Who are the Kurds?
The Kurds are a population belonging to the indo-european ethnolinguistic stock, and more specifically to the Iranian one. Their language, beacuse of historical reasons and geographic discontinuity, has developed in several branches, of which the most widespread are: Zaza (spoken mostly in Central-Eastern Turkey), Kurmanji (South Eastern Turkey, North-Eastern Syria and North-Western Iraq) and Sorani (North-Eastern Iraq and North-Western Iran).
The Kurds currently inhabit the territories of 4 different national states: Turkey (15 milions, 20% of total Turkish population), Iran (5 milions, 7% of total Iranian population), Iraq (5 milions, 17% of total Iraq’s population), Syria (1.5 milions, 8% of total Syrian population). Adding to this an esteemed number of 2 milions Kurdish people living in other countries (Europe, Usa, Caucasus and Israel), the total number of 28 milion Kurds is obtained, making of them the largest population in the world lacking a national state.
Why are the Kurds lacking a national state?
Until the end of the First World War (1918), the Kurds have been living in territories belonging to both the Ottoman and Persian empire. These empires were not putting in force any centralizing policy, thus allowing lots of administrative freedom specially to the peoples living in the farthest regions of the empire, as it was the case of Kurds. The central Persian and Ottoman powers used to make some deals with feudal leaders, in order to keep them faithful, assuring some tax income and controlling any possible revolt.
However, after 1918 and the end of Ottoman and Persian empires, the Kurds started to mobilize in order to achieve the right to their own national state. This dream seems shortly to become true, as the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, used by the winner powers to redefine the borders of Ottoman empire territories, announces the constitution of a Kurdish autonomous national state, the exact borders of which will be drawn by a special commission of the Society of Nations.
But soon after the completion of this treaty, the former army general Mustafa Kemal (later to be known as Atatürk) fosters an amazing movement of national liberation in Turkey, which in a couple of years forces the European powers to ratify a new Treaty in Lausanne, allowing to the newly founded Republic of Turkey a much larger amount of territories, and deleting any possible reference to a Kurdish state.
In the following years, with the definition of Iraq, Iran and Syria’s borders, the kurdish population finds itself divided within these four national states. All of them, beacuse of their (although different) national policies and ideologies have always hindered as much as possible any form of autonomy and granting of cultural rights to their Kurdish populations.
How have the Kurds reacted to such a denial of their identity and culture?
Since the 20’s, several uprisings and rebellions have occurred in the kurdish territories, all of them aimed to oppose the central state administrations by claiming a larger autonomy.
The kingdom of Kurdistan (1922-1924) based around the area of Suleymaniye in Nord Iraq, the
Ararat Republic (1924-1927) in the East of Turkey, the revolt of Dersim (a city now known as Tunceli, in the East of Turkey) bloodily repressed by Turkish army in 1937-38, the Mahabad Republic (1946-47) in North-Eastern Iran, the Red Kurdistan republic of 1992 in Southern caucasus: all of these are expressions of the strong will of Kurdish people to resist to policies of assimilation and denial, by achieving a national autonomy.
Apart from these short and unsuccessful experiences of self-government, the Kurds have produced several political parties and movements, whose nature and activities have also been affecte by the different national contexts. The ones who until now have been playing a major role in Kurdish recent history are: in Iraq the PDK (Democratic Party of Kurdistan) founded in 1946 by Mustafa Barzani and nowadays led by his son Massoud, and the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) founded in 1975 and still led in present days by Jalal Talabani. In Iran the PDK-I (Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan), founded in 1945 in Mahabad and led in present days by Mustafa Hijri. In Turkey the PKK (Workers’ Party of Kurdistan), founded in 1978 by Abdullah Ocalan, who is still considered its leader although he’s in prison since 1999. In Syria, because of the strong state repression, the relatively smaller numbers, and the morphology of the territory, the Kurdish movement has been forced to use more discontinuous and precarious forms of mobilitation.
Which have been the results of these resistance movements? What’s the situation in present times?
The most concrete results are certainly the ones achieved in Iraq. Here since the 60’s, in the northern provinces of Arbil (Kurdish name: Hewler), Suleymaniye and Dahuk, the PDK started to get more and more strong and established within the Kurdish population, forcing Saddam Hussein in the 70’s to allow to the region a special status of autonomy. But these changes in the government’s approach were just on the surface: during the 80’s war with Iran, in fact, the Kurdish population found itself under permanent attacks by the central government of Baghdad, including the use of chemical weapons. After 1991’s attack of USA against Iraq, in order to avoid other massacres against Kurdish population, the UN ordered to USA and UK armies to grant the protection of Kurdish region. It was this special political contingency to make possible, at the end of the war, the formal and official establishment of a Kurdish Regional Government in Northern Iraq, still standing today (last elections have been held on 25th july 2009).
