Both ideologically and in the way it emphasizes violence, the PKK is the most radical Kurdish political movement Turkey has ever seen. In the final two decades of the twentieth century, the PKK waged a bloody and costly guerilla war on the Turkish government which killed tens of thousands of people, reaching its peak in the 1990’s when many villages in the southeast part of Turkey (a predominantly Kurdish region) were destroyed. Thousands of Kurds were displaced and fled to other parts of the country.
The PKK originally emerged from one of the radical left tendencies in the Kurdish student movement of the 1970’s when some students (both Kurds and Turks) decided to dedicate themselves to the cause of liberating the Kurdish people from oppression on a class and a national level. They went east, attempting to mobilize disaffected Kurdish youth against the government. Abdullah Ocalan became their leader as they formally organized the group in 1978, assuming dictatorial powers.
Back in 1920, following the end of WWI, originated the reason for Kurdish oppression; the Treaty of Sevres, which was supposed to be implemented in Turkey in 1920, providing for an autonomous Kurdistan. However, Turkey forced modifications to be made in the treaty and the plan was never put into place. Since then, the Kurds have never been allowed full rights as a minority in Turkey.
So what is it that they want? The goal of the PKK, in the eyes of the Turkish government, is to separate from Turkey and create their own state. Most Kurds, however, simply wish for greater autonomy within the existing borders of Turkey.
The PKK was one of several Kurdish nationalist organizations around the time of the 1980 military coup in Turkey, and it was the sole survivor; the rest of the groups were wiped out in the wake of the coup. Ocalan had escaped to Syria earlier, where he gained support from Palestine and Syria and was able to organize guerilla training in Lebanon and later northern Iraq.
By 1984, the PKK actually started carrying out raids on military positions in Turkey, and despite all of Turkey’s counterinsurgency operations, such as bombings of suspected Kurdish camps and even invasions of Iraq, the PKK struck deep into the heart of the country. The countryside was torn apart as both the PKK and the government pressured villagers to take sides and either group would react forcefully if they suspected any disloyalty. The 1990’s brought on a few ideological and strategic changes as the PKK renounced their original goal of a united, independent Kurdistan and instead aimed for a much more modest deal with the Turkish government. It showed support for legal, pro-Kurdish parties, attempting without much success to bring them under its control.
Although the PKK attempted to engage Turkish authorities in negotiations and at several points announced a unilateral ceasefire, the PKK was unable to turn the war from a military struggle to a purely political one. Abdullah Ocalan was hunted down and put on trial for high treason in 1999, and was originally sentenced to death, but the sentence was later changed to lifelong imprisonment in 2002. At this time, the PKK underwent a bit of a struggle with its identity, changing the name of the organization numerous times in just a few years, claiming non-violent and democratic intentions, and saying it would work within the confines of Turkish law to improve the status of the oppressed Kurdish people.
What needs to happen for the Turkish government to make peace with the Kurds? The struggle in Turkey seems to spiral more and more out of control as time goes on, with the end of the brief ceasefire between Ankara and the PKK in 2013 and with President Erdogan fueling the fight with the PKK in order to gain a political advantage in 2015. Since the breakdown of the ceasefire in the summer of 2015, the violence in southeast Turkey has been reminiscent of the devastation of that region in the 80’s and 90’s. The situation must be disturbing for Erdogan, who is seen as the perpetrator of this war; he took on the Kurds militarily, using his campaign against them to garner votes He persuaded voters that he and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) were the only ones who could cope with the PKK terror threat.
Erdogan claims he wants a deal that would end the thirty years of war between Turkey and the PKK rebels, but hasn’t taken any action to push forward with a peace process. According to a 2013 New York Times article, “until he understands that the Kurdish problem in Turkey is about politics and identity, and not just about getting the guerrillas to withdraw from Turkey and give up their weapons, there will be no hope for peace.”
But Erdogan is not the only problematic person involved; Ocalan may not be the right guy to negotiate with, or to ensure democracy for the Kurds, as he is highly authoritarian – while he was based in Syria for nearly two decades, he consolidated power by killing or isolating challengers. A peace deal between the Turkish government and the Kurds needs to answer the Kurds’ call for human rights in a way that will protect the views of the Kurdish people as a whole, not just Ocalan and the PKK.
The Kurds aren’t asking for as much as they once were; they desire autonomy and an end to the repression of Kurdish activism. Turkey hopes for security and preservation of its borders. Rather than treating the PKK as a sort of security problem and negotiating solely with Ocalan, Erdogan should focus on a solution that actually addresses the Kurds’ grievances concerning cultural rights and autonomy.