International Spectator

The International Spectator

Volume XXXIV No. 1 (January-March 1999)


The Kurdish Issue in Turkey
By Mirella Galletti


With its 2 million Kurds, Istanbul is the largest “Kurdish” city. Eastern Mediterranean states — Turkey and Syria — host more than a half of the 25 million Kurds; and the shores of the northern Mediterranean are furrowed by thousands of Kurdish refugees on their way to Germany or other European countries. In the 1990s, it is no longer possible to ignore the Kurdish issue or to consider it a domestic Middle Eastern affair. The Kurdish question has crossed the Mediterranean and landed in Europe.

The Kurds are the largest single ethnic Middle Eastern group after Arabs, Turks and Iranians. 1 They speak Kurdish, an Indo-European language. Due to political divisions, Kurdish is probably the only language in the world written in three alphabets: the Arabic/Persian alphabet in Iran and Iraq, the Latin alphabet in Turkey and Syria, the Cyrillic alphabet in the former Soviet Union. Though the vast majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, many also belong to heterodox sects, such as the Alevis in Turkey. 2

Since World War I, Kurdistan has been divided among four states — Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. In each, the Kurdish communities have undergone separate and distinct historical developments and have been differently incorporated into their host societies. In Turkey and Iraq, they comprise a distinct minority second only to the Turks and the Arabs, respectively. Thus this transnational people claim their own ethnic, cultural and social identity.

In Turkey, the Kurds contributed to the War of Independence (1919-23), but in the immediate post-1923 period Kemal Atatürk rejected the Kurds’ demands for autonomy, severely crushed Kurdish revolts in the 1920s and 1930s and pursued a strategy aimed at their assimilation into the Turkish nation, using both education and military force. For decades, Turkey, whose Kurds make up to 20 percent of the country’s population, simply denied that they existed — they were “mountain Turks” — and systematically tried to destroy their Kurdishness (Kurdayetî in Kurdish, Kürtçuluk in Turkish); the Kurdish language and open expressions of Kurdish culture were forbidden. More than 50 years after his death, Atatürk’s stamp on the basic character of the state continues to cast a long shadow that few dare to challenge openly.

In spite of Turkish persecution and economic neglect, as of 1958 Kurdish intellectuals began to propagate discussion of the problem of “the East”, the euphemism used for Kurdistan. Moreover, Kurdish national sentiment was greatly inspired by the exploits of Molla Mustafa Barzani, charismatic leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in its guerrilla warfare for Kurdish autonomy in Iraq in the sixties and seventies.

At the end of the seventies, several events radically changed the Middle East and deeply influenced the national Kurdish movement: the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran (February 1979); Saddam Hussein’s rise to power in Iraq (July 1979); the military coup in Turkey (12 September 1980); Iraq’s attack on Iran (22 September 1980) inaugurating a war that was to last eight years. In the early eighties, the Kurdish guerrilla for the first time became widely active in the three states with the largest number of Kurds: Turkey, Iran and Iraq. In their attempts to deal with it, Ankara and Baghdad adopted policies that bordered on genocide with mass deportations, forced resettlement, devastation of villages, and destruction of the traditional Kurdish economy and society.


The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Kurdish issue

The Kurdish national movement in Turkey is divided into a dozen organisations, many of which are leftist, all clandestine. But the Kurdish problem erupted violently when the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) began guerrilla warfare in August 1984. The PKK still leads the insurgency and has energetically brought the Kurdish problem to the fore as one of the main domestic issues. The PKK, of Marxist origin, was founded by a group of Kurdish university students in the district of Diyarbakir in 1978 and was originally devoted to political and social revolution to destroy the tribal ties and the traditional Kurdish social structure and to the creation of an independent Kurdish state. Unlike the other Kurdish parties, the PKK represented the most marginal sections of Kurdish society and recruited lower class Kurds such as the peasants who form the majority of population. Its general secretary, Abdullah (Apo) Öcalan, is the only prominent Kurdish leader who is not from the traditional elite classes.

