Kurdistan: Abdullah Ocalan’s abduction

The abduction of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan by Turkish secret services has sparked furious mass protests by Kurds and more than ever internationalised the Kurdish question. The CWI stands with the oppressed Kurdish people and supports and campaigns for their right to self-determination.

The right of asylum for Ocalan and all political refugees!
Self-determination for Kurdistan!
For workers’ unity and socialism!

The explosive repercussions of Ocalan’s kidnapping are starkly illustrated in Greece, whose government is held partly responsible for Ocalan’s capture. So far, popular outrage has meant three Greek ministers have been forced to resign and the government still faces a crisis. The Kurdish question is now one of the key issues discussed by Greek workers. It has helped radicalise the political situation in Greece and brought to the surface all the discontent with the PASOK government.

The brutal and humiliating manner of Ocalan’s kidnapping in Nairobi, the suspected involvement of US and Israeli secret agents, and the shooting of Kurdish protesters at the Israeli consulate in Berlin, have further enraged Kurds and many of the masses in the Middle East. Ocalan will face a show-trial, resulting in a lengthy sentence or execution. His publicised ’trial’ and possible execution will provoke tremendous outrage by Kurds throughout Turkish Kurdistan, the Middle East, Europe and around the world. The CWI supports the demand for Ocalan’s immediate release from the hands of the oppressors of the Kurds and his right of asylum. We call for the release of all political prisoners from Turkey’s notorious jails.

War against the Kurds

World attention has focused on the plight of the Kurds and especially the 12 million that have endured savage Turkish army oppression. The Turkish state has been fighting a brutal 15 year war against Kurds in the strategically very important south of the country (northern Kurdistan). Over 4,000 villages have been destroyed, up to 40,000 people have been slaughtered and millions have been become refugees.

The Kurds, who at around 25 million are the largest nationality in the world without a state, also mainly live under the oppression of the Iraqi, Syrian and Iranian regimes. Kurds are denied their own national identity and culture. They are denied democratic rights and personal freedoms.

In Syria successive governments have striped the minority Kurd population of their citizenship and cultural and democratic rights. The Alawite Muslim majority that rules Syria regards the Sunni Muslim Kurds as allies of the repressed Sunni Arab majority, and thus a potential threat. Similarly, Iran’s ruling Shia clerics mistrust and fear the country’s five million largely Sunni Kurds. Under Saddam Hussein the Kurds in Iraq have been subjected to mass deportations, mass bombings, poison gas attacks and mass executions. Since the end of the Gulf War Saddam has tried to ethnically cleanse the province of Kirkuk, which produces 70% of Iraq’s oil, by deporting another 250,000 Kurds. None of these brutal states wants to see an autonomous or independent Kurdish entity near their borders for fear of it acting as an inspiration to their own Kurdish minorities.

Repression against Kurds is also vicious in Turkey. The use of Kurdish in education, broadcasting and publishing is prohibited. State torture is commonplace. Opposition political parties and groups face like HADEP (The People’s Democracy Party) face oppressive state measures everyday. Independent and opposition opinion is not tolerated; there are more writers and journalists in Turkish jails than in any other country in the world, except China. Large protests against the capture of Ocalan have been met with a brutal response from the Turkish state, including mass arrests and torture.

The war against the Kurds has had disastrous consequences for the whole region. The Kurdish area have not been allowed to develop economically and socially. For instance, 36% of schools are shut in the region.

The Turkish government have celebrated Ocalan’s capture and are pressing home their advantage with renewed attacks on PKK strongholds in Northern Iraq. The latest offensive shows that the Turkish generals want to "solve" the national question by military means. Far from defeating the Kurds this strategy has hardened the determination of the Kurdish people everywhere to continue their heroic struggle.

The Kurdish Struggle in Europe

The CWI believes that mass action (demonstrations, protests, pickets etc.) by Kurds throughout Europe, in unity with other workers, is the way forward. Socialists and workers’ organisation in Europe should give full support to the Kurdish working masses and carry out solidarity actions. To avoid isolation, Kurdish organisations should make appeals with workers’ organisations to join in their campaigns. It is vitally important that close links are developed between Kurdish and Turkish workers’ organisations in order to cut across nationalist and ethnic divisions within the working class. In Turkey itself the public sector union federation KESK combines both nationalities in common struggle and calls for Kurdish self-determination.

