Dark days for Kurdish politics, but worse for Turkish - scholar

Turkey’s pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) this month discussed its strategy to counter the Turkish government’s escalated crackdown against Kurdish politicians, as well as October’s military operation in north Syria against Kurdish-controlled territories near the Turkish border.

Some members called on the party to withdraw from parliament after the government removed 24 HDP mayors in southeast Turkey following local elections in March. The government says the HDP politicians harbour sympathies for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting inside Turkey for more than three decades.

Prominent historian and political scientist Hamit Bozarslan answered Ahval ’s questions on the future of the Kurdish political movement in Turkey and what the Turkish state aims to achieve with its aggressive moves in Syria.

Hale Akay: Mr. Bozarslan, you had predicted turbulent times for Turkey. This year, the local elections created some hope within the opposition. But after the elections, Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria last month and the dismissal and arrests of HDP’s mayors have quickly done away with that atmosphere of hope. Most recently, last week HDP called for early elections. How do you view the current situation?

B: Where we are first and foremost shows that the government is truly stuck. But this doesn’t mean that they cannot remain in power. I assume that the most important goal of Erdoğan and the nationalist-Ergenekonist coalition that has formed around Erdoğan is, one way or the other, to eliminate any and all alternatives (to their rule) in Turkey. 

One of the most important ways they can do this is by eliminating the HDP, which has almost become the only opposition. The (main opposition Republican People’s Party) CHP has unfortunately emerged as its majesty’s opposition. Just (CHP leader) Kılıçdaroğlu’s description of (Turkey’s military operation in the northern Syrian area of) Afrin as “very beautiful” alone shows that CHP cannot form an alternative to the AKP at this point. 

This leaves only the HDP, and the HDP has been carrying the Kurdish movement in Turkey. I think that, despite everything, the ones who hold up democracy and carry it upon their shoulders in Turkey are the HDP. The elimination of the HDP both strengthens the coalition around the AKP – or, Erdoğan – and aims to defang the opposition.

A: The HDP has faced pressure to withdraw from parliament and municipalities. But the party, instead of withdrawing, called for general elections. Was that a correct strategy?

B: I cannot say anything on the HDP’s strategy, because they make their own decisions. But I believe that any and all positions won under authoritarian, radically authoritarian or antidemocratic regimes must be held on to. 

This is true for Turkey, it is true for Russia, and it is true for some other cases. The positions must not be abandoned. With the arrest of HDP members, with their removal from parliament tomorrow, the government will have a legitimacy problem, not the HDP. 

Secondly, there is one aspect that is of the utmost importance for me: The Kurdish movement is not a movement that only exists or can only reproduce itself through elections anymore. There is a phenomenon of consciousness among Kurds. There is a phenomenon of resistance, a phenomenon of a reading of history, a conception for the future, and a geographical conception. 

These are not things that can be ended with, let’s say, firing or arresting mayors. We are talking about quite an important accumulation here. The pluralisation of the Kurdish field, Kurds being able to establish means of production, forming mechanisms of socialisation ensures the perpetuity of “Kurdishness.” As such, there is a necessity not to focus solely on mayors or parliament members. 

A: Some people have a negative outlook. They say the Kurdish political movement has no room left to manoeuvre in Turkey, so, in the future Kurdish politics in Turkey too will focus on northern Syria, and the balance will shift in part to the YPG-PYD, which will become the leading group in Kurdish politics. Is this how you see things?

B: I mean, it is also impossible to know that from what can be seen right now. I think that Turkish politics is in a much worse position than Kurdish politics. Turkey’s fundamental problem is that, let’s say, among the Turkish community and the Turkish identity, an alternative cannot take form. That there is no alternative that could work with the HDP, to advance Turkey’s issues, or at least could see and accept these issues. 

Secondly, it must be remembered that the Kurdish movement has existed for almost a century. The 1980s need to be remembered. I believe the 1980s were the darkest period in Kurdish history. It was even possible to ask whether Kurds could really have existed, or whether they could have lived. I believe it was the time period that created the most trauma. After that, came the 1990s. The Kurdish movement has the ability to weather such intense pressures. 