On the eve of the 1980 military coup in Turkey, PKK leaders left Turkey for Syria and the Syrian-controlled Beqa’ Valley where militants first trained with Palestinian fighters and later fought alongside them during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. 3 Here Öcalan consolidated the party structure and established himself as the undisputed leader, often employing brutal methods against dissenters.

In its early phase, the PKK fought not only with Kurdish aghas (tribal chieftains) who were seen as local collaborators of the Turkish government, but also with other leftist Kurdish groups to gain control of the Kurdish movement. Kurdish groups were profoundly shocked by PKK violence, particularly its massacres of whole families, but soon discovered that the state easily outdid PKK excesses. It is also possible that the PKK’s nationalism was all the more virulent because its founders sought to recreate an identity they felt they had lost. 4 Over time, it has moderated its ideology to appeal to the traditional leadership classes and has concentrated more on the Turkish government and military officials and supporters as targets. The PKK, because of the closed nature of its organisation and perhaps also because it organised different segments of society than the other movements ( workers, women, students) has been the only organisation to survive within Turkey and the wider region.

In the 1990s, the PKK has evolved from a military structure to a more political organisation, thereby certainly gaining wider support among the Kurds. This change originated in mid-1988, when Öcalan declared that independence was no longer a feasible objective, and that the organisation was in favour of the transformation of the Turkish state into a Kurdish-Turkish federation on an equal basis. 5 In March 1990, a burgeoning civil resistance called Serhildan, considered the Kurdish Intifada in which more than 100 people were killed, took place in many Kurdish cities. Unfortunately, the Turkish president, Turgut Özal, died in April 1993, at the very time when the PKK put forward its first proposal of a unilateral ceasefire. A political vacuum emerged after his death and the PKK considered it the end of its chance for dialogue with an approachable partner. On that occasion and afterwards, negotiations were rejected by Ankara, but the PKK had demonstrated that it could move toward a pragmatic solution that would allow for its integration into legal Turkish political life.

Another important indicator of a tactical change in the PKK was the founding of the Kurdish Parliament in Exile (KPE) in The Hague on 12 April 1995 as the authoritative representative of the Kurdish people. 6 Although it denies being an instrument of the PKK, other Kurdish parties have not wanted to become involved, so that its representatives are mainly PKK members or sympathisers. In a way, it may also be considered the PKK’s answer to the Kurdish Parliament elected by popular polls in the Autonomous Region of Iraqi Kurdistan in May 1992, and an attempt to obtain legitimacy for its struggle and to gain the same kind of international recognition reserved until that time for the Iraqi Kurds.

The popularity of the PKK, in spite of its sometimes brutal violence against Kurdish civilians, is to a large extent due to the even greater brutality of the Turkish army, which has alienated a large part of the Kurdish population from the state. The PKK is perceived by Kurds as an instrument of pressure on the Turkish government that keeps the issue alive. But the PKK’s terror tactics, especially in the 1980s in the southeast of the country against “village guards” (see below) and their families, as well as various civil servants — and not only the Turkish military — enabled Ankara to label all Kurdish demands as extremist. The PKK has an estimated 20,000 full-time fighters in bases located in Lebanon, Syria, Iran and Iraq.

Since its founding, the PKK has gone through a series of tactical transformations. In order to expand its international recognition, PKK political cadres and information bureaux divisions were established in many European capitals. To increase popular support, it mitigated its atheist approach and incorporated Islam as containing a revolutionary message. As the Turkish authorities have been incapable of separating the Kurdish problem from that of the PKK, the latter has become the leading organisation among the Turkish Kurds, who feel their Kurdishness strengthened by the armed struggle and the repression of the Turkish government. The armed conflict has increased the Kurds’ awareness of their distinct ethnic identity. At this point, many moderates consider the PKK the only Kurdish representative force, even if they have reservations about some of its policies and methods.

A good example is the well known novelist Yasar Kemal. He recognises his Kurdish origin, but has always considered himself “an Anatolian writer” of Turkish expression, “the symbol of the union, friendship, peace among the peoples of this Earth”. 7 Yet the repression of the Kurds persuaded him to intervene in favour of a political solution of the Kurdish conflict; on 7 March 1997, he was convicted to one year and eight months prison for “incitement to hate” in Istanbul.


