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Turkish Politics, Kurdish Rights, and the KCK Operations: An Interview with Asli Bali

[Arrested individuals being transported to their hearing in Diyarbakir as supporters look on. Image from] [Arrested individuals being transported to their hearing in Diyarbakir as supporters look on. Image from]

Turkey recently has witnessed a massive police operation against activists, advocates, academics, and publishers who are pro-Kurdish on the grounds of alleged links to the outlawed “Union of Communities in Kurdistan” (sometimes also referred to as the Kurdish Communities Union), known by its Kurdish-language acronym, the KCK. In the following interview, Aslı Bali provides some context for the “KCK Operations,” with particular reference to the role of the Justice and Development Party—known by its Turkish-language acronym, the AKP—and what these operations reflect about the broader struggle for civilian rule and democratization. The interview was conducted via Skype on 2 November 2011, video clips of which are posted below in response to each of the questions. The interview was transcribed by Kristina Benson.

Some Background

The Turkish government justifies these “anti-KCK” operations on the grounds that the KCK is an umbrella organization that includes the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known by its Kurdish-language acronym as the PKK, and serves as its political wing. The PKK is considered a terrorist organization by the Turkish government and is also designated as a terrorist organization by the United States. The Turkish government attributes an escalation of violence in southeast Turkey to the PKK and its supporters, and alleges that the KCK is the PKK’s urban and political wing.

The KCK investigation was initiated in December 2009. In the first wave of arrests at that time, prominent pro-Kurdish political activists, politicians, and elected officials were taken into custody, primarily in the southeastern provinces of Turkey. Each uptick in violence in the southeast has witnessed additional rounds of anti-KCK operations and detentions. Between December 2009 and June 2010, the government had rounded up over 150 alleged KCK members, many of them members of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (Baris ve Demokrasi Partisi, or BDP), including mayors and other elected municipal officials. Charges included various crimes such as membership in a terrorist organization, aiding and abetting a terrorist organization, or threats to the territorial integrity of the state.

Sporadic arrests and indictments along these lines continued throughout 2010, but the most recent re-initiation and escalation of the anti-KCK operations began in July 2011, following an attack in the province of Diyarbakir that killed thirteen Turkish soldiers. In addition to undertaking a massive military campaign against alleged PKK fighters, the Turkish government also responded to the attacks by renewing its campaign against the alleged urban and political wing of the PKK, namely the KCK. But these operations have entailed a much wider net being cast against pro-Kurdish activists than in previous periods, including in the western cities of the country and targeting intellectuals and academics. Most recently, in the last week a constitutional law professor, Busra Ersanli, and a prominent author and publisher, Ragip Zarakolu, were detained, together with over forty others, on suspicion of links to the KCK.

The Kurdish community of Turkey represents as much as twenty percent of the country’s population – in other words, perhaps as many as fifteen million citizens of the country. The Kurdish community is a linguistically distinct minority in Turkey, speaking an Indo-European language unrelated to Turkish, and native to the region of Kurdistan that spans across adjacent parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. The Turkish government tried to forcibly assimilate this community during the first decades of the republic and these efforts met with Kurdish resistance. The result of the failed assimilationist policies of the government and the resulting resistance movements in the Kurdish communities of Turkey has produced what the Turkish government views as the “Kurdish problem.”

The Kurdish resistance movement in Turkey has historically included both peaceful political activities and human rights advocacy, and an armed secessionist movement. Beginning in the 1980s, the Turkish government sought to resolve the “Kurdish problem” militarily by engaging in armed conflict with the PKK, resulting in a low-grade civil war in the southeastern provinces that claimed the lives of as many as forty thousand people, many of them Kurdish and Turkish civilians (in addition to Turkish soldiers and members of the PKK). Beyond the death toll, the fifteen years from 1984 to 1999 witnessed the forcible evacuation of Kurdish villages, the depopulation and impoverishment of the southeastern provinces, and a very wide range of serious human rights abuses. With the capture of the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1999, both the Turkish government and the Kurdish resistance movements de-emphasized the military component of the conflict and began to search for a political solution.

