Last week I traveled to eastern Turkey to attend the wake of a relative. My parents' hometown Van sits on the shores of the largest lake in Turkey of the same name and has a population of nearly half-a-million people. I last visited the city in 2006 and in the interim the city has been transformed. The city was hit by a 2011 earthquake that killed nearly 700 people and the destruction of thousands of buildings. Despite all these changes, a greater change had taken place, a change within the people.
Following the victory of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in 2002, the Turkish government set out on a period of reconciliation with its sizable Kurdish minority. To be clear, the Kurds were oppressed and abused by many governments since the founding of the Republic of Turkey. They were often looked down upon and denied the rights and privileges given to other citizens of Turkey. Speaking Kurdish itself was a crime and any formal education, publishing, or cultural activities in Kurdish were largely banned.
An opportunity arose to exploit this feeling of deep resentment held by the Kurds and the communist PKK terror group was formed under the guise of Kurdish rights and Kurdish separatism. The PKK was very well funded and used as leverage against the Turkish state for decades. The question of who formed and later bankrolled the PKK is a mystery to me, however, whoever did so was masterful in their use of propaganda and effective at protecting PKK leadership. An infamous picture of PKK founder and leader Abdullah Öcalan shows him laughing and sipping wine on a luxury private plane during a meal. Not exactly the "roughing it in the mountains for the sake of the people" image the PKK's propaganda would have the people believe.
Ironically the PKK mostly killed Kurds in their terror attacks, demanding conscripts and money from rural Kurdish farmers. Nearly 40,000 Turks and Kurds died in the attacks and the Turkish government was unable to protect its own citizens for decades. This left locals with little choice but to acquiesce to the demands of the PKK when threatened at gunpoint. The PKK formed a shadow government in the cities of eastern Turkey called the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK). The KCK acted in place of the Turkish government like the mafia did in southern Italy for many decades. The KCK collected "protection money" in the form of "taxes," kidnapped young men and women under their own "military service" guidelines, and threatened and harassed locals into doing as they ordered.
The AK Party differed in its approach to clearing eastern Turkey from this scourge in that they knew concentrating on a military solution only, attacking the PKK in the mountainous regions they hid, would not be a permanent solution to their problem. The AK Party repealed laws banning the use of Kurdish and allowed for broadcasting in Kurdish. It actively chose Kurds as members of parliament and appointed them to government positions. It invested in infrastructure projects and government employment in the East so as to bring economic stability to the region.
The PKK realized they were quickly loosing support and re-branded themselves by setting up a "political wing." This wing would be liberal on the surface and appear to work for Kurdish rights while taking cues from now-jailed terror leader, Öcalan in furthering his goals. The KCK worked in concert with the PKK to threaten villages and towns to vote for their political party. Districts that did not vote for them were torched and citizens murdered. This lead to voting irregularities within some districts appearing to vote unanimously for the PKK's political party. Municipal leaders of the PKK funneled money form city coffers to the terror group and it grew stronger. Only as Kurds realized the government was no longer their enemy, did the PKK's grip on power loosen. Following the reignited terror attacks during the summer of 2015, the government moved to wipe out the remnants of the terror group and has been largely successful.
Speaking to citizens of the cities of Van, Tatvan and Bitlis, I was surprised at how normalcy had returned to these cities. The Turkish government's investments in infrastructure had begun to bear fruit and commerce in these cities has burgeoned. The people no longer pay the "protection money" they have been forced to pay for decades and thus the PKK has become desperate. They have also had decades to prepare their propaganda machine and have co-opted media outlets. The cowardly attack on a soccer stadium on Saturday that has killed over 40 people is only a sign of their desperation and is a sign that the end is near for this terror group.