In countries like Germany the ruling class and government fully exploit and foster divisions between Kurdish and Turkish people. There has been a huge media campaign against the "terrorist immigrants" in Germany. Through such ’divide and rule’ tactics the ruling classes hope to weaken the strength of the working class and to attack the social and economic conditions and democratic and political rights of all workers. The fight for democratic rights for minorities advances the interests and strength of the entire working class.

The Kurdish people can have no trust in the capitalist powers. They exerted great pressure on other countries not to give Ocalan asylum. This is an attack on the democratic right, age old in many places, to asylum. Many of these states give asylum to ex-dictators who have the blood of millions of workers on their hands. Historically, the capitalist powers have always closed their doors to revolutionaries and leaders of the oppressed. Leon Trotsky, the great Russian Marxist revolutionary and workers’ leader, the scourge of Stalinism, imperialism and fascism, described trying to find refuge on "the planet without a visa" during the 1930s. Like Ocalan, Trotsky was denied the right to political asylum in one country after another. Eventually, in 1940, Trotsky was assassinated by Stalin’s henchmen in Mexico because of this leading role in struggling for a workers’ political revolution in the ex-Soviet Union and for socialist revolutions in the capitalist countries.

EU states like Britain sell arms to Turkey that are used against Kurds. They are openly supporting and aiding Turkish state terrorism. At the same time they hypocritically condemn the PKK as "terrorists responsible for 30,000 deaths"! They say nothing about the renewed incursion of the Turkish army into the "Kurdish protection zone" of Northern Iraq in order to murder Kurds. These are the same Kurds in whose name the US and Britain carry out murderous bombing campaigns against Iraq.

EU states refuse asylum to many Kurds fleeing persecution and threaten to deport those protesting against Ocalan’s kidnapping and for democratic rights. The cultural and democratic rights of Kurds in Europe and throughout the world are curtailed and denied. Kurdish organisations are banned. The PKK has been outlawed in a number of states, including France and Germany. Attempts are being made to ban the Kurdish media service Med-TV. Like many other minorities, including the Turks, the Kurds face discrimination and oppression in Europe and elsewhere on the basis of nationality, language, culture, religion and race. It is only on the basis of common struggle that all workers in Europe can win full democratic rights.

Role of the big capitalist powers

Ocalan’s abduction has exacerbated the Kurdish national question. It also makes forcefully clear that the oppressed Kurds will find no salvation in the international big powers. The democratic rights and interests of the Kurdish masses, and indeed the working class everywhere, are in fundamental opposition to the interests of the imperialism powers.

Kurdistan was partitioned after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire between Turkey, Iran and the British imperialist creation of Iraq. This ’divide and rule’ tactic allowed the main powers to strengthen their rule in the region. The Kurds have repeatedly rebelled and have been picked up and later dropped by outside powers for their own ends. Over the decades the ruling elites of Iran, Iraq and Turkey have also callously used the Kurds for their own ends, for example, setting up pro-government Kurdish militias in order to fight other Kurds.

The PKK leadership has made appeals to the US, the EU and the UN to allow Ocalan a fair trial and to arbitrate a just settlement with Turkey. But this is not in the interests of any major power or bloc of powers. Israel and Turkey are two key client states of the US. The US sees them as vital allies in the region to counter the Arab states and Iran. The repressive state agencies of the three countries co-operate closely. Turkey is a member of NATO and the US heavily subsidises its army. Turkey presents lucrative opportunities for Western big business. Billion dollar deals between the US and Turkey are being made to lay an oil pipeline through the region. The relations between these states and their primary economic, military, strategic and political interests, comes long before attempts to wrestle with the dislocation caused by the conflict in Turkish Kurdistan.

Kurdistan has particular geopolitical importance for the imperialist powers, especially the US. It marks the frontier between the countries the US considers its foes and its allies in the region. It is the crucial territory between NATO and Russia. Kurdistan is also a vital corridor to the US’s client oil rich Gulf states. The US fears that a break-up of Iraq or a weakening of Turkey would favour Iran. In the face of such big strategic interests genuine self-determination for Kurdistan is a ruled out as far as imperialism is concerned.

