Washington Kurdish Institute
December 12, 2017
The Washington Kurdish Institute (WKI) interviewed Mr. Giran Ozcan, the newly appointed Representative of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) to the United States.
WKI: Could you tell us briefly about the situation in Turkey these days?
Giran Ozcan: Right now we are in a period where Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan leading the ruling Party of Justice and Development (AKP) has completely consolidated the power in his person, and this has had a significant impact on civil society, political parties especially opposition parties, and the free media in the country. There has been a significant crackdown on all these areas that ensure democracy in the country. That’s why right now Erdogan’s efforts have silenced almost every possible avenue of opposition. The reflection for the HDP on this part has been imprisonment of its members of parliamentarians, imprisonment of both of its HDP Co-chairs. While Erdogan’s dictatorial policies reflect on everyone as a clampdown, but when it comes to the Kurds, it’s much more severe and intense. Yes, other media outlets are suffering, but it’s the Kurdish media that is suffering the most. Other political parties are suffering, but it’s the pro -Kurdish political parties are suffering the most. As the HDP Co-chairs and ten of lawmakers remain in Turkish jails, so the HDP is less able to voice the will of the millions of people that voted for it. Its difficult times in Turkey right now.
WKI: Your former Co-chair Figen Yüksekdağ was on trial recently, how did it go?
Giran Ozcan: The trials right now and the whole legal process and speech marks is complete falase. Unfounded claims and the entire process is more political than being legal. Ms. Yüksekdağ was on her third trial and attendance in court. All the court decides is for her detention to continue. But the actual trialing process has not started yet. So they are still not asking for Yüksekdağ’s defense. As which is the case for Selahattin Demirtas as well. The whole process is being extended as much as it possibly can. This is one of the signals that this is a political process rather than a legal one. We are entering 2018 whith preparation for election year for 2019. The upcoming election is the first after the constitutional change to grant the President more powers. Selahattin Demirtas is a huge alternative to Erdogan. He is threatened by the HDP especially with its voter base and what it represents in election arithmetics. So the whole trial process is extended as much it can to harm the HDP ability to conduct politics in the coming election year.
WKI: Your party appealed to the constitution court for Demirtas arrest, any results?
Giran Ozcan: Unfortunately like other institutions in Turkey, the constitutional court itself is under Erdogan’s tyranny. When on the very infrequent occasions where the constitutional court has given a decision that Erdogan might not like he openly turned around and said: “I don’t recognize constitutional court decision” that can not happen in any other democratic country, but it happens in Turkey. That shows how much Erdogan has grass on all institutions in Turkey. No one expected or expecting any decision from the constitutional court that may benefit the HDP.
WKI: How many cases are there against Mr. Demirtas?
Giran Ozcan: There are several cases against him, but all are connected to one thing: which is terrorism. They claim he is a terrorist or doing terrorist propaganda. Demirtas is a leader that received six million votes from people of Turkey. Not only from the Kurds but a lot of Turks voted for him as well. The terrorism brush used by the Turkish government is a very broad brush. There are Republican People’s Party (CHP) parliamentarians are accused of the same thing. Almost half of Turkey right now is terrorist according to Erdogan’s criteria. The terror charge is a very broad brush used in a very political way by Erdogan.
WKI: How many HDP lawmakers and members are in jail?
Giran Ozcan: 11 members of Parliament and over five thousand in prison right now. Only HDP activists, local council officials, Co-mayors, and people that work for our party.
WKI: Your party still follows up with the cases of this large number of detainees?
Giran Ozcan: Definitely. All the cases are still legally followed. Although the HDP knows that these cases are politically motivated, but they are legally, diplomatically, and politically followed as well.
WKI: Do you think the arrests against the HDP members intensified after the failed coup attempt in July 2016? Or the aggression against the HDP started after the end of the peace process between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)?
Giran Ozcan: Against the HDP it was after the peace process. Especially after June 7th elections in 2015, when the HDP scored a significant electoral success. The Turkish government definitely intensified the crackdown against the HDP then. The coup attempt strengthened Erdogan’ hands-on use of terrorism charges. After the coup attempt, Erdogan gained more authority to go and hunt all of the opposition. Obviously, in the first hand, he used that against Fethullah Gulen which he claimed he was behind the coup attempt. But when it comes to such authority, the Kurds are always on the front lines. So he didn’t just use that to go after Fethullah Gulen, but he also used that moral authority to sack hundreds of thousands of people in the public sector. These people were mostly left wing activists whether Turkish or Kurdish who voiced opposition against Erdogan. The aggression against the HDP definitely started after June 7, 2015.
WKI: What was the HDP stance on the failed coup attempt?
