Atlantic Council senior fellow David Phillips was interviewed by the Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman on recent developments in Turkish-Kurdish relations and in Turkey-Armenia relations.
The text is provided below.
On Turkish-Kurdish Relations
Is there any relation between the postponement of the İstanbul meeting to November although it was originally planned for September and the reactions by the Turkish opposition parties linking Prime Minister Erdoğan’s democratic initiative with your report?
There is no relationship at all. We decided to delay the meeting because Iraqi Kurds were having presidential and parliamentary elections. We thought it best to wait until the new government was formed so that people could take a breath before resuming the dialogue process.
You have not mentioned the names that you are going to invite.
There will be about 15 Iraqi Kurds coming. Some officials will join the meeting in their private capacity. It will also include civil society representatives from, for example, the chambers of commerce and universities. On the Turkish side, we’ll invite university representatives, think tanks, business people and some members of the Parliament. Of course the government is welcome to join if it wishes.
According to a report by the International Crisis Group, some high-level people in northern Iraq are interested in merging with Turkey. Have you detected a similar inclination in your encounters?
I see a merger of interest between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. But the idea that Iraqi Kurdistan will become a federal part of Turkey is farfetched. In the 21st century, national boundaries mean less and less, particularly as we develop trade and cultural relationships. There is really no reason for a political merger if interests are co-mingled.
It’s been about two years since you wrote the report “Disarming, Demobilizing and Reintegrating the PKK.” What do you think of the timing of the democratic initiative? Is it too late?
It’s actually long overdue. The initial efforts by President [Turgut] Özal were constructive. But as a result of his passing, there was a long interlude in progress. Now there is a chance to resume that process by dealing with democratization and development in Turkey as a whole and in the southeastern region in particular. The fact that the US government is giving actionable intelligence to Turkey is a positive sign of cooperation between the United States and Turkey. It also gives greater impetus for a non-military solution because it’s become clear that military action alone isn’t going to solve the PKK problem.
How do you see the developments thus far?
When you compare where we are today to February 2008, there have been huge steps taken. The fact that there are plans for a living languages institute at the University of Mardin is a big step. Kurdish language broadcasts on TRT 6 is another example of progress. The door has been opened. Now it’s time to walk down the path and continue with reforms.
Your report has become a controversial issue. What do you think about that?
It is a Turkish democracy initiative. Turkish policy-makers gather information from a variety of sources. The fact that the reports that I’ve authored have contributed to the debate about these issues is good for Turkey. I’m pleased.
Did you see the CHP’s solution report on the Kurdish issue prepared in 1989 by Deniz Baykal before writing yours?
I am aware of the CHP report. It’s important to have ideas for dealing with these issues. Just being critical of the efforts under way isn’t making a positive contribution to development of the society.
Some Turks think that Turkey has become neighbors with the United States since the US intervention in Iraq. Is this true in a way?
The US and Turkey have always been spiritual neighbors. Now we cooperate in a range of different areas in this region.
Some people in Turkey claim – referring to your report – that this new initiative and rapprochement with northern Iraq are American projects, whereas Turkey is actually doing “America’s dirty work.” What do you say about that?
I don’t speak on behalf of the US government since I am not a US official. But I do know from my previous work that close cooperation with Turkey is always desirable for the United States government. The interests of Turkey and the US have historically overlapped; they still do today.
Some others claim that the EU is more influential.
Actually, what were the Copenhagen criteria have now become the Ankara criteria. The reform agenda has been adopted by the government. The government is working on democratic reforms not to satisfy the demands of the EU or the US but because of its own interests. And that is exactly the way it should be. It is a democratic project, which is conceived of and prosecuted by the government of Turkey on behalf of the Turkish people.
Is the Greater Middle East Project over?
The belief that you can coerce democracy through the barrel of a gun is over. Democratization isn’t a process that can be imposed; it has to be homegrown. The US has learned that lesson through the sacrifice of its troops and treasure in Iraq. We want the forces of freedom to advance, but that has to be done at the behest of those who are directly affected. If the US can play a helpful role, then I believe it can and it should.
Do you see a homegrown democracy in northern Iraq?
The strong democracies in this part of the world are in Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey and Israel. We just saw elections in northern Iraq. Goran, the Change Party, did well. These were free and fair elections. The extent of democratic development in Iraqi Kurdistan has been dramatic in the past 10 years.