The Kurdish masses have long been viewed as expendable pawns by the regional and world powers. Their struggle will only find support and solidarity from the world working class and its organisations. United workers’ struggles in Kurdistan, Turkey and throughout the region, to remove all the repressive regimes and for democratic rights and socialism, is the only viable strategy.

The CWI demands and fights for:

  • The immediate release of Ocalan and all other opposition political prisoners in Turkish jails. Asylum for Ocalan and all other Kurds.
  • An immediate end of the war against the Kurdish people. The withdrawal of all Turkish military units from Kurdish areas.
  • The lifting of the ban on opposition political parties in Turkey. Stop the state repression against HADEP and all other opposition forces.
  • An end to the discrimination of Kurdish political representation in Turkish institutions; a fully democratic electoral system; democratisation of Turkish society as a whole (including freedom of press, freedom to assemble, freedom to organise).
  • The right of self-determination for Kurdistan. For a socialist Kurdistan and socialist Turkey, as part of a socialist federation of states, on a free and equal basis, in the region.

In Europe the CWI calls for:

  • The right to asylum for all political refugees
  • No deportations to the brutal regime in Turkey.
  • An end to the arms trade with Turkey and end to all military, financial and political aid to the Turkish ruling elite.
  • An end to the ban on Kurdish organisations in Europe. Stop the repression of Med-TV and all other Kurdish media and information services.
  • Full democratic rights for Kurds and Turks in Europe and other immigrant or exile communities.
  • Mass common struggle by Kurdish and Turkish workers alongside all other European workers for full democratic rights and for the interests of workers. For a socialist federation of European states on a voluntary and equal basis.

Can there be a negotiated settlement for Kurdistan?

Ocalan’s flight began last autumn after Turkey put Syria under diplomatic and military pressure to expel the PKK leader from their territory. Ocalan sought to use the renewed international interest to sponsor a "programme for peace." In media interviews he raised key issues on the way forward for the Kurdish struggle.

The conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK’s armed wing, the ARGK, has clearly reached an impasse. The PKK was launched in 1978 and developed into a mass force during the radicalisation of Kurds in the 1980s. Heroic resistance has been conducted against Turkish rule and reactionary tribal leaders.

At least since 1993 Ocalan has declared that Turkey’s acknowledgement of Kurdish rights would be enough to start dialogue. A third country like Sweden, Germany or another EU state could act as an intermediary. As proof of good faith Ocalan recently declared a unilateral ceasefire in September 1998.

The temporary strengthening of capitalist powers following the collapse of Stalinism, and the example of other ’national liberation movements’ entering peace negotiations for lesser goals, have hugely influenced the strategy of the PKK leaders. Also, many workers and peasants in Kurdistan understandably want an end to the suffering and to achieve a just peace.

To achieve the aims of the Kurdish masses the first step must be for the total withdrawal of all repressive Turkish forces from Kurdistan. Kurds must be allowed to determine their own affairs free of oppression and also retain the right to self-defence against aggression.

However, talks under the auspices of the big western powers and the US would not create a viable strategy for peace and national and social liberation. Nor would the influence of the main capitalist powers end violence, underdervelopment and poverty.

This has most recently been borne out in the case of Kosova. Imperialism is trying to impose a settlement on the majority Albanian Kosovars who are seeking independence from brutal oppression under the Serbian ruling elite. Under the deal Kosova would become a virtual Western ’protectorate’ where major decisions are taken by Western powers. Poverty and unemployment would not be resolved. The Kosovars are denied self-determination because, like self-determination for Kurdistan, the big powers fear this could threaten their corrupt, repressive client states and lead to other movements for separation.

The US and main EU states are not some sort of neutral arbitrating agency but as exploiting imperialist powers have vested interests in the continuation of the economic stagnation and divisions amongst the masses throughout Kurdistan and the Middle East. They would like to see an end to Turkey’s costly, destabilising war but will not trade it for genuine Kurdish liberation.

Palestine Authority and "Kurdish protection zone"

Prior to his abduction Ocalan praised the Palestinian/Israeli ’peace process’ as an example to follow. But under the auspices of the US the Palestinians have been only given limited territories for ’self-rule’ and have seen their economic situation massively deteriorate. The Palestinian Authority is an undemocratic, corrupt statelet, whose repressive apparatus is used on behalf of the US and Israel against the masses.

