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Issue 35, February 1999

Kurdish struggle at crossroads

ABDULLAH OCALAN, leader of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party), slipped out of Italy over the weekend of 17-18 January, possibly to Russia. His flight began last autumn after Turkey put military pressure on Syria to expel him. The Turkish state has been fighting a brutal 15-year war against Kurds in the strategically important south of the country (northern Kurdistan). Over 4,000 villages have been destroyed, up to 40,000 people slaughtered, and millions have become refugees. The 25 million Kurds - the world's largest nationality without a state - are also oppressed by the Iraqi, Syrian and Iranian regimes.

After Ocalan arrived in Rome last November demands for his extradition provoked angry international protests. He has sought to use the renewed international interest to sponsor a 'programme for peace'. In media interviews, the leader of the PKK, which claims to be Marxist, has raised key issues on the way forward for the Kurdish struggle.

Ocalan's statements reflect the fact that the conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK's armed wing, ARGK, has reached an impasse. The PKK was launched in 1978 and developed into a mass force during Kurdish radicalisation in the 1980s. Heroic resistance has been conducted against Turkish rule and reactionary tribal leaders. However, the temporary strengthening of capitalism following the collapse of Stalinism, and the example of other 'national liberation movements' entering peace negotiations, have hugely effected the strategy of the PKK leaders. Also, many workers and peasants in Kurdistan understandably want an end to the suffering. Nobody can argue against negotiations for peace but the issues are under what terms and for what aims?

The starting point must be the demand for the withdrawal of all repressive Turkish forces from Kurdistan. Kurds must be allowed to determine their own affairs free of oppression: and retain the right to self-defence against aggression.

  Ocalan wants talks under the auspices of the Western powers, especially the US. However, this would not create a viable strategy for peace and national and social liberation.

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Kurdistan was divided between Turkey, Iran and British imperialism's creation, Iraq. This 'divide and rule' tactic allowed the main powers to strengthen their rule in the region. The US and main EU states are no neutral arbitrating agency: as exploiting imperialist powers, they have vested interests in maintaining the region's economic stagnation and in divisions amongst the masses. They would like to see an end to Turkey's costly, destabilising war, but will not trade it for genuine Kurdish liberation.

Ocalan has praised the Palestinian/Israeli 'peace process' as an example to follow. But the Kurds have not struggled merely for their own version of the Palestinian Authority: an undemocratic, corrupt statelet, whose repressive apparatus is used on behalf of the US and Israel against the masses.

Ocalan has appealed to the US: 'What you have done for the South (Northern Iraq), you should also do for the North (Turkish occupied Kurdistan)'. The 'Kurdish protection zone' of northern Iraq was established after the 1991 Gulf war, partly as a sop to world outrage after US President Bush had urged the Kurds and minority Shia Muslims to rise up against Saddam Hussein's regime, only to stand back as Saddam's forces butchered the insurgents. The Western powers changed tack because Saddam was already militarily defeated, and they feared the destabilising effects of the break-up of Iraq and the establishment of radical Kurdish and Shia states.

The 1992 election of a 'Kurdish parliament' in the zone cleared the way for warlords to profit from smuggling and the black market. The economy has collapsed with unemployment at over 50%. Trade unionists and women activists are attacked by Islamic terror groups and the two main tribal based organisations. Nor has Southern Kurdistan been protected by Western powers against Saddam's forces or regular raids by the Turkish army. In fact, the area has been left to rot.

Some Kurdish organisations have raised the demand for Kurdish autonomy within Turkey's borders. Socialists support full cultural and democratic rights for Kurds, including democratically elected local councils and a regional parliament with real powers. However, the underlying social and economic problems of Kurdistan will not be solved within the confines of capitalism and landlordism, even if 'autonomy' was ever nominally allowed. Capitalism means impoverishment, oppression and conflict. To solve these problems the system has to be replaced with a socialist society; a workers' and peasants' democratically planned economy that unlocks economic potential for all.

  Clearly Ocalan has concluded that the guerrilla struggle has led to a stalemate and that the Kurds should now adopt a mainly diplomatic strategy. But seeking a negotiated settlement under the direction of imperialism will only lead to another dead end. The Kurds' aspirations will not be realised. Neither the world powers nor the rotten regimes that oppress the Kurds would willingly concede genuine self-rule and the break-up of present-day states. They fear it would act as an inspiration for other oppressed minorities and the working masses in the region to rise up against despotism and grinding poverty.

Despite a watering down of demands by Ocalan, there is no guarantee that the West and the Turkish state will negotiate even a Palestinian-style 'solution'. The PKK and Kurdish masses are in danger of being militarily and politically unarmed and confused in this difficult situation.

Full discussion and re-orientation is required but it would be fatal to end mass struggle and to rely on hostile class forces. The only force for real change is the mass movement of workers and peasants in Kurdistan, linked to the interests of the working class of the region. The guerrilla struggle unfortunately included terror attacks against civilian Turks, tourists and European targets, which divided workers and played into the hands of the Turkish state and reactionary governments. Furthermore, the PKK failed to see the important armed struggle in the Kurdistan mountains as essentially auxiliary to the decisive role of the powerful urban workers and youth, whose numbers have grown massively.

Democratic rights in Turkey are denied to all workers. Turks have paid heavily for the war which drains 8bn a year. Living standards have fallen and now deep recession looms. Discontent has mainly been channeled by the Islamists and Turkish nationalists, but important initiatives for workers' unity have been taken. The public-sector union federation KESK combines both nationalities in common struggles and calls for Kurdish self-determination. Uniting and fighting on class issues and explaining to Turkish workers that peace and a better life for all will be reached only if the Kurdish people can decide their own future - these are the means to cut across war and nationalism.

Socialists support the right of self-determination for Kurds. All Kurds in each part of Kurdistan must be free to take a democratic decision on their own future, including whether they wish to form a unitary state or a federation of Kurdish states.

A socialist Kurdistan, as part of an equal and voluntary federation of socialist states in the region, could fundamentally transform living conditions and lead to a peaceful resolution of the national issues.

Niall Mulholland

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