Year XLI, 1999, Number 2, Page 106
EUROPE, TURKEY AND THE KURDS
The events that have led to the sentencing to death, in Turkey, of PKK leader Ocalan by a court of first instance raise a series of very delicate questions which need to be tackled with caution and from a balanced perspective. Before going any further, however, it is important to make quite clear that any analysis of the relationship between the Turkish State and the Kurds must be conducted with a view to identifying a path that might lead towards a resolution of this explosive situation, rather than as an exercise in the apportioning of blame. Turkey, an imperfect democracy with a lamentable record in human rights, has used indiscriminate violence to quell the Kurdish rebellion, and in the Ocalan case too, it did not hesitate to make public, through television, the abhorrent methods adopted by its security services. On the other hand, certain Kurdish militant groups are guilty of practices every bit as barbaric and violent as those to which the Kurds themselves have fallen victim. Rebellion entails repression and repression feeds rebellion. Violence stokes the fire of violence. The only real problem that must be tackled, therefore, is how, without prejudicing the rights of anyone, to bring an end to it.
From this standpoint, the first thing that must be stressed is that any attempt to call into play the so-called right of self-determination of peoples would do far more harm than good in this situation. The effects of the application, in the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union, of this ill-fated principle have been so terrible that even the European governments have now stopped promoting it (having, until a few years ago, exploited it in a way which was both cynical and irresponsible, in the hope of gaining some meagre advantage from the disintegration of the two regions). It is also important to point out that there are Kurdish populations residing in regions belonging to four different states of the neighbouring chessboard of the Middle East, and that support for the birth of a Kurdish state would trigger, in what is already one of the world’s most unstable areas, a series of disastrous chain reactions. Furthermore, there exists absolutely no evidence to suggest that a hypothetical Kurdish state would be any more democratic than the present Turkish state. On the contrary, all the indications are that it would be far more likely to resemble one of the region’s many dictatorships, as intolerant towards minorities within its confines as Turkey is towards its minority groups, and torn to pieces internally by the violent opposition between the numerous Kurdish nationalist factions.
It is, therefore, a question of guaranteeing the Kurds — within the Turkish state — the same rights as the rest of the citizens, and this includes the right to use their own language at school and in their dealings with the public administration. This would necessitate an evolution of democratic attitudes on the part of the Turkish authorities and the Turkish citizens: an unconditional acceptance of the cohabitation, within the same state, of populations with different languages and customs. In other words, the problem that needs to be solved is not one of self-determination so much as one of democracy and mutual solidarity between the two communities. What needs to be created in Turkey is a type of cohabitation similar to that which, after a period of tension and despite some continuing difficulties, has been established in the period following the end of the Second World War between the German-speaking and Italian-speaking communities of southern Tyrol.
Clearly, this is not a problem that will be easily solved. Its inherent difficulty lies in the fact that Turkey is a nation-state which founds its legitimacy on the idea that it is the political expression of anation, in other words, of a community which considers itself united by deep natural and cultural bonds, such as a common language and shared customs and traditions. Throughout its history, the nation-state has always sought to wipe out — through violence if necessary — the differences existing within its confines, or at least to impose the belief that no such differences exist. In those situations in which neither of these solutions has proved possible, any different populations present within a nation-state have been recognised as “minorities”, and the central power, forced either by its own weakness or by the international scenario, has endeavoured to tolerate their difference. It can be noted, moreover, that relations between “majority” and “minority” groups within nation-states have been fragile and precarious, even in areas where any violence that does still occur is sporadic and marginal in character. The existence of minorities in fact throws into question the legitimacy of a state which claims to be founded on a nation, and often tends, in so far as it is tolerated, to degenerate into separatism and to stir up irredentist currents in neighbouring states. For this reason, life for Europe’s minorities has always been, to different degrees in the different situations, difficult.
The only conceivable solution to the problem of minority groups is thus to create a political framework in whose ambit they cease to be minorities — in other words, to found a state whose legitimacy is based not on the principle of nationhood, but on some other principle. And if it is to go hand in hand with democracy rather than to serve as the justification for an imperial form of dominion, then this principle can be none other than the federal principle.
This is not the place to embark upon the difficult task of analysing the positive nature of this principle, at least in the period prior to the founding of a world federation. In this context, it suffices to underline its value as a negation of the principle of the nation. When it comes to the differences in language, culture and traditions that exist within its confines (providing of course, these differences are accompanied by a universal acceptance of certain fundamental values of cohabitation), the federal state makes absolutely no distinction between its citizens. In the framework of the federal state, such differences are politically irrelevant. In this context, there is no group considering itself homogeneous whose very existence forms the basis of the legitimacy of the state: no such group which condemns to oppression, assimilation, or in the best hypothetical scenario, to the status of tolerated minority, all those who do not identify with it. Thus, as it loses its function, the idea of the nation is unmasked as a lie — a lie founded on crude simplifications — and the very concept of minorities becomes meaningless. A federal state recognises all citizens as different from one another in their indisputable individuality, and as equally entitled to enjoy, and bound to assume, the rights and duties attendant upon their common citizenship.
