As the Turkish media continues to bask in the military strike against bases in northern Iraq belonging to the illegal Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Turkish authorities have stepped up their pressure on the legal pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP).
Yesterday (December 17), Turkish police arrested DTP leader Nurettin Demirtas as he arrived back in Turkey after a month of conferences and meetings in Europe. Demirtas is accused of falsifying a medical report in order to avoid military service, which is compulsory for all males in Turkey. The accusations against Demirtas are nothing new but they have intensified since he was elected head of the DTP on November 9, 2007, one week before the public prosecutor formally applied to the Turkish Constitutional Court for the party’s closure on the grounds that it had become a breeding ground for separatist activities (see EDM, November 19).
Demirtas is not alone. Thousands of young Turkish men avoid military service each year. Many of them, including one of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s sons, produce reports exempting them on medical grounds. What is unusual is the degree of attention paid to Demirtas’s case. Not only was he arrested as soon as he arrived at Ankara airport, but the operation was personally directed by Kemal Onal, the governor of Ankara, and Ercument Yilmaz, the head of police in Ankara (Radikal, Hurriyet, Yeni Safak, Sabah, Vatan, Zaman, December 18).
The Turkish press reported that the arrest warrant for Demirtas had been issued on December 5 (Radikal, December 18). However, he could hardly have chosen a worse day to return to Turkey. Since around 50 Turkish warplanes launched a series of air strikes on suspected PKK bases in northern Iraq in the early hours of December 16, the country has been swept with a wave of jingoistic fervor. Around 100 DTP members probably did their leader few favors yesterday by staging a protest against the air raids in the predominantly Kurdish town of Hakkari, close to the Turkish-Iraqi border (Hurriyet, Radikal, Milliyet, NTV, December 18).
Much of the jingoism in the Turkish media can probably be attributed to simple relief. Since the PKK resumed its armed campaign in June 2004, Turkey’s inability to curb the mounting death toll – particularly in early fall 2007 when the PKK killed nearly 40 soldiers in less than a month – had resulted in widespread frustration and a sense of impotence. In the wake of the air strikes of December 16, Turkish newspapers have proudly trumpeted what they described as the eradication of the “PKK headquarters” in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq and the deaths of a large number of PKK militants. In reality, the PKK camps in northern Iraq consist of huts and caves scattered over a wide area in ravines and valleys. Although the raids are likely to have had a significant psychological impact on the PKK militants and will have resulted in some casualties, they are unlikely to have done much damage to PKK infrastructure, mainly because there was not much there anyway.
But for many in Turkey the significance of the raids of December 16 lies in the message that Ankara has sent to the rest of the world in what several newspapers and television channels appear to regard almost as a display of national machismo. Almost all of the Turkish media ran reports on what they claimed was universal international approval for the raids (Hurriyet, NTV, CNNTurk, December 17). Even the liberal daily Radikal devoted most of one page to listing the positive reactions from around the world under the headline “No negative reaction to the operation” and then contradicted itself with a small news item on the same page describing how the Iraqi government in Baghdad had delivered a protest note to Turkey, expressing its concerns that what it described as “wrong intelligence” head led to civilians being targeted (Radikal, December 18).
It is currently unclear what damage the air strikes of December 16 – and any others that follow – will do to the PKK’s military capabilities. But the jingoistic glee with which they have been received in Turkey has raised concerns about an already dangerous growth in an aggressive nationalism. In an age when intellectuals talk about the use of “soft power” in diplomacy, for many Turks the fact that the December 16 raids were able to take place at all was the result of a demonstration of traditional “hard power” after a massive military buildup on the Turkish-Iraqi border finally persuaded the United States to lift its objections to Turkey conducting limited strikes against PKK bases in northern Iraq.
Yesterday (December 17) Erdogan hailed the air raids as proof of growing Turkish power. “Nobody can do anything without taking Turkey into account, not just in the region but anywhere in the world,” he said (Radikal, Yeni Safak, December 18).
But inside Turkey the rise in aggressive nationalism is continuing to take its toll. On December 16, in what is becoming an alarmingly familiar pattern, a Catholic priest was stabbed in the Aegean port of Izmir in the latest in a string of violent attacks on non-Muslims by young ultranationalist youths with Islamist leanings (Radikal, Hurriyet, Vatan, Sabah, December 17).
Perhaps more worryingly, the latest government statistics suggest not only that the pace of economic growth in Turkey is slowing, but also that unemployment is starting to rise. After growing by an annual average of around 7% in 2002-2006, the figures for the third quarter of 2007 suggest that Turkey’s gross national product rose by an annual rate of just 2%. While the latest employment figures suggest that overall unemployment rose to 9.3% in September. Among young people the rate was 19.0%, up from 18.2% one year earlier. However, official statistics only count those actively looking for work. Most analysts agree that the real unemployment figure is closer to 15%, rising to 25% among young people. Traditionally, rising nationalism and high levels of youth unemployment have proved a volatile combination (Dunya, Radikal, Referans, December 18).