Nicholas Birch
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on : Monday, 25 Mar, 2013
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Big Brother Erdoğan

No room for public debate in Turkey’s peace talks with the Kurds

Turkey seeks peace with the Kurds, but what sort of peace is it, and can it hold? Erdoğan’s single-handed attempts at ending the conflict, without consulting all concerned parties, may only achieve a flimsy peace at best.
Kurds carry the coffins of victims of a Turkish air raid, outside Uludere Hospital in Uludere, Sirnak province, on December 30, 2011. Thousands of mourning Kurds branded Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a murderer. BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

Kurds carry the coffins of victims of a Turkish air raid, outside Uludere Hospital in Uludere, Sirnak province, on December 30, 2011. Thousands of mourning Kurds branded Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a murderer. BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

Five years ago in Diyarbakır, a Kurdish city built on a volcanic outcrop over a bend in the River Tigris in southeast Turkey, I met a man who was famous for ending blood feuds. Like many in that troubled region, Sait was a pragmatist: by day, he ran a funeral parlor on a street just inside the medieval walls. A long room full of stools and tables extended out back into a white tiled courtyard, a sort of mix between a tea house and the lobby of a mosque. He was a tiny man, barely five feet tall in the platform shoes he wore to give him an extra couple of inches. In his jacket and bold pink and peach striped tie he looked more like a circus impresario than a peacemaker.

One story he told was about a Diyarbakır woman he had met shortly after he went into the feud solution business. The story started simply enough: the woman’s husband had been killed. The two families involved had reached an agreement on a sum of blood money, as was the custom if you wanted to avoid the feud echoing on down the generations. But then, the woman refused to have anything to do with the deal. Instead, she left the city with her two young sons and laid a place for her murdered husband at her table, day in, day out, for thirteen years. It was a sign to the other family that justice had not been done as far as she was concerned, and that she wanted revenge.

This was when Sait was called in. His reading of the situation was interesting: he did not blame the woman for what she was doing; the trouble, he said, was that when the families had met to agree on blood money all those years earlier, only the heads of the families had talked. It was the woman and her children who had been the worst affected by the murder, emotionally and financially, but she had been given no voice. It had never even been entirely clear whether her in-laws intended to give her a portion of the blood money at all. Peace deals like this might last, Sait said, but they were flimsy. The secret to bringing about lasting peace was to ensure the consent of all parties concerned.

Turkey’s Kurdish rebellion has come to resemble a sort of massive blood feud (aptly enough, given that the surname of its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, translates as “avenger”). After each rebel attack, Turkish jets roar out of Diyarbakır to rain bombs on PKK bases in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. In Kurdish villages in the spring, wedding guests bob up and down in lines to jaunty songs celebrating the murder of Turkish conscripts in mock-epic language: “Baran of the hawk eyes and lion-hearted Simko encircled the sons of Turan and brought them low.” Putting on their best parade-ground voices, louder and deeper and more serious-sounding than they use for other stories, news presenters on Istanbul TV talk of “terrorists” being “de-activated” by army units. Kurdish teenagers take to the mountains to avenge grannies shoved and insulted by the police. Every Turkish town has an Association for Martyrs and the War-Wounded.

It is a small wonder that, amid negotiations to end the war, the Turkish media has been swept by the sort of euphoria Sait described as a common reaction in the families he brought together again. Read the papers, and you might think the whole brutal mess will be over in a matter of months and the rebels safely withdrawn from Turkey to Iraq, in time for Prime Minister Erdoğan to fly to Stockholm and pick up a Nobel Peace Prize. Even hard-nosed analysts are talking about a historic turning point in Turkey’s history.

Some of the signs are promising: Erdoğan has promised to drink hemlock if peace efforts fail. Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned on an island in the Marmara Sea, has said something similar: on March 21, the Kurdish leader called for a ceasefire and ordered his armed supporters to leave Turkish soil. “We have reached a point where weapons should go silent and ideas speak,” he wrote in a letter that was read out to crowds of nearly a million gathered in Diyarbakır and Istanbul to celebrate the traditional Kurdish New Year. International conditions—Kurds are increasingly prominent in Iraq and Syria, and Turkey is determined to play a leading role in the region—make peace more pressing, or so experts say. Even Turkish public opinion, its vision of the conflict skewed by decades of media bias, seems to have taken the news that the government is negotiating with “baby-killers” more or less in its stride.

Big brother, little brother

The question though is whether the government has drawn the correct conclusions from the failure of its first attempt to end the war in 2009. That first ‘Kurdish Opening’ was undoubtedly brave—at least when viewed against a backdrop of decades of official near-denial—but it was doomed by the dismissive, paternalist tone that is a dominant characteristic of Turkish political life.

