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Socialist Review, February 1994


Balanced on a knife edge

From Socialist Review, No. 172, February 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The Turkish government, faced with massive debt, is preparing for an all out assault on the working class and the Kurds. Here a socialist from Turkey assesses the forces involved in the coming clash and in particular looks at the politics of the Kurdish liberation movement

When she returned from the US recently, Turkish prime minister Tansu Ciller said that 1994 would be a very difficult year for the Turkish economy and that ‘painful treatment’ would be necessary. In 1994 Turkey is entering into a deep recession. The central problem is indebtedness.

A full 40 percent of the 1994 state budget of 1,000 trillion Turkish lira (£50 billion) will go on military expenditure. In the last three years that expenditure has grown to four times its previous size. The president of the military general command is demanding an even greater increase. The aim is to militarily defeat the Kurdish liberation movement headed by the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party).

In Kurdistan today there are 150,000–200,000 Turkish conscript soldiers. In addition there are around 50,000 specially trained professional commandos and about the same number of village guards – irregular soldiers recruited from the local population. Finally, there are 15,000–20,000 police and secret servicemen. So in total a security force of around 300,000 is fighting 15,000–20,000 guerrillas.

The roots of the Kurdish national liberation movement began at the end of the 19th century. As the Ottoman empire tried to centralise itself there was a series of revolts. These, however, were mostly under the leadership of feudal lords. After the foundation of the Turkish republic, there were three big Kurdish revolts between 1923 and 1936. These risings were brutally put down by the Turkish state. After each revolt tens of thousands of Kurds were slaughtered and hundreds of thousands were forcibly deported to the Turkish regions in the west of Turkey.

Since the last of these revolts, the Turkish state has pursued a concentrated policy of assimilation. The Kurdish language was made illegal, and for a Kurd even to claim to be a Kurd became a punishable offence. Throughout the last 70 years on the one hand the state has tried to make Kurdistan Turkish, on the other hand it has continued to deport the Kurdish population from the area. In the 1970s, in parallel with the revival of the Kurdish liberation movements in Iran and Iraq, the growth of the left and the great waves of Turkish workers’ struggle in 1965–70 and 1973–80 opened the way for the first Kurdish liberation movement to appear in Turkey.

In the 1970s the previously united organisations of the Turkish left one after another gave birth to Kurdish organisations and the Turkish left lost its ability to organise in Kurdistan. The most important reason for this was the left nationalist (Kemalist) ideas of the Turkish left. The PKK, now the undisputed leader of the national liberation movement, was born in the mid 1970s. It was not an important political force then. Nevertheless, after the 1980 coup, the PKK gathered an important section of its cadre in Syria and started to gain strength rapidly.

The PKK is a typical Stalinist organisation. It is nationalist, with a programme limited to national demands. The demand for independence is not openly stated, although the sharp criticism of the Iraqi Kurdish movement’s demands for autonomy creates the impression that the PKK is aiming for independence. Nevertheless, from time to time the PKK leadership repeats that it is officially in favour of a united state. In the early days the PKK depended on cadres recruited from students and the urban poor. With the development of the guerrilla movement, it has started to get support from poor peasants. In the last four years, the PKK has won support from the Kurdish bourgeoisie and landlords. Thus it has become in every sense a classic national liberation movement.

Nearly 10,000 people have died in the last ten years of guerrilla struggle. Of these roughly a quarter have been state security forces, a quarter PKK guerrillas and the remainder civilians. The guerrilla movement, which started in a fairly restricted geographical area, expanded last summer to cover a very wide area. The war, previously restricted to the areas bordering Syria and Iraq, spread to the areas bordering Armenia and Iran. Thus nearly half of Turkish Kurdistan became a hot war zone. In the Botan and Amed districts, where the PKK is strongest (near to the Iraqi and Syrian borders), the PKK has military and therefore political superiority and has taken over the functions of the state. In these districts the PKK operates courts, collects taxes and in practice conscripts young men into the PKK. After three years of operating this way, the number of PKK guerrillas has increased to between 15,000 and 20,000. With unemployment among the active population at 50 percent, joining the national liberation movement as a guerrilla seems to youth in the area to be the only solution.