In Iran, the repression of central government has increased with the establishment of the Islamic Republic by Khomeini in 1979. Although the Kurds had been actively involved in the political movements leading to the overturning of the Shah, they were denied any participation in the constitution of the new republic. It should be remembered that while Kurds are mostly Sunni muslims, most of Iranian population are Shia, that is also the fundamental ideology on which the Iranian Islamic Republic was founded. The Shia establishment thus immediately marginalized the Kurds, declaring on them a fatwa, stating that the concept itself of ethnic minority is contrary to Islamic rules, and accusing them of being used by foreign powers to destabilize the unity of the new regime. During the last 3 decades few or nothing has changed for the Kurdish population of Iran, if not for some small opening during Khatami’s presidency.
In Syria, as well, few or nothing has been achieved by Kurdish movements in terms of cultural rights or administrative autonomy, because of the reasons mentioned before.
What about Turkey?
Turkey is probably the country where the dialectic relation between kurdish movement and central government has been producing the most inteersting results. Since its foundation in 1923, the Republic of Turkey has been basing its national (and nationalistic) policy on the complete denial of even the existence of a Kurdish population in its territory. All the several insurrections taking place during the 20s and 30 were bloodily repressed, the Kurds where defined (until the 80s) as “Mountain Turks”, and the Kurdish region had to be called (this is valid still today) with the periphrasis of “South-Eastern Turkey”, being the word “Kurdistan” a taboo term. In such a context, it was impossible to create a party or a political movement openly claiming rights for the Kurdish people. Even after the end of 60s, when several leftist groups inspired by Marxist ideology started to sprout, also with the participation of many Kurds, the Kurdish issue was rarely mentioned, or only in an indirect way.
It was with the foundation of PKK (Workers’ Party of Kurdistan) in1978 that everything started to change: the charisma and strategic ability of its leaders (first of all Abdullah Ocalan, born in 1948) allowed it in few years to gain a wide support within the Kurdish population more and more oppressed by Turkish government. Although the 1980 military coup in Turkey was also aimed to destroy this growing movement with thousands of arrests and severe convictions, most of its leaders were able to find relief in Syria, where until 1998 they had the possibility to structure and organize the party and its guerrilla operations with the protection and complicity of Syrian government.
Why has the PKK been so important for the Kurdish movement of Turkey?
The PKK has been founded in 1978 with the aim of using armed struggle and guerrilla activities on order to force the Turkish governemnt to allow an indipendent status to the Kurdish region (but since 1999 PKK requests only a special autonomous and administrative status to the region, without affecting the territorial integrity of Turkey). The ideology of PKK is based on Marxist and socialist values of social justice and economic solidarity, as much as laicism and women’s empowerment (the share of women guerrillas within the PKK is very high). In the context of a centuries-long tradition of feudalism, huge land-owners and patriarchal relations, the PKK is thus advancing radical proposals of innovation and modernization of Kurdish society. Hence the importance of one of PKK’s most important slogans: “our hardest struggle is the struggle against ourselves”.
After 6 years of training and organization, including the 2 years of terrible repressions by the Turkish military state between 1980-82, the PKK officially declares its war to the Turkish state on the 15th of August of 1984, with a combined attack to the military stations of Eruh and Semdinli, in the South-East of Turkey. In the following years the escalation of violence was inexorable, both from PKK (who apart from attacking military targets, also attacked some touristic resorts in order to affect Turkish economy, and targeted civilians accused of being traitors or used as assimilation tools by the Turkish government, for example school teachers in the Kurdish region), and from the Turkish state, who established in the Kurdish region tens of thousands of soldiers, who apart from fighting the guerrillas also attacked civilian population (between the end of 80’s and end of 90’s more than 3.000 Kurdish villages have been violently evacuated from their whole population and then destroyed, in order to avoid the PKK members to find support from them). Moreover, hundreds of killings of politicians, journalists, activists and other supporters of the Kurdish movement were registered in those years, in a general frame of impunity. It should also be remembered that since January 1995 the PKK has openly declared to respect the Geneve conventions of 1949 and 1977 on the treatment of prisoners of war, the protection of victims of war, and the conduct of hostilities on the battlefield (specially for what concerns the use on non conventional weapons).
