Yulia Kazakova 2017-08-28
Quagmire of Democracy: Middle East

Ozan askes himself if there is any way to reach democracy and to which extend ethnic identity politics can lead to democratization. The question came up with the curiosity of how the recognition of ethnic identities can be driver force within a country through a more democratic governance. This curiosity has leaded his Masters study, as well. By having an exclusive opportunity to study in Public Policy and Political Analysis program at HSE, he focuses on democratization and identity politics in post conflict socities such as Bosnia and Turkey. Besides, Ozan is closely engaged in democratic social movements and strongly believes that the only chance to maintain democratic governance is active participation in civil society and public sphere.

-Do you believe in democracy? What does it mean for you?


-I don’t have a belief in democracy because I simply think that it is not a matter of belief. Democracy is what we have in the modern society today. Talking about democracy the famous phrase of Winston Churchill comes to our mind «Democracy is the best form of government so far we have.»  However it is very important to distinguish what kind of democracy that we are talking about. There are a lot of versions of democracy and perhaps hundreds of different definitions which are all correct to some extent. Liberal, representative, alternative, radical – these adjectives change the general meaning of democracy and adjust it to particular countries and societies. A huge pot with a lot of ingredients inside such as democratic voting, participation, manifestation has an enormous influence on our life and we have to learn how to nourish it.

Simply, in my opinion,if democratic governance is constantly interrupted in a country where there are also concrete problems about recognition of human rights, than it doesn’t really matter whether we believe or not. We should give our efforts to maintain the democratic participation. However, I also want to emphasize that democracy should not be turned into a sacred goal for societies. Rather than being an ultimate end, democracy itself is a continuous process which opens a path through extensive citizenship participation into any kind of policy making process from bottom to top. And hopefully there will be days that humankind will discuss about moving beyond democracy in governance.

-To be specific, let’s consider Kurdish case in Turkey. It has been discussed since 1980s when the fighting for Kurdish self-rule started but can you please state the problem in two words?

-No, not really (laughing). It is very challenging to describe whole issue in two words. So I’ll try to make it in one sentence. Kurdish Question is a very complex, multidimensional, key issue of current political agenda of Turkey based on ethno-political identity struggle and prolonged armed conflict, which might lead the country through a democratic state.

Kurdish ethnic population consists of %17-18 whole country population which was mainly concentrated in south-eastern part of Turkey. After a long period of nation state identity building process in Turkey over Turkish identity, the Kurdish political movement was formed into an armed rebellion in 80s. During the beginning PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) described themselves secessionist group but violent conflict continued till 2000s, and evolved into a new profound stage where the secessionist demands transformed into autonomous self governance. Meanwhile both parties, Kurdish political movement and State of Turkey, have changed their strategies, and finally the peace talks started 3 years ago. Today, negotiations are going on in a highly sensitive environment. The peace process as reconciliation on political and social level has been framed roughly, but legal and practical steps are pretty slow and under constant threat of regional politics (especially linked to Syrian Conflict and ISIS threat).

-Is there any difference between Kurdish movement in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria?

-There are considerable differences among Kurdish political actors in throughout these countries. Even though, ethnically speaking, the differences between Kurdish people in 4 countries are not so significant, social and historical resulted in different nation state building and so identity process in these countries. However there is one common aspect in all contexts that Kurdish identity has always been marginalized and suppressed. Kurds in Iraq suffered for a long time under Saddam regime and even experienced such humanity drams like as Halabja Massacre. Only after US military intervention, Kurds gained an autonomous status. At the same time, Baas Regime in Syria implemented very cruel identity politics over Kurds. Approximately 5 million Kurds were not provided, or very lately provided, ID cards and so deprived of basic civil rights such as access to education and health services until 2012.


Today, all Kurdish groups in 4 countries have a certain level of communication and cooperation but it would be more accurate to say that Kurdish political actors in Turkey, Iraq and Syria have closer links rather than Kurds in Iran. Especially, declaration of Kurdish Federal State in northern Iraq after the US invasion and establishment of autonomous cantons on northern Syria, obviously contributed to the self-governance practices and demands of whole Kurdish political movements in the region. And even today, right now, Kurdish Federal State security forces called Peshmerga and PKK fighters are playing an active role in Kurdish cities of Syria during the fight against ISIS.

-Some people believe that it is better for Kurdish people to stay in Turkey since it is a developed country with a financial system and military forces.

