In early February 2006, French and Belgian police arrested more than a dozen senior members of the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party), a militant group fighting for greater political, social and civil rights for Turkey’s Kurdish minority. Initially, the arrests seemed a success for Turkey and the United States who have lobbied the European Union to take concrete action against the group, which they declare is a terrorist organization. Within days, however, the European authorities began releasing many of the captured PKK members. The episode underlines the difficulties faced by Turkey in both persuading the Europeans that fighting the PKK is also in their interests and that Ankara’s commitment to human rights, freedom of expression and democracy is genuine.
Beginning in early February, France arrested 15 Kurds. Among them were some of the most senior PKK leaders in Europe, including Rıza Altun, who was formerly in charge of the PKK’s European operations, and Nedim Seven, who is allegedly head of the PKK’s youth wing and is its treasurer (AFP, February 24). Soon afterward, two more Kurds were arrested by police in Belgium, one of whom was Zubeyir Aydar, formerly the head of Kongra-Gel, which has now been virtually disbanded. Soon after the arrests, Ross Wilson, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, said that U.S. intelligence agencies had co-coordinated the arrests with European authorities. “What we try to do in Europe aims at ensuring that the financial sources of the PKK will be cut and main leaders of the PKK are detained,” he told Turkey’s Anatolia News Agency. “We are glad that German, French and Belgian authorities took steps as a result of these meetings” (Zaman, February 9). Since then, however, almost all of the arrested Kurds have been released, and the rest seem likely to be released as well. Turkish media have speculated that more arrests will be made in Germany and the Netherlands, but these are likely to be just as fruitless (Zaman, February 13). The Turkish government responded angrily to the releases. “These operations are important, but we have stated that we find them insufficient,” Cemil Çiçek, the Turkish justice minister said. “We have not seen them extradite a single separatist to Turkey up to date. I was right in acting with cynicism” (Zaman, February 26).
The European Union’s past actions against the PKK have been equally patchy. The European Union only designated the PKK as a terrorist organization in 2003—allowing its funds and assets to be frozen—although many individual governments had already taken steps against the movement. Yet where Europeans have perceived their security threatened, they have acted quickly. In November 2004, for instance, Dutch authorities discovered a PKK “training camp” near Liempde where they said Kurds were being trained to carry out attacks in Turkey. The Netherlands launched a police operation and arrested 29 Kurds and closed the camp.
For decades, Turkey has told European countries that the PKK is funded largely through drug smuggling, human trafficking and prostitution rackets in Europe. On March 22, for instance, Çiçek visited Germany and called for closer cooperation against criminals and terrorists who have sought asylum in Europe. “Some of them have been successful and therefore we want to have regular meetings and a closer cooperation,” he said (Anatolia News Agency, March 22).
Although Turkish claims of PKK involvement in crime are often dismissed as little more than propaganda, they have often proven strikingly correct. In 2006, for example, Abdullah Baybasin, a Turkish Kurd, was convicted of drug-related charges in the United Kingdom. British police at his trial said that he had controlled up to 90 percent of the United Kingdom’s heroin trade by working with the PKK’s network of followers in Turkey and Europe (The Independent, February 17, 2006). France and Belgium did not press charges against the PKK members arrested this February, however, which may suggest that they were not overtly involved in the drug trade or in other prosecutable mainstream criminal activity.
It is possible that the scaling down of PKK military activities since 1999 (compared to 1980s levels) means that the PKK’s reduced need for funds has enabled it to move away from its traditional involvement in criminal activities. At the same time though, the lack of detailed information on the PKK’s criminal activities in Europe probably stems from the European security services’ increasing focus on Islamist movements. Moreover, while the Kurdish community in Europe was small and poor in the 1980s, today tens of thousands of pro-PKK Kurds live and work in Western Europe and their financial support would alone provide ample revenue.
A key component of the PKK’s European operations is Roj TV, a satellite television station based in Denmark since 2004. Turkey says that the station is part of the PKK and broadcasts pro-terrorist propaganda. The station itself says that it is funded by the Kurdish diaspora and that its programming is a legitimate mix of news, culture and music from a Kurdish perspective. “Roj TV gives a voice to a language that is banned; that has no right to be used as a language of education or broadcasting [in Turkey, Iran and Syria] and is under threat of extinction,” the station’s website says. The station broadcasts in the major Kurdish dialects and also in Turkish, Persian and Arabic. Yet while the station does undoubtedly put great emphasis on cultural programs, it also frequently broadcasts lengthy PKK press conferences from northern Iraq as well as long, informal interviews with PKK foot soldiers in Mount Qandil.