It is quite obvious that the overcoming of the federal state will not mean the disappearance of language differences, or of differences of a cultural and traditional nature; it is equally clear that, for a time, the barriers and divides of the past will continue to be visible in attitudes and behaviour, hindering the development of mutual understanding and thus influencing the formation of alignments and the content of political debate. But they will be vestiges of the past that are destined to disappear as multiplicity of language is a natural condition of men and cultural differences —providing they do not clash with the fundamental values of civil cohabitation — are determinants of mutual enrichment, and thus of contact and dialogue between people. What is more, it must be appreciated that linguistic and cultural differences will ultimately cease to represent a sufficient foundation for the legitimacy of the various levels of government (below that of general government) that will characterise the organisation of the federal states of the future. In these states, consensus will be founded on a basic sense of solidarity which will, in turn, be the product of a mutual commitment to solving the common problems relating to the organisation of cohabitation that will emerge, in different ways, in the different parts of the territory.
Thanks to the advance, and the intensification of the process of European unification, the problem of peaceful cohabitation with “minority groups” has, in Western Europe, despite the persistence of the structure of the nation-state, been tackled in a reasonably satisfactory manner in the period that has elapsed since the end of the Second World War. It is a process which has been, and still is, ambiguous, but by promoting an awareness (albeit obscure and uncertain) of the community of destiny that binds the peoples of Europe together, it has weakened nationalistic motivations and undermined the function of the idea of nation as the principle on which the legitimacy of the currently existing states is based. Indeed, the current movement towards a settlement of the intractable situation in Northern Ireland — the most inflamed of all the hotbeds of crisis created by the coexistence in a single territory of two communities which feel that they are different from one another — would not have been conceivable outside the context of the process of European unification. The sense — a sense of which they are barely aware — on the part of both communities of belonging to, and being embraced by, a future common political entity which is bigger than both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, has had the effect of overcoming the absoluteness of the opposition between two identities which considered themselves irreconcilable, and of leading to a first embryonic awareness of a common identity.
As far as relations with minority groups are concerned, the results achieved within the European Union, however, are vastly inadequate. The reason for this is that until the process of European unification reaches its federal conclusion, nationhood remains the only recognised principle on which to base the legitimacy of the state. Having said that, the results achieved are visible enough to allow us to form an idea of the potential of a democratic European Union equipped with the capacity to act — in other words of a federal Union — and of the part it could play in finding a solution to the tragic problem which is currently destroying all hopes of peaceful civil cohabitation in south-east Turkey. The European Union could open the eyes of Turks and Kurds alike to the prospect of a great political community which embraces both groups, and which has the capacity to enforce, in both, the principles of the rule of law, and in whose ambit all could live together in peace without any threat to the identity or security of anyone. Clearly, Turkey’s journey towards full membership of the Union, or of a European federal state, will be difficult because of the very deep and ongoing problem of the country’s poor record in the area of human rights. This, however, does not alter the fact that Europe is faced with two possible choices as regards the attitude it should adopt vis-à-vis Turkey: either it can use the prospect of membership of the European Union as a lever to improve, progressively, the human rights situation, or it can use the problem of the country’s poor record in this field as an excuse for blocking its membership of the Union. The first attitude would have the effect of strengthening progressive, secular and democratic tendencies, in both the Turkish and the Kurdish camps, while the second would only serve to encourage those of an authoritarian, nationalist and fundamentalist nature.
But it is clear that the first of these positions could only be adopted by a Europe which has turned its back, once and for all, on the principle of the nation, and which feels sure of its own strength and confident that it has the consensus of its citizens: in other words by a federal Europe. In the meantime, the present confederation is obliged, by its weakness, to adopt a closed and defensive attitude in its relations with Turkey, an attitude which also characterises its relations with the countries of central and eastern Europe and one which masks its inability to bear the weight of the historical responsibilities which it should be assuming.
In addition to all this, it is also necessary to consider the decisive role that a united Europe could, through its help and influence and through the example that the completion of the process of its unification would set to the states of the region, play on the stage of the Middle East: due to the instability that plagues it and to its geographical proximity to Europe, would, more than any other world stage, be predisposed to the maturation of a federalist project within its confines. But the vision of Europe’s politicians is not equal to grand designs like this, remaining focused instead on the problem of weighing up the costs and benefits attendant upon their country’s membership of the Union and on efforts to reduce the former and increase the latter at the expense of its fellow members. The fact remains that the incapacity of the of the Union to look beyond their own selfish and extremely short-term interests is destined, if it persists, to wreak irreparable damage. The nation-state is not dead and gone, and the tensions generated by the principle of nationhood which forms the basis of its legitimacy continue to simmer below the surface, ready to re-emerge violently at the first sign of a U-turn in the process of European integration. Western Europe, whose vocation should be to export federalism to other world regions, could instead be destined, tragically, to re-import from outside its confines a nationalism (or worse still, a micronationalism) which it believed it had definitively overcome, and to witness, in its very bosom, the resurgence of tensions which had seemed assuaged, and the birth of new ones.