“The Kurdish Question” – that is how official Turkey frames the Kurdish minority politics. Until some twenty years ago it was prohibited and penalized in Turkey to admit that Kurds exist. More recently, the ruling AKP found some answers to the question and negotiated a peace treaty with the PKK and legalized the Kurdish language. Still, Turkey is far from having replied to all issues. And the debacle of Kobane is just one example.
For most of the Turkish Republic’s history Kurds were referred to as “Mountain Turks” or “Real Turks that forgot how to speak their language.” In a fear of separatism and in defence of national security it was illegal to refer to “Kurds” until the 2000s. Entire political parties such as the socialist TiP were closed down in the late twentieth century for openly discussing Kurdish culture and language.
Arguably, the intense and violent PKK guerrilla insurgency campaign of the 1980s and 1990s did not help to ease the state’s approach towards its Kurdish issue. The conflict left some 46,000 people dead. However, recently the dynamics changed. The AKP government under the leadership of Erdogan negotiated a ceasefire with the jailed PKK-leader Abdullah Öcalan in 2013. They agreed in a promising joint effort to improve relations in a quest for peace. Naturally, this was lauded internationally and domestically and the Kurds moved down the political agenda.
In addition, Ankara has largely collaborated with the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government of Northern Iraq. Turkish companies are by far the biggest investors in the region and immense amounts of crude oil and natural gas flow from there straight to Turkey. It seems like trade and economic interdependence created mutual trust.
This reads like a success story?
Not really. The government continues to be uncompromising with public protests of Kurds. When Kurds went to the street to demand a more pro-active policy of their government to help the helpless of Kobane, the uncompromising Turkish answer was tear gas and police violence. 36 people, most of them Kurds, died in October 2014 during the protests. The political elite avoids to talk about Kurdish minority issues. With the IS danger right at the border and the threat of the world press cameras in the back, Ankara did nothing. No military action, no humanitarian aid, no passage. At least in the PR-battle Turkey lost. In the end, Northern Iraqi Peshmerga forces were allowed to cross Turkish territory. However, as explained above ties between the two have been good. The unofficial, but likely, reason for Turkish inaction is that the PYD of Northern Syria is affiliated with the PKK. Erdogan himself stated that he sees “no difference” between the two.
Despite the media pressure and a ceasefire, Turkey seems to still fear Kurdish nationalism. Public sentiment partly follows the reasoning of the AKP-government: They (meaning the PKK, but sometimes portrayed as all Kurds) are terrorists. They are unreasonable. They kill people and no reaction is too harsh.
Thus, the Kurdish Question is far from being ressolved. The AKP often acts paranoid and has found only few answers rather than taking a comprehensive approach. Discussions of Kurdish autonomy and reparations for past discrimination might still earn you some time in jail.