Abdullah Ocalan has also appealed to the US: "What you have done for the South (Northern Iraq), you should also do for the North (Turkish occupied Kurdistan)."

The "Kurdish protection zone" of Kurdish northern Iraq was established after the 1991 blood-for-oil Gulf War. The "no-fly-zone" was a partly a sop to world outrage after US President Bush had urged the Kurds and minority Shia Muslims to rise up against Saddam Hussein’s regime, only to withdraw support and stand back as Saddam’s forces butchered the insurgents. Bush and other world leaders changed position because Saddam was already militarily defeated and forced out of Kuwait, and they feared more the break-up of Iraq and the establishment of radical Kurdish and Shia states.

The 1992 election of a ’Kurdish parliament’ in the zone made way not for peace and self-determination but the rule of warlords making profits through smuggling and the black market. The economy has collapsed and unemployment stands at over 50%. Trade unionists and women activists are attacked by Islamic terror groups and the two main tribal based organisations. Southern Kurdistan has not been protected by western powers against Saddam’s forces or regular raids by the Turkish army. In fact, the big powers have left the area to rot.

The PKK Congress at the beginning of January 1999 reportedly changed its programme and gave up its demand for a unified, independent Kurdistan in favour of an autonomous Kurdish region within a Turkish federation. The CWI support full cultural and democratic rights for Kurds, including democratically elected local councils and a regional parliament, with real powers. However, the underlying social and economic problems of Kurdistan will not be solved within the confines of capitalism and landlordism, even if ’autonomy’ was ever nominally allowed. Capitalism means impoverishment, oppression and conflict. To solve these problems the system has to be replaced with a socialist society; a workers’ and peasants’ democratically planned economy that unlocks economic potential for all.

Genuine self-determination for Kurds means the right to decide their own destiny and to run their own affairs, up to, and including, separation from the oppressor states. It also means the right for all Kurds to democratically decide if they wish to be part of one unified Kurdish state or to create a federation of Kurdish states. The Kurdish desire for self-determination is not set to dissipate but rather under the brutal rule of Turkey and the other states it will grow.

The PKK leadership hope they have a strong card to play in their struggle: Turkey’s wish to join the EU. Indeed, Turkey’s abysmal human rights record and war against the Kurds does make it difficult for EU states to argue and justify its inclusion. Also, they use EU membership as an incentive for the Turkish ruling elite to reach a ’settlement’ on the destabilising Kurdish war. Of course, EU states like Greece use the Kurdish issue to prevent their old enemy joining the ’club’ and further bolstering Turkey’s position in the region. The disputes over Cyprus and the surrounding waters illustrate the potentially explosive nature of relations between the main capitalist powers in the region.

In a recent statement the Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said, "A dialogue need not be formed with minority groups who want to partition Turkey". He added that a "substantial decrease in tension would be conducive to improvements and reforms." In the long-term the Turkish ruling elite would like to ’settle’ the Kurdish issue with partial reforms that resembles nothing like genuine self-determination for Kurds. The Turkish state hope to have weakened the PKK’s morale and negotiating position with the abduction and showtrial of its key leader Ocalan.

A way forward for the Kurdish struggle

Clearly the PKK guerrilla struggle has led to a stalemate. Many PKK leaders now argue for a mainly diplomatic strategy. But this path of seeking a negotiated settlement under the direction of imperialism will only lead to another dead end. The aspirations of Kurds will not be realised. They will not be allowed to achieve genuine self-determination and an end to poverty and oppression. Neither the world powers nor the ruling elites of the rotten regimes that oppress the Kurds would willingly concede genuine Kurdish self-rule and the subsequent break-up of present day states. They fear it would act as an inspiration to other oppressed minorities and indeed the working masses within their borders to rise up against their rule and grinding poverty.

Despite a watering down of demands by the PKK, there is no guarantee that the West and the Turkish state are willing to negotiate even for a Palestinian-style "solution" at this time or in the medium term. The PKK and Kurdish masses are in danger of being militarily and politically unarmed and confused in this difficult situation.

