During the summer and fall of 2009, the continuing and at times still violent Kurdish problem in Turkey[1] seemed on the verge of a solution when the ruling Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi [Justice and Development Party] or AK Party (AKP)[2] government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul announced a Kurdish Opening. Gul declared that “the biggest problem of Turkey is the Kurdish question” and that “there is an opportunity [to solve it] and it should not be missed.”[3] Erdogan asked: “If Turkey had not spent its energy, budget, peace and young people on [combating] terrorism, if Turkey had not spent the last 25 years in conflict, where would we be today?”[4] Even the insurgent Partiya Karkaren Kurdistan (PKK) or Kurdistan Workers Party, still led ultimately by its imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan, itself briefly took Turkey’s Kurdish Opening seriously.[5] For a fleeting moment optimism ran rampant. Why did this hopeful Opening fail?

What is going on in Turkeytoday appears to be an attempt to stifle Kurdish voices and impose a unilateral Turkish solution to fundamental issues of security and the future of the country. The Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) arrests in particular look less like a war on terror and more like one on dissent. Furthermore, the Turkish government’s announcement in June 2012 about initiating elective Kurdish language classes[6] and the opposition Republican Peoples Party’s (CHP) announced willingness to discuss the Kurdish problem with the government,[7] do not impress disaffected Kurds very much. Private Kurdish language classes supposedly were made possible several years ago, and why should the CHP not discuss the Kurdish problem?

The Kurdish hunger strike inTurkeyto call the world’s attention to this metastasizing situation has already had an important effect. Erdogan seems ready to make some new concessions and most importantly is giving hints at reopening the closed Kurdish opening. In so doing, the Turkish government should consider how in recent years the PKK has more and more turned to non-armed tactics to pursue its goals of Kurdish rights within a unitedTurkey. This non-violent strategy has proven much more viable than just a military struggle against a vastly superior Turkish military, which the PKK cannot win but only let fester on. I cannot speak for the PKK guerrillas in the Qandil mountains, but would assume that ifTurkeymakes some new conciliatory moves, the PKK will reciprocate.

However, still lacking is the willingness to negotiate genuinely with the PKK. Unilateral Turkish attempts to solve the Kurdish problem with minor unsatisfactory gestures while ignoring or even trying to eliminate the other side which is the PKK will not work. Although you may have Ankara’s and Washington’s policy communities impressed by these supposedly new Turkish gestures, their approval amounts to little more than wishful group think and is not going to solve the Kurdish problem. In other words, until the Turkish government truly accepts the PKK as a legitimate negotiating partner—along the lines of whatBritainsuccessfully did with Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the 1990s—it is doubtful whether a political solution to this continuing crisis can be reached.

Perhaps this reality is beginning to make an impression on the Turkish authorities. In late October 2012, Erdogan’s visit to Turkey’s southeastern Kurdish-populated region, led to speculation that he was about to start a new Opening to solve the Kurdish problem. Erdogan had already said he was ready to relaunch talks with Ocalan, the PKK leader still jailed on the islandof Imrali. Indeed, Erdogan even declared that the Turkish intelligence service could “do anything at any moment. . . .  For example, if it is necessary to go to Imrali tomorrow, I will tell the MIT chief to go ahead.”[8] In addition, a report in Zaman, a respected moderate Islamic news outlet, declared that “the government is preparing to launch a new initiative to deal with the Kurdish problem to hopefully pave the way for arms to be buried for good.”[9] The Zaman report concluded that the government had learned from the past what steps would not work and concluded cryptically that “therefore, actors and factors that had a part in the previous peace process will not be included in the new process, while for some other actors the government will reach a decision based on observation of the present attitude of those actors.”  