Turkish government policy

According to the various Turkish governments, there can be no political solution to the Kurdish problem. Priority has been given to a military solution. Three main strategies have been pursued: first, the establishment of “village guards” in 1985; second, the introduction of the “state of emergency” in eight Kurdish provinces in 1987; third, the enactment of the Law to Fight Terrorism in 1991.

The village guards (Köy Koruculari) system. This strategy, based on military cooperation with the local population, consisted of arming local farmers (approximately 62,000 in 1998) and paying them a salary (approximately $100 a month) to protect their village. They, in turn, became one of the principal targets of the Kurdish fighters.

The state of emergency. Introduced in July 1987 in eight provinces, 8 the measure included nomination of a “super governor” to coordinate activities against the guerrillas, who has extraordinary powers for suspending civil rights and liberties, closing down printing presses, banning publications, and forcibly resettling the population, both temporarily and definitively. In May 1990, these powers were extended (Decree 424) and Turkey notified the Council of Europe that this decree might result in its derogation of the European Convention on Human Rights. 9

The Law to Fight Terrorism. Although it annulled the 1983 Bylaw 2932 which prohibited the use of the Kurdish language, Article 8 of this law specifically makes mention of the indivisible unity of the Turkish state, thereby offering a new and powerful instrument for repression. Its introduction was the beginning of a sinister phase in which those viewed as enemies of the state were eliminated through extrajudicial executions or disappearance and several retrograde measures affected the treatment of prisoners arrested for offences within the law’s very broad definition of terrorism.

Ankara has continued to devote enormous human and material resources to this conflict which costs approximately 3 percent of Turkey’s GNP ($12.5 billion in 1994 10 ) and for which military expenses absorb 45 percent of the national budget and some 250,000 troops and other security forces. The brutal conflict has led to the destruction of 3,428 villages and hamlets, and has produced 30,040 victims and an internal flow of more than 3 million refugees.11 The target is to destroy the traditional Kurdish economy based on agriculture and cattle-breeding so as to facilitate evacuation of the region. The army pursues a systematic policy of threatening villages to eliminate the efforts of Kurdish nationalists. Arbitrary arrests, torture and retaliation against relatives of suspected nationalists are daily occurrences.

The official attitude to the Kurdish problem has been to consider it one of underdevelopment in the region. Accordingly, the Southeastern Anatolia Project (Güneydogu Anadolu Projesi, GAP) involving hydroelectric and irrigation projects on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers was accelerated, but 1994 incentives to bring in funds for economic improvements have failed because of the lack of investors.

The social costs of the war in Kurdistan are increasing substantially: drug and alcohol abuse among the troops, violence in the society, a general deterioration of human rights throughout Turkey, missing persons, murders by death squads. Police and civilian authorities have been implicated in the drugs and arms trade. 12 Since 1997, the premises of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey have been closed in the Kurdish region.

The percentage of the Kurds living in Kurdistan has decreased over the past few decades, even if the population has grown in absolute numbers because of the high birth rates, but it may now constitute only around two thirds of all Kurds, or even less. The Kurdish population distribution has been altered further by the depopulation of all the border regions and the resettlement of rural Kurds to more ethnically mixed parts of the country. Labour migration, flight from the war and forced village evacuations have caused at least three million Kurds to move to the large cities of Kurdistan (Diyarbakir, for example, has grown from 350,000 to 1.5 million inhabitants), to other parts of Turkey or abroad. More than a million Kurds live in both Ankara and Izmir, the second and third largest cities in Turkey. 13


Other political parties

Socialist Party of Turkish Kurdistan (SPTK). Of the dozen or so other political organisations representing the Kurds, the most important and active, after the PKK, is the Socialist Party of Turkish Kurdistan (SPTK), a moderate and clandestine formation. Founded in 1974, it mobilised both the intellectual class and the masses with a number of publications. Priority was given to federalism and maintaining the territorial integrity of Turkey. Since the military coup in 1980, it is in exile in Sweden under the leadership of Kemal Burkay, an important writer. The rivalries between the PKK and the other Turkish Kurdish parties seemed to have come to an end with the joint protocol aimed at a democratic federation in Turkey, signed by the SPTK and the PKK in Damascus on 19 March 1993, but this tactical alliance lasted only a very short time.