Turkey has made repeated efforts to shut down the station by enlisting U.S. support and, at the end of 2005, by supplying the Danish government with information on Roj’s broadcasts. Nevertheless, their efforts have been met with little success. In June 2006, Turkey and the United States redoubled their efforts to persuade Denmark to close down the station (Copenhagen Post, June 22, 2006). Yet, at the same time of the request, Turkey put 56 Kurdish mayors in southeastern Turkey on trial for writing to the Danish prime minister to ask him not to ban Roj TV. Coming just months after Denmark had been engulfed in the Prophet Muhammad cartoon controversy, Ankara’s heavy-handed actions once again prompted Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to side with the Kurds and to question Turkey’s credibility as a candidate for European Union membership. “I find it shocking that by writing a letter to me, someone can be charged with breaking the law,” Rasmussen told public service broadcaster DR. “It’s shocking if that can happen in a country wanting to join the European Union” (Copenhagen Post, June 22, 2006).
In the past, Turkey had succeeded in having pro-PKK media in Europe closed down. In 1999, Britain banned Med TV, a pro-PKK satellite station, while France banned its successor Medya TV in 2004. In September 2005, the German government banned the Turkish-language newspaper Özgür Politika on the grounds that it was “demonstrably linked” to Kongra-Gel, a PKK front organization. A court overturned this decision a month later, however.
More recently, Turkey’s efforts have brought diminishing returns and there seems little prospect of Denmark banning Roj TV. The role of Kurds in Iraq has brought greater sympathy for Kurdish ambitions in the region. Skepticism toward the efforts of Turkey’s Islamist government to join the European Union is also at an all time high. Turkey has also been at the center of the confrontation between Islamism and freedom of speech. For example, soon after Turkey’s government opposed the Jyllands-Posten’s Muhammad cartoons, a Catholic priest was murdered in Turkey, and Hrant Dint, the Armenian journalist, was shot dead for writing about the Armenian genocide. Potentially complicating the issue further is that Roj TV is reportedly preparing to launch a new station called Newroz TV, which will broadcast in Persian and Kurdish and be aimed at Kurds in Iran. Turkish media argue that the channel will work with PJAK, the PKK’s Iranian sister organization (Hurriyet, March 24). While this channel will clearly conflict with Turkish aims, it will be welcomed by the United States, which has recently increased its funding for pro-democratic Iranian media.
The recent arrests are part of a long-standing attempt by Turkey to weaken the PKK, to disrupt its funding and recruitment and to ultimately dislodge the group from its safe havens in Europe. The United States helped Turkey pressure the European Union in order to discharge some of Washington’s obligations to Turkey. The United States also hoped that taking action against the PKK in Europe would allow it to postpone dealing with the much-tougher question of how to meet Ankara’s demand that it shut down PKK camps in northern Iraq.
It seems likely that the failure of Ankara’s latest attempt to persuade the European Union to arrest the various senior PKK members in Europe will encourage Turkey and the United States to consider more radical solutions. In particular, Turkey may revive its plans for a military offensive against the PKK’s Mount Qandil headquarters in Iraqi Kurdistan. In recent months, Turkish leaders have stepped up their rhetoric with regard to the PKK in northern Iraq and it is possible that these threats may no longer be disregarded as pre-election bombast designed to lure nationalist voters to Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party.
At the same time, however, the PKK may itself react to the increasingly strident Turkish threats and the ineffectuality of the recent EU crackdown by shifting resources and key individuals from Mount Qandil in Iraqi Kurdistan to Europe. Denmark’s continued refusal to close Roj TV meanwhile means that the station will likely remain the principle news source and reference point for Kurds across the region. The combination of these two factors and the presence of thousands of lower level Kurdish activists in Europe mean that the PKK—and its pan-Kurdish ideology—may be increasingly well-placed to ride out any coming Turkish actions, whether military, diplomatic or political. At the same time, Turkey’s discriminatory policies toward its Kurdish minority ensure that there will continue to be a steady stream of recruits for the PKK or any successor organization that may emerge.