Turkey Launches Economic Offensive against PKK Recruitment

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 11

On May 27, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced over $15.5 billion in additional state funding to complete the Southeast Anatolian Project (GAP), a huge irrigation and hydroelectric scheme in nine predominantly Kurdish provinces in southeastern Turkey. Speaking in Diyarbakir, the largest city in the region, Erdogan promised that the completion of GAP would create nearly four million new jobs in what has long been the most impoverished and underdeveloped area of the country—and the main recruiting ground for militant organizations such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). “This is a social restoration project,” declared Erdogan. “This initiative will restrict the terrorist organization’s field for exploitation” (Milliyet, May 28).

GAP was first launched in the early 1980s and was originally scheduled to be completed by 2010 at a total cost of $32 billion. At its heart lies a system of 22 dams, 19 hydraulic power plants, and the irrigation of 17,000 square kilometers (approximately 6,500 square miles) of land (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, March 13). However, a shortage of funds has meant that GAP is currently still only two-thirds complete. Under the “GAP Action Plan” announced by Erdogan on May 27, the entire project is now scheduled to be finished by 2012. In addition to more funding for infrastructure and irrigation, Erdogan also pledged an additional $850 million for education in the GAP region and a further $470 million for healthcare (GAP website, www.gap.gov.tr).

A Turning Point?

Newspapers sympathetic to Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) predictably hailed the GAP Action Plan as a “historic turning point” (Today’s Zaman, May 28). Others were less convinced. Several noted that the AKP is already looking ahead to the local elections in March 2009. Erdogan has told party workers that their main target is to wrest control of the municipalities in southeastern Turkey from the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP). “Election investment” headlined the acerbically anti-AKP daily Cumhuriyet (May 28). Perhaps significantly, in addition to announcing the GAP Action Plan, Erdogan also took the opportunity to lambast the DTP-controlled Diyarbakir municipality.

There are serious doubts as to whether Erdogan’s government has the money to fulfill its promises. The Action Plan estimates completing the project by 2012 will require an extra $15.5 billion in addition to the $5.8 billion already allocated to GAP under existing state investment plans for 2008-2012 (GAP website, www.gap.gov.tr). Yet the Turkish economy was already beginning to slow even before the international credit crunch triggered by the collapse of the U.S. sub-prime market. The AKP has also been badly shaken by the repercussions of its heavy-handed attempts to lift the headscarf ban in Turkish universities (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, February 11) and the March 14 application to the Turkish Constitutional Court for the party to be closed down (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, March 17). In recent weeks there have been increasing signs that the AKP is prepared to try to boost its popularity by relaxing the fiscal discipline that has characterized its economic policies since it first came to power in November 2002. On the same day that Erdogan announced the GAP Action Plan, the Turkish Industrialists’ and Businesspersons’ Association (TUSIAD) publicly warned the AKP government of the dangers of its increasingly populist economic policies (Dunya, May 28; Milliyet, May 28). At a time when the budget deficit is already beginning to grow, it is hard to see how the AKP can find an additional $15.5 billion for the GAP Action Plan without jeopardizing the medium-term prospects for the country’s economy as a whole.

Undercutting Political Militancy

Nevertheless, even if it is not the only factor, Erdogan is probably right to assert that there is a relationship between the social and economic underdevelopment of southeastern Turkey and political militancy. Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish provinces lag far behind the rest of the country in every socioeconomic indicator. Per capita income in the poorest provinces of the GAP region, such as Hakkari, is estimated to be approximately one-tenth of the levels in the relatively prosperous provinces in western Turkey. According to official figures from the Turkish Statistical Institute, in 2006 there were 143 hospital beds for every 100,000 people in the GAP region, compared with 301 in the Aegean region in western Turkey (www.turkstat.gov.tr).

Similarly, in 2007, there was one teacher for every 30.1 school students in the GAP region, compared with 19.2 in the Aegean region (www.turkstat.gov.tr). In some elementary schools in southeastern Turkey it is not unusual for there to be 90-100 students in a class. In his speech in Diyarbakir on May 27, Erdogan promised that additional state investment would reduce the maximum number of students to 48 (Today’s Zaman, May 28). However, low income levels mean that many students in the GAP region do not even complete the compulsory eight years of elementary education, either not attending school at all or abandoning their studies early to look for work. Even then, work can be hard to find. Unemployment levels are considerably higher than in the rest of the country. In 2006, the latest period for which official figures are available, the labor force participation rate in the GAP region stood at just 34.3 percent, compared with a still low 48.0 percent in Turkey as a whole (www.turkstat.gov.tr). Southeastern Anatolia also has the highest fertility rate in Turkey, with the result that young people account for a large share of the unemployed throughout the region.

It is unlikely to be a coincidence that both the PKK and radical Turkish Islamist organizations have traditionally primarily recruited poor and uneducated youths who either live in eastern Anatolia or have recently migrated to the metropolises of western Turkey in search of work.

“Some of the leaders of the terrorist organizations come from better off families or have an education,” a member of the security forces involved in counter-terrorism told Jamestown. “But the rank and file are nearly all poor and uneducated. It is not that they are stupid, just more naïve, which makes it much easier to persuade them to risk their lives or blow themselves up with a bomb.”

Socioeconomic Disparity

Although it is unclear how representative the samples are, a survey by the Turkish police of 262 captured members of the PKK reinforces the impression that poorly educated youths are particularly susceptible to recruitment by the organization. Only 11 percent of those questioned had a university education, compared with 16 percent who had graduated from high school and 13 percent who had completed middle school. A total of 39 percent had only an elementary school education, while 12 percent were literate but had not completed elementary school and 9 percent did not even know how to read and write (Turkish police website, www.egm.gov.tr).

Many of the youths who join the PKK also regard the high levels of unemployment and limited access to public services in southeastern Turkey as being indicative of the attitude of the central government toward the country’s Kurds. “They look down on us, try to suppress our culture and kill us if we raise our voices,” one young PKK militant told Jamestown. “They don’t build schools or hospitals in Kurdish areas or create jobs, even when they promise to do so. They don’t allow us to have a future.”


There is no question that the AKP government has done more than any of its predecessors to reach out to the country’s Kurds, both in its rhetoric and with practical measures, such as easing some of the limitations on the expression of a Kurdish identity. But many restrictions still remain. Few of those listening to Erdogan’s speech in Diyarbakir on May 27 are likely to have been convinced by his declaration that Turks and Kurds “are all free and equal citizens of the same republic” (Radikal, May 28).

Perhaps more critically, since it came to power in November 2002, the AKP has failed either to rectify the disparity in socioeconomic conditions between southeastern Anatolia and the west of the country or to reduce the alienation felt by many Kurdish youths. Despite the apparently heavy losses suffered by the PKK in clashes with the Turkish security forces [1], there is still no indication of a decline in volunteers wishing to join the organization.

Even if the AKP is able to find the money to deliver the promises in the GAP Action Plan and create jobs and improve living standards, there are those who worry that—particularly when it comes to militant Kurdish nationalism—it is all too little, too late. “For years, the government deliberately kept the southeast underdeveloped because it thought the Kurds would be easier to control if they were poor and uneducated,” a retired high-ranking military official told Jamestown. “It was a mistake and we are paying the price with terrorists like the PKK. But even if we destroy the PKK, are the people there going to forget how they have been treated for decades?”


1. The Turkish military claims to have killed around 650 PKK militants in 2007 and another 500 since the beginning of 2008 (Turkish armed forces website, www.tsk.gov.tr). These numbers need to be treated with caution as, if true, they would mean that nearly one-third of the PKK’s total fighting strength has been killed in the last 17 months.