An Interview with Selahattin Demirtas
by Jake Hess | published May 2, 2012
Originally published in Middle East Review Online
Selahattin Demirtaş is co-president of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party of Turkey (BDP), the fourth largest political party in the country. The BDP is not formally tied to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been in armed conflict with the Turkish state since 1984, but it shares the PKK’s core political demands and the two groups likely have many supporters in common. As such, the BDP is a pivotal player in the search for peace. Hopes for a political solution to the decades-old confrontation between the Kurds and the government of Turkey were raised in 2009, when the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) launched an initiative known as the “Kurdish” or “democratic opening,” only for the effort to collapse that winter. Talk of democratic reforms and a new approach to the Kurdish issue has resurfaced since the AKP won a third term in the 2011 parliamentary elections, but prospects remain grim as PKK-army clashes and political repression of the Kurdish movement continue. A lawyer by trade, Demirtaş represents the Hakkari province in the Turkish parliament and is a past vice president of the Human Rights Association of Turkey. Jake Hess interviewed him in Washington during a BDP parliamentary delegation visit in April and translated the conversation from Turkish.
It seems that a delegation of state officials appointed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan carried out a series of negotiations with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan between 2009 and 2011. Negotiations between Turkish officials, PKK leaders and Western intermediaries appear to have occurred simultaneously, possibly in Oslo.  We also know from Öcalan’s pronouncements that he had periodically been in contact with the state in previous years. How do the recent talks compare to the past?
Correct. A delegation authorized in the name of the government carried out some meetings with Mr. Öcalan in İmralı prison from 2009 to 2011. We learned of this later, when news of the meetings reached the press. Of course, these meetings were extremely important and historic. But they weren’t the first such meetings between the government of the Republic of Turkey and the PKK. Meetings had started in 1993, during the tenure of the late president, Turgut Özal, and continued at points during the Erbakan period of the late 1990s. But it’s understood that the 2009-2011 meetings were very different in character from the previous ones. The more recent ones were closer to achieving results. As Mr. Öcalan stated in notes from conferences with his lawyers, these meetings have been characterized as the most important ever carried out in the hundred-year history of the Kurdish issue. Unfortunately, however, the meetings became deadlocked due to the government’s incorrect approach and attempt to use them as a policy to liquidate the Kurdish movement. They came to an end without realizing concrete results.
Why, after decades of conflict, did the government choose to start these more substantial negotiations in 2009?
The fact that the Kurdish issue wasn’t going to be resolved through violence had been debated for a long time in Turkey. It was clearly expressed from the vantage point of both sides that neither the PKK nor the state was going to resolve the matter with violence. For this reason, in order to find a permanent solution in a non-violent way, the state chose the method of negotiations over the old ones. This was an important and brave step. But the important thing here is this: The state’s argument that “we won’t meet with terrorists or their leader” collapsed because of these meetings. In other words, the reality that the Kurdish issue could be negotiated with the PKK and Öcalan emerged.
The Turkish public really became aware of the state-Öcalan meetings at the end of 2011, when an audio recording of talks between state officials, PKK leaders and at least one Western intermediary was leaked. Why and how were these records released? What if any impact did this incident have on the negotiations?
It’s not clear how the recording was leaked. We can only guess. It’s also very difficult to determine if the intention behind the leak was positive or negative. But Turkish public opinion showed no reaction when news of the meetings was revealed in the press. For this reason, we can say that these meetings received important support among the Turkish public, regardless of what those responsible for the leak intended. In other words, the public, in effect, approved of these meetings if they mean that the issue will be resolved without violence and that the clashes will end.
What led to the collapse of the negotiations in 2011?
The fundamental result that the government hoped to get from the meetings was buying time. The fact that the meetings were carried on from the 2009 local elections up to the June 2011 parliamentary elections and then terminated makes us think that the government wanted to stall the PKK in order to gain votes. The negotiations were used as a stalling method, in our opinion. Maybe we can’t be certain whether this was their intention from the start, but what emerged is that the government wanted to carry out these negotiations up until the 2011 elections.