People’s Labour Party (HEP) and Democracy Party (DEP). The Kurds in Turkey are in a paradoxical position. While cultural repression is fiercer than in neighbouring countries, the formal attributes of democracy are more respected in Turkey. In 1990, for the first time a legal Kurdish political party, the People’s Labour Party (HEP), emerged as a serious contender on the Turkish political scene. It had been formed by a group of Kurdish MPs expelled from the Social Democratic Party (SHP) and obliged the National Assembly to become repeatedly involved in Kurdish issues.

In the 1991 elections, HEP concluded an alliance with SHP and 22 HEP deputies were elected — an unprecedented event. HEP asked for the concession of national, cultural and ethnic rights for the Kurdish people and for a federal state. It also volunteered to act as an intermediary between the PKK and Ankara to negotiate a ceasefire. But HEP was closed down by state authorities soon after on charges of separatism. In May 1993, most deputies shifted to the Democracy Party (DEP), which became the main target of Prime Minister Tansu Çiller’s campaign against “the terrorists’ representatives”. On 25 February 1994, the DEP withdrew from the local elections because of increasing intimidation and the murder of several DEP politicians. On 3 March 1994, seven DEP deputies were arrested after the parliament revoked their immunity and charged with separatist activities under Article 125 of the penal code, which carries the death penalty. They were sentenced to five to fifteen years for support of and membership in the PKK. On 16 June 1994, the DEP was banned by the Constitutional Court.

The People’s Democracy Party (HADEP). DEP’s successor, the People’s Democracy Party (HADEP) was created in May 1994, but it did not benefit from the presence of parliamentary members. In December 1995, it was able technically to participate in the general elections but was reassured that it would be unable to represent the Kurdish population in any way. Furthermore, a threshold of 10 percent of total votes had to be overcome to be able to go to parliament. Due to the short notice given for the elections, the number of unregistered voters among the 3 million displaced Kurds, and intimidation, HADEP had no chance of gaining any seats in parliament.14 Nevertheless, HADEP remains the strongest political party claiming to represent the Kurds in Turkey. The refusal of the legal Kurdish parties to criticise the PKK publicly, in part as a consequence of the fact that they share a common base of supporters,15 has enabled the Turkish authorities to depict them all as extremist.

In its zeal to crush Kurdish nationalism, Ankara has repeatedly attempted to isolate politically and destroy non-violent Kurdish movements, thereby helping to ensure PKK dominance. A tough response and the militarisation of Kurdistan have seemed to prevail, in spite of the concession of some cultural rights aimed at weakening the PKK’s grassroots support.

The New Democracy Movement (YDH). The New Democracy Movement was founded in 1995 by Cem Boyner, a former head of the Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association. It had a great impact in 1995 when it pushed for the recognition of the Kurdish problem, but fared poorly in the elections; the party was new and not consolidated and because of the 10 percent threshold many voters may have thought it better not to risk wasting their vote. It did, however, generate some debate on the Kurdish question and prepared the groundwork for the future.

The Welfare Party (Refah). A quite new and independent position is represented by the Welfare Party. Founded in 1983, the party consolidated its position in the southeast. In general, Refah and the Islamists view the Kurdish issue as a problem created by state nationalism, so that the Kurds are deliberately excluded from the Turkish republic. As ethnic divisions are artificial, a return to the unity of all under Islam would solve the nationality problem. In its strategy to attract the support of Kurds nationwide, Refah has asked for the elimination of the state of emergency. It is also against restrictions on language and would like to solve matters peacefully. In the 1995 elections, the Kurds gravitated towards the Refah because it was perceived as the most anti-system party and had well known Kurdish candidates in Istanbul. In addition, Islam has traditionally played an important role in Kurdish communities. The party distributes fuel and food in the shanty towns where much of the Kurdish vote is based.