Over the more than a decade since 1999, pro-Kurdish political activists have formed a number of political parties (Democratic People’s Party [DEHAP], the Democratic Society Movement [DTH], the Democratic Society Party [DTP], and now the Peace and Democracy Party [BDP]) and sought change through non-violent political organizing and appeal to the legal and political institutions of the Turkish government. In December 2009, the Turkish Constitutional Court disbanded the DTP on the grounds that the party had become a focal point for activity that threatened the territorial integrity of the state, as a result of alleged ties to the PKK. The decision led to the expulsion of two DTP MPs from the Turkish parliament and banned another thirty-five party members for joining any political party for five years. The remaining parliamentarians, elected municipal officials, and other members of the DTP joined the newly formed BDP, the successor pro-Kurdish political party. The closure of the DTP coincided with the beginning of the anti-KCK operations in December 2009, a period that marked the most recent reversion of the Turkish government to repression as its principal strategy in addressing the “Kurdish problem.”

The “anti-KCK operations” strike at the heart of pro-Kurdish political organizing in Turkey, seriously endangering the possibility of a political solution and returning the conflict to a military and counter-terrorism framing, that is, a framing that has long been associated with massive human rights violations and widespread persecution of the Kurdish community in Turkey.

Ziad Abu-Rish (ZA): In light of this historical context of state policies vis-a-vis Turkey's Kurdish population, and the fact that the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) represents a newly emerging political and economic elite in Turkey, can you tell us about the relationship between the AKP and the Kurdish political community in Turkey? Did the election of the AKP hold promise for the broader issue of Kurdish rights in Turkey?

Asli Bali (AB): 

The hope had been initially that the AKP government—the current governing party in Turkey—would reverse some of these policies. They came into office with a sort of brotherhood platform in 2002/2003, claiming that they were interested in engaging in peace talks to end the longstanding civil conflict and, in addition, reaching out, incorporating Kurdish demands, becoming much more flexible and pluralist in their orientation to political organizing, language rights, cultural rights, and so on. At one point, the current prime minister—Recep Tayyip Erdogan—in 2005 made a public statement saying that the Kurdish problem is a “Turkish problem,” it is “my problem.” In other words, saying that there is a Kurdish community, that there is a genuine political problem in our political community in Turkey, and that it was something that the civilian government should and must address.

From that time, from that high point in 2005, we have seen nothing but reversal; including, beginning at the end of 2009, a really draconian campaign allegedly targeting this KCK but in fact a much, much broader operation targeting the heart of the possibility of political organizing in the Kurdish community. So this period began with a closure of what was then the principal pro-Kurdish political party seated in government. This was a party that actually had parliamentary seats.

The DTP was closed by the Turkish constitutional court. Now we could say that this was not something directly under the control of the AKP government. In fact, that same Turkish constitutional court had initiated a case in order to determine whether or not to close the AKP party. The governing party had also been threatened with party closure at the same time. So basically two cases were initiated: one against the AKP and one against the DTP. The case against the AKP ended sort of favorably for the AKP—they were almost closed, one vote shy of being closed—but they had to pay fines, they were accused of being a focal point of anti-secular activism in Turkey. The DTP did not have the same benefit. They were in fact closed. This is a very common tactic in Turkey: the closure of political parties. And indeed the parliamentarians that were members of the DTP anticipated this and had already created a reserve political party, the BDP, which is the current pro-Kurdish political party in the Turkish political arena, and is currently seated in parliament today.

The BDP was formed immediately before the DTP was closed, and persons who were part of the DTP transferred to the BDP. But at the time of the DTP closure, not only did this current government—the AKP—fail to denounce the Turkish constitutional court for engaging in this, they also allowed the security services—allowed or directed, it is hard to say—in 2009 to engage in mass arrests: mayors, party affiliates, organizers, activists, and so on, in December of 2009 throughout the Kurdish area. So throughout the southeast.

This was really the beginning of over two thousand people being detained as part of these supposedly anti-KCK operations. This has new reached to the point that we are far outside of the southeastern provinces of Turkey. It is reaching, for example, progressive publishing houses and academics who work on this question. Basically anybody who is engaged in left politics and is pro-Kurdish is now at risk. It has generated tremendous un-ease, not only—obviously—in the Kurdish community, but also amongst liberals throughout Turkey.

