The Rojava Spirit Spreads

The Rojava Spirit Spreads

Can the Kurdish experiment in radical democracy stem Turkey’s authoritarian turn?

Kurds celebrating Newroz, Diyarbakir, Turkey, March 2013 (Alberto Tetta / Flickr)

One of the experiences that sets the life of a reporter apart from other pursuits is the realization that when you enter a building in a foreign country and see the portrait of a convicted terrorist proudly displayed on every wall, you know you’re in the right place. Such was my experience upon entering the offices of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, or Halklarin Demokratik Partisi (HDP), in a side street near Istanbul’s central square, where I hoped to gain a Kurds’-eye-view of the war against ISIS in northern Syria.

I use the word “terrorist” with hesitation, not only because of its nebulous quality and widespread abuse, but because to millions among Turkey’s Kurdish minority, Abdullah Ocalan (whose portrait beamed down from the walls of the HDP offices) remains the symbolic leader of their decades-long struggle for dignity and human rights. In Turkey, where the label “terrorist” is applied with as much cynicism and bigotry as in Israel, the picture of Ocalan hangs over the fragile peace talks between Ankara and his Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, after three decades of war and misery that claimed at least 35,000 lives, most of them Kurdish.

The HDP is the latest attempt by Turkey’s Kurds to advance their interests by parliamentary means, and plays a crucial role in these talks—not yet negotiations—with its delegates relaying messages to and from Ocalan as he serves out his life sentence in an island prison. The party has much to its credit. A social-democratic bloc of Kurds, secularists, feminists, LGBT activists, and greens with twenty-eight seats in the Turkish national assembly (making it the fourth-largest party), the HDP has roots in the Turkish left of the 1960s and a lineage that goes back to the Democracy Party of Leyla Zana. It advocates equal rights for all minorities (including Alevis and Armenians) and state neutrality on matters of religion, as well as mandating at least one female co-chair at every administrative level and applying a sort of “affirmative action” for LGBT candidates. Already this puts most European and American parties to shame.

But what truly distinguishes the HDP, and could have wider resonance across an ever more fragmented Middle East, is its call for a radical decentralization of powers from Ankara to regional assemblies, along the lines of the democratic experiment being conducted in the area of northern Syria known to Kurds as Rojava. This program would include granting rights to local assemblies to choose an official language for public life and education (the rights most famously denied to Kurds by successive Turkish governments)—“devolution plus multiculturalism,” to put it in policy terms. This formula may sound rather anodyne, but it strikes at the lungs of Turkish nationalist ideology, which in its most virulent form denies even the existence of non-Turkish minorities in Turkey.

“Turkey for a hundred years has had a very strong central state deciding everything about the people,” said Samil Altan, the sixty-three-year-old Istanbul co-chair of the HDP, speaking to me at the party’s office over tea. “Economically, socially, culturally—every decision is taken through the central channels of the republic.” Altan and his party seek to turn this order on its head. “We want the people to govern themselves in their own autonomous administrative region.”

Though not a Kurd himself—he was born in Canakkle, just over the river from Gallipoli—Altan considers these changes to be essential for his country’s future prosperity. The program his party advocates reflects Ocalan’s shift from demanding an independent Kurdish state in eastern Turkey to what the PKK leader calls “democratic confederalism,” drawing upon the ideas of the American libertarian socialist Murray Bookchin.

Altan tells me the HDP believes these ideas have been made flesh in northern Syria, where the country’s Kurds, organized around the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, have taken advantage of the hellish war to build a de-facto autonomous zone and oasis of democracy amid the chaos.

“They created a new system over there,” he said. “This is what we call a democratic autonomous region. . . . It is exactly the model we are talking [about], because there are a lot of different identities, nationalities, religious groups, and they are living together.”

“They have peoples’ assemblies coming from different sets of the people and society,” he added. “Every group of people, if they are Armenian, Assyrian, Arabs, Kurdish, Turkmens, they have the right to educate their children in their own mother tongue—this is what we call a democracy, from within, created by the people.”

Reading reports from Rojava, one can’t help but recall George Orwell’s description of revolutionary Barcelona, Spain, in 1936 as “a state of affairs worth fighting for.” Whether it will fare better in the long run than the egalitarian bastion Orwell and his comrades fought for may depend on the actions of the Turkish government.

