Istanbul Kültür Univesity – Global Political Trends Center (GPoT) organized a roundtable meeting on September 7th on the “Kurdish question and nationalism” with Ingmar Karlsson, an experienced diplomat and former Consul General of Sweden to Istanbul.
The meeting took place at a critical time as Turkey entered a serious process of democratization with regards to its Kurdish minority, amid fears of threats to the country’s territorial integrity. Karlsson’s presentation added to the hopeful discourse and provided an crucial perspective regarding the future of Turkey’s Kurdish population, Iraqi Kurdistan and the culture of democracy in Turkey
Regarding the possibility of an independent Kurdish state, Karlsson pointed out that the Kurdistan Regional Administation will be a stabilizing, rather than radicalizing, factor for not only Turkey but the region as a whole. Looking at the way the Kurdish problem has been dealt with in Turkey, Syria, and Iran, however, Karlsson discerned the idea of an independent state carved out of these countries is “anachronistic.”
Karlsson refuted several common misconceptions about the Kurds to make his points. One is that there is a monolithic Kurdish identity, which ignores regional, linguistic, religious, and other differences among the population. This reality, combined with the politics of Barzani and Talabani, complicates the process of nation-making, according to Karlsson. Another misconception is that Iraqi Kurds will prefer unification with Turkish Kurds over good relations with neighboring Turkey, and potentially, the EU. Karlsson argued that given that in the case of unification Iraqi Kurds will have to share valuable resources in a country where they are the minority, it is likely that economic considerations will triumph over the desire for independence.
Asked about the PKK, Karlsson urged to not overestimate its power and influence. Reminding that the PKK is a direct consequence of the state’s policies towards the Kurds, Karlsson explained that the PKK can only thrive in desolate economic circumstances. Once the state develops the region and grants full rights, the PKK, which has also lost allies over the years due to its internal politics, is sure to lose its ground.
While independence remains an illusion, a democractic Turkey granting its Kurdish community full democratic and cultural rights is anything but. Both Karlsson and participants emphasized the need to advance with the current momentum, as well as to expand on the EU reforms. What Turkey should not do at this point in time, according to Karlsson, is repeat the past policies of military threats, but instead continue its investments and dialogue. This is paramount to Turkey’s unity, both territorial and societal.
Indeed the situation of the nation states and nationalism was one of the main topics underlying the discussion. Karlsson talked about a post-ethnic political culture where people increasingly refer to their sub-identities. Here Karlsson made a reference to the Ottoman system of nationalities in relation to the ongoing transformation in the EU, a topic he discussed in his book.
The participants voiced a common understanding in Turkey that should Turkey fulfill all of the Copenhagen criteria, it will be a different country, at peace with both its minorities and neighbors. As an ambassador from Sweden, which had been seriously accused of supporting the terrorist PKK and undermining Turkey’s sovereignty in the past, Karlsson said he has been asked how come Sweden has changed his policies. Perhaps Karlsson’s answer is the most appropriate indictor: “We haven’t changed our policies; Turkey has changed.”