The civil war inSyriamight also encourage a reopening ofTurkey’s closed Kurdish Opening.Turkeyhas repeatedly declared its support for the democratic opposition inSyria, but can only make this work if it makes peace with its own disgruntled Kurdish population. Thus, as the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson once wrote: “Come, my friends, Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”

*Michael M. Gunter is a professor of political science at TennesseeTechnologicalUniversityin Cookeville, Tennesseeand teaches during the summers at the Megatrend International University Vienna in Austria. He also teaches for the U.S.government area studies program in Washington, D.C.He is the author of numerous critically praised scholarly books on the Kurdish question, the most recent being Kurdish Historical Dictionary, 2nd ed., 2011; The Kurds Ascending: The Evolving Solution to the Kurdish Problem in Iraq and Turkey, 2nd ed., 2011; The Kurdish Predicament in Iraq: A Political Analysis, 1999; and The Kurds and the Future of Turkey, 1997. In addition, he is the co-editor (with Mohammed M. A. Ahmed) of The Kurdish Question and the 2003 Iraqi War, 2005; and The Evolution of Kurdish Nationalism, 2007. He has also published several other scholarly books and numerous scholarly articles on the Kurds, United Nations, and other topics in such leading periodicals as the Middle East Journal, Middle East Quarterly, Middle East Policy, Current History, Middle East Critique, Foreignpolicy.com, Third World Quarterly, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Orient, Insight Turkey, Worth (Robb Report), American Journal of International Law, World Affairs, Orbis, and International Organization, among others. In addition, he was a Senior Fulbright Lecturer in International Relations inTurkey. He also has held Fulbright awards forChina andIsrael. Currently he is the secretary-general of the EU Turkey Civic Commission, an NGO promoting further democratization inTurkey to facilitate its accession to the EU. He has been interviewed about the Kurdish question and theMiddle East on numerous occasions by the international and national press.


[1] For recent cutting edge analyses of the Kurdish problem in Turkey, see the proceedings of the 7th international conference of the EU Turkey Civic Commission (EUTCC), “The Road to Peace: Facing the Challenge,” November 17-18, 2010, European Parliament, Brussels, Belgium. See Http://www.mesop.de, accessed on July 15, 2012. The EUTCC held its 8th annual conference “The Quest for Democracy in Turkey—Universal Rights and Kurdish Self-Determination and the Struggles over the New Constitution,” EU Parliament, Brussels, Belgium on December 7-8, 2011; and is scheduled to host its 9th annual conference “The Kurdish Question in Turkey: Time to Renew the Dialogue and Resume Direct Negotiations” at the EU Parliament on December 5-6, 2012 However, the proceedings for the two most recent conferences have not yet been published and are only available piecemeal.

[2] For recent scholarly work on the AK Party (AKP), see William Hale and Ergun Ozbudun, Islamism, Democracy and Liberalism in Turkey: The Case of the AKP (New York: Routledge, 2010); and M. Hakan Yavuz, Secularism and Muslim Democracy in Turkey (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[3] Cited in “Gul: Kurdish Problem is the Most Important Problem of Turkey,” Today’s Zaman, May 11, 2009. Http://www.todayszaman.com. . . , accessed June 4, 2012.

[4] Cited in Today’s Zaman, August 12, 2009. Also see Marlies Casier, Joost Jongerden, and Nic Walker, “Fruitless Attempts? The Kurdish Initiative and Containment of the Kurdish Movement in Turkey,” New Perspectives on Turkey No. 44 (Spring 2011), pp. 103-127.

[5] Author’s contacts with Kurdish sources in Europe and the Middle East. Also see Cengiz Candar, “The Kurdish Question: The Reasons and Fortunes of the ‘Opening,’” Insight Turkey 11 (Fall  2009), pp. 13-19.

[6] “Kurdish Can Be Taught inTurkey’s Schools, Erdogan Says,” BBC News Europe, June 12, 2012. Http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-18410596, accessed July 13, 2012.

[7] Hermione Gee, “Turkish Party Leaders to Meet on New Kurdish Initiative,” Rudaw, June 6, 2012. Http://www.rudaw.net/english/news/turkey/4811.html, accessed, July 7, 2012.

[8] This and the following citation as well at the related discussion are taken from Thomas Seibert, “Erdogan Calls for Unity between Turks and Kurds,” The National, October 24, 2012. Http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/europe. . . , accessed October 25, 2012.

[9] This and the following data were garnered from Ahmet Donmez and Aydin Albayrak, “Government to Put Together a New Roadmap on Kurdish Issue,” Zaman, October 22, 2012. Http://www.mesop.ed/2012/10/22/government-to-put-together. . . , accessed October 23, 2012.