Giran Ozcan: The HDP stance is: any coup, wherever it came from, the HDP will stand against it 100 precent. Because the HDP is a party which believes in the democratic process and that’s why the party was established in the first place. While a lot of other people in Turkey, Turks and Kurds chose to take up arms and go to the mountains against the injustice in Turkey, the HDP chose the democratic path and it’s a political party which is conscious of representing the thoughts and the rights of the oppressed people in Turkey. Any kind of attack against that democratic process, the HDP by principle will stand against it. That was our stance on the day of the coup. The HDP was at the front line standing against that coup condemning it and rejecting whatever was the outcome.
WKI: Going back to the peace process, do you think there is any chance for that to restart?
Giran Ozcan: There is always that hope. I don’t think anyone should cut that hope completely out of their thoughts. But right now to speak in a most realistic way, it doesn’t seem to be much of a chance of that happening. If you look at the how peace process actually ended, it was again down to election arithmetics. Erdogan saw that the peace process was electorally benefiting him. Polls would come to him every day. The June 7, 2015, election was a conclusion of that. That election showed that the peace process is benefiting the HDP. In that election, the HDP was able to open up to the Turks rather than Erdogan opening up to the Kurds. So when something ends because Erdogan believes he is not going to win as many votes as he wanted, then its negative for the peace process. Erdogan then turned his face to the nationalists again. He went to a partnership with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) which is an ultra-nationalist party in Turkey and has again polarized the population so much. The polarity between nationalists and fascists versus Democrats and Kurds. So the atmosphere is definitely not right to restart the peace process again.
WKI: Assuming Erdogan wants to reinitiate the peace process, do you think it should be done again via same players? Many say the peace process was not built on Turkish institutions but rather on certain players within PKK and the Turkish government.
Giran Ozcan: I think I agree with the way that the peace process was handled. Peace occurs between the sides who fight. For the first time in Turkey’s history, the actual groups who were fighting each other were on the negotiation table. So in that sense, I believe it was a beneficial method to have, on the one side, the leader of the resistance movement (who is Abdullah Ocalan) sitting on the table and be taken seriously in that process, and the other side been the Government and Erdogan who are fighting the PKK. Therefore I think the people that are fighting should be on the peace table. However, alongside that, I agree with the idea of having an all-inclusive process where the elected officials, the intellectuals community, and civil society organizations are all part of the peace process. But what did the Government do? well it completely closed the process off on every other sector in the country other than itself. It monopolized the process even within the government. Not even the Parliament was a part of it. It only involved thhe executive branch of goernmnet. This made it difficult to convince the other parts of the society that the peace process was a worthwhile, positive process.
WKI: How the Syrian civil war affected the peace process in Turkey? Did the rise of the Syrian Kurds affect the peace process in Turkey?
Giran Ozcan: I think that too was one of the factors. I am not quite sure which reason to prioritize, whether it was domestic calculations or it was based on an event in Syria. Whichever was more important,only Erdogan knows. But for Erdogan, it showed the reflex of the Turkish state in reaction to the fact that the Kurds were empowering themselves just south of the border of Turkey in northern Syria. The Kurds were becoming a stronger entity, and the Turkish state and Erdogan always knew that this would have consequences within the borders of Turkey. Now the Turkish state would never allow a strong Kurdish entity south of its border. I absolutely believe that this was also a factor in Erdogan’s decision to knock over the peace table and restart the nationalist sentiment in Turkey. The Turkish state for almost a hundred years, always had a reflex against Kurdish national aspirations.
WKI: Do you think that’s the only reasons for Erdogan to reject the Syrian Kurdish? Or there are other issues at play?
Giran Ozcan: I think more striking case is Turkey’s reaction to the Kurdistan region of Iraq. When talk the region’s independence referendum came about, I think Turkey’s negative reflex against the Kurdish national aspirations anywhere in the region was clearly demonstrated. There are 40 million Kurds in that region, half of that number are in Turkey. Now if Kurds gain independence State, for example in Iraqi Kurdistan with 5-6 million Kurds or in Syrian Kurdistan with a population of 2-3 million, what kind of impact that would have on 20 million Kurds in Turkey? I think the Turkish nation-state has always demonstrated a negative reflex against such a state. It’s a type of defense mechanism. To protect the territorial integrity of Turkey, the Turkish state has always reacted negatively to Kurdish nationalist movements in other countries.
WKI: Other than the Kurdish issue what are your criticisms of Turkey’s policies in Syria? Many have blamed the Turkish government for playing a negative role in Syria since Spring of 2011?