Up to the Gulf War, the only safe area for the PKK was in Syria. Syria was supporting a movement without a clear chance of military victory. After the Gulf War, the de facto Kurdish state in north Iraq also became a secure zone for the PKK. Despite the fact the leadership remains in Syria, the greater part of the PKK’s forces are settled in north Iraq.

This year will be crucial both for the Turkish state and for the PKK. Because of the recession, the Turkish ruling class is preparing an all out assault on the working class. There is an intensive programme of privatisations. All the big companies are planning to reduce the size of their operations, and there is talk of freezing civil servants’ wages. On the other hand, the ruling class wants a reduction in the percentage of the budget going to the war.

The ruling class wants the army to be used not just against the Kurds but against the working class. However both the civilian and military bureaucracies are firmly against even the tiniest concession to the Kurds. Despite this, one result of the ten year Kurdish national struggle is that the state now officially accepts the existence of a Kurdish identity.

The state wide local elections this March will, to a large degree, determine the developments. In Kurdistan the Democracy Party (DEP) will stand in the elections and should win a large majority. The government, the press and the other parties all agree on this point. Such a result will serve to deepen the political crisis. Any attempt to expel from parliament or ban a party that has won 60–70 percent of the vote in Kurdistan will be difficult.

There is a strong possibility that the local election results will put an early general election on the agenda. Such an election would see the Kurdish party emerging with clear evidence of a mass base.

The economic crisis of the ruling class and the need for a frontal attack on the working class means it will try to find a political solution in Kurdistan. A Turkish army that has been militarily defeated by the Kurdish movement can hardly be expected to win a victory over the working class at the same time. Despite this, preparations for a coup can be expected from the army or at least some sections of officers. These sorts of developments might seem at first sight to offer a prospect of stability to the ruling class. In fact they would do nothing more than deepen the instability.

At the moment the state’s trump card is nationalism. Throughout Turkey there is a tremendous nationalist wave. No opportunity is lost to explain how big, important and invincible Turkey is. Every sporting success, in judo, wrestling, weightlifting, boxing and most recently football, is used as evidence. Iraq, Syria, Iran, Armenia and Greece are once again portrayed as enemies. Armenia and Greece are explicitly described as enemies and the elections of Zhirinovsky in Russia and Papandreou in Greece have been used as the excuse for extending military service by four months. It is now planned to increase the size of the army by 250,000 men.

The encouragement of chauvinism by political parties, government and the media has opened the way for middle class street demonstrations and the biggest gainer from this has been the fascist party. The fascist MHP is still developing a mass base, is recruiting fast and is gradually preparing to move onto the streets in the way it did in the 1970s. In November a demonstration led by the MHP marched on the Kurdish districts in the town in a dress rehearsal for a repeat of the 1978 massacre in Maras, another mixed Kurdish/Turkish town, where 1,000 people were slaughtered.

After developing its cadre the fascist movement is preparing to become a mass organisation. It is expecting to mobilise the middle classes against the working class using chauvinism. In this period in Kurdistan and in mixed Kurdish/Turkish towns they are staging large scale provocations in preparation for massacres in the future. Turkey is balanced on a knife edge. The simultaneous rise of the Kurdish national movement and the workers’ movement, with the Kurdish movement demonstrating through military success the size of its base coinciding with a rising workers’ movement, a violent clash will start and the victor of this struggle could well be the national movement and the working class.

Despite all its successes, it is not possible for the Kurdish movement to win independence militarily. Iran, Iraq and Syria along with Western powers, NATO and Russia do not yet favour an independent Kurdish state, though Britain and France have recently indicated moves in this direction. The de facto independent Kurdish state in north Iraq is entirely dependent on the West and on Turkey. For this reason the solution of the Kurdish national question depends on the organisation of the working class in Kurdistan, its political strength and on its winning the leadership of the national movement.

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