It seems that Öcalan and the PKK approached the government with a concrete proposal for resolving the conflict. What do you know about the content of their offer? How did the government respond to it?
It seems that protocols were prepared as a result of the meetings between Mr. Öcalan and the state delegation, and in essence the protocol included a political solution for the Kurdish issue and proposals for permanently ending the clashes that result from the Kurdish issue. The content of the protocols hasn’t been totally released to the public yet, but from what’s been covered in the press, it’s understood that they encompassed the Kurdish issue in all its dimensions. I suppose that the issue of clashes would have been resolved to an important extent had these protocols been implemented, debated or considered by the government.
Do you know if the government had its own proposal or any red lines?
Ultimately, the government’s red line was protecting the ethnically Turkish, unitary, centralized character of the existing system. The government continued to have a backward, apprehensive approach regarding recognition of the fundamental rights that Kurds derive from their status as a people. They didn’t take a particularly brave or democratic approach regarding Kurds’ collective rights in public discourse or the negotiations in ?mralı. The delegation that met with Mr. Öcalan was more flexible in this regard, but the government itself took an approach in favor of the status quo and continuing the old ways.
When did the BDP become aware of the negotiations? Did your party play any role in the process?
No, we were not included in any way. We only became aware when the news became public and some of the records were leaked to the press. We could have guessed, but we didn’t have any confirmed information.
It seems that the negotiations have opened certain fault lines within the Turkish state. For example, Turkey’s internal dynamics were shaken when an Istanbul prosecutor issued an arrest warrant for the intelligence officer who was overseeing the PKK negotiations on Erdoğan’s behalf. How do you interpret this incident? Does it denote disagreement within the Turkish state about how to approach the Kurdish issue, or is it something else?
It’s virtually impossible that prosecutors or other state actors were unaware of the İmralı negotiations. The National Security Council and all other relevant state institutions knew about them, because İmralı is an extremely special island and prison, and it would be impossible for the delegation to go there continually in a secret, concealed way. Moreover, in notes from his weekly meetings with his lawyers, Mr. Öcalan occasionally implied that such negotiations were occurring. Therefore, it’s quite clear that the specially authorized prosecutors in Istanbul did not have positive intentions in opening an investigation after the negotiations became public. Certain prosecutors attempted to exceed their authority and turn the negotiations process into a judicial matter. They opened an investigation of the delegation that went to İmralı and Oslo, including the National Intelligence Organization [in Turkish, Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı, or MİT] official who was in charge. This was settled with the intervention of the prime minister and parliament, possibly because there was a strong probability the delegation members and MİT official would be arrested. Parliament subsequently passed a special law making their prosecution subject to the prime minister’s approval. As a result, the prosecutors were unable to advance the case.
Factions within the state are trying to settle accounts with each other through the Oslo and İmralı negotiations. It seems that, in particular, there is a clash between the AKP and the Fethullah Gülen movement.  The reality has emerged that the AKP and the state used or will use the Kurdish issue as a weapon against each other when either of them fail to act in a unified way. It can’t be said that this clash has been settled or that the tension has dissipated. Our guess is that it’s simmering. But if the state or a party within the government is using a people’s freedom as an instrument in clashes among internal factions, we think this is above all an insult to the Kurdish people.
The Turkish state began an unprecedented series of arrests of BDP and other opposition forces following your party’s success in the 2009 municipal elections. These arrests began roughly at the same time as the negotiations with Öcalan. Do you think the government has had a role in these arrests? Or can we think of them as a conflict between different power centers within the state, such as the judiciary and legislative bodies, or the Gülen movement and the AKP?
Yes, in retrospect we know that the political arrests that began on April 14, 2009 roughly coincided with the period when the İmralı and Oslo meetings began. We can safely conclude that the government used the judiciary to carry out these political operations in order to strengthen its hand in negotiations with the PKK and its leader. From the time that they began, the AKP has announced its comfort with the arrest operations and stated that they definitely must continue, thus lending political support to the judiciary. The government’s fundamental goal in these negotiations was not to find a solution, but to impose its own version of a settlement by weakening, disempowering and defeating the other side. Furthermore, the AKP itself gave the judiciary the ability to do these things by passing certain legislation, and the ruling party has also tried to legitimize the operations and win support through influencing the media. It’s not correct to characterize these political operations as a judicial decision independent of the government.