Giran Ozcan: I think internationally Turkey has lost so much credibility with just its policies in Syria. Forget everything else that they have done, from day one the policy that Turkey has adopted on the Syrian issue has lost all kinds of legitimacy and credibility throughout the whole world. Supporting questionable organizations linked to Al Qaeda. Supporting all kinds of armed groups. A lot of suggestions showed that Turkey also supported ISIS. There may not be any definitive proof about this right now, but I think in the international arena the perception is that Turkey supported any group it could to overthrow Bashar Al-Assad. Once it understood that overthrowing Assad was not going to be as easy as they initially thought in the first few months of the crisis, Turkey then directed its efforts towards the Kurds. Based on ‘we may not be able to overthrow Assad but at least block the Kurds from gaining any sort of Status in that region.’ That’s why Turkey’s attention was diverted to the same questionable groups that have every questionable ethics. They directed their efforts towards the Kurds. The military operation of “Euphrates Shield” Turkish army with armed groups in Northern Syria especially in Jerablus had nothing to do with Assad. It was a direct attempt to destabilize the Kurdish region in Northern Syria.
WKI: The Turkish government considers the Syrian Kurds of the People’s Defense Units (YPG) to be part of the PKK. Often they refer to YPG as PKK, and therefore they do not want to accept them or open up to the Syrian Kurds.
Giran Ozcan: The YPG declared that they are a separate entity from the PKK. The main Kurdish party in Syria, the PYD [Party of Democratic Union], has also said this. Let’s take their word on that. But even Turkey’s government itself, they were meeting with the PKK during the peace process. This shows that when it comes to peace, meeting with the other side is legitimate – especially meeting with organizations that you have fought against for 35 years. Once the Turkish government met with the PKK, it doesn’t really make sense if they now say: “I’m not going to meet with the YPG because it’s linked to the PKK.” I think Turkey has shot itself in the foot on this one.
WKI: How about the accusation by Erdogan to the HDP members of having ties to PKK which is banned in Turkey, any comment? Does your party enjoy the support of the PKK?
Giran Ozcan: They have not proven anything like that. But the HDP relationship with the PKK is based on common ideals. For example, there are millions of people who both support the PKK resistance but also vote for the HDP in the ballot box. These are citizens of Turkey, and thousands of them are in prison for supporting the PKK but also millions have chosen the right to vote the HDP. They believe the HDP represents their ideals through democratic and legal politics. The Turkish government can say as much as it wants as far as allegations that the HDP is a part of the PKK. The fact is that the HDP has its own institutions, has its own internal party mechanisms for selecting its elected officials. The HDP goes out to the polls and gains millions of votes. That is what Turkey should be looking at. That is why this party, which the Turkish government claims to be a terrorist organization, is gaining 6 million votes in the elections.
WKI: Since 2015 elections, the HDP has suffered the loss of parliamentary seats, arrests of members, much of their constituent areas turned to a war zone. Do you think HDP will have a chance to regain its political weight? How does HDP prepare for 2019 elections?
Giran Ozcan: Well, the current polls suggest that the HDP will retain its votes. However, now in the run-up to the next election, which will be the first election under the new constitution, a presidential election, the HDP will have discussions and negotiations with other political parties. Talks with the CHP, for example, will discuss whether a joint candidate who encompasses and includes all progressive people and democrats in the country may be the best alternative or opponent to the current dictatorial president, Erdogan, and his corrupt administration. I do believe there will be clear alternatives to Erdogan and he is worried about that. This discussion will intensify next year when the election date is set. How much it will intensify is up for debate. It remains unclear how much can the CHP transform itself in order to be on a joint platform with the HDP – especially given the party’s historical positions, which are very much aligned with the bureaucracy of the Turkish nation-state.
WKI: Do you believe there is a possibility of a coalition between the CHP and HDP?
Giran Ozcan: I want to remain hopeful that the CHP can transform itself and get rid of a certain type of DNA that has always distanced itself from the Kurds. I hope the CHP will overcome that since the only way for Turkey to have some sort of alternative in these upcoming elections will be for the CHP to transform itself in this way. Otherwise it will be another easy path for Erdogan to remain in power.
WKI: The Kurdish struggle in much older than AKP. And the AKP was actually the first Turkish party to attempt to openly engage on the Kurdish issue. Do you think the AKP is the best option for the HDP and the Kurds to deal with rather than the nationalist parties who have been at conflict with the Kurds for decades??
Giran Ozcan: Giran Ozcan: The AKP showed itself to be a very pragmatic party. Yet right now the path that has chosen is a complete investment in nationalist, bordering on fascist, policies in Turkey. Therefore in this kind of atmosphere, we believe that the Kurdish question in Turkey is intrinsically tied to the level and strength of democracy in Turkey. We still need a CHP that is transformed enough to also support any peace process in the future should the AKP attempt to reinitiate it.
