Sinusoidal Tendencies – A concise history of political violence in Turkey

Turkey is in the news again. This time supposedly as a major producer of political violence once more, as opposed to the beforehand popular portrayal of a victim of such. In this blog post I will try to analytically reflect the last three decades of political violence (at least the lethal aspect of it) and how that cumulates in today’s rather dire security situation in Turkey. When counting terrorism fatalities (according to the Global Terrorism Database), Turkey had its deadliest period in the 1990s. Yet, as a result of military weakening of the main perpetrator of terrorism in the country, the PKK, the capture of its leader and figurehead Abdullah Öcalan and probably more importantly a set of reforms in the country that pushed it towards “westernization” and “liberalization” terrorism fatalities dramatically decreased (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1 number of terrorism fatalities 1985 – 2014

Similarly the number of overall casualties of the still ongoing rebellion, again mainly by the PKK, peaked in the 1990s and decreased dramatically since then – at least until mid-2015. Even when using a low estimate of casualties the Peace Research Institute Oslo puts the figures in most years of the 1990s above the 1000 deaths per annum civil war benchmark.

Figure 2

Figure 2 number of overall fatalities due to political violence 1984-2008 (high estimate)

In my recent research I found significant correlations between the fatality estimates and a certain set of policies that were descriptive of the first ten or so years of the 2000s in Turkey (see Figure 3 as an example in which I use IMF/IBRD loans as a proxy for demanded reforms towards market liberalization and the rule of law). These policies stand in stark contrast to the early developments after the 1980 military coup, in which civil liberties, democracy, the rule of law and human rights were treated with contempt, as a result of which, so my narrative goes, the degree of relative deprivation and horizontal inequalities reached new heights, cumulating in the eruption of the conflict of the PKK against the Turkish state.

Figure 3

Figure 3 scatterplot high estimate casualties (log) and the sum of IMF/IBRD loans

During most of the 1990s Turkey has had both, political and economic stagnation, despite strong efforts of actors like Turgut Özal. After a de facto insolvency in 2001 Turkey underwent a series of critical structural changes that paved the way for economic growth and subsequently political stability. In this environment the central government in Ankara increasingly held sway of affairs in the country and increasingly disempowered the military, which had a very hostile attitude towards Kurdish insurgents. As a result of all these developments, formerly underdeveloped regions in Turkey, particularly the majority Kurdish east and south-east, experienced many years of strong economic growth. At the same time political discrimination against minorities, while still far from sufficient, was reduced to the extent that in 2013, for the first time in the history of Turkey, a pro-Kurdish party overcame the 10% threshold to get elected into parliament.

Turkey thus simultaneously produced robust and inclusive economic growth, improved the rule of law and minority rights. Hence, the country saw a steady decline of political violence and the conflict with the PKK came to a standstill in 2013 when peace talks between the two parties were held.

But it did not take long until the conflict escalated again, this time at full tilt. Conflict related fatalities rose far beyond the civil war benchmark again in the period from June 2015 to July 2016[1], making the development a sinusoidal wave. There is a large set of reasons the conflict flared up again, but as the most important ones I would identify the developments in the civil war in Syria, domestic political reasons after the June 7 general elections in Turkey and domestic political developments that I would describe as a renunciation of former policies of “liberalization” and “westernization”.

It is hard to say which of these reasons is most important, maybe all of them are equally important. However, with the conditional exception of the conflict in Syria, all of them are home-made by the now ruling government – again, the very same government that produced and carried along the peace in the first place.

Now, how did this happen, and why? To start with, the development of the conflict in Syria, at least since the battle for Kobane, and the subsequent expansion of Kurdish territory under the PKK’s sister organization PYD[2], currently constitutes the greatest security concern for Ankara. It gives the PKK strategic depth to operate from, with close material and moral support by Turkey’s NATO ally, the United States. Although Joe Biden indicated a cautious reversal of its supports for Syrian Kurds, they remain heavily supported by the west.

Obviously Turkey could adapt its Syrian policy, and indications show, it might do exactly that[3], but as long as there is a domestic militant fraction that wants political autonomy, and that fraction has a safe haven in a neighbouring country, there is little Turkey can change to decrease the strategic threat that emerged from Kurdish actors in Syria. At the same time the so called Islamic State started to perpetrate major attacks within Turkey as well, making it a major security concern for Ankara as well.

In regard to the domestic reasons for the renewed escalation of the conflict between the PKK and Turkey, there are few to blame but the current government and President Erdoğan. When it became clear that the ruling AKP had lost many of its votes to the far-right nationalist MHP as a result of dissatisfaction of parts of the population with the peace process and other votes to the now 13% strong pro-Kurdish HDP in the June 2015 election, Erdoğan was quick at reversing his policies towards the Kurdish population and re-upping military operations against the PKK. The subsequent snap-elections proved his tactics successful and the AKP gained a clear parliamentary majority again.

But beyond those developments, Turkey was already undergoing a reversal of previous reforms and since around 2011/12 the country was actually sliding back into well-known patterns of patrimonialism and decreasing civil liberties. The rule of law, already standing on shaky grounds, got further weakened, human rights abuses amassed and above all the economy stagnated. As a result increasing parts of society felt disenfranchised, horizontal inequalities grew and the costs for armed rebellion decreased.

The combination of these factors led to the current situation, where senior European politicians in all openness suggest a cessation of accession talks with Turkey, senior Turkish politicians hint western involvement in the latest coup attempt, more than 1600 people lost their lives in some 13 months and many more had to flee their homes. All pragmatic actors involved on both sides however know that there is only one way forward and that is a return to the initial reform-course. This includes further approximation with the west, particularly the EU, and more, not less, dialogue on critical issues such as the west’s support for the PYD in Syria or Turkey’s continuing and complacent purges across all sectors.

One could argue that both sides have little room for manoeuvre and western actors have tried to persuade Erdoğan into reforms over and over again, to no end, but the west more often than not oversees the arrogance with which it does so. Instead of riding the wave of anti-Muslim and xenophobic resentment in the wake of the refugee crisis, European politicians are well advised to try to change Turkish public perception towards their favour. At the same time western politicians should not give in when it comes to human rights and the rule of law in Turkey, keep pushing Ankara for liberal reforms and the further adaption of the acquis communautaire to help the country return to peace. Erdoğan might no longer be a reliable ally[4] for the west, the people of Turkey for sure are though.





Title picture by Kurdishstruggle via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0 (].