We of course cannot know what will happen tomorrow. We do not know what will happen in Rojava. Tomorrow Russia could betray the Kurds, turn over Kobane to the Turks. All these alternatives must be taken into consideration. But, at least I believe, the thing that I’m most interested in now is the collapse of politics in Turkey. Politics is failing among Turks, not among Kurds.

A: Another view is that the actor currently in charge of the state in Turkey aims to bring the Kurdish issue back to what it was around the 1980s. Some say they want to erase the Kurdish political movement completely. They want to bring back the perception that Kurdish politics equals the PKK. They want to make the issue back into a matter of security, and security alone. Is this how you see it, or does the mind that runs the state have a different aim?

B: I suspect there is no mind that runs the state really. I mean, one of the most frightening phenomena in Turkey is that there is no more state mind. The state has completely lost its institutions, and turned into a “rogue landmine,” so to speak. The period after 2013 clearly showcases this. Even more, the period after 2015, when we see that those heading the state had engaged in serious crisis engineering, and this crisis-system engineering took upon the task of establishing a certain pragmatic line. But this pragmatism would last for two, three months. Then it would need a new period of crisis. 

If we can talk about a state in Turkey right now, I absolutely do not believe that those running the state have any rational strategy or mind. There is the strategy of a rogue landmine. And I do not know how long it can go on. 

Other than that, what you say is right in this sense: Erdoğan’s narrative, the pro-AKP media’s narrative, the nationalist media’s narrative, the Ergenekon and its extensions in this form or that, all believe that there is no Kurdish issue in Turkey. They openly state that the Kurdish issue, or rather the issue they do not see as the Kurdish issue, is merely a problem of terrorism, a problem of terrorism that has its roots abroad, and has no other aspect than the security issue. 

Turkey in the 2000’s is not the same as Turkey in 2007, or the 1980’s. It is impossible to answer these questions. We could be facing much more intense politics of violence tomorrow – both in the country and abroad. One must be prepared for all these, but right now, the way the sovereign powers – let’s not even talk about the state - read the problem in Turkey is a completely security-based reading. 

Even beyond security-based, it is a social Darwinist reading. Social Darwinism has a reading of history that sees societies as biological species separate from each other. And in this reading, oftentimes Kurdishness is perceived as a phenomenon that threatens Turkishness almost biologically. The same thing was at the foundation of the Armenian genocide. 

In Turkey’s current reading of Rojava (the Kurdish-led autonomous regions in northern Syria) this comes out very clearly. Let’s say for instance we look at this “east of the Euphrates” business. The taboo of “east of the Euphrates” comes up in the reports by Randall in 1925 as well … Such themes are re-emerging almost a century later. As such, one must be prepared for terrible days, but at the same time, the 1980s are not destiny. 

A: We are talking about politics determined by however many different actors, especially regarding Kurdish politics. I mean, who exactly is governing Turkey right now?

B: It is also not possible to answer that, because in Turkey there is this phenomenon of absolute cartelisation. This cartelisation phenomenon was analysed by our esteemed colleague Ümit Cizre in the 1990s. 

The Susurluk phenomenon (in which a lethal car crash exposed links between state officials and organised crime) was the most lucid example of this cartelisation. And now, there is this intense counter-cartelisation taking place. Because on one hand there is the AKP, which emerges as a radical nationalist Islamist movement. On the other hand, I believe that we are seeing a serious level of paramilitarisation in Turkey, the paramilitarisation of the state. 

There are phenomena such as police and gendarmerie paramilitary groups and (the private defence consultancy) SADAT. These show that it is no longer the one army that is loyal to the centre and the chain of command structure. There are numerous paramilitary forces. Among these forces, everybody knows this, are the (ultranationalist) Grey Wolves. There is probably a national socialist tendency that presents itself as nationalist. As such, it is very, very difficult to answer in its entirety the question of who governs the state.

Erdoğan says he does. This is true in a sense. It is true in a sense, because in Turkey there is this führerpraktik like in 1930s Germany, as in what the leader rejects does not get accepted. But at the same time, going hand in hand with this praktik, is the phenomenon of pluralisation of state mechanisms or powers that have the capacity to use force. It probably won’t be possible to keep these under control in the future.