As the arrests of BDP members continue and negotiations with Öcalan remain deadlocked, details of what is known as the AKP government’s “new Kurdish strategy” have emerged. The government now says it is ready to negotiate with political parties that “have the ability to make their own decisions and act independently,” but not with Öcalan or the PKK. What is your response?
That which is called the “new strategy” is actually nothing of the sort, because this strategy doesn’t consider the rights of the Kurds or how to meet the Kurdish people’s democratic demands. In essence, it’s been introduced as a strategy for “fighting terror” — in other words, it’s another stage in the “fight against terror” that’s been going on in Turkey for 30 years. Nor has the government embraced the strategy at any official level; they’ve said that this so-called new strategy was simply something that appeared in the media. What we took from this is that the government has used this matter as a way to start a debate and thus take the pulse of public opinion.
The AKP is now saying that it would like to discuss the Kurdish issue with the BDP within the approach of “negotiate with politicians, fight against terror,” but with the condition that the PKK and Mr. Öcalan remain outside the process. What we’re saying is that we’re not against the concept of political negotiations, but at the same time both the PKK and Mr. Öcalan are important actors and counterparts for negotiations on the Kurdish issue. They are realities of the Kurdish issue. No process that excludes them can be successful. For this reason, we don’t find the AKP’s current approach sincere. But if, despite everything, the government wants to carry on political negotiations, we’ve stated that we, as the BDP, are ready to play our own role. We’re ready to meet with all political actors involved in this issue. But in addition to this, negotiations with Mr. Öcalan and the PKK need to be reopened in the service of peace. The government has yet to take any concrete, practical steps in response to these statements of ours.
Since you’re in Washington, I should ask you about America’s role in these matters. How do you view US policy toward Turkey and the Kurds?
We don’t think the United States has been sufficiently sensitive to the Kurds of Turkey’s demands or the problems and repression we’ve faced. The US has had a policy of unconditional support for Turkey and the Turkish government due to the fact that Washington sees Ankara as a strategic ally. This approach has, at points, resulted in deadlock regarding a solution to the Kurdish issue, as America plays a determinant role in both the Middle East and global order. America’s strategic partnership with Turkey has created problems for the Kurds in realizing their rights, as the military, intelligence and political support the US provides to Ankara can be used against the Kurds.
What kind of role do you think the US could play in a Turkish-Kurdish peace process? Is there any indication the US was involved in the negotiations between 2009 and 2011?
In our opinion, the Kurdish issue in Turkey can be resolved in a permanent way through Turkey’s internal dynamics. Third parties or third states getting involved in the matter as a direct party or intervening directly wouldn’t facilitate a solution; it might actually make it more difficult. States acting as third parties, especially the US, could be expected to play a facilitative, encouraging role. We don’t have clear information as to whether or not the US played a direct role in past negotiations. As Kurdish politicians, however, our minimum expectation of all third-party states is for them to approach the Kurdish issue in a conscientious way and do more to encourage a permanent, non-violent solution between the government of the Republic of Turkey and the Kurds.
Leaders of the 1980 military coup have gone on trial in Turkey. What’s your view of the prosecutions and what they mean for democracy in Turkey?
It’s an important step to place individuals responsible for past military coups on trial, to call them to account — these aren’t things to be belittled. But our criticism on this matter is as follows: In Turkey, only individual leaders are being held accountable, while the culture of the coup and the institutions created by it are not. For example, institutions like the Higher Education Council, National Security Council and specially authorized courts were introduced by the coup. Since these bodies have been coopted by the AKP and serve their interests, they’re not being touched. I always say that holding coup leaders accountable strengthens those in power, while dealing with the coup itself strengthens democracy. At the moment, the government is only taking steps that will strengthen their own power, not taking steps to strengthen democracy. We don’t downplay the significance of the prosecutions, but we find them completely insufficient.
