International Affairs Review

Spring 2016 Article

101 Years Later: The Armenian Genocide and the Turkish-Kurdish Conflict

By Nicole Campos
On April 24, 2015, the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of a mass slaughter that many historians label the first genocide of the modern era, crowds join a torchlight procession through the Armenian capital of Yerevan to honor the dead. During the annual commemoration, part somber memorial and part nationalist rally, the grieving can turn overtly political—participants sometimes burn Turkish flags. Photograph by John Stanmeyer. (Salopek, Paul. April 2016. A Century Later, Slaughter Still Haunts Turkey and Armenia.


Turkey offers a new avenue for progress in the European Union (EU), and it is currently negotiating possible membership with the Union.  According to the Human Development Report, Turkey’s extreme poverty no longer exists, and food insecurity is also at a relatively low level (2014). Moreover, Turkey made great strides in gender equality in primary education and in reducing child and maternal mortality rates. After withstanding a global economic downturn, Turkey maintains a GDP of 799.54 billion US dollars, positioning their economy as the 17th largest in the world; with a steady annual GDP growth rate of 3.80 each year, Turkey seems to promise marked socio-economic success for the EU (Trading Economics, 2015).

Considering all these positive determinants of a nation-state’s growth and development, it is curious that Turkey is ranked in the “Warning Zone” in the Fragile State Index (FSI) published each year by the DC-based non-profit Fund for Peace and the magazine Foreign Policy (2015, p.6). To understand the significance of this qualification, it is crucial to note that ‘nation-state’ is defined as an, “area where the cultural boundaries match up with the political boundaries. The ideal of a ‘nation-state’ is that the state incorporates people of a single ethnic stock and cultural traditions” (Kazancigil, 1986, p. 188). A score of 9.0 (out of ten, where high scores point to volatility) for Group Grievances reflects Turkey’s extreme difficulties in maintaining political stability (Messner, 2015, p.17). According to The Republic of Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the country struggles with a litany of domestic concerns, including problems managing sustainable energy and water practices, issues with corruption, human trafficking, drug trafficking, protecting women’s rights, internal displacement, and security maintenance (2011). Through understanding these issues as both cultural and political,, this investigation  questions : Is Turkey prepared to meet additional challenges posed by the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis? If so, will its management strategies meet the EU’s standards and win Turkey entrance to the Union?

This investigation  examines Turkey’s high fragility designation as influenced by the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, hereafter referred to as the PKK. Initiating the analysis  by reviewing the historical background and origins of Turkey’s current political climate and identity crisis, particularly as it relates to the PKK and Syrian refugees. Discussing Turkey’s perpetration and subsequent denial of the Armenian Genocide, in the early twentieth century, serves as a foundation for understanding Turkey’s enduring concern with preserving a “pure” national identity.  

Next, the paper elucidates basic facts and statistics regarding the effectiveness of Turkey’s government, PKK conflict-management, and civil laws as they correlate to GG (and other FSI scores) (Messner, 2015).

To follow, a brief overview of the integral concepts of self-determination (“the legal right of people to decide their own destiny in the international order”), globalization (“the massive flow of goods, peoples, information, and capital across huge areas of the earth’s surface in ways that make the parts dependent on the whole”), and “global cities” adds depth to Turkey’s current international political struggles and goals and its “identity crisis” (LII, 2015; Trouilot, 2001, p. 128).  Next, the paper identifies specific pros and cons of self-determination and globalization as they relate to the PKK and Turkey’s identity formation and maintenance practices. Finally, an investigation into the ways in which the nation-state identity crisis affects the Syrian refugee crisis will shed light on Turkey’s potential for membership with the EU.

This paper illustrates the means by which internal and external political pressures on Turkey’s national identity formation add further tensions to an already volatile political environment, constraining the efficient regulation of Syrian refugees’ movements/settlements and ultimately threatening Turkey’s chances of joining the EU.

Historical Background

Immediately upon his election in 1923, the founder and first President of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk instituted revolutionary political, social, legal, economic, and cultural reforms  (Kirk, 2015). However, the newly defined secular government continued to face extreme criticism for refusing to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide committed by Turkish authorities only ten years previously (BBC, 2006).  Between 1914 and 1918, ethnic Armenians were systematically relocated, deported, and killed after years negotiations between the Ottoman State and Armenians living within Ottoman borders on government reforms and promotion of (Armenian) equality fell through (“Armenian Genocide” at  As the Ottoman Empire struggled to maintain power in the shifting political landscape following the First World War, the government incited suspicions that the better-educated, Christian Armenians sought to seize political control. Interpreting a threat to security, in 1914 the Ottomans declared a holy war against all Christians and their allies, specifically targeting the Armenians. At the same time, a new government known as the “Young Turks” called for nationalization of the state to be achieved through the removal of non-Turks.

