A tea shop in Diyarbakir. Photo by Adam Reader.
Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani is expected to arrive in Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish city in Turkey, on Saturday. He will meet with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan; attend the inauguration of government projects and partake in some wedding celebrations.
Barzani’s invitation to Diyarbakir clearly marks a break from the traditional Turkish policy towards the Kurds in the whole region. It is true that provincial elections are coming in March next year and Erdogan wants to win Kurdish voters. But the story of the visit cannot only be read from this angle.
As a prominent Kurdish leader, Barzani will be the first to visit Diyarbakir and be received as the president of the Kurdistan Region. This has symbolic significance at the minimum. Unlike previous Turkish governments, Turkey’s foreign policy under Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has shown flexibility and leniency toward the Kurds.
This has to do with several factors. First, Kurdistan is rich in hydrocarbon resources -- something that Turkey is in desperate need of. Secondly, the recent Arab spring further pushed AKP to embrace the Kurds more pragmatically, to avoid any security fallouts of the kind seen on Arab streets. And of course, the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is a soft way to defuse historical tensions between Turks and Kurds in the region. Barzani has been invaluable for Ankara on all of these issues. In return, Ankara is almost working as protector of the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq. It has helped Kurdistan to be economically developed and soon it will have its own independent source of income from its nearly-completed pipeline.
As Barzani prepares for his trip, there are mixed feelings on both sides of the border. Some of the Kurdish leaders from northern (Turkish) Kurdistan have already argued that the AKP wants to use Barzani to attract traditional Kurdish voters that have gone to the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) in the previous election. Meanwhile, the Turkish nationalists view Barzani’s visit as another attempt to divide Turkey.
Selahattin Demirtas, the co-chair of BDP, said he welcomed Barzani’s visit as long as it did not harm the Kurds politically.
“From Erbil to Amed (Diyarbakir) is Barzani’s home and Barzani can be considered an experienced politician if he does not become a tool for AKP’s election campaign,” said Demirtas at a press conference in Paris.
Ahmet Turk, the co-chairman of the DTK (Democratic Society Congress) warned about AKP’s plans to undermine Kurdish political parties in Turkey by inviting Barzani. He believes that Barzani’s invitation is aimed at the March elections. “Barzani should interpret the Kurdish people’s expectations correctly. Some people may have invited Barzani for the next elections. I hope that Mr. Barzani notices this,” Turk said earlier this week.
After returning from a visit to Baghdad last Monday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told journalists: “We are happy when we see bonds between Turkey and Bosnians or Albanians in the Balkans. The same is valid for Kurds as well. This is in fact a part of our normalization and reflection of self-confidence. In the past, there were those who were against any contact between Kurds inside Turkey and outside, as if it would be the end of the world.”
Relations between Turkey and the Kurdistan Region hit an iceberg when Barzani threatened to intervene in Diyarbakir in 2007 in response to Turkish interference in the Kurdish city of Kirkuk.
"We will not let the Turks intervene in Kirkuk," Barzani said at at the time in an interview with Al-Arabiyah television. "Kirkuk is an Iraqi city with a Kurdish identity, historically and geographically. All the facts prove that Kirkuk is part of Kurdistan," he said.
Erdogan declared that cabinet members and deputies will attend collective opening ceremonies in Diyarbakır next Sunday. “All together, we will embrace the people of Diyarbakır in our province of Diyarbakır,” he said.
The main opposition Republican People's Party's (CHP) deputy chair Sezgin Tanrikulu, a Kurdish politician from the southeastern region, cautioned Barzani to watch his reputation.
“Mr. Barzani is a prestigious name of the 50-to-60-year-long political struggle of the Kurds. He has earned this reputation from the struggle in his personal history. I hope that he takes care not to sacrifice this reputation to internal political strife, conflicts and fights in Turkey,” he told journalists.
On the other hand, the Iraqi Kurdish parties are divided over Barzani’s trip to Diyarbakir.
The leader of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, Muhammad Rauf, believes that Barzani’s trip will contribute to the peace process and strengthen Kurdish-Turkish ties. In the meantime, he lamented that Barzani’s trip is only tied to the upcoming election in Turkey.
“What’s important is contribution to the peace process and everyone is looking out for his own interests, and we are looking for the interest of our people in Northern Kurdistan,” Rauf told Rudaw.
However, Muhammad Hakim, an official of the Kurdistan Islamic League (Komal) told Rudaw, “such relations between the Kurdistan presidency and Kurdistan government with the neighboring countries are murky for us, therefore I cannot comment on this.
The main Kurdish opposition group, the Change Movement (Gorran), also warned that Barzani’s visit to Diyarbakir would not serve Kurdish interests. Rebeen Omer, a Gorran official in Erbil, told DIHA news agency: “Barzani’s trip will be good publicity for AKP and it could hinder the peace process between Turkey and the PKK.”