Turkey / Kurdistan: PKK announces ceasefire

On 8 May the PKK has begun to withdraw from Turkey. Millions are hoping now for an end to oppression and for democratic rights.

On 21 March Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned leader of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) announced: "the time for armed struggle is over". His message was read out in Diyarbakir during this year’s celebration of the Kurdish New Year Newroz. More than a million Kurds took part in this traditional festivity of the Kurdish people – more than ever before.

Following Öcalan‘s declaration, the PKK declared a ceasefire on 23 March. Especially in the Kurdish areas of Turkey there are huge hopes for an end to the war and a peaceful solution and the achievement of democratic rights for Kurds. The Turkish media also greeted this development, euphorically speaking of a "new peace process". However, there are still thousands of political prisoners, including elected representatives and journalists in Turkish jails: many of them incarated simply on the vaguest suspicion of supporting the PKK.

Newroz 2013

Only a year ago, Turkish prime minister Erdogan had attacked the Kurds with strong nationalistic rhetoric, even threatening the execution of Öcalan, while attempting to crush the PKK militarily. The repression of Kurdish and pro-Kurdish activists reached a new peak. But Erdogan has now broken former taboos and accepts Öcalan as a negotiating partner. This is the same Öcalan whose name, until very recently, was systematically used in Turkey as a synonym for “leading terrorist”, “killer of babies” and similar descriptions designed to discredit him and undermine his legitimacy as a recognised political leader of the Kurds.


Kurds are a tribal people from Mesopotamia, who possess all the characteristics of a nation other than a nation state. Kurdistan, the area where Kurds are concentrated, is divided between four neighbouring states (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey). The largest part of Kurdistan, described as Northern Kurdistan by Kurds, is located in the east and south-east of Turkey. The four states which de-facto occupy the Kurdish areas, have different approaches towards the Kurdish question in their territory.

After the foundation of the Turkish republic in 1923, any existence of a Kurdish people was completely denied. A policy of enforced assimilation was imposed. Kurdish uprisings were bloodily suppressed. The terms “Kurd” and “Kurdistan” were erased from books and documents. Banned by law and suppressed by force, the development and use of the Kurdish language – a fundamental factor in nation building and self-determination and national scientific and cultural development – was systematically repressed.

Economically, the region was kept in a state of under-development: There was no industrial development; no investment in the infrastructure or in a modern education system. The majority of the population comprised poor peasants who were exploited by tribal lords who were, in turn, backed by the Turkish state. The region was isolated from modern Turkey. This lack of economic development forced many Kurds to move to Europe or to the industrial centres of Turkey, where they form a large minority today.

When the “last Kurdish uprising” began in the 1980s, the Turkish policy of assimilation was close to completion as the Kurds had scarcely been able to develop an awareness of their own national identity. PKK claim that their 30-year long struggle and the successes flowing from it have led to a “resurrection” of the Kurdish people.

The first truce and the new strategy of the PKK

At the end of the 1970s, Kurdish students who were previously involved in the Turkish left launched the PKK. On 15 August 1984, under Öcalan’s leadership, the party launched military attacks against the Turkish state with a group of guerilla fighters. Over time it was able to establish strongholds among some sections of the population in certain parts of the region.

This was against a background of huge repression of the left and the workers’ movement following the military coups in 1974 and 1980. At that time the Turkish left, mainly dominated by different Stalinist tendencies, failed to understand the character of these coups and that they would be used precisely to suppress the workers’ movement and the left. See http://www.socialistworld.net/doc/4510.

The Turkish state was unable to defeat the military struggle of Kurds. At the same time, the Kurdish movement faces the reality that Turkey, which has, after all, one of the largest armies within NATO, cannot be beaten solely by military means.

A stalemate developed that led to the first unilateral truce announced by the PKK in 1993. Behind the scenes, secret negotiations where being carried out with Turkey’s president at the time, Turgut Özal. A conservative, Özal harboured a latent “neo-Ottoman” vision whereby Turkey would again become a strong regional power, restored to its alleged former glory in the form of a new “Ottoman empire”. The compromise with the Kurds was designed by him to secure access to the oil resources in Iraq and other parts of the region. He appeared to be open to the idea of a federal solution.

On the same day as the PKK leadership, at that time located in Syria, was expected to extend its ceasefire following secret negotiations with Özal, news of the mysterious death of the president broke. At the same time, 33 unarmed Turkish soldiers were attacked and killed.

The following years are remembered as the “dark 90s”, concluding with Öcalan’s arrest in 1999. Since then, Öcalan has been detained in the island prison of Imrali.

The PKK found itself in a dilemma. Faced with permanent state repression and Turkish military operations it had to maintain armed resistance. However, this armed struggle, together with the PKK’s ideology, blocked any chance of finding a solution of the Kurdish question and, in particular, of building links to the Turkish working class.

