The intensification of the Kurdish conflict

By Per Persson (for Safe Democracy)

Per Persson writes on how the Kurdish conflict presents a major obstacle to Turkey‘s democratization process and subsequent admittance into the EU. Due to the War in Iraq and regional security concerns, the fighting between Kurdish activists and Turkish military has intensified in recent years. Yet, in Persson‘s opinion, it is the process of democratization, and not the ends of joining the EU, that matters most to Turkey‘s future. Even if Turkey decides against membership in the EU, the process of fighting its tradition of intolerance and human rights abuses, and strengthening its democratic institutions will be greatly beneficial for the country and its minorities.

Per Persson has a B.S. in Business Administration and Political Science from Lund University in Sweden. He is a former consultant at the Swedish Trade Council in Istanbul and Madrid.

SINCE THE OPENING OF TALKS IN 2004 BETWEEN TURKEY AND THE EUROPEAN UNION, Turkey has taken several important steps towards becoming a modern and liberal democracy. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, profound structural reforms in Turkey have quickened their pace; yet Turkey still has a long way to go to become a modern democracy by western standards.

Apart from questions on how to handle the delicate situation with Cyprus, one of the largest obstacles to Turkey’s democratization process is its relationship with its large Kurdish minority. The Kurdish conflict will present itself as one of the major stumbling blocks in Turkey’s quest to become a member of the European community.

Turkey has a history of human rights abuses and intolerance of other cultural identities, incompatible with the liberal notion of democracy promoted by the EU. And despite the arrest of the leader of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), General Ocalan in 1999, the 30-year-old Kurdish conflict has intensified in recent years.

The War in Iraq provides one of the explanations for the worsening of the conflict. With the fall of centralized power, Iraq has split into several autonomous regions, giving the oil-rich Kurdish controlled region, based around the capital of Kirkutsk, a great deal of sovereignty. Kurds in Iran, Syria and Turkey, jealous at the development in Iraq, are now demanding independence for themselves.

Thus, in recent months, the Turkish military has responded brutally to Kurdish demands for self-government, as the fighting against Kurdish activists increases.

The Kurdish movement for self-determination has also become a question of regional security. Neither Turkey, nor Syria nor Iran have any intention of granting more autonomy to their respective Kurdish minorities. Troubled at the autonomy of Kurds in Iraq, the policy throughout the region has been to squash the rebellion before it gets started.

Confronted with human rights abuses of all kinds, Turkish Kurds are extremely supportive of Turkey joining the EU. They see membership as a guarantee for the protection of their minority and human rights. Without EU-membership as an ultimate goal for the Turkish government, Kurdish activists may once again retort to extremism.

Yet, the real question to be addressed is which is more important, the ends or the means? While, the ends of joining the powerful alliance of the EU would be extremely beneficial for Turkey, it is the means that are most important to Turkey’s future. Even if Turkey decides to change its perception of the ends, and abandons its resolution to join the EU, if in the process it has strengthened its fragile democracy, and bolstered its democratic institutions, than it will have achieved a major success. It is the process of becoming a fully-fledged democracy, which matters most, not the result of entering into the EU.

For all of us, Kurds as well as non Kurds, who desire a democratic Turkey by Western standards, the open and honest dialogue between Turkey and the EU, and the continuation of the democratic process, give substantial reason to hope.

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