Washington Kurdish Institute
June 22, 2017
An estimated 20 million Kurds currently live in Turkey. Yet, today these people live in constant fear and surrounded by war — a conflict whose origins can be traced back to the early 20th century when the Kurdish land (Kurdistan) was given over to the Turkish state under treaties signed by the British and French colonial empires. Today’s modern state of Turkey was founded in 1923, and, from its outset, the government initiated an oppressive, assimilationist campaign against its Kurdish population. This resulted in the formation of many different Kurdish rebellion movements in Turkey over the past century, with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) remaining the longest surviving of these groups. The PKK has, since its founding in 1978, waged an armed struggle against the Turkish government over the rights of the Kurdish people. And it has been because of the oppressive actions of the Turkish state and its denying Kurds their basic cultural and political rights, that the PKK was able to gain a great amount of support among the Kurdish population.
In 2013, after a series of negotiations with the imprisoned PKK leader and founder Abdullah Ocalan, the Turkish government initiated what was deemed a “Peace Process” with the PKK. This Peace Process was well-received by both Turkey’s Kurdish and Turkish citizens, with both peoples most likely sick of the years of violence that had resulted in 40,000 casualties from both sides. During this Peace Process many began to believe that the Kurdish issue would be solved without the Kurdish lands breaking away from Turkey. It was also during this time that a newly formed pro-Kurdish party emerged in Turkish politics: the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). The HDP played a vital role in facilitating peace between Turkey’s government and the PKK. This political party became the new hope for Turkey’s Kurds after a dark era in Kurdish political parties, with many of them being shut down by the Turkish government throughout the years.
This stability and peace didn’t last long, however, as the Turkish government, led by the ruling party of Justice and Development (AKP), decided to call the deal off with the PKK in July of 2015. The only official reason announced for this cessation was the accusation that the PKK killed two police officers. But in reality, the AKP-led government ended the talks for other, more political, reasons: most notably because the AKP began viewing the HDP as a threat to their political power.
In the 2015 presidential elections, HDP Co-Chair Selahattin Demirtash (who has been jailed since November 2016) challenged President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during his reelection bid. In this election, the HDP won more than 13% of Turkey’s votes — an historic performance for any Kurdish political party in Turkey. Because of this, Erdogan and the AKP were not able to form a majority government and hence a reelection round was set for November of 2016. Between June and November, the Turkish government launched a military campaign against the Kurdish cities. The PKK responded by taking over various cities and launching counter attacks against the Turkish campaign. In addition to continuing these attacks in Turkey’s Kurdish regions, the Turkish government began attacking Kurdish forces in Syria.
The Washington Kurdish Institute (WKI) recently interviewed the Deputy Co-chair of the HDP and lawmaker in the Turkish Parliament Mr. Hishyar Ozsoy to talk about the situation in Turkey overall and the Kurdish question amid the Turkish purge against Kurdish elected officials.
In regards to the peace process, Mr. Ozsoy said that since Erdogan ended the peace process in 2015, “we have been in great political turmoil.”Ozsoy also talked about the Turkish government’s purge of political opposition and critics, which it launched after the failed coup attempt in July 2016. The pro-Kurdish HDP rejected the coup attempt, yet the Turkish government cracked down on Kurdish and HDP political figures, mayors, civil servants, and other elected officials.
“There is particularly great pressure on the HDP, our political party,” Ozsoy said. “Our co-chairs and nine other members of parliament are in prison, plus some 86, if I’m not wrong, elected Kurdish mayors are in prison in addition to about 5,000 other members and administrators of the HDP, our party and our sister party, the Democratic Regions Party.” When asked if the HDP had been able to mount an effective legal defense for those detained in the purge, Ozsoy said that “it’s a political decision made by President Erdogan and the government and we don’t have an independent, impartial judicial system in Turkey anyway,” adding that “the issue is not legal” but rather “is a deeply political issue.” According to Ozsoy, the main reason the Turkish government arrested HDP lawmakers was because they were a major voice of political opposition. He explained that “the HDP is a strong oppositional voice and that we could stop Erdogan.”
The media were another victim of the Turkish government’s post-coup purge. According to a report published by CNN, 130 journalists were detained in 2017 and 2,708 in 2016.
When asked about the relationship between the HDP and the PKK, Mr. Ozsoy said that there was no institutional connection although they do share the same social base.
“We don’t have any relationship with the PKK,” Ozsoy said. “We do share the same, say, social base. I mean many if not all of the people who are sympathetic with the PKK vote for us and that’s a reality.”
Ozsoy added, “we do not approve the use of violent methods for political ends. We have expressed this several times. We want a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish conflict.”
Mr. Ozsoy also talked about the coup attempt and how it became an opportunity for Erdogan to repress his rivals.
“From the very beginning Erdogan has been using the abortive coup as an opportunity to repress every single oppositional voice in the country,” he said. “When together with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), they decided to have a referendum on the presidential system, Erdogan started more aggressively attacking the HDP and the Democratic opposition.”
Ozsoy also elaborated on the HDP’s political allies and their positions on recent developments in Turkey.
“People are pretty much sympathetic to us wherever we go even to the United States or Europe, any place we go people welcome us,” he said. “They say nice things about us. They are concerned about us. They feel for us. But then, there is real politics. Turkey is a member of the NATO. It’s a powerful country. Unfortunately, because of the refugee crisis in Europe, Europe mostly turned a blind eye on the atrocities committed by President Erdogan.”
Like his colleagues, Mr. Ozsoy was also stripped of his Parliamentarian immunity, and there are several court cases pending against him by the Turkish government. One of the cases against him arose in response to a September 1, 2016 speech.
“We in Turkey are 80 million people in total,” Ozsoy said during the September speech. “We in Turkey are 80 million people in total. And we haven’t been able to satisfy the ambitions of President Erdogan and his family. Erdogan is insisting on militaristic policies. He’s insisting on war making in order to pursue his political ends.”
These statements resulted in a prosecutor asking for a five year sentence against Ozsoy.
When asked if the HDP will continue taking the political route in the face of the Turkish government’s violent, oppressive actions, Ozsoy said “of course, I mean we are a political party and the whole idea of the HDP was to build peace in Turkey,” adding that “as a party, we emerged out of the peace process.”
Mr. Ozsoy was critical of the U.S. government while attempting to support Turkey with weapons and intelligence in its fight against the PKK. He called this support of the Turkey’s fight against the PKK “a further militarization of the Kurdish conflict that we don’t need in Turkey.” Ozsoy also urged the U.S. government to “do its best and use its leverage to convince the Turkish government for the resumption of the peace process.”