Some people in Turkey are worried that an oil-rich and democratic Kurdish state can be an attraction for Turkey’s Kurds and encourage separatism…
To my mind Turks should welcome a wealthy, stable and secular federal state in Iraq called Iraqi Kurdistan. It will act as a buffer between Turkey and Iraq’s increasing chaos and sectarian violence.
We have the Ergenekon case, which in the end relates to the Kurdish issue and to the creation of the PKK. Do you think the case against it will help Turkey get rid of violence and Kurdish detachment from the state?
Of course eliminating the deep state is a positive step that will allow democracy to further flourish in Turkey. Those deep state actors have an interest in fomenting conflict as a way of justifying their positions. There are other ways of resolving differences through politics that have a better chance when groups like Ergenekon are prosecuted and dismantled. The activities of Ergenekon reached into the bureaucracies of many different agencies in Turkey. So what is required is not just a juridical process but a transformative process where Turks and Turkish authorities work to advance the common good based on democratic principles.
Do you mean that Ergenekon encompasses even more than what prosecutors think?
The prosecutors are dealing with a specific number of cases. But Ergenekon represents a mentality in Turkey which is increasingly a part of the past.
Can we say that there is another Ergenekon within the PKK?
What I can say is this: When there is violence, there are stakeholders on both sides of the conflict that have an interest in seeing that the conflict continues. There is a Swahili proverb that says when the elephants are in war, the grass suffers most. And Turkish citizens, especially those of Kurdish origin, have suffered as a result of the conflict between the Turkish security forces and the PKK. It is time to move on.
Is it an accident that whenever the government attempts a solution the PKK attacks?
If you want to undermine a peaceful process, the best way is through sensational violence. The fact that the government is staying its course and continuing with its democratic opening speaks well of its intentions.
It is not easy to continue with this process despite these attacks. Do you think the government will be able to finish the process?
It’s too early to tell. Today the discourse is profoundly different. If Prime Minister Erdoğan stewards a comprehensive process of reforms that deals with the Kurdish issue and addresses the PKK problem once and for all, he will earn great international credibility and may very well end up in Oslo as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. To earn such recognition, he’ll also have to take steps ensuring freedom of expression, including media freedom.
On Turkey-Armenia Relations
Even before the report “Disarming, Demobilizing and Reintegrating the PKK,” you prepared a report on Turkish-Armenian rapprochement. Most Turks support this rapprochement, hoping that “this will end our nightmares on genocide resolutions.” Do you think Armenians will give up their genocide recognition demands?
Adopting a treaty on normalization and recognition is an event that occurs on a specific date. Reconciliation between Turks and Armenians is a process that is going to require a long time and a lot of interaction. Opening the border, Turks and Armenians will be able to come together. That will deepen mutual understanding and promote reconciliation between these two peoples. But that doesn’t mean that Armenians will stop seeking recognition of the genocide.
What if the new historians’ commission comes out with a report that what happened amounts not to a “genocide” but to a “massacre”?
My experience with historians is that they come to the table with piles of books and papers justifying their conclusions. I suspect that this commission will not reach a definitive conclusion that is satisfactory to either side.
Do you think the Nagorno-Karabakh issue has the potential to block the rapprochement?
Through the Minsk Process, efforts will intensify to reach an accord that returns most of the war-affected territories to Azerbaijan. But there is no linkage in the current agreement on normalization and recognition between Armenia and Turkey and the territories in Azerbaijan. My own view is that normalization and recognition between Turkey and Armenia will provide a big boost to the negotiations on Nagorno-Karabakh.
There is also the “Armenian Ergenekon,” the Karabakh clique, which can do things including the occupation of Parliament.
I am not aware of the Ergenekon clique in Armenia, but there will surely be resistance to reconciliation on both sides. There are people who have an interest in keeping the border closed. Fortunately those parties are in the minority. There is an initialed agreement that describes the way forward. There will clearly be heated debate on both sides, but I’m confident that both the Turkish and Armenian parliaments will ultimately ratify the agreement. I think the issue is ripe, and both sides are ready for reconciliation. The era of closed borders has come to an end, and it is time for open borders, open minds and open hearts.