Kurdish-Iranian academic Abbas Vali assessed the current stage of the reconciliation process which the government launched to end the decades-long Kurdish conflict and talked about possible repercussions of Öcalan's call for disarmament on Newruz
Last Saturday, imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan's message was read in front of hundreds of thousands of people in the southeastern city of Diyarbakır. In his historic letter Öcalan invited the PKK to hold a congress to lay down arms and his call was considered a milestone event in the reconciliation process since the announcement of a cease-fire in 2013. Daily Sabah spoke with Kurdish-Iranian academic Professor Abbas Vali about the current state of the reconciliation process and regional affects of the process and possibility of a grand Kurdish state in the Middle East.
How would you comment on Abdullah Öcalan's Nevruz message?
I think it is a very strong confirmation of his desire for a resolution. In his message he invited the PKK to hold a congress with the intention of laying down arms. This is opening the way for the conclusion of the reconciliation process.
From my point of view the most important think in this message is that it has been years that he has repeatedly confirmed his intention of peace and commitment. Everybody thinks that this is a message to his followers and the PKK leadership in the Qandil Mountains. Yes, this is right, but also it's a very strong message to the government through to the public in order to confirm the legitimacy of his aims and intentions. He needs very strong, open and transparent government commitment in the form of a very well-defined framework for negotiations with stages toward defined objectives. If these government commitments will be made transparent and public it could encourage the PKK leadership to take positive steps when they hold this congress. In other words, what I am trying to emphasize is that Mr. Öcalan asked the PKK to follow his ways, but it's also a very strong request for the government in a very transparent way to go along with formal and legally sanctioned framework for negotiations toward a resolution.
After 40 years of war both Turkey and the PKK have come to realize that armed conflict will not solve anything and it's not a solution. This is a very important step. I met with Mr. Öcalan in 1999 when he was in Italy and we talked extensively about this issue. Even at that time he was convinced that war was a deadlock both for Kurds and Turks. War can offer no democratic solution to the Kurdish question. We discussed viable ways of getting out of it and starting a peaceful process. I believe he is sincere and ready, he is committed to a democratic solution. But I must also add that the PKK leadership has serious reservations about embarking on disarmament as they have grave doubts about the real intentions of the government in the peace process.
From this point how would you assess the current stage of the reconciliation process?
Peace is always preferable to war, always more significant than wars and any Kurd would welcome it, any Kurd anywhere in Kurdistan. When the process started I said in an interview with a Turkish newspaper that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has taken a very courageous step in the right direction. He must now show his statesmanship. When you negotiate with a non-sovereign actor, a person or an organization or a political movement, you should negotiate within a democratic context with an open agenda and a specified plan and recognize the full rights and identity of this non-sovereign person, organization or movement. Recognition of a non-sovereign body by a sovereign body in the process of negotiations for peace gives a legal character to the non-sovereign body and prepares it for entering into a legal political process. The recognition of the rights and identity of the Kurdish community, Kurdish movement and their political representation is necessary to remove it from the sphere of national security. This is an essential condition for a genuine peace process. From my point of view, a condition for the resolution of the process is that the government should stop looking at the Kurdish question as a question of national security. They should look at negotiating with the PKK as a question of democratization political processes in Turkey. The de-securitization of negotiations and the recognition of rights is the essential condition for disarmament. In this sense, I believe the key to the disarmament is in fact in the hands of the government.
I believe the key to disarmament is not in the hands of the PKK. In fact, the government is holding the key to disarmament. The government must take steps to de-securitize the Kurdish question and embark on a democratic peace process. Both sides should take part in legally sanctioned negotiations with full recognition of each other and a democratically agreed upon framework and common agenda for negotiations.
If the PKK hesitates to disarm it does not mean that it wants to continue with a military option and war. Given the government's conduct of taking one step forward and two steps back, the PKK leadership believes holding on to arms is the only way to be taken seriously and staying in the process of negotiations. Mr. Erdoğan and Mr. Davutoğlu said that the peace process is a vital issue for Turkey. But if it is really that vital then the government must show the political will and take vital steps and start direct talks with the PKK.
In recent years the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government made some reforms such as allowing Kurdish TV channels, using the Kurdish names of towns, Kurdish election literature and so on. Don't you believe that these reforms are sufficient?
Not at all. When you recognize an identity you should also recognize civil and democratic rights related to that identity. For instance, the government's approach to the Kurdish language is neither politically sufficient nor culturally accurate. Kurds want constitutional recognition of the Kurdish language and the specific educational processes and institutions necessary to teach and learn it alongside Turkish at all levels, and I think the government must do that if it is interested in the successful conclusion of the reconciliation process.