This is perhaps clearest in a side-story to the main peace process, a row that erupted after the mayor of a small Kurdish town announced plans to erect a monument to thirty-three locals machine-gunned to death without trial in 1943. The whole thing sounds at first like unnecessary provocation, until you realize that the Turkish army had just renamed its base in the middle of the town after the general who ordered the murders. Two surviving relatives of the victims had taken the issue to court, pointing out that the general had been sentenced to life imprisonment for the murders, but it was to no avail. Judges agreed with lawyers for the Ministry of Defense that the new name of the barracks was in line with army directives requiring military facilities to be named after “commanders who have served successfully, or are remembered, in the region.” So the local council decided to put up a monument just opposite the barracks, a complete waste of money in a town as poor as Özalp, but honor is honor.

That was when the editor of what was in those days Turkey’s most powerful newspaper got involved. “This is a dangerous and unnecessary show,” he told the mayor in his daily column. “Stop being so stubborn, little brother. What have we been saying for days; what has the Interior Minister been saying? Some things need to be forgotten.”

The editor and Erdoğan’s government are on different sides of Turkey’s ideological divide, but that hierarchical vision of how negotiations should be done was common to both. There is a big brother (ağabey) and a little brother (kardeş). The big brother can do what he likes, including naming barracks after murderers, if he so chooses. The big brother decides on the peace terms. The little brother accepts them. If the little brother steps out of line, then negotiations end. And that is exactly what happened a few months after the Özalp scrap. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) sent a small contingent into Turkey from Iraq as a peace gesture. Tens of thousands of Kurds turned out at the border post at Habur to welcome them, chanting nationalist slogans, waving the unofficial Kurdish flag and brandishing posters of Abdullah Öcalan. Turkish nationalist politicians cried treason. The Istanbul press talked of sabotage. The peace initiative fizzled out.

If Erdoğan were Sait, he might have read the jubilation of the crowd at Habur as an expression of ordinary Kurds’ desire to participate in a process from which they had been all but excluded. Instead, he seems to have decided to exclude them entirely.

For all its paternalistic tone, the first peace process was built on a realization on the part of the government that peace was only realistically possible if Kurdish public opinion could begin to be brought on side. It was built around a gradual relaxation in official attitudes towards Kurdishness. Turkey’s state television opened a new Kurdish language channel. The Ministry of Culture brought out a bilingual edition of the Kurdish epic Mem û Zîn, and a university in Şanlıurfa was permitted to open a Kurdish language department. Prosecutors were permitted to open investigations into state-backed death squads that were active in the region in the 1990s. The president was even overheard referring to one Kurdish town by what he thought was its Kurdish name. (Locals admit that the town’s name, Norşin, is probably Armenian.)

Leaders make peace

This time around, public involvement and public debate have been reduced to an absolute minimum. Essentially, it is a negotiation between Abdullah Öcalan and Erdoğan himself, mediated by officials from Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (bureaucrats who report exclusively to the prime minister). Erdoğan and Öcalan are behaving like two capi di Mafia, winking at each other while their underlings gun each other down.

When it comes down to it, it is not so much the leaders who are making peace as the leaders supported by their bureaucratic cohorts. Erdoğan holds all the cards. He has Öcalan where he wants him, in solitary confinement in an island prison. The prime minister decides who visits him and when, going so far as to personally select the two delegations of Kurdish nationalist deputies who have visited him over the last month. Above all, he knows Öcalan’s ideas on a peace deal. Öcalan set out his roadmap in writing last year; you can read it on the Internet. It is only Erdoğan’s plan that remains unclear, and not just to the Turkish public.

Not even one of Erdoğan’s closest political associates, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, seems to know what is going on. “This is not an issue for the government,” he told the private television channel SkyTurk last month. “Please be clear that we are not discussing this issue in government. Some Cabinet colleagues, maybe the Justice Minister … may know 10 percent more, but there is no reason for us to know. We will be told everything in good time.”

Given the level of micro-management, it is hardly surprising that Erdoğan reacted with fury when one newspaper, Milliyet, published excerpts of the minutes of the meeting Öcalan had with the second delegation of Kurdish deputies. Here is a taste of what the prime minister told a crowd in the western Turkish city of Balıkesir on March 2:

They come out with curses and insults, anger and hatred. They come out with rumors and hearsay, with sabotage and provocation…. Take one newspaper. It prints a headline. The headline gives the low-down on what’s happening on İmralı [Öcalan’s island prison]…. Now if you have an atom of love for this country and this people and you want to support this process, you don’t publish this sort of story…. This is a sensitive process. If this is what you call journalism, then to hell with your journalism.

The media immediately rallied round in support—of the prime minister, that is. In Yeni Safak, Erdoğan’s close advisor, Yalçın Akdoğan, headed his column “Saboteurs in Action.” Radikal (once a very good newspaper that now styles itself “Turkey’s bravest”) chose the headline “Second Sabotage.” And when one Milliyet columnist—arguably Turkey’s most respected journalist—defended his newspaper’s decision to publish the minutes, the newspaper’s owner reportedly told the editor to fire him. The editor refused, but Hasan Cemal resigned a fortnight later, on March 18, when a second article criticizing the Turkish media’s relations with business was sent back to him to be rewritten.

