Since the end of May 2013, it is fair to say that the Gezi movement has set a precedent in Turkish politics that no one could ever have imagined. We have recently seen unparalleled demonstrations of mass popular support for previously marginalized groups in Turkey, most notably the LGBT community, the Alevis and the Kurds. The focus of this essay is on the relationship between the Gezi movement and the latter group.
A Vision of State Repression
One of the most unexpected developments during the Gezi uprising were the widespread protests held on June 29 in Istanbul against the killing of a young Kurdish boy, the 18-year-old Medeni Yildirim, and the critical wounding of 10 others in Lice, in the Kurdish province of Diyarbakir in South East Turkey. On June 28, Turkish soldiers opened fire on a crowd of about 200 villagers, including women and children, who were demonstrating against the continued construction of a new gendarmerie post in the village of Kayacik, in the township of Lice.
The official position of the state was that the incident was initiated by local drug lords who feared that their business would be threatened with the success of the ongoing peace initiative. The governor of Diyarbakir claimed that the villagers attacked the gendarmerie post with sticks, stones, and Molotov cocktails — though there is no evidence of this. In fact, Tanir Elci, the chairman of the Diyarbakir’s Bar Association, dismissed these drug allegations as “pure fantasy”. Forensic reports of the incident would later prove that “security forces opened fire not to disperse but to kill.”
Unfortunately, the killing of a young Kurdish boy is far from extraordinary in the South-East of Turkey. However, what is remarkable about this event is the mass outpouring of support and outrage by the Turkish people following this incident. “The middle class urban ‘white Turks’ chanted ‘killer state’ as the Kurds gawked in disbelief.” The significance of the masses uniting and rallying behind the Kurdish people is not lost on anyone. The urban middle class of Istanbul witnessed for the first time the extent of the terror of the Turkish state through the brutal crackdown of the police on the protesters with water cannons and tear gas. They also understood that the crackdown on the Gezi uprising pales in comparison to what the Kurds have endured by state security forces in Turkish Kurdistan for decades.
Torture, mass graves, killings, displacements and arrests are commonplace occurrences in the Kurdish region. Now the ‘White Turks’ experienced what it feels like to be ostracized by the state, as marginalized and repressed members of society in their own homeland, much like the Kurds and various other minorities. Gezi, despite some initial friction, thus created a sense of fraternity between people against the establishment. This newly forged brotherhood of peoples has brought awareness about Turkish state violence in the Kurdish East to the rest of the country. The young urban middle-class realized that what Gezi represents in terms of being united as one against authoritarianism and neoliberalism, is embodied in the decades-long struggle of the Kurdish movement against the Turkish state.
The Peace Process
The Lice incident and the recent murder of Ahmet Atakan in Antakya in September seriously threatened to derail the tenuous peace process that is currently underway between Erdogan and the PKK (the Kurdistan Worker’s Party). Murat Karayilan, the PKK’s top commander, saw the attacks as an act of war against the Kurdish people by the state, declaring the peace negotiations null and void. The PKK is not impressed with the state’s construction of new gendarmerie posts in Lice, continued drone flights over PKK bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the recruitment of “village guards”, essentially state-paid Kurdish paramilitaries. Following the Nevruz celebration that took place in Diyarbakir in April 2013, the PKK declared a ceasefire. Ever since, it has been steadily withdrawing guerrilla fighters to Kurdish-controlled Northern Iraq. Hence the PKK feels that they have kept up their side of the bargain while the state has failed to honor its own.
As for the peace process, there is no official account of what it would actually entail. There have been hints at making constitutional changes that would acknowledge Kurds and the Kurdish language and equate the definition of “citizenship” not purely with Turkish ethnicity. The Kurdish movement is very wary of Erdogan’s true intentions at this point, especially taking into consideration the fact that the presidential bid of 2014 coincides with his peace-making efforts on the Kurdish issue and his recent overture towards the Peace & Democracy Party (BDP). One of the demands of the BDP, primarily among others, includes the removal of the 10% party threshold requirement from the constitution (under constitutional law parties are not allowed to hold seats in parliament until they gain 10% of the seats of the national vote), an archaic rule designed by Turkey’s former military establishment to keep pro-Kurdish parties out of parliament.
Also of huge concern to the Kurdish movement are the ongoing trials of members of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), while Erdogan’s government is simultaneously facilitating negotiations between Turkish Intelligence Forces (MIT) and Oçalan. The AKP’s position towards the Kurds has been thoroughly contradictory and the Kurdish people are right to be suspicious of Erdogan’s motives in the region — especially considering that the government has so far only engaged in rhetoric about changing the constitutional definition of “citizenship”, but has done nothing concrete to submit an actual draft to the Turkish Parliament.
A Suicidal Hawkish Stance?