Above all, Refah has an integrative function in Kurdistan: it is distinct enough from the Turkish national parties which are held responsible for the country’s policies in Kurdistan, but also universal enough to be considered a link between Kurdistan and the rest of Turkey. In the short period in which Necmettin Erbakan was prime minister (1996), he pursued a timid policy towards the Kurds, even though strongly controlled by Turkish President Süleyman Demirel, who impeded an indirect dialogue with the PKK. 16

Kurds occupy nearly one-third of the seats in the Turkish parliament. Yet only a handful of Kurdish deputies have been willing to speak out on the Kurdish problem. Until a few years ago, this meant running the risk of violating the constitution on the grounds of encouraging separatism. Even today, parliament has yet to undertake a debate of the Kurdish problem per se. Kurdish oriented parties such as HEP and DEP were banned in quick succession and Turkey’s major parties have acted with great caution in regard to the issue. The Kurdish problem is considered a “matter of state ” as it automatically implies Turkish nationalism and the maintenance of a centralised unitary state. There is no real revisionism on the nature of the Turkish state at the moment. On the other hand, the political fragmentation of Turkish political life has enabled the army to continue to play its role as extra-parliamentary arbiter and define Kurdish policy.


The business community

No party can contradict the principle of the indivisibility of the state, but the increased dissatisfaction among the business and bourgeois class concerning the war against the Kurds — the main drain on the economy — finally led them to speak out against the present state of affairs. In January 1997, the Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association (Türk Sanayicileri ve Isadamlari Derneg, TÜSIAD) brought out a wide-ranging report on the need to deepen the process of democratisation in Turkey. 17 In the document, the association advocated a number of measures designed to alleviate the cultural and other inequities faced by the Kurds. The well known Turkish constitutionalist, Bülent Tanör, participated in the draft which analyses the problem of the Kurdish personality in connection to Turkish and international law. Indeed, intellectuals and the business classes remain the most potent source of opposition to and influence on government policy.


Turkey and regional games

Since the second Gulf war, the Kurdish question has been high on the agenda of the world community and is central in the new international order of the Middle East, with the United Nations and the United States involved, in primis, in the fate of the Iraqi Kurds. The US supported the May 1992 elections in Iraqi Kurdistan but refused to recognise the new Kurdish parliament and Kurdish regional government of the Autonomous Region of Iraqi Kurdistan — fearing a declaration of independence — and insisted on dealing with the Kurdish leaders Mas’ud Barzani (KDP) and Jalal Talabani (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan — PUK). It considers the Kurdish region as a zone of latent pressure on Baghdad. It also feared, as did Turkey, a power vacuum that could be exploited by neighbouring powers. The Kurdish region has to be within the pro-Western orbit. This is the main turn that was given to a situation of status quo which had lasted for more than seventy years. On the international level, however, only the Kurdish parties of Iraq have been admitted as interlocutors, and not those of Iran and Turkey.

The huge influx of Iraqi Kurdish refugees escaping chemical and conventional weapons attacks in September 1988 and the one in March-April 1991 after the Gulf war forced the Turkish government to recognise the presence of the Iraqi Kurds in the Middle East and to support the creation of a de facto Kurdish-controlled zone near the Turkish-Iraqi border under the supervision of the allied forces. Ankara significantly changed its strategy in order to strengthen its relationship with the Iraqi Kurdish parties and to extend its direct control over the most relevant parts of Kurdistan (Turkey and Iraq), so as to eliminate popular support for the PKK and crush it.

Since its foundation, the PKK has successfully diversified its contacts with Turkey’s neighbouring countries and played off regional animosities against Turkey for its own interests, using such issues as the water problem with Syria, the threat of the Islamic Republic of Iran, long-standing disputes with Greece and Cyprus, and the resentment of Iraq for the Turkish position in the second Gulf war. These countries have not hesitated to play the Kurdish card against Turkey, offering sanctuaries and support to the PKK. 18 Meanwhile, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, have traditionally cooperated to keep the Kurds under control, 19 while trying to instrumentalise the Kurdish parties both against enemy states and against the Kurdish organisations in their own state in order to weaken the Kurdish movement on the whole. By way of example, during the intra-Kurdish war of October 1992, the PKK fighters refused to leave their bases in Iraqi Kurdistan and fought against the Iraqi peshmerga (Kurdish fighters) who were acting in close coordination with the Turkish army.