This scenario parallels the origins of the PKK, which the United States Central Intelligence Agency now classifies as a terrorist organization (CIA, 2015). Turkish discrimination against Kurds and mass killings of Kurdish people is nothing new (New York Times, 2008).  Since 1923, the Turkish government has periodically banned Kurdish culture in public and private domains, even going so far as to ban the word “Kurds,” Kurdistan,” and “Kurdish”  (Shaker, 2015). In response, the PKK in 1984 began an insurgency against the Turkish government with the aim of creating an Independent Kurdish State in southeastern Turkey.  As a result of intermittent battles since that time, the PKK have acquired a sort of de facto “practical independence” in southern Turkey (Cockburn, 2015).  In a few extreme scenes since that time, Turkish military troops have instituted a food embargo against Kurdish populated villages, forcibly deported countless villagers, and set homes belonging to Kurds aflame.  The subsequent imprisonment of journalists and governments officials who dare even to  mention such phrases as “peace and understanding between Kurds and Turks,” remains disconnected from Turkey’s responsibility for expression of its citizens’ hope and discontent (Human Rights Watch, 2000).

After various attempts to institute peace talks between the PKK and Turkey, violence broke out once more as civil war spilled into Syria in September 2014, resulting in even more casualties of ordinary Turkish, Kurdish, and Syrian citizens (Soloman, 2014). Such news does not bode well with the international community, as independent news outlets have raised concerns regarding the safety and security of Turkish and Kurdish civilians as well as Syrian asylum-seekers (Tattersall, 2015). This paper then raises a series of questions:

— When the war ends, how will Turkey manage the transformation in diversity that inevitably follows mass displacement?  
— Will Turkey’s newest residents face equally harsh discrimination and supposed “mass assimilation,” as did the Armenians and the Kurds?
— Is it possible to put an end to this systematic and widespread pattern of crimes against humanity and open the doors to acceptance of transience of national culture (Avedian, 2012)?


Group Grievances, the PKK, and Civil Society

Turkey’s 2015 FSI scores as reported by the Fund for Peace reveal why Turkey is ranked in the “Warning” column with a score of 74.5 (6). FSI is based on “twelve key political, social, and economic indicators (which in turn include 100 sub-indicators) that are the result of years of painstaking expert social science research” (16).  The “Warning” label is applied when a state’s cumulative score ranges from 70 to 79.9; South Sudan holds the highest score (114.5, Very High Alert) while Finland has the lowest score (17.8, Very Sustainable) (6, 7). The “Warning” label itself intends to provide a state with ample opportunity to make appropriate governmental reforms to prevent state “failure,” characterized by a state’s inability to meet the basic needs of its citizens. Interestingly, the “Fragile” State Index is formerly the “Failed” State Index.  FSI adopted the new title so as to prevent shaming of states and instead focused attention on the content rather than the label in an attempt to guide and measure states’ improvements rather than failures (Messner, 2014: 8).  Though there is no consensus on the definition of a “failed” state, “failing” states are often characterized by poverty, weak institutions, arbitrary application of laws, human rights abuses, deterioration of public services, uneven economic development by ethnicity, mass outmigration and high numbers of internally displaced persons, social determinants such as illiteracy, mortality, and unemployment rates, factional conflicts, extremely polarized government (with open contestation), and four or more neighbor countries in either civil or ethnic conflict (Reno, 1999).

Turkey’s FSI-identified problems seem to complement one another in a manner that is quite obvious, especially when reviewing raw data.  Turkey’s mean FSI score is 6.2, with a low score of 3.7 and a high score of 9.0 (p.38).  Four abnormally high scores that increase Turkish state fragility include scores for Group Grievances (GGs) at 9.0, Factionalized Elites (FE) at 7.3, Refugees and Internally Displaced People (IDPs) at 7.5, and Security Apparatus at 7.7(p. 38).  These indices parallel the listed qualities of a “failing” state.

GGs are defined as “when tension and violence exists between groups, [and] the state’s ability to provide security is undermined and fear and further violence may ensue” (17).  As noted in the above Historical Background, Turkey’s recent past is riddled with ethnic, political, and religious tensions; the current circumstances with the PKK undoubtedly contribute to its high level of violence and its destabilized security system.

