Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Justice and Development Party or AKP) has been much criticised for trying to solve political problems in an exceedingly authoritarian way, especially since the crackdown of the Gezi Park protests last summer. It is therefore all the more surprising that he seems to be making an effort to resolve the ‘Kurdish question’ in his country by approaching Kurdish leaders and steadily working towards a peace settlement and recognising demands for more autonomy in Turkey’s south-east region.

Being the largest minority in Turkey, the Kurds have long suffered from Kemalist assimilation policies which have favoured a unified Turkish state since its creation in 1923. As a result of the discrimination caused by an institutionalised Turkish nationalism, Kurdish resistance has ended up in a violent struggle against state forces since 1984. Yet, after nearly 30 years, the militant insurgency led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has ended in a ceasefire under Erdoğan’s rule in 2013. Within these 30 years, tens of thousands of innocent people have been killed.

And yet, two aspects of Erdoğan’s apparent goodwill pave the way for cynicism: firstly, the AKP’s self-proclaimed supporter of Kurdish rights is said to run for President in the elections this August and Kurdish votes could indeed turn out to be beneficial. Secondly, the oil-rich Kurdish regions in neighbouring countries such as Iraq sound like a promising alternative to the dependency on Iran or Russia when it comes to energy deals. Making friends in Kurdish populated areas like these could be tempting in order to boost Turkey’s economy. It is therefore fair to ask: what are the main incentives – a genuine desire for human rights or rather political and economic strategic concerns?

Erdoğan had made efforts to achieve a ceasefire with Kurdish terrorist fighters by negotiating with the PKK’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who had been sentenced to jail for life in 1999 for his involvement in the organisation. Previous governments have approached the Kurdish problem in a mostly military sense and with the declaration of a state of emergency in the Kurdish areas during the 90s which led to the destruction of 2,300 villages and a high number of Kurdish refugees. Since his time in office in 2003 Erdoğan has strived for a better and cleaner image of Turkey’s political motivations in order to become a fully appreciated and accepted member of the EU. He has allowed teaching  lessons in the Kurdish language in private schools and permitted Kurdish broadcasting. Yet, many Kurdish activists feel that this is not enough. Many want genuine autonomy within Turkey by for example, making the Kurdish language a medium of instruction possible for primary and secondary education. Cultural rights continue to play an important role and were the main incentives for the terrorist attacks over the last 30 years. Even though the peace talks with PKK leader Ocalan seem successful for now, Erdoğan’s intentions of permitting more cultural rights to Kurds are being questioned in the light of the upcoming presidential elections.

The Kurdish struggle goes beyond Turkish borders and the region considered as the traditional Kurdistan includes parts of Iran, Iraq and Syria. Although the Kurdish movement is weakened by separate interests among the different groups, the most relevant unifying symbol of the fight for self-determination is the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) which is based on the Iraqi side. In November last year, Erdoğan met with its President, Massoud Barzani, in Diyarbakir, which is regarded the spiritual capital by many Kurds. By creating this large scale event Erdoğan has once again demonstrated his ambition to resolve the Kurdish question and to get involved politically, diplomatically and economically with the KRG.

The meeting in Diyarbakir is part of a Turkish-Kurdish dialogue that has started in 2008. As the first ever Prime Minister of the Turkish Republic, Erdoğan used the word Kurdistan to show his respect to the Kurdish community. It seemed like the perfect encounter between Turkey and the Kurdish leadership, supported by both Turkish and Kurdish music acts, the display of both flags and emotive speeches. However, does the economic aspect of Erdoğan’s and Barzani’s will to engage in mutually beneficial energy deals, make the emotion-laden ceremony look like a masquerade? Or does it rather strengthen Erdoğan’s image of a human rights promoter?

There is no unified opinion among Kurds whether Erdoğan is seen as a friend or foe. Some have welcomed his pro-Islamist stance in the past, others believe he is using the Kurdish question in order to gain political and economic advantages whilst granting a few irrelevant rights without properly addressing the roots of the problem. The fact that Erdoğan’s government has taken on various authoritarian roles does indeed give reasons to doubt whether human rights are on the top of his list. The current manipulation of the judiciary or the crackdown on the media, especially after the Gezi protests from 2013, contradict the so-called freer discussion on Kurdish rights. Especially considering that more than half of the many jailed journalists in Turkey are of Kurdish descent. Many activists and news reporters are still becoming victims of anti-terror laws and the demand to amend these have not been met by the Turkish government.

While the physical terrorist campaigns of the PKK have been put to rest the military presence of Turkish forces in Kurdish areas in the country’s south-east is still a thorn in the side of Kurdish liberties. New military posts are continuously being built in Kurdish areas and protests against this have led to many violent crackdowns by security forces. Protesters, among them teenagers, often get killed in demonstrations. The example of a 15-year-old dying of a stun grenade which was fired at him by Turkish forces in 2013 is one of many. Another Kurdish protester who is thought to be under 20 got caught earlier this month while taking down the Turkish flag at a flagpole inside a military base in the Diyarbakir province. Regardless of his age, Erdoğan’s response was: ‘He will pay the price the same way as those who sent him there.’ Yes, Erdoğan has approached the Kurdish community and is willing to discuss the expansion of cultural and political rights for Turkey’s largest minority. However, Turkish nationalism has not ceased to remain a powerful tool of repression when it comes to Kurdish self-determination. Improvements have been made and should be acknowledged. But the Kurdish question is far from being answered.

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