness clearly demonstrate the securitisation of them. Turkey placed a geographic limitation on its accession to the 1951 Geneva Convention addressing refugees – a clear demonstration of Turkey’s securitisation of Middle East policy. Turkey only accepts refugees from Europe and does not accord refugee status to anyone from the Middle East. Moreover, war and instability have been commonplace both in countries to Turkey’s east and southeast, and in countries to Turkey’s west. Yet, while Turkey cast instances of conflict on its western borders in terms of human tragedy, as with the Balkans wars, similar events on its eastern and southeastern frontiers – the Middle East – have been framed in the language of national security.

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Over the years, Turkey acquired an infamous reputation as the graveyard of political parties, having banned a total of 28 political parties so far. The bans typically cited the secular nature of the state (read as pro-Islamic political claims) or the territorial integrity of the state (read as pro-Kurdish claims) as the reasons for closure. Among the frivolous and tendentious pretexts for party harassment include having a headscarved MP, reciting a poem, and speaking in Kurdish in Parliament. With only intermittent breaks, this security-oriented approach dominated Turkish politics for nearly 80 years.

The era of de-securitisation politics

However, with the rise to power in 2002 of the Islamically sensitive Justice and Development Party (AK Party), Turkey has witnessed to a gradual politics of de-securitisation.

The de-securitisation politics firstly started with geography – the Middle East – and had mainly been economy and energy focused in the beginning. Soon after the AK Party came to power, Turkey increased its economic and energy engagement with the countries of the region. Iraq has served as a prime destination for Turkey’s exports, while Iran has ranked second to Russia in meeting Turkey’s energy demands. Trade relations with other regional countries flourished during the same period as well. For instance, trade with Iran – which stood at about $1 billion in 2000 – reached about $6.7 billion by 2006. Good relations with regional countries delivered significant economic- and energy-related gains for Turkey.

Unlike the republican project, the de-securitisation of Turkey’s relations with the Middle East did not coincide with securitisation of any other regional policies. The period marked by de-securitisation of Turkey’s Middle East politics has also constituted the golden era in Turkey-EU relations. Thus, Turkey did not only improve relations with Middle Eastern countries significantly, it also started the membership accession negotiations with the EU during the same period.

The economic and political reforms of the AK Party’s early years yielded stability and economic growth, and the party began in 2005-2006 both to normalise relations between the state and religious segments of society and to leverage its economic and energy relations for regional political engagement.

With a more liberal reading of secularism, the government became more responsive to the needs of religious people. The government enabled female students to attend universities with headscarves, offered religious classes as electives within school curricula, and ceased discriminatory regulations against religious and vocational high school graduates on the statewide university entrance exam. Instead of casting citizens’ religious claims as politically threatening, the government treated them as a religious liberty issue. This approach helped improve state-society relations.

PKK fighters arrive in Iraq

In foreign policy, the AK Party discarded previous Turkish governments’ avoidance of Islamic movements, issues, and organisations. Turkey actively engaged with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and sought a more prominent profile within it. As a result of this activism, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu became the first Turkish candidate to be elected Secretary General of the OIC in 2005, and he has been serving in that capacity since then. When Hamas won the election in Palestine in 2006, Turkey invited Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas’ political bureau, for talks in Ankara.

The government’s de-securitisation of Middle East and of Islamism enabled Turkey to mediate on intractable regional and international issues. These included mediation between Iran and the West on nuclear development, between Israel and Syria in 2008, and between Hamas and Fatah on internal Palestinian reconciliation. At the same time, Turkey gained observer status at both the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council. More recently, Turkey’s new approach has facilitated closer relations with new Islamist governments in post-Arab Spring countries. These results would be inconceivable had Turkey not de-securitised its Middle East policies and its approach to Islamism. De-securitisation has thus not only improved state-society relations and produced economic gains, but it has also provided an opportunity for Turkey to occupy a more prominent role regionally and internationally.

Solving the Kurdish issue

With the AK Party’s consolidated power vis-a-vis the military and bureaucracy and the demonstrated results from earlier phases of de-securitisation, the government attempted to de-securitise – and finally solve – Turkey’s intractable Kurdish issue. The current peace process is not the first attempt to solve the Kurdish issue through peaceful means, but the third attempt. Prime Minister Erdogan’s speech in Diyarbak?r in 2005, in which he publicly accepted the existence of a Kurdish issue and referred to further democratisation as the solution, marked the first attempt. The Kurdish opening of 2009, which included confidential negotiations between PKK representatives and MIT officials, represented the second attempt.

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However, a combination of factors – including military and bureaucracy opposition, mutual uncertainty regarding the parameters of a solution and PKK’s resort to violence on some instances – stifled the process, which failed to produce the desired outcome. The military’s retreat from the political scene, the emergence of a common framework between the government and the PKK leadership for solving the conflict, and shared determination to settle the issue paved the way for the latest attempt. Its success would not only dramatically transform Kurds’ relations with the state, it would also have major implications domestically, regionally, and internationally.

Domestically, analysts have described Turkey as possessing a hybrid – partially democratic – regime. Turkey’s democratic political character was compromised by the existence of military-bureaucratic guardianship. The securitisation of Kurdish identity – indeed, the very existence of the Kurdish issue – was the principle justification provided by non-democratic forces for their own existence within the political system. In other words, the securitisation of Kurdish identity facilitated the stifling of free expression, democratic progress, and economic development. The solution of the Kurdish issue and the de-securitisation of Kurdish identity will remove an enormous impediment to further democratisation and economic development.

Regionally, the AK Party govermment has already achieved partial de-securitisation of Kurdish identity through its extenive and cordial engagement with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. This relationship has produced economic, energy, political, and strategic gains for both sides. Though accurate data on Turkey-KRG trade are difficult to generate, most estimates place annual volume at $11-13 billion. At the same time, settling the Kurdish issue domestically will enable better relations between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds. The largest Kurdish political group in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) maintains ideological and organic links with the PKK. In the context of solving the Kurdish issue domestically, Turkey may help persuade PYD to join the anti-Assad Syrian opposition. Such a development could help tip the balance of power in favour of the opposition. The de-securitisation of Kurdish identity domestically may thus pave the way for strategic relations with another rising group – besides Islamists – in the region: the Kurds.  

Thus, this process will not only free Turkey from its domestic chains by eradicating the vestiges of a long-dominant tutelage system; it will also free Turkey from many constraints in its foreign policy engagement regionally and internationally, thereby facilitating more ambitious foreign policy activism. The de-securitisation of the Middle East, Islamism, and Kurdishness do not just represent normalisation within Turkey; they also provide grounds for increasing regional and international prominence.

Galip Dalay works in the political research department at the SETA Foundation in Turkey. He is currently a PhD candidate in International Relations at the Middle East Technical University, Ankara.

Follow him on Twitter: @GalipDalay