At the funeral of slain Kurdish human rights lawyer Tahir Elci on Nov. 28, the co-chair of Turkey’s Kurdish-dominated Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtas, decried hostility against Kurds in the country, charging that millions gloated over Elci’s killing and the government was apathetic. In other words, the HDP leader denounced not only the government but also ordinary Turks who remain indifferent to the oppressions Kurds face and even support them.
Most strikingly, Demirtas said, “The Kurdish people are well aware that what killed Tahir was not the state but the statelessness.” The remark sparked controversy on whether Demirtas meant that Elci would not have been killed if the Kurds had a state, or rebuked the Turkish state for failing to embrace and protect the Kurds as its own.
In remarks several days later, Demirtas hinted he used the expression in both senses. “The Kurds in the Middle East do not have a state. The Arabs have 22 states, but the Kurds have none. And Syria, Iraq and Turkey do not act as the states of Kurds,” he said, referring to countries with major Kurdish communities.
Demirtas had made a similar statement in December 2013, at the second anniversary of the killing of 34 young Kurds near Roboski, a village at the Iraqi border, who perished in a botched air raid intended at militants of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). “If there were a Kurdistan, the Roboski [massacre] would not have happened,” he said.
So, what should one make of the HDP leader’s reference to Kurdish statehood in times of hardship? Is it the Kurdish subconscious speaking? Could the HDP deviate from its stated objective of a “democratic autonomy” for the Kurds?
For Fehmi, a Kurd whose brother joined the PKK in 1992, Demirtas’ words came as “a bit of relief.” A resident of Yuksekova, a conflict-ridden town near the Iraqi border, he sees Demirtas’ words as a veiled warning that “if this aggressive policy continues, we will seek an independent Kurdistan.” He told Al-Monitor on condition his last name not be used, “It’s time for the HDP, the PKK and [jailed PKK leader Abdullah] Ocalan to tell us something in clear terms. If we are not going to break up from a state that treats us so brutally, is it worth paying such a big price for democratic autonomy only?”
HDP parliament members say such questions have become more frequent among their Kurdish electorate. Yet, the program steering the Kurdish people’s struggle in Turkey continues to rest on the goals of a shared homeland and a democratic republic, HDP honorary chairman Ertugrul Kurkcu told Al-Monitor. “Our movement’s program does not include a new nation-state project,” he said.
Kurkcu believes that nurturing a sense of togetherness between downtrodden Kurds and Turks is still possible. This will depend on the HDP efforts, he said. “The Kurdish people’s sentiment will change if they see a popular movement standing up to Turkey’s rulers in the impoverished streets of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. And this [prospect] is not fictitious.”
Renowned sociologist Ismail Besikci, the author of 37 books on the Kurdish question that earned him more than 17 years in jail, disagrees. “The Kurds would not have faced all those massacres and assassinations if they had a state,” he told Al-Monitor. “The Kurdish efforts to democratize Turkey are futile. The state and Turkish civic society groups are only putting the Kurds off. It is a process that strengthens the state and serves no benefit to the Kurds. If the issue is about democratizing Turkey, why are only the Kurds dying? Why is only Kurdistan being ravaged? Why are there no Turkish guerrillas in the country’s west?”
Demirtas’ grumbles over “statelessness” could be seen also as the reflection of deep Kurdish unease over the heavy-handed policies the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has pursued since July 24, when the Kurdish settlement process collapsed as Turkish jets launched airstrikes on PKK bases in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains. A de facto emergency rule has been imposed on at least 14 districts in the mainly Kurdish southeast, where the PKK is most active.
HDP lawmaker Mithat Sancar, a leading scholar on conflict resolution, says that even if the peace talks are revived, they cannot simply take up from where they left off. “The nonhostility period could be described as a period of negative peace. Examples across the world show that destruction and social polarization after a return from negative peace to conflict produce a much more staggering effect than previous periods of conflict. An impact on the next nonhostility period is inevitable. I’ve repeatedly explained this to government officials as well,” Sancar told Al-Monitor.
The toll from the clashes since July is indeed dramatic, though it varies according to sources. At least 14 districts have seen around-the-clock curfews, including Diyarbakir’s Sur district where Elci was gunned down. According to daily reports by the Turkish Human Rights Foundation, at least 67 civilians and members of the PKK’s youth branches have been killed in places under curfew. The Human Rights Association, for its part, tallies 63 summary executions, 43 unsolved killings as well as 10 civilians, 105 members of the security forces and 104 PKK militants killed in armed clashes in the southeast in the first nine months of the year.
According to pro-government media, 925 people, mostly PKK members, were killed between July 22 and Oct. 14. Some 3,600 people were detained in security operations, including 864 who were put behind bars to await trial. The pro-government media do not shy away from revealing that the death toll includes 169 civilians, among them seven children.
The figures may differ, but one thing is certain: The targeting of civilians has stoked not only fear but also a simmering anger against the state in the region.
Caglar Demirel, a HDP lawmaker for Diyarbakir, says the security crackdowns and human rights violations have fueled sentiments in favor of Kurdish independence. The lawmaker herself hit the headlines last month over an argument she had with a sergeant while a HDP team traveled to Derik to investigate rights violations after the town was placed under a curfew. The team was stopped by soldiers outside the town, and the sharp exchanges that followed were caught on camera. “Get out!” the plainclothes sergeant shouted at Demirel, as the lawmakers argued they had judicial immunity and cannot be barred from entering the town. “You get out!” Demirel shouted back. “This is my homeland. You are the one to get out, not me!”
In remarks to Al-Monitor, Demirel said state officials acted like an “occupation force” in the southeast. “If the state and the AKP government [act] as an occupation force and enforce an order of discrimination, the Kurdish people can then bring up the issue of breaking up at one point. We are not there yet, but we are going through the final stages,” she said.
Both Kurkcu’s and Demirel’s remarks boil down to one message: Turkey must choose between perpetuating the conflict and building a new democratic partnership with the Kurds, who are not without options.
Another HDP parliament member, Ferhat Encu, who lost his younger brother and 10 other relatives in the Roboski massacre, sounded more pessimistic. He said his hopes of reconciliation had greatly waned despite the popular Kurdish support for the HDP’s project to open up to the whole of Turkey. For him, however, the prospect of Kurdish statehood is as distant as the prospect of a democratic Turkey respecting Kurdish rights. “An [independent] Kurdistan and a democratic Turkey both appear hard to achieve,” Encu told Al-Monitor. “Not only the state but Turkish society too needs to change and empathize with the Kurds. Many Kurds who fail to see this empathy are saying we should break up.”
Given that government officials keep pledging an unrelenting security crackdown in the southeast, “democratic Turkey” remains an unrealistic prospect for Turkey’s Kurds in the near future. Whether they come to see independence as a more realistic option in light of developments in Iraqi Kurdistan and Rojava (the term Kurds use to refer to western Kurdistan in Syria) will again depend on how the AKP government and the state treat them.