Moreover, the PKK is the only organisation today with a pan-Kurdish strategy: it enjoys popular support in Turkey, controls most of the Syrian Kurds, thanks to the breathing space given it by Syrian President Hafez al-Asad who, in crushing the Syrian Kurdish organisations, drove nationalists into the arms of the PKK, is trying to strengthen its influence among the Iraqi Kurds, and has some bases in Iran, with the connivance of the Islamic Republic. The PKK has become the first political-military organisation transcending regional and tribal ties capable of appealing to a wide range of Kurds residing in different parts of Turkey. 20 That is why Mas’ud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq, moderate parties of the “Great Kurdistan”, as well as Turkey and its closest allies, Israel and the United States, fear destabilisation in the region and, feeling threatened by its pan-Kurdish message, have tried to crush it. In a way it is considered a real subversive force in Kurdistan — and not only because of its Marxist background.

In recent years, Ankara has been spinning alliances and reinforcing its support to the US. These efforts culminated in Turkey’s considering the PKK vanquished in autumn 1998. Three agreements have determined the temporary expulsion of the PKK from the area:

The Israel-Turkey military agreement. The Israel-Turkey military agreement (February 1996) between the two most powerful military states in the region is considered a threat principally to Iran and Syria, and a way to encircle Syria. Israeli planes now carry out spying missions against Iran, Iraq, and Syria from bases in eastern Turkey. At the same time, pro-Israeli forces in Washington are helping Turkey combat the influence of the substantial Kurdish lobby (Kurdish separatism is Turkey’s most persistent nightmare), as well as that of the Greek and Armenian lobbies. 21

The Turkish-Syrian treaty. Israeli backing and an American green light encouraged Turkey to threaten Syria with military action in October 1998 to force it to expel Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the PKK, from Damascus and end its support for the party. At the height of the Syrian-Turkish crisis over the PKK, it was striking that Egypt and Iran rallied to Syria’s support, actively contributing to defusing the crisis with their mediation. Particularly Iran feared that the Turkish-Syrian conflict could reinforce Israel’s role in the region, weaken Turkish Islamists and become the detonator of the Kurdish crisis.

The Turkish-Syrian treaty signed in the small harbour of Ceyhan (Adana province) on 20 October 1998 provided for an immediate block to any aid to the PKK, as well as the explusion of Öcalan and his 3,000 fighters from Syria. Öcalan had to leave Syria for Moscow and later Rome in an attempt to relaunch the PKK’s political struggle.

This agreement marked the temporary failure of the PKK and can be compared to the Algiers agreement (6 March 1975) between Saddam Hussein and Shah Reza Pahlavi, which brought an end to the Kurdish Iraqi guerrilla led by Molla Mustafa Barzani with its 40,000 peshmerga. Twenty-three years later, the Kurds have again been defeated by the diplomacy of the neighbouring countries.

Reconciliation among Iraqi Kurdish parties. Ankara’s strategy was reinforced by the reconciliation, brokered in Washington by Madeleine Albright (17 September 1998), between Mas’ud Barzani’s KDP and Jalal Talabani’s PUK, the latter allied with Iran and Syria. The encounter between the two Iraqi Kurdish leaders in Washington was sharpened by the presence of PKK bases on PUK’s territory, so the American mediation had the evident intention of precluding any PUK support for Öcalan. At the beginning of November 1998, 20,000 Turkish soldiers penetrated into Iraqi Kurdistan to destroy PKK bases. This agreement was functional both to the American strategy of reinforcing its presence in northern Iraq and to the Turkish policy of maintaining the Autonomous Region of Iraqi Kurdistan as an American-Turkish Protectorate and of isolating the PKK. Thus the de facto Turkey-Israel-KDP alliance supported by Washington has caused the PKK’s abrupt expulsion from the Middle East, with the loss of decisive logistical support from Syria as well as its bases in Iraq and Syria.