Some notable figures have most recently been arrested in October of 2011. Ayca Berkati and Ragıp Zarakolu, both of them very progressive publishers based in Istanbul, have been taken into custody. The son of Ragıp Zarakolu, Deniz Zarakolu, who is a graduate student working at an Istanbul university, was taken in for the fact that he had worked as a political organizer associated with the BDP, which is a legal political party in Turkey. Most recently, about five days ago, we have a constitutional law professor, TKTK, who was advising the BDP, again the sitting pro-Kurdish party which is part of our government, which is actually in parliament. She was advising them on constitutional law matters because the current government was undertaking a new civilian constitutional project and the BDP—as a party in parliament—is of course interested on being advised on constitutional law matters in connection to that effort. She was their advisor, and for her troubles and her academic expertise, and her willingness to work with the BDP, has found herself detained.

ZA: On what basis is the current campaign of arrests, detentions, and prosecutions against pro-Kurdish activists and intellectuals being carried out?


Broadly speaking, the Turkish penal code is very liberal in allowing the government to undertake various kinds of police actions under the rubric of counter-terrorism. So essentially, all of this is under those claims. But the description of counter-terrorism has now gotten to the point that evidence that may support a terrorist indictment can include your music collection, your literature collection, the types of academic research you engage in, and so forth. Essentially anything that suggests that you are involved in support of the Kurdish community’s organizing could in fact, at this point, be used as some basis for detention. I should say that secrecy in evidence is also widely practiced in the justice system in Turkey.

The justice system is one wherein there are broad anti-terrorism powers. There are broad powers to maintain detentions on the basis of secret evidence. There are measures that allow the government to withhold from the defense counsel access to the evidence being used, to search and seize materials including academic research materials, and so forth, and use that—often in secret—as part of an indictment. Broadly speaking, it is the penal code’s counter-terrorism provisions that enable this kind of widespread operation that targets political activism to be undertaken under the rubric of counterterrorism.

ZA: Given the assumed departure that the AKP represents from the traditional political establishment in Turkey, how do we make sense of the fact that the "KCK operations" are being carried out under an AKP-led government?


First of all, I do not want to be misunderstood. I said earlier that the AKP failed to denounce the action by the constitutional court. At that time, it certainly was not in a position to control that court. So it is fair to say that the AKP is not responsible for the closure of the DTP. Although, it could have done a great deal more in response. But since that time, many of the initiatives we have seen, including the military initiatives that we have seen both in the southeast and in northern Iraq, have absolutely had the support of the AKP.

This is not a question of the AKP being unable to control the military. This is a question of the civilian government in control of the military, specifically advocating the militarization of this question as a result of, first, one incident in which thirteen Turkish soldiers were killed over a year ago; and more recent incidents where there were larger numbers of deaths, but again amongst Turkish soldiers. We are not talking about attacks on civilians. [This] has occasioned a major military operation.

Now what we are talking about—the KCK operations—are the civilian side, the police side, of that military campaign. So this is entirely in the AKP’s control. This is entirely something being directed by the AKP, which absolutely does control, today, the state security organs and the police powers of the state. So it is the AKP that is deciding to engage in this crackdown.

The explanation in my mind is that, first of all, the AKP is a very effective political force in part because it is not the departure that some think it is from the Kemalist model. It is true that the AKP is distinct from previous governments in Turkey in it’s line with respect to religious pluralism and religious rights. But on the question of nationalism, the AKP is absolutely cut from the same cloth as other political parties have been in Turkey. In their view, the solution, basically, to the Kurdish problem, lies in their kind of Kurds. So if you are going to be a Kurdish political activist within the AKP government, within the AKP rubric, under their umbrella, pursuing their policies, and their understanding of the “solution” to the “Kurdish problem,” then they are more than happy to do business with you. But if you insist on autonomy, if you insist on organizing Kurds outside of the AKP government rubric in their own party, with their own political definition of their rights, with their own sense of what it is that their demands are, what they are seeking, well then you are not the kind of Kurd that the AKP government is prepared to embrace. So what we are seeing, in my mind, is entirely consistent with the stance that the AKP has taken. On the one hand, it is worth noting that they have actually been better in some respects than previous governments. This is only to say, of course, that previous governments were that much worse to the point that speaking the Kurdish language, using Kurdish names, singing and recording songs in Kurdish, and so forth had been previously criminalized.