After the imprisonment of Öcalan, the PKK tried to pursue a strategy which moved away from the armed struggle towards a struggle conducted by political means. It attempted to demonstrate its seriousness with radical political decisions. Thus the PKK abandoned the aim of a independent Kurdistan or a Kurdish federation within Turkey.

To justify abandoning the aim of Kurdish independence, Öcalan argued that the nation state was an outdated concept and that therefore Kurds did not need to struggle for a separate nation. It was a doctrine heavily influenced by anarchism and ideas on the nation state taken from the sociologists Hardt and Negri. However, the existing Turkish capitalist state and the interests of the imperialist countries in the region are not outdated ‘concepts’, but real forces that have to be fought against to achieve workers’ and Kurdish rights. Öcalan’s conclusion is to create a wider capitalist entity, in reality a version of the European Union in the Middle East. He presents such a development as a possibility without recognising the barriers of the different levels of economic development and the separate and competing interests of the nation states over resources and spheres of influence in Turkey, Northern Iraqi Kurdistan and the whole region. Yet he continues to call himself a socialist, although not a Marxist.

Against this background and in accordance with Öcalan’s call, PKK fighters left Turkey for the first time in 1999 (whereby hundreds of them were killed by the Turkish army as they retreated). The party changed its name, only to “re-organise” again as the PKK in 2004.

The government lifted martial law in the region and abolished the death penalty. For the people in the region and the whole of Turkey this brought a certain normalisation. It benefited both, the new governing party in Turkey, the AKP, and the Kurdish movement.

The AKP was able to improve its position within the power struggle with the Kemalist military and civil bureaucracy and could present itself as the party of "bourgeois democracy”. The economic boom also prepared the ground for the AKP’s electoral successes.

On the other hand, these new conditions allowed the development of a mass Kurdish movement. The concessions of the AKP government with respect to recognition of the Kurdish language and ethnic identity (although still not enshrined in constitution), contributed to the creation of a degree of self-awareness among many Kurds.

Pro-Kurdish politicians Sirri Sureyya Onder and Pelvin Buldan read jailed Abdullah Öcalan’s message on 21 March 2013 in Diyarbakir

The new “peace process”

The new process takes place at a time of important events unfolding in Turkey and the entire region. Some key factors which impact on the peace process are:

1. The Turkish government cannot win militarily. Following the collapse of the last secret talks between the government and the PKK, the government came to the conclusion that there was no military solution to the Kurdish problem.

The actions of the Turkish army led to the death of 3,000 people in the last three years alone, but did not win the war.

2. The situation in Syria changed everything. The Turkish government and capitalist class hoped for a speedy victory of the Syrian opposition in order to consolidate their hegemony and economic interests. They were even prepared to wage war to this end.

With respect to the balance of power in the region, it is clear that alongside Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the Kurdish government in Northern Iraq is part of a “Sunni Islamic bloc”, in opposition to the Shia regimes in Iran, Syria, Iraq and the Hezbollah in Lebanon.

After the Syrian Kurds won control of their territory, under the leadership of a sister party of the PKK, the strategic position of Turkey, engaged in conflict with the PKK, became intractable.

3. In Iraq there is an irreconcilable conflict between the Kurdish government in Northern Iraq and central government in Baghdad. This places the prospect of a separation of Northern Iraq from the rest of the country on the agenda.

The most important trade partner for Northern Iraq is Turkey. The Turkish government and Turkish capitalists have important strategic interests in the oil resources around Kirkuk and Mosul.

The agenda set by Erdogan’s government with respect to these issues has been dominated by their aspirations for power and influence.

The capitalists hope for a normalisation of the relations in the region based on the new economic possibilities they expect in terms of investment. sales potential and the chance to exploit cheap labour. They are already rubbing their hands together at this prospect.

4. There will be three elections over the next two years. There could also be a referendum on a new constitution. In addition, Erdogan aims to change Turkey into a presidential system in order to strengthen his position and remain in power until at least 2023.

The PKK leadership offered to end the armed struggle once the democratic rights of Kurds were guaranteed and the framework permitting subsequent political struggle is secured. At the moment, it is taking unilateral steps, announcing a ceasefire and calling on its fighters to retreat behind the border to Northern Iraq. It offers a strategic partnership of Kurds and Turks in the region.

At this stage the PKK is not insisting that all its concrete demands be agreed. As a precondition to ceasing armed struggle, it is general recognition of the Kurds as a political and ethnic entity in the Turkish constitution, education in the Kurdish language, more municipal powers in the Kurdish areas and the release of Öcalan.

For the Kurdish people this does not mark the end of the struggle for liberation. For them, the “democratisation” of Turkey would mean the continuation of the struggle for their national rights under different conditions.