The last thing Ankara wants is another Kurdish mini-state on its border alongside that of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq—which in June realized one of Turkey’s long-held fears when it seized control of oil-rich Kirkuk. The war in Syria and Iraq has lit a fire under tensions between Ankara and Turkey’s Kurds and threatens to destroy what little good faith has so far been achieved. The split between the two has been most acute over the siege of Kobani, the Kurdish town in northern Syria where twin guerrilla groups loyal to the PKK—the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ)—spent the last six months resisting a protracted assault from Islamic State jihadists.

In October, Kurds in Istanbul, Ankara, and some two dozen other Turkish cities launched furious protests against what they saw as Turkish complicity with the Islamic State’s advance. More than twenty people died across the country as the protesters’ barricades and Molotov cocktails were met with police tear gas and water cannons. Turkish troops eventually drove tanks into Diyarbakir, the Kurdish heartland in the east, and imposed curfews in five provinces nationwide to restore order.

This explosion of violence, not seen in Turkey since the “hotter” years of the war with the PKK, was sparked by more than just the heavy-handed police response to the protests. Many Kurds suspect the Turkish government of tacitly supporting ISIS’s assault on Kobani out of Sunni Islamist solidarity and opposition to Kurdish autonomy. In November their concerns were echoed by no less an authority than U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, who scolded Turkey for its indiscriminate supply of weapons and aid to rebel groups fighting Bashar al-Assad along with its, shall we say, relaxed attitude toward foreign jihadists crossing the Turkish border into Syria. (Biden was forced to apologize for his remarks after President Erdoğan threw a tantrum, but that didn’t make them any less accurate.) Ankara’s simultaneous refusal to allow Kurdish fighters across the border to defend Kobani, where Turkish tanks sat on a hill overlooking the bloodshed, only reinforced Kurdish suspicions that Erdoğan’s government was siding with the jihadists against them.

After the October protests the Turkish government finally allowed peshmerga fighters from Iraqi Kurdistan (though not Turkish PKK fighters) to cross into Syria and join the fight against the Islamic State militants. Altan, who as HDP Istanbul co-chair visited Kobani last year and organized the Kurdish protests in Istanbul—as did the HDP across the country—welcomed the Turkish government’s U-turn, though he wished more peshmerga fighters had been sent. He emphasized the importance of Kobani both for barring the road to ISIS and for peace and stability inside Turkey.

“Kobani became the symbol of the resistance,” he said. “If the government supports ISIS, the PKK has said, the negotiation process in Turkey will finish. You cannot kill my brother and speak with me at the table. This is no way. And we went there, we know these Kurds. These borders are not real borders. They are artificial. The brothers are living in different countries with these borders. So, you kill the brother, and say to the other, let’s talk about a peaceful solution. This is not possible. In Turkey it will be disastrous.”

If this sounds like a threat of a return to violence—Ocalan has been more explicit—it is more than matched by the rhetoric of the Turkish government, with its NATO-member army and draconian “anti-terror” laws. (Erdoğan used his televised new year’s address to denounce the Kurdish protests as “provocations” intended to sabotage the peace process, adding: “Those who try to survive or produce politics via appealing to street demonstrations, conflicts, and blood and tears will definitely receive the required response within democracy and law.”) In reality, both sides recognize they have fought each other to a stalemate, but want to maintain a strong position from which to bargain. Still, the danger of more war is real enough, and the Kurds have more to lose (their homes, their lives) than does the Turkish government, which has so far incurred only a muffled response from the EU and the United States to its heavy-handed repression.

These developments come as the public behavior of Turkey’s leader, the newly elected president (and former prime minister) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is becoming increasingly volatile. His illiberal tendencies have taken on an eccentric streak—whether it be his claim that Muslims discovered America before Columbus, that women are not equal to men (but that he respects women enough to have smelled his mother’s feet, over her objections), his declared ambition to build a mosque in Cuba (perhaps the Pope could mediate?), or his symbolic decision to erect a thousand-room palace for himself on the grounds of a park consecrated to Kemal Ataturk.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan is cozying up to a new ally with whom he shares certain leadership traits: Vladimir Putin. The two presidents recently signed a multi-million-dollar gas deal to build a pipeline through Turkey, suggesting a possible “pivot” on Erdoğan’s part from aspirations of EU membership toward joining Putin’s so-called Eurasian Union project. More likely, though, Erdoğan will attempt to play off one side against the other and act as the troll on that famous “bridge” between east and west. (Indeed, the Russian gas deal is a case in point: the pipeline was originally meant to run through Europe, but was opposed by the EU.)

