TODAY’S MESOP COMMENTARY (II) : Cypriot Turkish Professor in Canada Tozun Bahcheli – Interview with GULAN Magazine

1. Currently Kurdish question in Middle East has become an important card within the political equations, in which there is an overall attempt within all four countries (Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq) for resolving Kurdish question, but in different ways. According to your opinion; how do you see Kurdish question within on the level of these four countries and Middle East generally?

Kurds are certainly playing a larger role in the Middle East today than ever before. The most recent events involving the Kurds have obviously been in war-torn Syria where there is a possibility for Kurds to make real progress in their status there. In Iraq, the Baghdad government continues to face a great challenge in confronting sectarian violence and is relatively weak. This has afforded Iraqi Kurdistan greater leverage in dealing with Nouri al-Maliki’s government. In Turkey there is steady though uneven progress in advancing Kurdish rights essentially due to the success of the Kurdistan Workers Party (the PKK) which has forced the Turkish state to confront its Kurdish problem. Whereas there is frank acknowledgment by the Turkish government that greater democracy is required to resolve the Kurdish issue, in Iran the status quo remains, with no prospect that the regime will offer anything new to its Kurds.

2.        Last week we witnessed a historic event which was the official invitation for president Barzani by Prime Minister Erdogan to Diyarbakir, the biggest Kurdish city in Turkey.  According to your opinion; to what extent Barzani’s visit to a big Kurdish city in Turkey is helping resolving Kurdish question peacefully?

President Barzani’s recent visit to Diyarbakir at the invitation of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was indeed a historic event that could not have been imagined as recently as three or four years ago. Barzani’s support for the Erdogan government’s new Kurdish initiative can only help. However, as numerous Kurdish nationalists in Turkey, including many in the Peace and Democracy Party (the BDP) have repeatedly stated, the Kurdish issue requires negotiations between Ankara and the Turkish Kurdish leadership to help achieve collective Kurdish rights. It is not a matter between Ankara and Erbil. That said, the great prestige that President Barzani enjoys among Turkish Kurds and the very considerable progress in Turkish-Kurdistan relations are beneficial to the peace process in Turkey.

3.        Previously, few years ago; if someone had mentioned Kurdistan’s word, he would have been punished. But within Barzani’s visit in Diyarbakir, Prime Minister of Turkey, Erdogan, mentioned Kurdistan three times within his speech, which was unexpected event for observers. Don’t you think that means Erdogan wants to resolve Kurdish question peacefully and to draft a new constitution for Turkey.

The taboos about Kurds and Kurdistan in Turkey have been disappearing for some time and this is the latest example. It was not long ago that Turkish President Abdullah Gul was widely criticized for using the word Kurdistan. Knowing the controversy stirred by Gul’s statement, Erdogan has used the word as a gesture to his guest and to win favour with Kurdish voters who will be voting in municipal, presidential and parliamentary elections during the next two years.

There is no question that Erdogan is committed to resolve the Kurdish issue in Turkey, and that his Justice and Development Party (the AKP) has achieved much progress in dealing with Kurdish demands. It remains to be seen, however, whether the AKP will deliver, and at what pace, on such matters as constitutional protection of Kurdish language and culture, Kurdish education in state schools, as well as autonomy in the Kurdish region.

4.        Experts think that the successful experience of self-rule in Kurdistan region of Iraq and existence of political and economic stability has been a reason for developing the attempts of resolving Kurdish question in Turkey. To what extent Kurdistan region of Iraq has been an important factor for the transition of Kurdish question in Middle East?

I think we can assume that the autonomy that Kurds have experienced in the Kurdistan region of Iraq has had a great impact on Turkish Kurds and has stimulated their national consciousness. The Turkish government knows that. After some years of much anxiety that Iraqi Kurdistan’s own existence would stir up the Kurds in Turkey, Turkey views the Kurdistan region’s success at self-government and stability more positively, particularly as the KRG is a helpful actor in Turkey’s peace process. More than anything else, the prospect of indefinite conflict with the PKK has been the driving force in Turkey’s quest to resolve the Kurdish issue.

5.        Turkey is an important factor in Middle East which has impact on the regional changes in the area, and currently Turkey considers Kurdistan region as a strategic ally. According to your view; to what extent Kurdistan region and Turkey will have impact on Kurdish question in Syria, do you expect for Syrian Kurds to meet their rights also?

Turkey and the KRG are indeed acting as strategic allies. They have common but also divergent interests. They certainly have a capacity to influence the developments in Syria affecting Kurds there.

The Syrian Kurds appear to have a historic opportunity to elevate their status from being the most discriminated community in Syria to one where their collective rights as a people are recognized. Depending on the outcome of the civil war in Syria they may even achieve some form of self-rule. Unfortunately for them, Syrian Kurds are politically divided and this handicaps them.

Both Ankara and the Iraqi Kurdistan leadership have reacted negatively against the Democratic Union Party (PYD) declaration of self-rule. They do not like the PYD’s alliance with Turkey’s PKK. They also accuse the PYD of collaborating with the Syrian regime, and for trying to force its agenda on other Kurdish groups in Syria.

6.        Despite the great economic development, Kurdistan region now has energy resources and is exporting oil to outside. To what extent having energy sources has increased the attitude of Kurdistan region within all aspects?

The Kurdistan region’s wealth in hydrocarbons is truly impressive, and is the principal source of its strength and its ability to play an important role as a regional actor. This is shown by the recent agreements between Ankara and Erbil to export huge quantities of oil and gas from the Kurdistan region to Turkey.

7.        President Barzani has been able to maintain political and diplomatic balance with other countries, and he has been able to change the enmity with Turkey into peace and strategic partner. To what extent Barzani can be helpful for peace and resolving problems in the area?

Iraqi Kurdistan is a kin-state of the Kurds in the Middle East, and having achieved virtual statehood, is acting cautiously not to antagonize such strong states as Turkey and Iran which have large Kurdish minorities. President Barzani deserves high marks for his non-confrontational conduct in his dealings with Turkey. The results are there for all to see. The flourishing economic and trade relations between the KRG and Turkey continue to yield win-win outcomes. The close political relations between Kurdistan and Turkey have prompted the KRG to play a helpful role in the Erdogan government’s peace initiative.  Close relations with Turkey strengthen Barzani’s hand in undertaking regional initiatives that would advance Kurdish rights.