Clashes between the Turkish government and the Kurdish insurgent group PKK have killed more than 150 people since Turkey's mid-June elections, and this new cycle of tension and violence shows signs of spiraling out of control. For many, the current climate recalls the worst stages of the Kurdish insurgency in the 1980s and 90s, which eventually claimed more than 30,000 lives.
Underpinning this sudden bloodshed are escalations of force and rhetoric on both sides, even as the prospect of a new Turkish constitution raises questions about the place of Turkish Kurds and their nationalist leadership within the Turkish state. The Turkish government has taken a tougher line against the Turkish Kurd insurgents of the PKK, while the Turkish PKK has resurrected tactics of kidnapping and killing civilians and off-duty Turkish officers and policemen. A pro-PKK faction has also resumed bombing tourist resorts and cities.
The current escalation ends a protracted period of relative calm and hope of a new social and political contract between the Turkish state and its fifteen percent Kurdish community. Broad swathes of Southeastern Turkey, once no-go zones where Kurdish insurgents clashed weekly with state forces, have undergone extraordinary normalization and economic growth over the past ten years.
Moreover, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), has implemented several small reforms to create a parallel "normalization" of Kurdish culture in Turkey. The new 24-hour Kurdish television and legalizing the use of Kurdish language in political campaigns may seem a small step on the road to full universal rights for Turkish Kurds, but these reforms are vital components of an influential yet incomplete effort to win over the Kurdish population.
The PKK has also evolved over the past two decades, with its leadership abandoning the goal of an independent sovereign Kurdistan in favor of what they call "democratic autonomy". However their demands -- mother language education, an end to all legal ethnic discrimination, and decentralization that would lend greater power to municipalities in Kurdish areas -- are sometimes couched in vague and ambivalent language that seems separatist to western Turkish public opinion. Kurds themselves are split roughly equally between support for the Turkish Kurd nationalist party, which shares many of these goals with the leftist PKK, and support for the more conservative, religious-minded, pro-business Justice and Development Party.
Both the Turkish PKK and the Turkish state should desist from violence, and both should temper their rhetoric in order to avoid further escalation. The Turkish government must take immediate steps to end formalized discrimination against Kurds, including jump-starting the process of constitutional reform. Now that the legal Turkish Kurd nationalist party has agreed to take up 30 of the seats it won in the June elections, the ruling party must engage them in their reform efforts. The hard-line Kurdish leadership has already run into considerable Kurdish criticism for its attacks of the past three month, but a settlement can only be reached when reasonable Kurdish claims for equality are recognized, and the program of Kurdish "normalization" revitalized.
I spoke with Hugh Pope, Crisis Group's Project Director for Turkey and Cyprus. He is based in Istanbul. You can listen to our conversation below.
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