Erdoğan is quickly moving to make any organized opposition impossible, as is already the case in Russia. He has targeted high-profile potential foes and former allies, slapping the exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen—a U.S. resident who fell out with Erdoğan in 2013—with a Turkish arrest warrant while his supporters at the newspaper Zaman are arrested en masse. (Gülen is accused of plotting to overthrow the Turkish government.)

Turkey urgently needs a strong democratic opposition. The HDP could be essential in acting as a progressive counterweight to the power of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) as well an alternative to the Kemalist opposition who, though ostensibly secular, remain committed to their founder’s nationalist definition of Turkish citizenship (and whose record in government has not exactly been free of autocracy).

This would require the HDP to broaden its appeal from the country’s Kurds and minorities and tap into the undercurrent of disaffection in Turkish society. One obvious demographic would be the young urban professionals and students I met in Istanbul who, after being met with rubber truncheons and tear gas for exercising their democratic rights in Gezi Park, are completely disillusioned with the ruling elite.

Though hobbled by the notoriously high threshold of votes required for a party to enter the Turkish parliament—10 percent, or double the European average—the HDP was able to secure 9.76 percent in last year’s presidential elections. (The threshold, set up as a stopper on pluralism by the generals who ruled Turkey after a 1980 coup, also denies the party a state subsidy, making it the poorest in the assembly.) The HDP’s success was thanks in part to its candidate Selahattin Demirtas, the charismatic national co-chair of the party, who has a background in human rights law. Demirtas says the HDP will contest the general election this year as a party, rather than as independent candidates (which would exempt them from the threshold), suggesting that the party is increasingly confident of its national appeal.

Kerim Yildiz, director of the Democratic Progress Institute in London and author of several books on Kurdish rights, summed up the party’s prospects to me as follows: “What we saw during the course of the presidential elections [was that] they were received extremely well by the ordinary Turkish people. And the parties like CHP [Kemalists], AKP, and others see HDP’s development as a threat to their constituencies. . . . So it will be for the benefit of Turkey if the HDP is able to become a Turkey party rather than a Kurdish party.”

“But,” he added, “the reality is the war lasted thirty years and mistrust between the two communities one hundred years. So it is not going to be easy for the HDP.”

Meanwhile, the government’s lethargic conduct of the peace process, much like its mainly cosmetic human rights reforms, is failing to overcome Kurdish fears that these gestures of conciliation are all for show. As Samil Altan told me: “They are talking about the solution. They are taking no steps. This is very, very dangerous. Because when you have expectations and they are not met, you get nervous. And to become nervous for a people of 20 million is . . . not good. It creates the possibility of new crises and clashes.”

Does the HDP stand a chance of rolling back Erdoğan’s creeping authoritarianism and steering Turkey towards the kind of radical democracy that the PYD has sought to model in Rojava? The outlook at present is not encouraging. But if Ankara continues to pursue its cynical foreign policy it could invite democratic “blowback” at home that would play into Kurdish hands. In trying to crush Kurdish autonomy in Syria, Erdoğan may have ironically ensured its survival and boosted its attraction among Kurds in Turkey. Conversely, Kurdish attempts to strengthen their position inside Turkey by supporting Rojava, as manifest in the October protests, may convince Ankara that this experiment in autonomy needs to be destroyed.

Kerim Yildiz told me he believes some form of decentralization is the best answer currently on offer to the “Kurdish question” in Turkey: “In my personal opinion, decentralization is the answer. It is not the long-term answer, but it is the short-term answer for the democratization program in Turkey.”

“In reality, every single Kurd is for independence, in their heart. But I think they also understand it is not going to be that easy to change the boundaries, and it may not be in their interests to have an independent Kurdish state. . . . At this stage I think the Kurds—particularly organisations like HDP, PKK, and others—have made very clear they are not advocating for independence. They want to have full self-determination within the state of Turkey.”

“The government in my view has not closed the door,” Yildiz added, “but the public has not been prepared for these issues.”

Of course it’s true that decentralization, whether in the form the HDP advocates or some other variant, is on its own no guarantee of democracy or human rights. Such a program might simply empower local elites, and could be met with opposition in Turkey (and not just from Turkish nationalists). But, if successful, it would provide a way out of the current impasse on Kurdish rights and act as a prophylaxis against the looming Putinization of Turkish politics. With a left-wing party leading the charge, it’s possible that loosening the central government’s historic grip on power might paradoxically strengthen Turkey as a nation-state. Embracing something of the Rojava spirit might prove to be Turkey’s best chance for peace and democracy.

Adam Barnett is a journalist based in London and a staff writer for Left Foot Forward. He visited Turkey in November 2014.

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