Such an agreement would end, once and for all, the denial by the Turkish state of any existence of a separate Kurdish identity. It is the basis upon which the PKK have posed relatively modest conditions for calling an end to their armed struggle. The PKK is acting from a position of strength.

What are the tasks for the left?

50,000 people have lost their lives over a period of nearly thirty years. As a result of the conflict a deep division has developed between the Turkish and the Kurdish working class which has been a barrier to any joint struggle against exploitation. Furthermore, there is a real danger of a return to conflict by the government whipping up nationalism backed by Turkish nationalist forces.

However, increasing numbers on both sides of the national divide are tired of this ongoing war and the Kurdish left has enormous influence throughout the whole of Turkey. The HDK, the “Democratic Congress of the People”, is currently the strongest initiative to unite the Turkish and Kurdish left. HDK was launched out of a joint electoral alliance in 2011, the “Bloc for work, democracy and freedom”. The strongest force within it is the BDP, a party that has consistently fought for the democratic rights for the Kurds, which enjoys strong support in the Kurdish areas. It support is also based in Kurdish capitalist circles, but its main support come from the workers and poor people of Kurdish origin. The emergence of the HDK and plans for an umbrella party, the HDP,which it is promoting, offers a potential magnet that would draw in workers and the poor and provide a platform for discussing strategies for fighting capitalism and ways to conduct joint struggles.

Against this background, despite some scepticism over the negotiations and the “peace process”, there is overwhelming support among both the Kurdish and Turkish communities which opens up new opportunities for the workers’ movement and the left.

It would therefore be wrong for the left to crudely reject this process in general, as some organisations on the left have done. This would be understood by the masses as support for a continuation of a war that cannot be won.

It is correct to call for peace. Kurdish and Turkish working class people long for peace. The key question is how a lasting peace and an end to oppression can be achieved. Only the workers’ movement has the power to do so, uniting the working classes of both ethnicities with a programme to address the burning social issues entwined in this conflict.

Therefore it would be wrong, to express uncritical support for the process or to suggest that it is a potential “solution” for the Kurdish question. It is an illusion that the Kurdish question can be solved by a capitalist government and within the framework of capitalist exploitation. We have to emphasise that at the moment the aim is to find a “solution” to the problem of the armed struggle.

What is urgently needed, especially at this stage, is an effort to build a strong peace movement, armed with a programme for democratic rights and social demands in the interest of the working classes in every part of Turkey. Such a programme could include democratic rights for the Kurdish people, the abolition of repressive anti-terror laws and the implementation of real rights to strike and demonstrate.

Such a movement could prevent the government from bamboozling the Kurdish movement and exploiting the current situation to strengthen the government’s position. This movement could also be a first step in the struggle for real democratic rights and in the joint struggle of both peoples in Turkey.

While supporting the struggle for democratic rights and the national democratic movement of the Kurds, the Kurds have to be warned that the “democratic confederation” of the Middle East as Öcalan promotes it, is an illusion. There may be attempts to get agreements but they will be fragile and temporary. A real and lasting solution for peaceful coexistence and cooperation in the region has to be based on the end of all oppression, full democratic rights and a planned development of the economies of the region to guarantee jobs, decent housing, access to water and electricity, free non-religious education and a free health system for all. Full democratic rights for Kurds. as well as full rights for all workers, including full rights for trade unions can only be achieved by the struggle from below.

To overcome the economic backwardness in Turkey, especially in the Kurdish areas where remnants of feudal structures still exist, the struggle for democratic rights needs to be linked to the battle against capitalism and exploitation. A fundamental, socialist transformation of society is necessary to use the resources of the region in the interest of working people and to end the divide and rule policies once and for all.

  • An immediate end to repression against the Kurdish people; release all political prisoners in Turkey
  • Immediate end of all military operations of the Turkish army and political repression against the Kurdish and workers’ movements
  • Full cultural and democratic rights for the Kurds. For democratically elected local councils and regionally networked committees to organise self-determination from below and to organise elections for a regional parliament. with no parties banned except the fascists.
  • End discrimination against Kurds; for a fully democratic electoral system in Turkey including abolition of 10 percent threshold; full democratic rights, including freedom for the press/media, freedom to assemble and organise; full rights to workers and trade unions, end the repression against the left and trade unions.
  • The right of self-determination for the Kurdish people, including the right to secession
  • For a socialist confederation of the Middle East with full rights for all minorities, including the right to establish independent states, which could form part of a voluntary confederation.
  • End exploitation, capitalism and imperialist domination of the region; for a democratic, socialist plan to develop the economies based on the nationalisation of the major companies/commanding heights under workers’ control and management

Festus Okay lives in Ankara. He is a member of the CWI group in Turkey, „Sosyalist Alternatif“.

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May 2013