The Kurds in Turkey Part I

By | August 25, 2021

More Kurds live in Turkey than in any other country – probably at least 15 million. The settlements of the Turkish Kurds are in the southeast, but after decades of emigration from there, perhaps two-thirds live in western Turkey, a country located in Middle East according to

The Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923. Shortly afterwards, a harsh policy of assimilation was launched, which continued for the rest of the 20th century. The government opposed, above all, the Kurdish language. Kurdish place and personal names were changed to Turkish, no Kurdish schooling was allowed and the Kurds were forbidden to use their language in public contexts.

For a long time it was not even allowed to mention publicly that there was an ethnic group in Turkey called Kurds; It would be called “mountain turks”. In the 1980s, however, Turkey got a president, Turgut Özal, who shocked the establishment by speaking openly about Kurds. That Özal himself was of Kurdish origin did not attract much attention, however. Kurds assimilated into Turkish society have often been involved in Turkey’s political life, even in high positions.

After Özal, Turkish politicians made several attempts to soften the bans on Kurdish. However, even cautious reform attempts met with strong opposition from conservative circles in the bureaucracy, the judiciary and the military.

In 1991, it was allowed to publish newspapers and books in Kurdish. Nevertheless, many Kurdish writings were censored or banned, citing laws against separatist propaganda. The ban on radio and television programs in minority languages ​​was lifted “in principle” in 2001 but remained in effect until 2004. Teaching Kurdish in public schools remained banned, but in 2012 the government promised to allow Kurdish as an optional subject “if enough students request it. “.

EU, AKP and Erdoğan

In 1999, Turkey was recognized as a candidate country for EU membership. However, the EU made it clear that increased rights for the Kurds were a requirement if Turkey wanted to join the EU.

In the 2002 parliamentary elections, the newly formed AKP (Justice and Development Party) under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won a landslide victory. The party was pronounced EU-friendly, and during the first year of the AKP government, the reform work gained new strength.

The AKP was singled out by opponents as an Islamist party, but above all in the beginning it appeared rather conservative and moderately pro-Islam. Compared to other Turkish parties, the AKP seemed less occupied by the form of nationalism that dates back to the post-World War I era, when the Turks feared that their country would be torn apart by the victorious powers and disappear from the map.

Relations between the Turkish government and its Kurdish citizens slowly improved. In the 2007 election, the AKP received just over half of the votes in southeastern Turkey. More Kurds voted that year for the AKP than for the party, DTP, which was published to be the Kurds’ own party (see further below).

Civil War 1984–1999

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK, was formed in 1978 under the leadership of Abdullah Öcalan. At the time, with the support of the Soviet Union, the PKK wanted to establish a communist state in the Kurdish – populated areas of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Since then, however, the PKK seems to have come to terms with its communist ideology. What holds the movement together is, in addition to Kurdish nationalism, strong loyalty to Abdullah Öcalan.

In 1984-1999, the PKK fought an armed struggle against the Turkish state. The civil war became a severe trauma for Turkey. In the southeast, both the military and the PKK were hard on the civilian population. 42,000 people died in the war, including 7,000 Turkish soldiers.

During the war, the military forcibly relocated one million Kurds from 7,000 villages. Among exiled Kurds in Western Europe, the PKK murdered suspected “traitors”. Southeastern Turkey, which was already economically disadvantaged, was even more lagging behind the rest of the country due to the war.

The PKK was militarily defeated when Abdullah Öcalan was arrested in 1999. He was sentenced to death but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. It soon became apparent, however, that Öcalan had by no means lost his grip on the PKK as he was imprisoned. From his cell, he continued to exercise supreme leadership over the PKK.

The PKK resumes fighting

After Öcalan was arrested, he gave orders to the PKK to cease fire. The PKK was to be transformed from a guerrilla army into a political organization, it was said. Remaining guerrillas were withdrawn from Turkey to bases in the mountains between Iraq and Iran. Öcalan may have wanted to be recognized by the EU as a Kurdish freedom fighter, but the development was different. After September 11, 2001, the PKK was one of the many organizations branded as terrorist movements by both the United States and the European Union.

In May 2004, the PKK suspended the 1999 ceasefire. This was precisely when the Turkish government, with the support of the EU, had implemented several reforms for the Kurds’ right to their own language. The ruling AKP party had also won great success in local elections, including in Kurdish areas. The PKK may have seen itself threatened in its self-imposed role as leader of the Kurds.

The PKK’s offensive, in turn, fueled a nationalist wave among Turks, especially on the right. In 2005, however, Prime Minister Erdoğan, as the first Turkish leader, spoke publicly about the “Kurdish problem”. According to Erdoğan, the problem would be solved with democratic reforms.

Legal Kurdish parties

Violence between Turks and Kurds increased sharply in 2006, when the PKK attacked military posts along Turkey’s border with Iran and Iraq. Despite this, the AKP won even more Kurdish votes in 2007 than in previous elections. At the same time, about twenty representatives of the (then) legal Kurdish party DTP entered parliament, formally as well as independently.

Until 1991, there was no legal Kurdish party in Turkey. After that, there has usually been a Kurdish left party that was allowed to exist for a few years before it was banned, after which the party re-emerged under a new name. Each party ban has been preceded by the authorities accusing it of collusion with the PKK.

And without a doubt, Abdullah Öcalan really had a big influence in the DTP as well as in its successor from 2009, the BDP (see below). At the same time, there are always forces in the legal Kurdish parties that want to give them a more independent position.

The Kurds in Turkey 1