A: So, can this strange alliance be sustainable?

B: This alliance is currently sustainable. The base reason for this, the primary reason is of course radical nationalism. A radical nationalism that extends into social Darwinism. That is why Eurasianists can easily act together with the (far-right) Nationalist Movement Party. Tomorrow maybe Good Party forces could join that somehow. 

I think Islamists who yearn for an Ottoman nostalgia can come together on the basis of radical nationalism. This radical nationalism is enough to perpetuate this coalition, in one way or the other, for now. 

The second factor is the grand phenomenon of profiteering. Susurluk showed how big this profiteering phenomenon had become. Profiteering through war in the 1990s was calculated as reaching tens of millions. Right now there is the profiteering phenomenon again, and everybody in one capacity or the other can get a share of it. 

This profiteering is both economic and symbolic at the same time. Looking at how the Sancak family entered the weapons industry, or how SADAT developed, these are interesting in that they show how important this profiteering is. This nationalist-radical nationalist basis, and this profiteering phenomenon is very probably enough to sustain this coalition for now.

A: So, right now are we completely stuck? We are talking about a self-sustaining coalition. At the same time, looking at the opposition side, the balance there will not change as can be seen. And in the end, there is the Kurdish movement that is trying to keep its gains. What could change the balance?

B: It is not possible to answer that right now. I mean, we cannot know what will happen in the future. Research into Turkey’s society is extremely limited. The population in Turkey has been completely stupefied, especially after 2013. This phenomenon of stupefaction I believe turns up in certain radical authoritarian antidemocratic regimes as well. The removal of cognitive, mental capacity. 

In 2013, people who criticised (Islamist preacher) Fethullah Gülen would go to prison. Today all the relations a la Fethullah are out in the open. People who sided with Russia in 2015 would be thought of as traitors. Today the nature of the relationship with Russia is clear.

With that said, it is not possible to make a prediction for what the social reaction will be tomorrow, or how young people will react, or where the search for a new path leads. But the picture in 2019 and 2020 is dark. Because the governing coalition is set to continue, because the opposition is nowhere to be seen. There is the Kurdish movement, which cannot carry Turkey through. The Kurdish movement can in fact carry Kurdistan, and the conception, resistance and awareness of Kurdishness. But there is no Kurdish movement to also carry Turkey on its back.

A: So, do you agree with the view of some in the CHP and HDP bases who say the CHP has not changed its Kurdish policies that much, but the parties’ alliances in various elections has created links between the young voter bases of both parties?

B: The Istanbul elections have shown this to be true in practice. But this sentiment expressed only through elections does not produce results. Looking at Turkey just now, you’d think that you were looking into a country where the Istanbul elections did not happen. Because the opposition outright refuses to come out as the opposition. 

I want to return to Kılıçdaroğlu’s Afrin comments. Kılıçdaroğlu does not see or know that Afrin has turned into a “Jihadistan” and that there is an ongoing ethnic cleansing in Kurdistan. So he can say “there are beautiful things happening in Afrin.” 

I cannot fathom how this would speak to the Kurdish movement. Even if Kurds do vote for the CHP in elections in the future, this can only emerge as a tactical approach or an approach borne out of a lack of alternatives. It does not create an alternative for who will be in government.

A: Right, my last question: Do we have any reason to be optimistic? Especially for the near future?

B: For optimism, there is the phenomenon of history. In many countries, when the night was darkest some alternatives were able to emerge. We know this from the history of authoritarian states and systems, from totalitarian states. We can only read into the future from the horizon of 2020 now. 

For this reason, research into Turkey’s population must increase. Efforts for young people and their sensibilities must increase. For instance, let’s say Algeria. Since the 1990s it had been experiencing dark times. Most probably the Algerian revolution will not succeed. But still, it created this year-long experience of struggle. We saw this in the Sudan too, as well as other places. For that reason, what the future promises us cannot be seen right now. 

It is for sure that the AKP, Erdoğanism and the Erdoğanist coalition have taken the whole of Turkish society captive. This nationalism phenomenon is of the utmost importance. It can be used as a profiteering mechanism with ease. But how social dynamics will change tomorrow, that is not possible to see from now.