Assoc. Prof. Murat Somer and Prof. Dr. Kemal Kirişci discussed a recent AKP initiative known as the Kurdish Opening which aims to solve the Kurdish issue in Turkey. These two scholars provided an in-depth definition of the initiative and its primary goals. Additionally, they outlined the reasons for its development, the challenges to its implementation and, finally, speculated on what the future might hold for the Turkish government’s attempts to solve the critical Kurdish issue.
Dr. Kirişci led off the talk by addressing the origin of the Kurdish Opening. He attributed its initial development to Turkey’s Interior Minister, Besir Atalay, and noted the origins of the Kurdish problem itself. He cited Turkey’s denial of the Kurdish identity, its discrimination towards the Kurdish people and the Kurdish citizens’ lack of trust in the Turkish state as the primary causes for Kurdish separatism and discontentment in Turkey. He then explained the primary goals of the Kurdish Opening initiative. Generally speaking, the initiative aims to mitigate the aforementioned grievances of Turkey’s Kurdish population. As such, it argues for increased measures to foster trust between Kurds and the Turkish state, reduce Kurdish militant activity, and enact broad constitutional reforms to further democratize Turkey. Furthermore, these reforms should address the issue of Kurdish rights regarding citizenship, as well as the right for Kurds to educate their children in the Kurdish language.
Despite the fact that the Kurdish problem is a decades-old issue in Turkey, the Kurdish Opening initiative has come about only recently. Dr. Kirişci believes this is due to several factors pertaining to the current social and political atmosphere in Turkey, namely the AKP’s desire to meet EU standards of democracy, its concerns regarding dwindling Kurdish support in the 2007 elections, Turkey’s improved relations with the U.S., its improved relations with and military operation in Northern Iraq and, the overall maturation of a Turkey that has become more liberal and open-minded in recent years. Dr. Kirişci concluded by stating that, despite significant criticism from Turkey’s opposition parties, the Kurdish Opening initiative will likely succeed as long as Turkey maintains both its engagement with the EU and positive relations with the Kurdish regions of Syria and Northern Iraq.
Following Dr. Kirişci’s remarks, Dr. Murat Somer affirmed that the Kurdish Opening initiative implies not just increased concern for the Kurdish issue in Turkey, but rather, but also an overall movement in the country towards increased democratization. According to Dr. Somer, the need for democratization in Turkey is one issue upon which all political parties can agree. Furthermore, both the AKP and Turkey’s opposition parties agree that democratization is the only viable means of solving the Kurdish issue. There is political discord, however, in regard to what exactly is meant by democratization. As Dr. Somer asserted, for the ruling AKP, democratizing Turkey should be a matter of increasing the constitutional rights of all citizens, including Kurds. Opposition parties such as the MHP and the CHP, on the other hand, favor a less political definition focused on a more societal recognition of cultural diversity.
Like Dr. Kirişci, Dr. Somer also explained why the Kurdish Opening initiative has been developed only recently. He asserted that many of the original anxieties from which tensions surrounding the Kurdish issue stemmed are less prevalent in today’s Turkey. According to Dr. Somer, Turkish nation-builders in the early days of the Turkish Republic were highly concerned with the need to foster a strong Turkish national identity. Because such a distinct national identity required cultural homogeneity, many Turks saw expressions of a distinct Kurdish identity as a threat to the development of the Turkish nation. However, such threats are less relevant today, now that the Turkish state is firmly established and Kurdish separatism has little potential to affect the delineation of Turkey’s borders.
Furthermore, the planned U.S. withdrawal from Iraq left Kurds with expectations for the Turkish government to address this new environment of uncertainty. Finally, improved civil-military relations in Turkey cleared the way for more relaxed and liberal policies on the part of the Turkish government. Thus, as Dr. Somer asserted, despite significant criticism from the oppositional MHP and CHP parties, the AKP’s approach to Kurdish demands has taken on a more liberal tone and resulted in the most comprehensive attempt to solve the Kurdish issue since the 1980’s.
Kemal Kirisci is a professor at the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Bogazici University, Istanbul. He holds a Jean Monnet Chair in European Integration and is also the Director of Center of European Studies at the University. He had previously taught at universities in Great Britain, Switzerland and the United States. Kirisci received his Ph.D at City University in London.
Murat Somer is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Koc University, Istanbul. He received his Ph.D in Political Economy and Public Policy at University of Southern California in 1999. His research interests include Religion and Democracy, Turkey, Iraq, Eastern Europe and Central Asia.