Perspectives for the Kurdish liberation movement 25 years after the begin of the armed struggle in Northern Kurdistan
Twenty-five years ago, on August 15, 1984, the armed struggle began in the Kurdish regions of Turkey. The left-wing Workers Party of Kurdistan (PKK) called for a struggle against the military dictatorship which had come to power in the coup of September 12, 1980, and against the decades-old oppression of the Kurds in Turkey. On this day, their Kurdish Liberation Forces (HRK) attacked the state institutions in the villages of Eruh and Semdinli and gave the signal for a broad guerrilla struggle in the Kurdish regions of Turkey.
The Turkish government responded with brutal repression. During the 1990s roughly 4,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed by the Turkish army to break up the social base of the guerrillas. As many as 40,000 people fell victim to the war. In this war, the Turkish state was given crucial support by imperialism: for example the Federal Republic of Germany provided all kinds of weapons to the Turkish military and increased the persecution of Kurdish organizations abroad, including the ban of the PKK in Germany.
To this day, the Kurdish language is suppressed and may not be used in educational institutions or at political events in Turkey. Any attempt at legal political work by the Kurds is met with repression. Currently there is an attempt to ban the left-wing Party for a Democratic Society (DTP) which is represented in parliament and in March became the strongest force in the local elections in the Kurdish parts of the country.
This 25-year war has fundamentally changed the living conditions of the Kurds in the Turkish state. The state was pushed aside by the PKK guerrillas in the 1990s, which allowed a flowering of a mass movement in the Kurdish regions: political parties, trade unions, a women’s movement, a youth movement, etc. While the Turkish state used to deny the very existence of the Kurdish people (they were called “mountain Turks” and their language declared a primitive dialect of Turkish), today it is not surprising when Turkish politicians at an election rally say a few words in Kurdish.
The government’s plans
With the announcement that “good things will happen” and the recognition of the “Kurdish question” as “Turkey’s biggest problem,” Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gül set off a new dynamic in the spring of 2009. The reasons for this are primarily geopolitical. With the announced withdrawal of US occupying forces from Iraq, Turkey’s responsibilities as a pro-Western force for order in the Middle East are growing. Added to this is Turkey’s increased importance in terms of energy policy, as a transit route for oil and gas pipelines such as the planned Nabucco gas pipeline. The condition for securing energy transport lines and also Turkey’s role as a regional superpower is a containment of the Kurdish uprising.
On the one hand, the government and the army are aiming for the destruction of Kurdish self-organization. The military operations against the PKK have gone on despite a unilateral cease-fire proclaimed by the guerrillas in the spring, while hundreds of members and functionaries of the DTP, the DTP-governed municipalities, the Kurdish women’s movement and the public sector trade union KESK have been arrested. At the same time, the government is trying, with the announcement of a “Kurdish initiative”, to win influence amongst the Kurdish population and undermine the DTP’s base of support.
The government doesn’t have much elbowroom because the powerful general staff insists on “red lines”. Neither a change to the constitution, which was passed after the military coup of 1980 and proscribes a unity of the state and the Turkish nation, nor autonomy for local governments nor education in the Kurdish language are to be allowed. Talks with the PKK and its chairman Abdullah Öcalan, who is sitting in solitary confinement, are completely rejected by the military as well as the government. Therefore a “solution” is to be implemented by the state alone, without Kurdish partners. The “Kurdish initiative”, which is now only presented as a “project for national unity”, only provides for minor concessions such as Kurdish street signs and “Kurdology” institutes at universities. On the other hand, they will continue to reject any collective rights – especially the right to self-determination. Similarly, the more fundamental problems in the Kurdish parts of the country – poverty, unemployment, lack of infrastructure – remain. The liberation of Kurdistan and the Kurds still seems to be a long way off.