Although both the PKK and the Iraqi Kurdish parties consider themselves to be the leading force in the struggle for Kurdish liberation, Barzani’s leadership of the Kurds seems to prevail in the Middle Eastern region at the moment. The establishment of a Kurdish government in northern Iraq in June 1992 brought the contradictions between the two movements to a head, since the Iraqi Kurdish leadership then made efforts to establish good ties with Ankara as a way of maintaining relief supply routes and the allied military protective cover over Iraqi Kurdistan.


The Western dimension

But the game is not over yet. In November 1998, Öcalan reached Western Europe which, due to the strong and numerous Kurdish diaspora, is considered to form the PKK’s backlines, with the Kurdish community in Germany representing a stronghold. 22 German authorities estimate the number of Kurds among the two million residents of Turkish origin in their country to be about 400,000. 23 In Germany, the majority of the workers who emigrated after the late 1950s were not politicised; thus PKK organisers have been able to recruit and mobilise many of them, so that the Kurdish diaspora in Europe now provides the organisation with a constant stream of financial and political support.

Western Europe has became a very sensitive centre of the Kurdish culture in response to the policy of systematic Turkish assimilation. Here, Kurdish institutions, printing houses, mass media and language courses have provided the Kurdish movement with instruments to defend and promote national consciousness. In March 1995, a potent new link was established between Kurdistan and the diaspora when the satellite television station MED-TV began broadcasting from London and Brussels. Turkish efforts to shut it down have failed. 24

The presence of a Kurdish diaspora has increased the involvement of European governments in the management of the Kurdish question because, once politically mobilized, Kurdish activities help sustain the pressure on Ankara. The European Union considers the Kurdish matter the “barometer” of Turkey’s democratisation, and the European Parliament has long been interested in and critical of the human rights situation in Turkey, especially as it applies to the Kurdish issue. It enjoyed some success in gaining concessions from Ankara when in 1995, over the ratification of the customs union, Çiller’s government was forced to steer a democratisation package through parliament with amendments to Article 8 of the Law to Fight Terrorism.



The present situation demonstrates that the Kurdish question plays a crucial role in the region and remains a thorn for regional stability. The Kurdish struggle against the Turkish central authority will continue restlessly until a turnaround in domestic policy and changes in regional and international policy take place. After 14 years of severe armed struggle, Turkey still has not accepted that it is dealing with a Kurdish problem that has drawn the country into civil war, and that it must come to an agreement and grant the Kurds administrative autonomy and cultural rights.

The Kurds are too dispersed and divided to make the emergence of a united independent Kurdistan a viable or desirable option. Western policy should promote countrywide democratic reforms to ensure full rights of citizenship and the democratic integration of the Kurds. In so doing, it would also foster the stability of the region. But the problem is that in this quadrangle of states, human rights and democracy seem to be secondary concerns and Europe and particularly the US fear the weakening of Turkey, the Western stronghold in the eastern Mediterranean and their outpost in central Asia and the Caucasus.


Mirella Galletti is former Visiting Professor at the University of Bologna.




Note 1. There are estimated to be 12 million Kurds in Turkey, 6 million in Iran, 4.5 in Iraq, 1 million in Syria, 0.5 million in the former Soviet Union and 1 million in the diaspora. Back

Note 2. According to unofficial estimates, Alevis comprise 15 to 20% of the total population of Turkey, but only about one third of them seem to be Kurds. See K. Vorhoff," ‘Let’s reclaim our history and culture!’ - Imagining Alevi community in contemporary Turkey", Die Welt des Islams, vol. 38, no. 2, 1998, pp. 220-52. Back

Note 3. M. Galletti, “Sviluppi del problema curdo negli anni ’90 (seconda parte), Oriente Moderno, no. 1-6, 1992, pp. 75-123. Back

Note 4. D. McDowall, A modern history of the Kurds, (London-New York: I. B. Tauris, 1997, revised and updated paperback edition) p. 419. Back