So some of this was liberalized and this was a source of hope. And indeed, again in 2009, the AKP government introduced what they defined as the “Kurdish opening.” President Abdullah Gül, beginning in 2008, tried to allegedly engage with communities in the southeast. But again, this is the AKP engaging in an initiative from within its own ranks to essentially internalize the Kurdish question and turn it into part of an AKP platform or agenda. When that failed, basically what the AKP has done since that time is to return to form, as have all Turkish political parties in that context since the 1980 military coup. Which is to say, treat the Kurdish question as a military and counter-terrorism question and engage in very far reaching police action to break up the possibility of ordinary civilian peaceful political organizers organizing around the Kurdish identity in Turkey.

ZA: Much has been written about the struggle for civilianization and democratization in Turkey in light of the AKP's emergence as a dominant political force in Turkey. What in your opinion are the prospects for both civilianization and democratization given what has been transpiring in Turkey?


Well, civilianization is a slightly different question. It is true that the AKP has had some success in civilianization. That has not altered the situation in the southeast, only because the civilian government is now more than happy to deploy the military. So civilianization was a question of who controls the military and I think the AKP has made significant strides in that direction, tragically without making any change at all—from the Kurdish community’s perspective—on the ground as to what they confront every day in terms of the militarization of the Kurdish question itself. That is now being directed equally by the civilian government.

In terms of hopes for democratization, the hopes lie elsewhere. The hopes for democratization, particularly on the question of ethnic identity and ethnic fault lines that have been revealed in Turkey and that are just an ongoing source of cleavage since the founding of the republic, lie largely with the Kurdish community. I do not mean to say that responsibility for solving this lies with the Kurdish community, far from it. But the hope that we are seeing some movement in the direction of thinking about how a democratic solution might emerge, the only source of hope has come out of the Kurdish community which has become more and more politically astute in its organizing.

The BDP is an excellent force in parliament. They mounted a very effective campaign last year with respect to the constitutional referendum, having Kurdish provinces essentially withhold from supporting a government initiative which in some senses would have potentially had great support in the Kurdish provinces. But as a result of the show of force that the BDP is in fact able to command a political opposition, and that it will resist AKP initiatives unless the AKP actually reaches out and engages with them as a partner. So I think the BDP, or more generally Kurdish political parties in the Turkish arena are becoming more and more astute, politically sophisticated, powerful and have really embraced an agenda of democratic political change. That is really the only source of hope.

I think the AKP has shown itself to be truly in the model of its own former opponents on the Kemalist or secular side of Turkey, organizing precisely around the same ultra-nationalist positions as those parties did; whether in terms of its orientation towards Abdullah Öcalan, who remains in detention in Turkey and was convicted and is serving his prison sentence, or whether in terms of the general attitudes towards peaceful political organizing, or in terms of their tolerance for elected political officials, or in terms of the reach of their operations against academics, progressive publishers, basically every potential part of civil society that supports Kurdish autonomous political organizing. So the AKP has shown itself to not be a source of hope on this question. Maybe it can be moved and the way to move it is to persuade it that there is no such a thing as the AKP’s Kurds versus other Kurds organizing autonomously, but rather there is an essentially united Kurdish community in Turkey that is demanding its political rights and demands to be engaged with as a partner as opposed to a junior member at the AKP’s own table.

2 comments for "Turkish Politics, Kurdish Rights, and the KCK Operations: An Interview with Asli Bali"


Thanks for this interview, although you do not mention who Ms. Bali is. My family has been affected by the latest round of arrests and the threats by the Prime Minister seem to suggest worse it to come. We are all angry and scared.

Jeffrey Gibbs wrote on November 09, 2011 at 01:12 PM

@ Jeffrey Gibbs: If you re-read the first paragraph introducing the interview, you will note that Asli Bali's name is hyperlinked to a bio page, which also features her other contributions to Jadaliyya. Take care.

Ziad Abu-Rish wrote on December 14, 2011 at 01:56 AM

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