How did Turkey’s Kurds view the protests that recently engulfed most of its western cities? This was the question I had in mind when I briefly visited the country’s Kurdish southeast in June. The prevailing mood I encountered was a far cry from the jubilant and self-assured atmosphere back in Taksim Square, still occupied by demonstrators at the time.
Erupting at a rare moment of optimism surrounding the negotiations for a permanent settlement between the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants, the protests in the country’s west had puzzled people in the east and led many to worry about their impact on the nascent peace process. Echoing the logic of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — a divisive figure in the southeast, as in the rest of the country — several Kurdish friends suggested that "a button" had been pushed to derail the talks.
The skepticism that often gives credence to conspiracy theories in this geography is understandable: over the course of the brutal three-decade conflict, Kurds have seen their hopes crushed repeatedly as cease-fires were sabotaged by "deep elements" within the Turkish state or the PKK. Such suspicions are stoked by images of flag-waving Turkish nationalists at the protests, which evoke harrowing memories of the military-led repression during the 1980s and 1990s.
Yet, the protests also offered unusual messages that challenged this narrative, adding to the overall sense of puzzlement. For one, among the diverse mix of demonstrators, there were also Kurds donning banners of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and even PKK flags and portraits of its incarcerated leader, Abdullah Ocalan. A popular BDP lawmaker, Sirri Sureyya Onder, emerged as a symbol of resistance by throwing himself in front of demolition machines at Gezi Park.
And there was something undeniably familiar in the story of a people demanding their rights, only to be suppressed by the state and disregarded by mainstream media. The empathy was mutual: shocked by the treatment they were subjected to for the first time, many middle-class Turks publicly expressed regret for having ignored the plight of their "Kurdish siblings." For some Kurds, who remain deeply wounded by this long-term ignorance, such messages were too little too late. Yet, others saw in them a welcome, if belated, awakening.
Reflecting these clashing sentiments, Kurdish politicians attempted to strike a careful balance early on in the protests. While criticizing the government for its heavy-handed response, they shied away from statements that could put negotiations in jeopardy. But as the standoff continued and AKP officials reverted to an aggressively nationalistic rhetoric to galvanize their supporters — referring to the demonstrators as "terrorists," Kurdish flags as "rags" and Ocalan as the "terrorist chief" — this balance has become harder to maintain.
Government officials claimed that only a fraction of Kurdish militants had withdrawn to their base in northern Iraq, refuting PKK reports that withdrawal was nearly complete. Kurdish leaders have criticized the government for intensifying the construction of heavily fortified garrisons in the region since the withdrawal began. A protest against one of these constructions in Lice, a district of Diyarbakir, turned deadly on June 29, when soldiers opened fire on demonstrators. Two other cases of armed confrontation between security forces and militants in the mainly Alevi Kurdish province of Dersim have gone under-reported.
Thankfully for now, having invested heavily in the process, neither side seems willing to let it collapse. That would have disastrous consequences on the entire country, plunging it back into a vicious cycle of violence and polarization. But blaming the latest downturn on Gezi Park protests would be missing the crucial lessons and the opportunity that the events offer to those who wish to see a peaceful, democratic end to Turkey’s most intractable conflict.
The government took a bold step by jump-starting talks with the PKK in January, after 18 months of intense fighting and militaristic rhetoric. The move was also highly pragmatic, as AKP strategists saw in a negotiated settlement a chance to safeguard Turkey’s volatile southeastern borders, expand its clout into Syria, Iraq and Iran — all home to significant Kurdish minorities — and win over Kurdish parliamentary support for a constitutional change that would introduce the "super-presidency" Erdogan has long been dreaming of.
Furthermore, in a bid to overcome ethnic divisions, the government has emphasized Islam as a unifying force between the two peoples. The promotion of Islam — more specifically Sunni Islam, which is the majority sect in Turkey including among Kurds — as a common national identity comes as part of Erdogan’s vision to forge a more religious society. It also falls in line with the post-"Arab Spring" geopolitical fault line that runs along the Sunni-Shiite divide, and the AKP’s ambition to become the "order setting agent" in a region where rising Sunni Islamist movements look up to it as a model.
In three chaotic weeks, the Gezi protests have exposed the shortcomings of this strategy. Essentially, the demonstrations were a reaction to Erdogan’s single-minded drive to monopolize power to redesign Turkey’s social and urban landscape in an image that combines neoliberalism with religious conservatism and pursue a hubristic foreign policy that appears increasingly sectarian. In other words, as the government endeavored to unite conservative Sunnis both at home and abroad, it has alienated non-pious Sunnis, Alevis — both Kurdish and Turkish — as well as many democratic-minded citizens concerned about the prime minister’s patriarchal and majoritarian impulses.
As things stand, the government faces two options: it can continue down the path it has taken since the beginning of the demonstrations, try to suppress the protesters and dismiss their grievances, while pressing on with the Kurdish process and plans to introduce a presidential system. Almost certainly, this path would further entrench Turkey’s existing polarizations, add to its tensions and increase the pressure on its political actors, turning the term "peace process" into an oxymoron.
Alternatively, it can recognize that the causes of Gezi Park protests and the plight of the Kurds are intimately connected, and that one cannot be resolved without understanding and attending to the other. This would necessitate a new political language that does not seek to unite some groups by alienating others — a language that the protesters also need to endorse vis-a-vis AKP supporters.
Emphasizing this common bond, BDP parliamentarian Gultan Kisanak recently stated, “Kurds cannot have democracy while Turks are being beaten up, and Turks cannot have democracy while Kurds are being beaten up.” Indeed, for the first time in Turkey’s modern history, both the west and the east of the country are demanding the same things at the same time: a respite from the suffocating state patriarchy, respect for the rule of law, cultural rights and lifestyle choices, protection of civil liberties and a democratic arrangement that safeguards and gives minorities their voice, while allowing the majority to govern.
And for the first time, a popularly elected government, whose pious supporters also suffered from chauvinism and discrimination in the recent past, has the chance to cater to these demands by facilitating societal reconciliation and leading the way for a new constitution that re-establishes Turkey as a pluralistic democracy with strong checks and balances. Only this would create the strong and self-confident Turkey that Erdogan envisions, and which can inspire both the tired democracies of the West and the nascent democracies of the Middle East. Ironically, his limitless ambition now stands as a formidable obstacle before this vision.
Karabekir Akkoyunlu is a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics, where he researches political change in Turkey and Iran and teaches classes on democratization and Middle East politics. His latest work is The Western Condition: Turkey, the US and the EU in the New Middle East, a detailed analysis of the last decade of Turkish foreign policy and its immediate prospects, co-authored with Kalypso Nicolaïdis and Kerem Öktem. On Twitter: @ulu_manitu