What makes this furor about the minutes odd is that there was actually nothing in them that could be construed as undermining the peace process—at least, not from Ankara’s perspective. As he did in court after his capture in 1999, Öcalan seems to be falling over backwards to ingratiate himself with the government. He makes very little mention of Kurdish demands. He signals his willingness to support Erdoğan’s bid to become president. He even went off on a rant about religious wars that sounded like something a less-than-bright provincial Justice and Development Party official might say if he thought the microphone was off: “Since Anatolia was Islamized, there has been a millennium of Christian anger. The Greek, the Armenian, the Jew, all of them lay claim to Anatolia…. The Armenian lobby is influential, and it wants to be on the agenda in 2015. The Israeli lobby, the Armenians and the Greeks, all of them say, ‘The more the Kurds are sidelined, the more successful we will be.’” If anybody has a right to be dismayed by this, it is the Kurds.

To be fair, Erdoğan is not the only Turkish politician with an allergy to politics. As the historian Şükrü Hanioğlu pointed out in his March 17 column in the daily Sabah, the tradition of entrusting problem solving to bureaucrats and swathing it in secrecy is common to the Ottomans and the republic. It was bureaucrats who pushed through modernization in the nineteenth century. Until recently, it was generals who were the ultimate arbiters of national policy, sitting down with elected politicians at monthly National Security Council meetings to ensure they were behaving themselves. The recent call by Turkey’s secular opposition leader for the solution of the Kurdish problem to be left to what he called “the state reason [devlet aklı] of the Turkish Republic enriched by thousands of years of cumulative experience” just shows how clueless he is: that is exactly what Erdoğan is doing.

There is nothing to say, of course, that the approach he has chosen will not lead to peace. Erdoğan is a consummate player of political institutions and a reader of the public mood. He knows better than anyone that in Turkey, as the political commentator İhsan Dağı puts it, “leaders make peace.”

Obstacles to a lasting peace

Erdoğan also knows the country is tired of the war. The trouble is that he has shown little willingness so far to make the sort of gestures that would improve Kurdish relations with central authority in the long term.

One major Kurdish demand, voiced both by Öcalan and the political party affiliated to the PKK, is for some form of decentralization of powers. In some ways, Turkey seems to be going in the opposite direction. It signed the European Charter of Local Self-Government in 1988 but has yet to enact a single article. Indeed, in June 2010, regional and district governors, bureaucrats appointed by central government, were given powers to veto decisions made by elected local assemblies. Talking of his plans to change Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system, Erdoğan has made clear his opposition to any form of devolution or federalism.

Furthermore, the notoriously vague Anti-Terror Law, which has been used to jail as many as eight thousand Kurds over the past two years, remains unchanged. At present, says Tahir Elçi, president of the Diyarbakır Bar Association, “a grocer, a housewife, a municipal worker and the head of an NGO who meet to debate the right of Kurdish education” can be prosecuted for PKK membership simply because Kurdish education is a PKK demand.

And then there is the issue of justice for the victims of state-backed terror during the 1990s. Back in 2009, as the government pushed forward with its first peace process, the trial of a group of military officers, local Kurdish notables and roving hit-men accused of dozens of murders in the region began in Diyarbakır. Locals hoped the investigation would extend to encompass the whole of JİTEM, a shadowy military police unit they (and human rights groups) believe to be responsible for hundreds of murders and disappearances across the southeast. In December 2012, the last of the suspects, a former mayor and tribal chief, was set free amid a barrage of celebratory gunfire from his supporters. “The fundamental message we are getting,” lawyer Mehmet Emin Aktar told reporters at the time, “is that the state is saying, ‘I’m done with this.’ After today, nobody should expect any light to be cast on unsolved murders. The JİTEM trial is finished. The court has in any case issued not one single arrest warrant.”

Never mind the 1990s. There now seems next to no likelihood of any light being shed on the deaths of thirty-three Kurdish villagers who died in December 2011 after Turkish jets mistook them for a PKK convoy and dropped bombs on them. Released last week after an inquiry that lasted more than a year, the report by the Parliamentary Human Rights Commission gave no inkling as to who might be responsible for the deaths. It gave no recommendations for avoiding similar occurrences in the future. It merely observed that the thirty-three men, most of them teenagers, were smugglers, and should not have been where they were.

Interviewed on March 18 by the news portal Bianet, women’s rights activist Hidayet Şefkatlı Tüksal agreed the government was not transparent enough about its intentions for the peace process but that, when it came down to it, “I want peace, no matter how it comes.” It would be petty to disagree.

But then I hear Sait, sitting on the bench that ran along the wall of his Diyarbakır funeral parlor, his voice brisk and a little hoarse from the throat cancer that was to kill him roughly a year later. “Feuds, like snakes, hibernate. For fifteen years, you hear nothing of them and then they come and bite you. To kill a feud you have to talk to everybody. Peace without consent is a snake stunned but not killed.”

Nicholas Birch

Nicholas Birch

Nicholas Birch lived in Istanbul, Turkey, from 2002 to 2009, working as a freelancer. His work—mainly from Turkey and Iraq—has appeared in a range of publications, including the Washington Post, Time Magazine, the Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement. He was a stringer for the Wall Street Journal and the Times of London until the end of 2009. He now lives in London.

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