Full discussion and re-orientation to map a way forward is required amongst PKK supporters and amongst Kurdish workers generally. The PKK leaders have accepted that counter-productive civilian atrocities were previously carried out under the name of the PKK during the long years of mass struggle and guerrilla war. The CWI supports the right of the Kurdish people to defend themselves against state terror. The structures necessary for the self-defence of Kurds from Turkish state aggression should be democratically controlled by workers and peasants and be allied to a clear socialist programme. This would show that alongside the struggle against the Turkish state goes the struggle to place the resources of Kurdistan under the democratic control of workers and peasants. With such an approach a class appeal can be made to poor Turkish army conscripts that will help weaken the forces of oppression. Also, a call would be made for the Turkish masses to remove the repressive Ankara regime and to fight for workers’ interests and socialism.

The armed struggle in the mountains of Kurdistan has shown on its own not to be enough to drive out the Turkish military forces and to win national and social liberation. To achieve these goals the armed struggle must be essentially auxiliary to the decisive mass action of Kurdish and Turkish workers and youth in the towns and cities. It is in the urban centres that the real power in society, the organised industrial proletariat, rests. It was the heroic Intifada, the mass urban uprising of Palestinian youth, rather than the armed actions of the PLO over decades, that most threatened the ruling elites of Israel, the reactionary Arab regimes, and imperialism. In Turkish Kurdistan the urban working class is potentially at its most ever strongest position. The war has caused a massive influx into the urban areas and enormously strengthened the collective role of the working class and urban poor.

Across the world desperate measures have been taken by PKK supporters in protest at Ocalan’s arrest, including self-immolation and mass hunger strikes. This tragedy would be further compounded if the PKK were to again engage in indiscriminate attacks on Turkish civilians and European targets. Such actions would be a terrible mistake and counter-productive for the Kurdish struggle. It could cost the Kurdish people much international workers’ sympathy and it would also be used by European governments as a further excuse to crack down on exiled Kurds. In countries like Germany there could be a violent response that would only help divide workers and strengthen the forces of reaction.

It would be fatal for PKK supporters and to end mass struggle itself and to rely on hostile class forces. To confine themselves to a nationalist programme would lead to a dead-end. The Kurdish masses, more than any other oppressed peoples, rely fundamentally on international working class solidarity for liberation. Mass democratic Kurdish workers’ organisations linked to the organised Turkish workers’ movement are the necessary prerequisites for Kurdish liberation. The only force for real change is the mass movement of workers and peasants in Kurdistan, linked to the interests of the working class of the region.

Democratic rights as a whole in Turkish society are denied to all workers. Turks have paid heavily for the war that costs £8 billion a year. Living standards have fallen and now deep recession looms. Discontent has mainly been channelled by the Islamists and Turkish nationalists but important Kurdish and Turkish initiatives for workers’ unity have been taken. The common struggles of workers in the KESK union federation and that organisation’s principled position of support for Kurdish self-determination is a vital step forward. Uniting and struggling on class issues and explaining to Turkish workers that peace and a better life for all will be reached only if the Kurdish people can decide their own future; these are the means to cut across war and nationalism.

Against imperialism

If real and lasting national liberation is to be achieved, the power of imperialism has to be broken by a united struggle of the working class internationally. The CWI fights for the building of a socialist society as the only way forward for working people in the region and throughout the world.

For Socialism

The CWI believes that the only permanent solution that would meet the aspirations of the working people and the poor of Kurdistan is the building of a socialist society, achieved through a united struggle of the working class in Turkey, Kurdistan and throughout the region. A socialist Kurdistan and Turkey could fundamentally transform living conditions and lead to a peaceful resolution of the national issues.

Instead of creating big profits for a wealthy few capitalists and landowners, the rich natural resources of the region should be used in the interests of the working people and the poor. A socialist society, with a democratically planned economy, must replace the system of capitalist exploitation. This would create the conditions to solve the economic and social problems underlying the region’s crisis.

The CWI demands and fights for:

  • The right to self-defence by Kurds against Turkish state aggression.
  • Full cultural and democratic rights for the Kurds; to democratically elect councils for cities and villages and a regional parliament with full powers.
  • The right of self-determination for Kurds. All Kurds in each part of Kurdistan must be free to take a democratic decision on their own future, including whether they wish to form genuine autonomous regions, a unitary state, or a federation of Kurdish states.
  • A united mass struggle by Kurdish and Turkish workers for democratic rights and democratic socialism.
  • A socialist Kurdistan, as part of an equal and voluntary federation of socialist states in the region.

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March 1999