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Turkey-Kurdish Peace Could Be Victim of Istanbul Showdown

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hard-line approach in dealing with the Gezi Park demonstrators could endanger the Turkey-Kurdish peace process.
Protesters run as riot police fire teargas during a protest at Taksim Square in Istanbul June 11, 2013. Turkish riot police fired volleys of teargas canisters into Istanbul's Taksim Square, centre of protests against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, driving thousands into narrow side streets, witnesses said.    REUTERS/Osman Orsal (TURKEY - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS) - RTX10K5P

On June 11 before noon, as I sat down at my desk to write this article, a few hundred meters away from my residence the police launched an operation to dismantle scores of barricades preventing entry of vehicles to Taksim Square and to remove the banners and placards on the defunct opera building and the Ataturk statute in the square.

Those barricades were put up by Gezi Park protesters after June 1 when the police evacuated Taksim Square.

Police forces, which had been an integral part of Taksim Square until May 31, have returned to Turkey’s social center and are working on restoring the AKP government’s authority over the square.

As police operations continued to disperse the crowds at Taksim and Gezi Park, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was getting ready to call his own crowds into the streets as a response to the mass protests targeting him since June 1. On June 16, Erdogan will stage a giant show of force by hundreds of thousands of his supporters at the seashore Kazlicesme district of Istanbul, just outside the Byzantine city walls.

Whether Turkey will proceed along the road to a widely based democracy or, instead of stability, head toward authoritarianism that will certainly bring about polarization and instability, will in large part depend on Erdogan’s attitude. For the time being, indications are for the latter option to prevail. Erdogan’s choices will also seriously affect the peace process with the Kurds.

The relationship between the Gezi Park resistance and peace process goes beyond any “butterfly effect.” There is direct interaction between these two issues.

The prime minister appears to be not willing to understand that his oppressive, polarizing and freedom-restricting policies led to the social explosion of May 31. If such a prime minister is to respond to the resistance by further restricting freedoms, more shackling of the media and stiffer oppression, this will inevitably affect negatively the peace process with the Kurds.

As PKK’s armed units are withdrawing from Turkey, the Kurdish movement is expecting the government to respond with “confidence building measures,’’ in short, democratization. That is, freedom of  press and expression, freedom to assemble and demonstrate, and ending long and arbitrary detentions.

In addition, they are expecting the release of thousands of Kurds detained on charges of membership in illegal KCK [Union of Kurdish Communities] although most of them were elected officials or activists of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party [BDP].

Lowering the 10% vote threshold in elections, which doesn’t exist in any democracy in the world, is among the confidence building measures Kurds want.

Turkey, if instead of democratizing, squanders what already exists, the process with the Kurds won’t work.

Gezi Park resistance must have demonstrated by now that fighting with one segment of the population while making peace with the Kurds and restricting their freedoms will mean the crumbling of social peace.

Provinces with Kurdish majority populations are calm today. Since they have made their peace pact with Erdogan and it is Erdogan who is their interlocutor in the government and the state, the Kurdish movement might not wish to see him forced out of office for the sake of the peace process.

But none of this means that the Kurds were excluded from Gezi Park events. The Kurds had a prominent place in Gezi Park resistance. They are as aware as many other groups that took part in the resistance that their future existence depends on further democratization.

Selahattin Demirtas, the co-chair of the BDP, who in the delegation that on June 7 visited PKK’s founding leader Abdullah Ocalan in the Imrali Island prison where he is serving life sentence, conveyed Ocalan’s message on the Gezi Park resistance to the public: ”I found the resistance meaningful and I salute it. Certainly this attitude has created a new political breaking point. Nobody should allow neo-nationalist and coup-plotting quarters to exploit them. Turkey’s democratic, revolutionary patriotic and progressive quarters should not allow their movement to go under the control [of neo-nationalists and coup plotters].” 

Kurds participated in the massive June 9 protests at Taksim Square with Ocalan flags in their hands. Neo-nationalist Turks not far away protested Ocalan, bearing flags with “Apo out!” slogans.

But there was no similar tension at Gezi Park, where the entire gamut of political ideologies and groups from the smallest to the largest, with the exception of main opposition CHP, who have grievances against Erdogan coexisted without any troubles in their tents adorned with their flags and banners. Among them were the Kurds, Kemalists, plenty of leftist and socialist groups, anarchists, environmentalists, feminists and anti-capitalist Muslims.

The Ocalan flag was fluttering above the BDP tent at Gezi Park.

If the peace process with the Kurds had not started, there wouldn’t be such large participation at the Gezi Park resistance. It is possible to claim that the secular Turks living in the west of the country have benefited considerably from the Kurdish experience in civil disobedience.

This is how Demirtas interpreted the situation in a speech he delivered at this party’s Tunceli Provincial Congress: ‘’Solution process affected the popular movement. Psychological and sociological ambiance created by the onset of the negotiation process has formed the foundation of the popular movement in Turkey. Look, when that war ended, the reaction, the anger of the people has begun to flow out to the streets.” 

It is impossible not to agree with Demirtas. But if Erdogan responds to the Gezi protests not through democracy but with oppression and more authoritarianism, its effects will be truly negative on the peace process.  Degeneration of the peace process will above all upend Erdogan’s calculations and expectations.

Which way Turkey will choose from the duality of peace and democracy on one side and strife and authoritarianism on the other depends on the prime minister’s application of his rational thought and decision-making faculties. 

Kadri Gürsel is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse and has written a column for the Turkish daily Milliyet since 2007. He focuses primarily on Turkish foreign policy, international affairs and Turkey’s Kurdish question, as well as Turkey’s evolving political Islam.

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