-It is a decision that must be given by collective Kurdish initiative, not anyone else or Turkish state. I don’t really think that I have a right to make personal judgment or proposal on that issue. However, I can say that many strong actors of Kurdish political movement such as PKK (armed group called Kurdish Workers Party) and HDP (legal entity called People’s Democracy Party) and plus the leader, Abdullah Ocalan, have been claiming that their preference is staying inside Turkey by the condition of unconditional recognition of equal rights as constitute people of the country. In fact official demands of the movement can be sorted out in three main topics 1) Recognition of Ethnic identity 2) (Public) education in mother tongue 3) Strong and decentralized local autonomy. These are currently main demands of Kurdish political movement in Turkey. So basically there is no tendency of separation. Obviously the drawbacks of political and economic context of Middle East (Syrian conflict, divided Iraq, and ISIS threat) also contribute to the tendency of staying inside Turkey.

-Is it possible to build democracy in developing countries or is it better to wait until people will be ready to follow rules and respect social rights?

-Waiting for available conditions to reach to democratic governance is nothing but a desperate deadlock. As I mentioned before, democracy is not a final end or magical prescription but rather a continuous process in which both state apparatus and public are being transformed and learned together. So, without a strong civil society initiative and political participation, unfortunately democracy cannot be developed.

I should also note that democracy shouldn’t be seen merely a ballot process based on voting behavior. Unfortunately it is a fallacy of liberal democracy that might easily turn into tyranny of majority as we see in many countries (including Turkey and Russia). Political elites have usually keen on authoritarian practices in order to monopolize and preserve their power. And the ballot majority is used to justify these practices. If a president, or a party, is elected by %51 of whole votes in a country, it definitely doesn’t mean that they can do whatever they want until the next elections. On the contrary, it means that there is still half of the population that needs to be considered and respected. Besides, a developed democracy requires active participation of every individual in policy making process especially between two elections not only during the elections.

-Do you personally work on the establishing democracy?

- There are a lot of ways of contribution of course. I personally try to engage with civil society organizations, especially in the area of human

rights advocacy.  I’m a member of Helsinki Citizens Assembly Association in Turkey, which is a human rights NGO, and besides I worked voluntarily for Amnesty International Organization. However apart from that, I’m also trying to take part in public protests and demonstrations if I support the idea that is headed for. Moreover, there also other instruments such as political parties or local governments and councils, but the effectiveness of all these instruments is always a matter of question especially considering the strong mainstream political rhetoric and neo-liberal hegemony.

-Do we need to fight for  democracy? Is it reasonable to die for an idea that some people consider to be unachievable?

-‘Fight’ in a metaphorical sense –we can also describe as political confrontation- has always been inevitable to gain democratic achievements in many countries unfortunately. However violence or death is never acceptable of course. Every human being, every life, is valuable, and no one wants to die with no reason, but many times in history demands for democracy caused loosing lives. We can look at the conflict in Syria, for instance. When people in Syria went to street to protest their government and demanded democratic and free elections in March 2011, they were very peaceful until the security forces opened fire to the crowd, who were doing sit-in protest at that time, and killed a dozen of people. Or Gezi demonstration is on the other side. During the protests 11 young people were killed by police violence in Turkey. And all these young people wanted a better democratic country in a peaceful way. Or Maidan in Ukraine, Tahrir in Egypt, Athens protests last year or Brazil… In fact there is a pattern that we can see applicable almost all of these democracy struggles; Police violence! So, it is not reasonable to die for an idea, but also it is sometimes very difficult to stay alive when you voice the idea.

-Have you noticed a global trend of self-determination? People want to determine themselves as a unique nation rather than just a part of a big society or country. How it may influence a future global policy?

-Referendums in Scotland and in Catalonia represent this trend for sure. If local society and local people don’t want to be a part of a huge country there is nobody who can stop or block it. Governments can prolong this process and try to cooperate with society. I like the concept of “glocalization”. Today obviously the world is moving through global governance in which administration is highly decentralized and transformed into self governance. Within the short future we will probably observe more ethnic identity conflicts, stronger regional and transnational institutions and financial rents

-How does it influence you and are you interested in deepening into this sphere?

-I believe that we have to help minorities to achieve their goals because it will make our society united. We don’t need straight-forward solutions. Why don’t we come together and discuss the possibility of changing the world.