I have an idea that will concern Kurds and Turks in Turkey. I believe that constitutional reform, particularly a democratic conception of citizenship, is a very good idea, it is necessary, but not enough. The government should also introduce a bill of rights for citizens that is formulated by civil society institutions, and this bill of rights should be incorporated in a new constitution. I have in mind examples of the constitutions in the Czech Republic and South Africa. This bill of rights would be the real guarantee of the rights of citizens vis a vis the state. Because constitutions are always concerned with the codification of power from the point of the state, they address citizens and their rights from this stand point. We need a bill of rights to address the communal framework of the authority of the government and the limits of political power from the perspective of the rights of citizens and the community and this would be good for Turks, Kurds and everybody in Turkey.
In your opinion, how will the reconciliation process be finalized, and what kind of impact will it have on the region?
It will affect the region significantly. It will help the political process in Iraq and provide great help for Iraqi Kurds and it will definitely frighten the Iranian government. From the beginning Iran was against Turkey's reconciliation process and tried to derail it. If the reconciliation process is successful it may have grave consequences for Iran, which has the second largest Kurdish community after Turkey and still denies having a Kurdish issue
If we look at it from a regional perspective, how do you evaluate the emergence of Kurdish identity that has come following the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and how would you describe the future of this Kurdish identity?
Kurdish identity has always had two dimensions, national and regional. The national dimension is represented by the people living in one of the four parts of Kurdistan, the four separate territorial domains where Kurds live. The regional dimension supersedes territorial divisions and is represented by Kurds living in the region as a whole. The regional dimension of Kurdish identity is a result of the division of Kurdish territory by political borders first in 1514 and then in 1918. The two dimensions of Kurdish identity are interrelated and, in practice, influence each other constantly. The division in 1918 attached parts of Kurdish territory to the new states of Iraq and Syria, which were established by colonial powers in the colonial framework of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. At present, both states are experiencing crises of sovereignty, which means a crisis of the working of political power, its capacity to use all means at its disposal to ensure political domination over it population within its sovereign territory. These crises of sovereignty are very different from the crisis that started the Arab Spring. That was the crisis of the legitimacy of political power and its conformity with law, especially constitutional law. However, when Syria sunk into a state of chaos and disorder, especially after the emergence of ISIS, the nature of the crisis had changed. It was no longer a crisis of legitimacy of power, the legality of the conduct of power, but its inability to work and create political domination and order. It was in other words a crisis of sovereignty. Here the question that I am raising is viability of the historical colonial framework of the state in Syria and Iraq. Now that these states have started to crumble we see very clearly that the regional and national dimensions of Kurdish identity have been connected. As a result there is an emergence of this identity as a potent and active political force in political fields in Iraq and Syria.
Kurdish political and discursive activity and political demands have become prominent and are attracting regional and international attention. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq and Kurdish political forces in Syria, especially the Democratic Union Party (PYD) are trying to relocate themselves within the context of these crises and implement their strategic programs and plans. If Kurdish identity has been brought into the forefront of regional, Middle Eastern politics, it is because of the crises of sovereignty in Syria and Iraq and their impact on the Kurdish community and Kurdish identity. Moreover, these crises of sovereignty have provided the means to connect the two dimensions of Kurdish identity and release its internal dynamics.
With increasing Kurdish nationalism, what would be the result of statelessness? Would an autonomous region, which may be obtained from four countries, be enough in the long run?
As Kurds we have an identity has two aspects – locally separate but regionally interconnected. This means that Kurds can stay as a single, uniform national entity in the region but pursue different local political and cultural aims and objectives. It is neither possible nor desirable to decide on one single political program for all Kurds living in the four different parts of Kurdistan. Mr. Öcalan and the PKK have openly said that they do not want to establish a separate state. They do not believe in reviving the concept of the nation-state and national sovereignty as an appropriate legal-political framework for the Kurds of Turkey. A similar issue is raised in Iran, though in a different framework. Kurds of Iran also want recognition of their identity and democratic rights in a federal political framework. They do not demand a separate state. Iraqi Kurds have their autonomy and regional government and they seem to be the closest Kurdish ethnic entity to independence. On the other hand, Kurds of Syria see the issue differently as their model for self-rule also excludes a sovereign nation-state. Basically, these four entities have different ways of approaching the recognition of their Kurdish identity and the realization of their democratic rights. They cannot be put in a single legal political framework. Those who fear a grand Kurdish state should not be too worried. This is not because such a state is theoretically impossible, but because Kurds are acutely aware of the fact that they have different needs in different parts of Kurdistan and that they require different legal-political frameworks and socio-cultural programs.
Ten years ago even the idea of an independent Kurdish state was a major source of political anxiety and a security concern for Turkey. But Turkey has now managed to come to terms with this reality. However, the idea of an independent Kurdish state is still a nightmare for Iran because the Iranian government still denies the existence of a Kurdish issue in its territory.
Who is Abbas Vali
Abbas Vali was born in 1949 in Mahabad, Iran. He obtained a bachelor's degree in political science from the National University of Iran. He then moved to the U.K. and obtained a master's of arts in politics from the University of Keele and received his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of London.
Professor Vali is a distinguished Kurdish political and social theorist specializing in modern and contemporary political thought and modern Middle Eastern politics and currently teaches at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul.
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