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Since the Republic of Turkey was established on October 29th, 1923, the “Kurd issue” has been an important matter for the country. This problem had always existed, yet it was considered a taboo to discuss it, thus the issue was kept a secret. The interesting thing is that only recent foreign political matters in this region have boosted the solution for this sore domestic dilemma.
The history of the subject
The Kurd ethnic group is the most numerous one in Turkey: according to the official data, the number of Kurds in Turkey fluctuates from 15 to 18 million people that is almost 20% of the population of the country. In overall there are about 30-45 million of them in the entire world, they are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East (after the Arabs, the Turks and the Iranians) and the only one without a nationhood. Only in Iraq there is an autonomous Kurdish region – Iraq Kurdistan with the capital in the city of Erbil. The region is inhabited by 5.6 million Kurds. In other countries the Kurds do not even have their own autonomy.
The Kurds stand at the origins of the Arabic nationhood during the Islamic period in the X-XIII centuries. In particular Saladin who was a sultan of Kurdish origin, founded the powerful Ayyubid dynasty whose power spread on territories of Egypt, Syria and Kurdistan that played a significant role later. For a couple of centuries from then Kurdistan had been an arena of confrontation between the Ottoman and Syrian Empires. The Kurds had managed to protect their national identity at first, yet in 1638 a petition between the Ottoman Empire and Persia was signed in Kasri-Shirin, that led to the splitting of Kurdistan.
After the WWI the Ottoman Empire has ceased to be and new states were founded on its territory. According to the treaty of Sevres, which was signed on August 10th 1920, the state of Kurdistan should have also been founded. However, this clause of the treaty has never been implemented. On July 24th 1923 a new treaty was signed in Lausanne that claimed a part of the Kurdish territory to be under the supervision of the UK and France (Iraq and Syria were founded there later). Most of the territory remained inside the borders of the Republic of Turkey. Ever since then the Kurds have inhabited the territories of the four following states: Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.
The way the Turkish government treats the Kurds: back then and today
The Kurd issue did not even exist in the Ottoman Empire – Kurds simply co-existed with other nations like the Turks, the Greek, the Jews, etc. in this multi-national and multireligious formation. During the national liberation war (1918-1923) the Kurds fought Dashnaktsutyun (The Armenian Revolutionary Federation) and the European intervents for the Eastern Anatolia on the Turkish side.
At first Turkey determined its territory as a “national union, including the areas, inhabited by the Turkish and Kurd majority”. About 70 Kurds represented their nation in the first parliament in 1920. As İsmet Pasha, the Turkish representative in Lausanne claimed: “Both the Kurds and the Turks are the essential components of the Republic. The Kurds are not a minority, but a nation: the Ankara government is equally the Turkish and the Kurdish government”. However, after the first Kurdish rebellion in 1925, leaded by Cheikh Saïd, that came under religious mottoes, the Ankara policy changed dramatically. The concepts of “Kurd and “Kurdistan” were banned in 1926. The 39th article of the treaty of Lausanne, that stated that citizens of Turkey have the right to use their mother tongue in any circumstances, was violated. The Kurdish language was prohibited in the educational system and the mass media. All talks about the Kurds being repressed were suppressed straight away, anyone who objected to the current policies was strictly punished. The new state structures were subdue to the Turkish interests. The Kurds were forgotten.
It is obvious, that this led to massive rebellions of the downtrodden Kurds. During the period of 1930-1978 there were many spontaneous uprisings that Turkish government suppressed in quick and harsh ways. Only after the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (KWP) was founded in 1978 the Kurds’ actions became planned and corporate. In 1979 Turkey brought troops to the Kurdistan territory and declared martial law there.
The way the Turkish government treats the Kurds has undergone significant alterations only in the recent years. The first Turkish leading politician to speak of the “Kurd problem” was the country’s current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, thus breaking the unspoken taboo. Such a matter did not exist in the official political lexicon until then: after the foundation of the KWP and the start of its functioning under Abdullah Öcalan’s leadership it was called as the “terrorism problem” in Turkey. Erdoğan’s actions can be explained by the fact that he saw Kurds primarily as the constituent body. It is no coincidence that the consideration of the bill about the Kurd position in Turkey was set at around the same time as the president election in 2014, where Erdoğan prevailed in votes. However, the newly elected president treads lightly, in order not to give the Turkish nationalists an opportunity to accuse him of quisle if he permits using the Kurdish language in mass media and education.
Apart from Erdoğan’s personal interest in the popular vote, the current situation in the Middle East region also has had a great impact on the change of the domestic policy towards the “Kurd matter”.
A subject of creating the “independent Kurdistan” has arisen in the “Arab spring” context. There once was an anecdotal evidence that the Kurds will become the only winner on the Middle East arena. Yet the Kurdish leaders remain dissociated on the founding of their own state matter. In 2013, it was planned to assemble the Kurdish public congress, whose aim was to solve the Kurd’s union question, but it was postponed three times and in the end it never happened.
It is hard to say how the situation in the Middle East will progress and what can the events in Syria around Kurdish Kobani lead to, yet it is clear that what seemed impossible as recently as yesterday can become reality in the nearest future. Turkey is already ready to recognize the founding of the independent Kurdistan in Iraq. It opens its boundaries in order to let the Iraqi Kurds join the Syrian Kurds to protect Kobani from ISIL. Turkey runs negotiations with the KWP Öcalan in order to settle the conflict inside the country and is getting ready to implement the reforms that will concern the Kurdish situation in Turkey.