Not long ago, Kurdish parties from Turkey and Iraq were engaged in armed conflict with one another. Now, the BDP often sends delegations to Iraqi Kurdistan, where local leaders seem to greet you warmly. Although he’s under enormous pressure from the US and Turkey to hinder PKK operations in Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani says that Kurds will no longer shed Kurds’ blood and that Turkey has to solve this problem peacefully. What are the problems and prospects facing intra-Kurdish relations?
The Kurds have been caught up in a great drama for about a hundred years. They’ve been divided among four countries and forced to endure repression and massacres in each of those countries for many years. At this point, it’s completely natural for Kurds to look after each other and their own national unity and interests. This doesn’t mean that the Kurds of the Middle East have started to debate the borders of the states they live in, or that they plan to open any such debate. But if Kurds are able to unite as one around their common interests, it will be easier to find democratic solutions to the problems they face in the countries in which they live. For these reasons, we’re involved in developing warmer relations with the Kurdistan autonomous region [of Iraq] and other Kurdish regions. We see the warmth reciprocated from the other side, and this pleases us.
What’s the status of the planned Kurdish national conference in Hawler, which has been proposed and postponed continuously for years? And what about Barzani’s most recent call to the PKK for disarmament?
We have a common idea to carry out a Kurdish national conference in Hawler [in Iraqi Kurdistan] in the coming months. If we can succeed in this regard, our goal will be to bring all Kurds together and share our common demands and messages of peace with the rest of the world. Barzani’s call on the PKK to lay down its arms must be understood within the framework of his desire to see the Kurdish issue in Turkey move toward a democratic solution. He has never made a one-sided call. While calling on the PKK to lay down its weapons, he also calls on the Turkish government to work for a political, peaceful solution to the Kurdish issue.
Syrian Kurds and the PKK have been accused of siding with Asad during the current uprising. What’s the status of the Kurds in Syria and their role in the revolt?
The notion that the Kurds of Syria support Asad is, in our opinion, a conscious distortion. They perhaps aren’t very capable of expressing themselves to the international community and international public opinion, due to the fact that political parties and other associations have been prevented from organizing there for so long. But the Kurds of Syria were struggling against Asad long before the current uprising began. They recognized the Asad regime as a repressive, dictatorial one, and worked to oppose it to the extent that they could, given their options. For this reason, to accuse the Kurds of Syria of taking a pro-Asad position would be a great injustice.
The Syrian National Council and the Arab opposition haven’t made any promises to the Kurds regarding their place in a post-Asad Syria. The Kurds are accused of being pro-Asad and pushed aside. Instead, their hundred-year predicament should be understood, and they should be brought into the opposition fold. They deserve to have their demands for freedom and democracy met. In our opinion, Syrian Kurds could, in this way, play an important role in Syria’s change, but ultimately only they can make this decision. We can’t speak in their name; all we can do is wish them and all other oppressed peoples our best.
 An audio recording of one such meeting was leaked to the Turkish press in September 2011. Neither the location of the meeting nor the identities of those involved have been confirmed, but many commentators believe the talks were held in Oslo, and they are thus widely referred to as “the Oslo meetings.”
 Here Demirtaş refers to the international movement headed by Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, who comes from Turkey and currently resides in Pennsylvania. The Gülen movement, which exercises considerable influence in the Turkish police, media, bureaucracy, judiciary and business sector, has been a part of the AKP’s governing coalition since 2002. Speculation of a split between Gülen and the AKP has been rife in recent years, however, as their common enemies — notably, the military — have lost influence. The AKP and Gülen movement are now widely seen as engaged in a struggle for the Turkish state, with the AKP suspicious of a growing force outside its control and the Gülen movement — which has always been Turkish nationalist in character — possibly unsettled by the AKP’s occasionally more liberal rhetoric on the Kurdish issue. Their differences are also thought to touch upon foreign policy, business, ideology and other areas.