In 1993, because of a favourable international (the end of Gulf War and the establishment of a stable Kurdish Regional government in Iraq) and national conjuncture (the entrance in the Turkish parliament of 18 Kurdish parliamentarians, and the Turkish presidency of Turgut Ozal, apparently sensitive to the Kurdish issue), the PKK declares a unilateral ceasefire, in order to give way to a possible peace process. But a few days later (17th of April) Turgut Ozal suddenly dies, and the strong army establishment decides to exploit the opportunity for launching an even stronger attack against the PKK.
The general condition of violence in the Kurdish regions of Turkey thus persists until the end of 90’s. However, despite of the thousands of victims and the widespread pain, the main effect of these many years of open conflict has been to make the Kurdish population of Turkey more and more acknowledged about their missing rights and the condition of oppression they live in. Moreover, it has brought PKK to be recognized as the only legitimate defender and representative of Kurdish people in Turkey. Also because every time the Kurdish movement has tried to use the legal tools of politics and parliamentary institutions during the 90’s, all their attempts have been made void by the Turkish judiciary power, who shut down the party and arrested their members with the accuse of threatening the unity of the state or supporting a terrorist organization.
What happened after the arrest of Ocalan in February 1999?
In 1998, because of their improved diplomatic relations (due to the committment of former Prime Minister Erbakan, who sought alliances with all main Muslim countries), Syria was asked by Turkey to immediately withdraw its support and hospitality to PKK members and bases. Thus, within few days, Ocalan was forced to leave his 18 year long general quarter and search for political asylum in other countries. However, after 4 months of wanderings (2 of which spent in Italy), Ocalan was finally captured by Turkish and USA secret services in the Greek embassy of Nairobi, Kenya. At the end of June of 1999, after one month of trial, he was condemned to death, although the sentence was soon converted to life imprisonment, to be spent in total isolation as the only convict of a maximum security prison on the island of Imrali, in the Marmara Sea.
He’s only granted some random visits with his relatives, and a weekly meeting (often cancelled or reduced) with his lawyers. In despite of all these restrictions, Ocalan has been able to maintain his role as leader of the PKK and, by extension, as the main representative of the Kurdish population of Turkey. During the years spent in prison, the esteem, affect and respect felt by Kurds for him has never faded; rather, we could almost say it has increased. Ocalan has thus made use of his unaltered hegemony to keep influencing the Kurdish debate in Turkey and the program of both PKK and Kurdish political movement. At every meeting, Ocalan usually hands in to his lawyers a letter including both the reflections on recent political events or developments, and the political thoughts he keeps on elaborating in order to innovate the political ideology of the Kurdish movement, making use of advanced tools of historical, sociological and philosophical analysis (i.e. Eric Hobsbawm, Michel Foucault, Antonio Negri, history of nationalisms, ecological theory, gender theory, …).
Hence, since 1999, the fundamental requests of PKK and, by extension, of Kurdish political movement, have been changing. Ocalan, in fact, has tried to interpret his capture as the historical opportunity for opening a peace process. Thus, in order to make easier the approaching of the parts, he declared that PKK and Kurdish political movement would not claim anymore an independent status, nor they threaten or question anymore the territorial unity of the Turkish state. What is asked is just a constitutional reform that would allow the Kurdish region to enjoy a more autonomous status, and the granting of all the legitimate cultural, linguistic and expression rights.
On the 2nd of August 1999, causing some criticism even within the PKK, Ocalan invited a delegation of some hundreds of guerrilla members to get off from the mountains and hand themselves over to the police, as a symbolic gesture of pacification. This gesture was effectively accomplished, but the only result was that all the guerrilla members were severely convicted, while from the Turkish state there was no sign of a will to open a peace dialogue with the PKK. For the Turkish state, PKK had only to be destroyed with military means.
How did the Kurdish situation in Turkey evolve during the last years?
Since 2002 the government has been firmly in the hands of the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi – Justice and Development Party) led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Although the conservative-liberal-moderate Islamic ideology of AKP is very distant from the one expressed by Kurdish political movements since the 90’s (inspired by a socialist, Marxist and laic tradition), AKP has at least played an important role by claiming the existence of a serious Kurdish problem in the country, and its intention to find a proper solution for it. Thanks to these declared good intentions and the strong attachment to religion still widespread within Kurdish population, the AKP gained lots of votes and support from the Kurds, particularly in the first years.
In 2005 the Kurdish party DTP was founded, and it has been strong enough to exist until today (August 2009), contrarily to all its predecessors, who were all forced to close after a short life because of some judiciary injunction. At the 2007 political elections, DTP has been able to bring in parliament 20 parliamentarians, despite the 10% threshold existing in Turkey (only parties gaining at least 10% of the votes at a national level are allowed access in parliament). DTP presented independent candidates in the Kurdish region electoral districts, who after gaining the right to enter parliament, unified themselves in one parliamentarian group.