By stigmatising Kurds, Erdogan’s AKP has destroyed hopes for long-term peace

The long-term effects of the government’s stigmatising of Kurds will be to erase the prospect of peace for at least another two decades.
Sunday 21/01/2018
Old grudges. A demonstrator holds a placard reading “Turkey terrorist!” during a demonstration in Paris, on January 6. (AFP)

Not too long ago, Turks and Kurds imagined a peaceful, prosperous future together. In the decade starting 2003, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) had done more to permit the free expression of Kurdish identity than any other Turkish government. It had allowed the opening of Kurdish cultural centres and schools. It allowed Kurdish-language broadcasting. In so doing, the AKP government began to chip away at the status hard-line Kurdish separatist groups enjoyed among Kurds.

For most of Turkey’s Kurdish population, peace, security and job prospects were of greater importance than self-governance, at least in the short term.

Then, Ankara did something unimaginable: It sought to negotiate peace with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK.) Those negotiations, four years ago, resulted in tens of thousands of Kurdish militants withdrawing from the mountains of south-east Turkey. Reports claim that, while accompanying her husband during a visit to Diyarbakir for talks in 2013, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s wife, Emine, donned a traditional Kurdish scarf.

To sell the peace process to the Turkish public, Turkey’s then-minister for the economy, Numan Kurtulmus, claimed the decades-long Kurdish war had cost the country $1.2 trillion. If not for the money the state had spent battling separatists, the minister said, every family in Turkey “would have had a free house and a car… or we could have added 17,000 kilometres of roads.”

Clearly, the narrative being pushed was the positive implications of ending the war.

However, after the Kurdish-rooted Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) entered parliament in June 2015, hopes for peace have gone up in flames. Hundreds of thousands have been made homeless by the Turkish military’s assaults on predominantly Kurdish towns and cities in the south-east. Kurdish leaders and mayors have been fired and imprisoned. Kurds are again being treated as outcasts in a country that is supposed to be theirs.

This is the doleful context of the January 4 announcement by Selahattin Demirtas, the jailed HDP co-chairman once referred to as “Turkey’s Obama.” He said he would not stand for re-election as party leader next month. Demirtas faces charges of leading a “terrorist organisation,” meaning he faces hundreds of years in jail if convicted.

It would be a pity if Demirtas, a centrist who has repeatedly called on the PKK to lay down arms, is forced from the political scene. With him would go the last great hopes for long-term reconciliation between the Turkish state and its 15 million Kurds. Clearly, by targeting Kurdish political leaders and civilians, the AKP has decided to forgo peace in Turkey for the next several decades.

The conflict has coloured life across Turkey for nearly 40 years. Both national and local economies in the south-east have suffered from the violence. Economists Firat Bilgel and Burhan Can Karahasan wrote in a London School of Economics blog post in September 2016: “The economic costs of separatist terrorism spread beyond the borders of eastern Turkey.”

“While according to some estimates the region could have enjoyed around 7% higher GDP per capita, Turkey as a nation could have experienced a 14% higher GDP per capita, which translates into an increase in per capita income of $1,600,” he added

From the late 1970s, tens of thousands of civilians and service personnel have lost their lives in the conflict. Atrocities are etched into the collective memories of families on both sides. This has led to a simmering resentment, one that burns within people from eastern Thrace to Hakkari in the far south-east.

For the Kurds, recent developments have been particularly dispiriting. At the height of 2013’s peace negotiations, the Kurds had been weighing the pros and cons of distancing themselves from the separatist movement and the violence it engendered. Now, their trust in Ankara has evaporated.

The long-term effects of the government’s stigmatising of Kurds will be to erase the prospect of peace for at least another two decades. Young Kurds are growing up with a hatred for the state that will colour their and their children’s thoughts and relations with the authorities. It did not have to be this way.