The strategy of the PKK
The PKK from the beginning advocated a common struggle of the Kurdish people and the working class against the Turkish military junta. But their strategy was limited to an alliance between the Kurdish people and the international working class. Although they call themselves a “workers’ party”, their goal was not the independent organization and the international union of the workers. So they did not fight for an organization crossing national and linguistic borders in the Turkish state and the Middle East – only an alliance.
The PKK always made it clear that only socialism could solve the Kurdish question. But its concept of socialism was always vague, dominated by the Stalinism of the USSR and the “Arab socialism” of countries such as Syria. In the beginning, the PKK fought against the large landholders, but their program never went beyond this, towards the abolition of private ownership of means of production and the establishment of a planned economy.
In recent years, the goals of the Kurdish liberation movement have become more moderate. In addition to anarchist ideas about base democracy and a strong emphasis on women’s liberation, there are political proposals that are limited to constitutional amendments recognizing the Kurdish identity, allowing Kurdish language education and more regional autonomy within the existing state. The goal of an independent state – whether socialist or not – has been abandoned and a serious land reform is at least for the moment not an issue for the PKK or the DTP.
The experience of the Kurds in northern Iraq shows that Kurdish autonomy (or a de facto independence) in the framework of the capitalist system and with the support of the imperialist powers will only help some Kurds. In the Kurdish areas in Iraq, the clan structures around the politicians Barzani and Talibani (which persist in power despite the thoroughly capitalist nature of the economy) are making themselves incredibly rich. But the masses of Kurds there remain in unemployment, poverty or dependence as recipients of handouts from the corrupt government parties, which in turn depend on the Baghdad central government and US imperialism.
A real liberation of the Kurds requires a fundamental change of the economic system: a land reform and especially the industrial development of the country according to a plan elaborated democratically by working people and their organizations. The imperialist powers and the local bourgeoisie, who have used the Kurds as a pawn in their “great game” for 100 years, are not interested in such a project. This can only be done internationally, by the working people of all countries.
For the unity of the oppressed!
Not the government and the army, only the Turkish workers and laborers can be the subject of an egalitarian and democratic solution to the Kurdish question. Of course they suffer from a deep chauvinist blindness, including open racism. But Turkish working people also suffer the costs of the war. It is their sons who are used as soldiers in the fight against the PKK. And it is the anti-terror laws, officially established against the PKK, which are used to repress Turkish socialists and trade unionists.
Necessary for the liberation of the Kurds is a strategy which unites workers, particularly in western Turkey, on a revolutionary basis – a basis that recognizes the right to self-determination of the Kurds and all oppressed peoples. This requires, in addition to a democratic and an antimilitarist agenda, a social program. Precisely because the millions of workers in the slums of western Turkey are of both Turkish and Kurdish origin, a common form of organization is necessary. Only the working class has the power which not even a well-organized guerrilla can muster: namely, to bring the economy to a standstill, bringing the huge military apparatus of Turkey and the capitalists to their knees and driving imperialism out of the country.
The Kurdish movement, 25 years after the beginning of armed struggle, stands at a crossroads. In recent years, leading Kurdish politicians and parts of the base have publicly played with the idea of fighting for their rights in alliance with reactionary powers like US or EU imperialism. But now the Kurdish movement in Turkey doesn’t have any partners: even the Kurdish bourgeoisie in North Iraq has turned its back on the Kurds in Turkey to maintain their good relations with Ankara. This means the only remaining potential ally is the international working class. The Kurdish movement, as the only left-wing mass movement in the region, only has the option – if they do not want to resign to another 25 years of oppression and minimum concessions – to launch an international movement of the exploited.
- Down with the PKK ban and other repressive measures against the Kurds! Solidarity by the workers’ movement and the left, despite the necessary criticism!
- For a socialist and international orientation of the Kurdish movement! For a free and socialist Kurdistan in the framework of a socialist confederation of the Middle East!
by Wladek Flakin (independent youth organization REVOLUTION) and Nick Brauns (Marxist Initiative), December 1, 2009
both authors are socialists in Berlin who are active in the Kurdistan Solidarity Committee