Note 5. M. Galletti, “Intervista a Abdullah Öcalan. L’indipendenza del Kurdistan: sogno dei curdi incubo dei turchi”, Democrazia proletaria, no. 9, 1988, pp. 28-30. Back

Note 6. H. J. Barkey and G. E. Fuller, Turkey’s Kurdish Question, (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998) p. 34. Back

Note 7. Institute Kurde de Paris, Bulletin de liaison et d’information, no. 115-119, 1995, pp. 1-2; M. Galletti, “Curdi e Stato nazionale”, Oriente Moderne, no. 1, 1996, pp. 63-89. Back

Note 8. The provinces were Siirt, Mardin, Hakkari, Diyarbakir, Bingöl, Elazig, Tunceli and Van. Back

Note 9. Amnesty International, Report 1991 (London: Amnesty International Publications,1991) p. 229. Back

Note 10. Barkey and Fuller, Turkey’s Kurdish Question, p. 207, 220; K. Nezan, “La Turquie, plaque tournante du trafic de drogue”, Le Monde Diplomatique, vol. 45, no. 532, Juillet 1998, p. 13. Back

Note 11. Ibid. By 1986, 2,842 out of 3,524 Kurdish villages, four-fifths of those located in the provinces of Adiyaman, Gaziantep, Urfa, Mardin, Siirt and Diyarbakir, had been renamed in Turkish. Helsinki Watch Report, Destroyng ethnic identity. The Kurds of Turkey (New York-Washington: U.S. Helsinki Watch Committee, 1988) p. 23. Back

Note 12. See article by H. Poulton in this issue, “The Turkish State and Democracy”, p. 60. Back

Note 13. M. M. Gunter, The Changing Kurdish Problem in Turkey (London: Research Institute for the Study of Conflict and Terrorism -RISCT, 1994) p. 3.Back

Note 14. D. McDowall, The Kurds (London: Minority Rights Group International, 1994), p. 18. Back

Note 15. H. J. Barkey, “The People’s Democracy Party (HADEP): The Travails of a Legal Kurdish Party in Turkey”, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, vol. 18, no. 1, April 1998, pp. 129-38. Back

Note 16. Barkey and Fuller, Turkey’s Kurdish Question, p. 136. Back

Note 17. Türk Sanayicileri ve Isadamlari Dernegi (TÜSIAD, Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association), Türkiye’de demokratiklesme perspektifleri (Perspectives of the democratization in Turkey), (Istanbul: TÜSIAD, 1997) p. 195. The report went well beyond the Kurdish issue. While TÜSIAD called on the state to allow people to freely give their children Kurdish names, teach Kurdish and broadcast in Kurdish, it also questioned the democratic legitimacy of military-based institutions, such as the National Security Council. Back

Note 18. H. Ayla Kïlïç, “Democratization, Human Rights and Ethnic Policies in Turkey”, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, vol. 18, no. 1, April 1998, pp. 91-110. Back

Note 19. Ankara and Baghdad established a security cooperation scheme concerning the Kurds. In 1978, they concluded a secret accord allowing each side to pursue “subversive elements” up to 9 miles inside each other’s territory. D. Hiro, The longest war. The Iran-Iraq military conflict (London: Grafton Books, 1989), p.149; M. Galletti, I curdi nella storia (Chieti: Vecchio Faggio, 1990) pp. 221-5. Back

Note 20. H. J. Barkey and G. E. Fuller, “Turkey’s Kurdish question: critical turning points and missed opportunities”, Middle East Journal, vol. 51, no. 1, 1997, pp. 59-79. Back

Note 21. Middle East International, no. 588, 27 November 1998, pp. 22-4. Back

Note 22. Öcalan did not come to Italy for this reason, but because the PKK’s political bureau in Rome had established close relations with some Italian political formations in the last years. Before and during his stay in Italy, the Italian parliament repeatedly expressed its support for the Kurdish cause. Back

Note 23. M. van Bruinessen, “Shifting National and Ethnic Identities: The Kurds in Turkey and the European Diaspora”, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, vol. 18, no. 1, April 1998, pp. 39-52. Back