Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took a groundbreaking step, by issuing a state apology for the killings committed by the state security forces in the historical Dersim – today’s Tunceli – region, predominantly populated by Alevis. The 1937 massacres were long considered a dark part of the Republican history, mirroring also many other repressive practices undertaken by the Republican elite as part of the modernization and nation building project. Until very recently a healthy debate on the subject was difficult. While Erdogan’s apology is a vindication of the progress achieved in the democratization and liberalization of Turkish political culture in recent decades, it also comes as a carefully calculated political maneuver that seeks to bolster his party’s position in the domestic balance of power.
In parallel to issuing the apology, Erdogan made public the state documents that lay out the details of the Dersim events. In response to what it claimed to be a rebellion led by a local chief of a Zaza-speaking tribe in the Dersim region, the Turkish government used heavy force including air strikes which cost the lives of thousands of people (Anadolu Ajansi, November 23). Erdogan’s call for confronting that brutal episode with courage has immense repercussions for the official political narrative in Turkey.
Since its inception in the wake of the First World War, the modern Turkish republic has sought to forge an ethos of a modern state that is formed around a common national identity. Through education and other institutions, the republican state apparatus sought to eliminate ethnic and religious differences in an effort to develop an official Turkish identity to which arguably all people living in Anatolia voluntarily subscribed. As the documents released by Erdogan attest, the state at times resorted to coercive instruments against the groups that resisted the policies of the early republican era.
This official acknowledgement largely shatters the image of a somewhat mystified Turkish state and the idea of unitary nation joined around a common fate. As an immediate effect, the relatives of the victims, some of whom recently launched a legal battle to restore the rights of their family, welcomed the state apology (www.haberaktuel.com, November 23). Beyond this, other groups that traditionally felt victimized by the Turkish state also expressed satisfaction with the soul searching by the Turkish government. The members of the Armenian and Greek communities and other non-Muslim groups as well as followers of various Sufi brotherhoods that were subjected to a variety of repressive practices now feel empowered to demand a more open and freer debate on those dark episodes throughout the history of republican Turkey. As Turkey prepares to engage in a new period of intense debate on rewriting its constitution, the dismantling of the authoritarian official political narrative is seen as an opportunity by liberal forces.
There are obviously also political calculations behind Erdogan’s move, given its timing and the manner it is framed. While announcing the historical documents, Erdogan also pointed to the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) as the culprit of the crimes. Erdogan was obviously drawing a parallel between today’s CHP and the Turkish statesmen of the time, since Turkey was governed by a single-party rule of the CHP until the transition to democracy in the 1950s. Erdogan called on the CHP’s current leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who himself is also an Alevi from Tunceli, to apologize for the massacres on his party’s behalf.
Erdogan’s remarks immediately resonated through the ranks of the CHP. Erdogan’s announcement came against the background of a heated debate on the Dersim events that had already started inside the CHP. Although differing views on Dersim events occasionally led to frictions inside the CHP, the recent debate was triggered quite unexpectedly. A CHP deputy, Huseyin Aygun, contested the official history and claimed that the Turkish state planned the massacres in Dersim. In his account, the people there were simply defending themselves, not leading a rebellion, as claimed by official history (Today’s Zaman, November 10). Aygun had in fact challenged Erdogan earlier through a parliamentary inquiry to release the state documents and invited him to issue an apology (Anka, September 14).
While, in the ensuing debate inside the CHP, some deputies even called for Aygun’s expulsion from the party, Erdogan and his AK Party skillfully took advantage of this crack in their opponent’s ranks. Erdogan and key AK Party figures increasingly raised the pressure on Kilicdaroglu to confront the history and acknowledge his party’s misdoings by opening the party’s own classified archives and agreeing to initiate a parliamentary inquiry, prior to Erdogan’s announcement of the documents. Kilicdaroglu’s ambivalent reaction to Erdogan satisfied neither those revisionists who are calling for confronting with the Dersim incident nor the opposition who sharply oppose to opening such a debate. However, this debate provided yet another opportunity for the anti-Kilicdaroglu figures to work for regrouping themselves into a formidable counter-block inside the party (www.ahaber.com, November 26).
The growing infighting in the CHP since then also attests to how deeply the Dersim question affects the CHP’s identity, especially its controversial relationship with the Alevis. Despite the persecution at the hands of the CHP-governed Turkish state, the Alevis have come to evolve as strong supporters of the CHP. The CHP’s advocating of a secular political platform and life style appealed to the Alevis, who historically felt victimized by the Sunni majority and in recent years viewed the CHP as a bulwark against the “Islamization” of Turkish society and politics under right-wing parties.
Although the AK Party wanted to make inroads into the Alevi constituencies, its so-called “Alevi opening” had failed to pay any significant dividends. The CHP still enjoyed support among the Alevi voters in the latest parliamentary elections. Erdogan’s recent move, though admirable, is unlikely to swing the Alevi voters to his party, but many Alevi associations are already demanding the CHP engage in a more sincere discussion on their identity and the not-so pleasant history of their encounter with the Turkish state (Haberturk, November 28). Even the very fact this debate is taking place in the CHP’s ranks is likely to set the CHP on an inward trajectory. Subsumed with yet another round of internal debates, the CHP will find it difficult to launch a credible opposition to the AK Party for some time.