WKI: Turkey’s relations has shifted away from the international community as its planned foreign policies of “zero-sum game” changed to zero peace with all. What is HDP’s vision as far as Turkey’s international relations? Especially with the European Union (EU)?
Giran Ozcan: The relationship between Turkey and the EU has been problematic on both sides. Turkey has been pragmatic in that relationship. Unfortunately, institutions like EU and even the United States have been very pragmatic as well. In times when these entities have had leverage against Turkey and could have promoted Turkey to democratize, they have failed to use it.. They have appeased people like Erdogan. Unfortunately, they have encouraged AKP government at certain times to go ahead with the monopolization of power in Turkey. That relationship has to be based on the more democratic platform. Yes, international relationships are based on interests, but somehow it needs to be closer to the level of the human rights and democracy. The EU shows itself as a beacon of democracy, hope, human rights, etc. But when it comes to Turkey, unfortunately, it has not implemented those values with the relationship with Turkey. What the HDP hopes for is a productive relationship between Turkey and the international community whereby the relationship is more determined with a joint commitment toward democracy and human rights more than anything else.
WKI: Have the EU countries helped HDP in any way? We hear them condemning the arrests of the Kurdish politicians on several occasions.
Giran Ozcan: There are certain figures and political parties in Europe who do support the HDP. They support the HDP agendas in Turkey, but when it comes to the government-to-government level, the European countries did not play a productive role. For example, the relationships between Turkey and Germany or Turkey and the Netherlands is currently deteriorating, but still, there is no clear support from these governments for the progressive movement in Turkey.
WKI: WKI: You are the newly-appointed HDP representative to the U.S. What do you think of the current U.S. approach to the Kurdish questions in Turkey so far?
Giran Ozcan: Currently, there seems to be a shift. We seem to be in a time where the US perception is shifting towards the Kurds in general. The U.S. never had a single Kurdish policy. It’s been multifaceted in the sense that the way it has approached Iraqi Kurdistan has been different than the way it has approached the Syrian Kurds or Turkey’s Kurds. Currently, the way that it is approaching the Kurds in Syria is hugely different. Now we are in a time where the U.S. is also reevaluating its relationship with Turkey. So it seems the U.S. has the opportunity to approach the Kurds and understand what their demands are in all parts of Kurdistan. Because of its relations with Turkey and certain sensitivity with Turkey, the U.S. did not approach certain Kurdish dynamics. Take for example the PKK, the U.S. has never approached the PKK to have a dialogue with it or understand what its situation is there in the region. Right now with the balance of power being reevaluated in the region, it seems to be a door opening whereby the U.S. is trying to understand what the Kurdish dynamics are and what their demands are. For instance, in Syria, the U.S. cooperation with the YPG and the PYD has brought lots of fruit for both the U.S. and the Kurds. The U.S. sidestepped Turkey’s sensitivities in order to follow its own agenda in the region and it shows that this could be beneficial. Always heeding Turkish sensitivities doesn’t serve U.S. interests. Rather the U.S. should be trying to understand the realities on the ground and who enjoys popular support and shares Western values. The U.S. needs to act more like an individual with an individual mind in the region, rather than being intertwined mentally with another local actor and its biases and sensitivities.
WKI: The U.S.enjoy good relationships with the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. The Kurds have provided a very friendly environment for Americans. How are the views of the Kurds in Turkey toward the U.S.?
Giran Ozcan: The Kurds are friendly to anyone that respects them. Right now in Syria, the Kurds have seen some kind of support from the US. When the Syrian Kurds faced significant attacks by the inhuman terror group of the Islamic State, the U.S. supported the Kurdish efforts to defend themselves and their territories. The Kurds have never been hostile to anyone without reason, and they don’t look for a reason either. I think the principle is there which is if you respect the Kurds they will respect you back.
WKI: What is your message to the U.S. government in regards to the Kurdish question in Turkey?
Giran Ozcan: I would say the Kurdish question in Turkey has taken a bit of nose dive it’s going from bad to worse, and the current U.S. administration seems they want to end conflicts in the region and in order for that to happen it needs stability there. For that stability to happen in Turkey, the current U.S. administration needs to understand that there is a huge Kurdish demand there as there is a huge Kurdish population there demanding developments of human rights, political rights, democracy, and cultural rights. The group that has been resisting in Turkey over the right of the Kurds called the PKK. The current administration has to understand that that movement is open to dialogue, the peace process, and solving the Kurdish issue on democratic platforms. Once the U.S. sees that, I think they should do everything in its power to bring the fighting sides to the peace table and solve the Kurdish issue peacefully and democratically. This is possible, and the U.S. should take the lead in ensuring this happens if it wants stability in Turkey.