Erdogan has in fact been taking a hawkish stance towards the Kurdish movement, particularly towards the so-called “Wise Men”, which is a group of journalists, academics and well-known figures who have been touring the country to try to inform the people about the benefits of the peace process. At a recent meeting with the “Wise Men”, Erdogan announced that the matters of education in the Kurdish language and lowering the 10% party threshold were “out of the question.” Erdogan claims that only 15% of the PKK forces have withdrawn from Turkey and his government insists that it will not entertain any Kurdish demands until all PKK armed forces have fully withdrawn from the region.
If Erdogan decides to effectively scuttle the peace process it would mean political suicide for the AKP. A combination of nation-wide mass protests and a resumption of PKK operations in the Kurdish regions would greatly lessen the government’s chances in the run-up to nationwide local elections in March 2014. The possibility of the Kurdish movement officially joining protesters in the thousands, similar to what was witnessed in the streets of Istanbul in support of Lice, is reason enough for Erdogan to exercise caution towards the peace process in the future.
Initially there was great fear that, if the Kurdish opposition were to officially join the protests, this would further antagonize the Turkish nationalists and therefore fragment the movement. This turned out to not be the case — in fact far from it. The Kurdish participation has actually strengthened the movement. The previously largely apolitical segments of Istanbul’s urban middle class find themselves uniting with the Kurds against state brutality. Of course there is no shortage of cases of state abuse for the people to protest against, but the fact that the uprisings are no longer aimed solely at Erdogan and his party but have shifted to past grievances that the state has never accounted for — crimes against the Kurds, the Alevis, and the LGBT community — is truly remarkable; something no one would ever dared to predict before Gezi.
Recent Developments: “The Package”
In fact, just recently, on September 30, Erdogan and the AKP announced a “package” to restart the stalled peace process. Some of the measures include relaxing long-standing restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language. This includes allowing Kurdish to be taught in private schools, and villages to be renamed in Kurdish, thus lifting the ban on the use of the letter Q, W, and X — frequent in Kurdish spelling but not Turkish. The fact that there is such a ban indicates the degree to which the Kurdish language has been suppressed in the past. In addition, the package would make changes to the electoral system that could make it easier for Kurdish MPs to form parties and secure seats in parliament. It did not specifically address the 10% threshold limit, however.
The measures themselves already presented some inherent concerns. Teaching Kurdish in private schools, as an elective, does not make it accessible to the broader public. The Kurdish region, as the government is well aware, is extremely impoverished, so that keeping the Kurdish language in private schools would ensure that the Kurds themselves would face economic limitations on access to education in their mother tongue. The proposed reforms are therefore a palliative at best.
Of even greater concern is what was not included in the package. The issue of the ongoing KCK operations was not even addressed, nor the case of thousands of Kurdish detainees in Turkish prisons. Not was there any mentioning of what is going on in Rojava, Syria — essentially Western Kurdistan — with the massacre of Kurds there recently by jihadist group Al-nusra, who are allies of the Syrian Free Army, which in turn is supported by the Turkish state. Since the Turkish state is supplying the rebels with weapons in Syria, the Kurdish movement considers this direct support in the regional war against the Kurds.
Reflections on the Gezi Uprising
Gezi and the Spirit of Revolt
2. Rüzgar Akhat
Gezi: Losing the Fear, Living the Dream
3. Dilan Koese
Revolt of Dignity: Gezi and the Global Legitimation Crisis
5. David Selim Sayers
Gezi Spirit: The Possibility of an Impossibility
6. Cagla Aykac
Strong Bodies, Dirty Shoes: An Ode to the Resistance
7. Stephen Snyder
Gezi Park and the Transformative Power of Art
8. ROAR Collective
The Sultan Is Watching: Erdoğan’s Lust for Power
9. Yasemin Acar & Melis Ulug
The Body Politicized: The Visibility of Women at Gezi
10. Elif Genc
At Gezi, a Common Voice Against State Brutality
11. Erkan Gursel
Sarisuluk’s Story: A Family Fighting for Justice
12. Beatrice White
Cracking Down on the Press: Turkish Media after Gezi
13. Matze Kasper
To Survive, the Gezi Movement Will Have to Compromise
14. Mark Bergfeld
Beyond the Hashtags? Gezi and the AKP’s Media Power
15. Emrah Güler
Is Social Media Still the Way to Resist in Turkey?
16. Lou Zucker
Reclaim the Urban Commons: Istanbul’s First Squat
17. Christopher Patz
From Madrid to Istanbul: Occupying Public Space
18. Sinan Eden
The Mayonnaise Effect: International Inspiration from Gezi
19. Mehmet Döşemeci
Superman, Clark Kent, and the Limits of the Gezi Uprising
Beyond Gezi: What Future for the Movement?