International Spectator

The International Spectator

Volume XXXIV No. 1 (January-March 1999)


A Synopsis of the Kurdish Problem 1
By Dogu Ergil


Turkey was one of the nation states that emerged out of the debris of the Ottoman Empire that collapsed following World War I. Most of today’s problems, including the “Kurdish problem” emerged after the dissolution of the loose administration of imperial rule which allowed autonomy at the local level. Among the typical contributing factors or problem areas that led to the formation of the Kurdish problem are “Turkification”, underdevelopment, and the inability of the Kurds to develop a peaceful political movement.



Nation building, which started as a multicultural endeavour, took a decisive turn towards the “Turkification” of the population after massive population exchanges with Greece in 1924 and the Kurdish rebellions, which shook the republican regime as early as 1925. The vision of multiculturalism or the Ottoman notion of “cultural federalism” was abandoned early in the nation-building process in search of unity. A heavy dose of centralism and a hastened modernisation program implemented from above marked the character of the republican regime as “progressive centralism”.

In the absence of a progressive bourgeoisie to pick up the banner of nationalism in its mission of nation building or of a working class to struggle for social justice and equitable distribution of wealth and power, the Turkish bureaucracy took on the mission of creating a modern nation state. The bureaucratic elite’s power over the system rested on its control of the state apparatus. However, state structures dominated by the bureaucracy have several seminal shortcomings:

They are authoritarian and maintain a hierarchy in which the bureaucracy preserves its critical or strategic place/role.

The central bureaucracy or simply the ruling elite see themselves not only as the saviours of the nation but also as its vanguards and guides. This attitude gives them the sense of a historical mission to shape and lead the nation the way they see fit. In the Turkish context, although not unique, the way they wanted to see the nation was: devoid of a history that could hinder planned reforms and legitimise an alternative leadership; devoid of cultural/ethnic diversity that could be the source of political instability; and as an obedient and uniform body politic (nation) that would follow the national leadership without serious objection or resistance.

Thus, from the very beginning the seeds of alienation and of an unequal relationship between state and society were sown. The state’s insistent lust for control of the nation stifled the growth and maturation of civil society and resulted in a lack of capacity to solve conflicts. It also led to the retention of a heavy dose of violence at all levels of social relationships. Violence as a form of social control and problem solving dwarfed the rule of law and hampered the feeling of justice and equity in the society.

Failure to acknowledge the multicultural nature of the society ended up in a rather restricted definition of the nation. “Turkishness” became the criteria of citizenship and Turkish nationalism the driving force of nation building. This restrictive definition of nationhood created a sense of exclusion and marginalisation among the non-Turkish citizens of Turkey. This fact has never been realised by the Turkish elite.

Of course, this sense of exclusion or unsatisfactory representation was exacerbated by factors including poverty, unemployment, a low level of education and repression. These in turn led to massive discontent among non-Turks especially the Kurds as the largest minority as well as Turks who expressed their disagreement with the system in religious terms. In fact, the bureaucratic elite of Turkey felt more threatened by this “fundamentalist” streak than by Kurdish unrest. All of these shortcomings have to be understood, tackled and solved before any major socio-political conflict can be solved in Turkey. This means democratisation, strengthening civil society, establishing the rule of law and respect of human rights and accepting conflict resolution techniques to ease tensions between communities.



The insurmountable weight or stultifying effect of underdevelopment could not be eliminated due to the centralised and authoritarian nature of the Turkish government. As a result, the traditional/tribal nature of the Kurdish society, mainly concentrated in southeast Turkey, persists till this day. The most obvious outcomes or products of traditionalism are:

Dependence on tradition and subjugation to traditional leaders has in recent years shifted to allegiance to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which employs terroristic tactics to achieve its end of creating an independent or autonomous Kurdish political entity. This shift is understandable for the PKK tries to build ties across tribal divisions in addition to providing an exalted cause to the Kurdish youth who are in search of a dignified identity, self respect and a brighter future and who feel they have none. The PKK offers a relatively modern political-paramilitary organisation with regional and international links. For a youth, who has neither self-respect nor a cause through which to earn that self-respect, the PKK represents the only organisational structure to join and struggle for a common end. For some Kurdish youths, in their choice for a meaningful life, no matter how short, the risks involved in the PKK, the violence of its methods and the high price to pay are only secondary concerns. Before death or arrest, the rural Kurdish youths can feel as though they have found spiritual and political elevation in the activities of the PKK, although in reality they are just wasted as peons in a warfare behind which the military-strategic interests of larger regional powers loom.

Economic backwardness has hampered eastern Turkey’s integration into the rest of the country and, for that matter, the world. This impoverished and least integrated part of Turkey has to be upgraded and brought to a par with the rest of the society, while Turkey’s overall economic performance also has to be improved, simply because there can be no popular satisfaction or, for that matter, democracy, with an annual per capita income of $3000 (which is much less in the poorer areas of Turkey, especially in eastern and central Anatolia) or an average 3.6 years of schooling (which is again much lower in the southeast).

The Kurds’ inability to develop a peaceful political movement

Kurds in Turkey so far have demonstrated an incapacity to develop independent leadership and a peaceful political movement to divert Kurdish politics away from the violent ways of the PKK. There are two basic reasons for this failure:

Kurds must not be satisfied with merely ethnic politics/rights or concessions that will start and end with ethnic recognition that is not enough. They must contribute and think of contributing to the development and globalisation of the countries of which they are citizens. They must struggle to democratise Iran, Iraq and Syria and work together to bring Turkey closer to membership in the EU, whose standards will be beneficial to all citizens, Turks and Kurds and others alike.

Dogu Ergil is Professor of Political Science, University of Ankara, and Director of TOSAV, the Foundation for the Research of Social Conflicts, Ankara.



Note 1. This article was prepared as part of a report for the Ethnobarometer Project, directed by the Italian Council for Social Sciences (CSS), Rome, and the Centre for European Migration and Ethnic Studies (CEMES), London. Back