The 7.3 FE score refers to “when local and national leaders engage in deadlock and brinksmanship for political gain, [undermining] the social contract,” or “the view that a persons' moral and/or political obligations are dependent upon a contract or agreement among them to form the society in which they live” (17; Friend, 2015). FE is corroborated by a lower Corruption Perceptions Index score of 45 out of 100 (Transparency International, 2014) These scores do not necessarily indicate that the government is corrupt, but rather that it is dysfunctional. A most recent example of this dysfunction, according to the Daily Sabah’s Editorial Board, includes Turkey’s August 2015 parliamentary elections. The Justice and Development Party (AK Party), the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), and the Republican People’s Party (CHP) maintain differences in opinions on many issues, among them are reformations involving cultural rights of Kurdish people and expansion of religious freedom. In this case, the score can be interpreted as an indication that Turkey’s social conflict with the Kurds compromises the functionality of its political system.

The Refugee and IDPs score incorporates “pressures associated with population displacement, [which] strains public services and has the potential to pose a security threat” (p.17).  According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the cumulative total of refugees (including those of Syria and other Middle-Eastern states) accounted for as of January 2015, reached 1,633,560 individuals, half of whom are children.  By December 2015, that number is expected to exceed 1.8 million.  Furthermore, “Turkey maintains an emergency response of a consistently high standard” (UNHCR, 2015), declaring an official protection zone to ensure refugees’ security.  These figures are congruent with a high Refugee and IDP Score.

In complement to the aforementioned indicators, the Security Apparatus score encompasses the notion that “the security apparatus should have a monopoly on use of legitimate force. The social contract is weakened where affected by competing groups” (p.17). According to BGN News, a leading Turkish news outlet, the HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas stated that the Kurds have no real faith in the Turkish government or its intentions.  He specified that “the PKK will disarm, but it will be us [the HDP] who get the PKK to disarm” (2015).  This is a blatant expression of discontent on behalf of the Kurds, not to mention a stark lack of control of the PKK on the part of the Turkish government.

Although these indicators should not be accepted without skepticism, they act as important representations of a State’s overall stability and fragility.  These particular social, political, and economic pressures inflicted on Turkey have deteriorated into conflict at its Eastern border and can be developed further using ethnographic-inspired methodology.  Reporting timely and regionally-specific qualitative and quantitative data, preferably acquired from within the Turkish communities, can enhance understanding of Turkey’s particular vulnerabilities.
In all, the Fragile State Index suggests an international need to monitor Turkey’s fractured leadership, ethnic fault lines, and unresolved grievances, especially because they are currently being combined with problems surfacing with the massive surge of non-Turkish refugees and IDPs.  Additionally, the Turkish government might take steps to identify the underlying causes of state failure and mitigate problems to prevent the spread of dissent and domestically entrenched conflict.  An in-depth discussion of the effects of fragile States on the international community is beyond the scope of this paper; however, they must be seriously considered so as to prevent further humanitarian emergencies.


It is important to recognize the conception of “nation-state” as it relates to Turkey’s aforementioned historical identity crisis. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), a nation-state is:

… a product of the nineteenth century. In modern times nation is recognized as 'the' political community that ensures the legitimacy of the state over its territory, and transforms the state into the state of all its citizens. The notion of 'nation-state' emphasizes this new alliance between nation and state. Nationality is supposed to bind the citizen to the state, a bond that will be increasingly tied to the advantages of a social policy in as much as the Welfare State will develop (Nation-State, 2016).

Is the notion of a nation-state outdated?  This definition hinges on the unity of a state and its civil society regardless of culture, religion, politics; such unity adds to the “legitimacy” of the state’s claims to jurisdiction over a specified territory. Conversely, the concept of the “nation-state” can create problems when “the state can no longer be seen as the primary focus of national culture;” instead, a smaller faction within the state establishes itself as the primary architect of the state’s identity.  With this feeling of social and/or political insecurity, the state often seeks (forceful) reassertion of itself onto its people (Balibar, 1996). This can be exemplified through the interactions between Turkey and the Armenians as well as Turkey and the Kurds.  Furthermore, Neil Smelser, emeritus professor of sociology, writes:

… the crisis of national identity is related to the rise of a new nationalism that operates at many different levels, ranging from extreme xenophobic forms to the more moderate forms of cultural nationalism. Underlying this new nationalism is more a hostility against immigrants than against other nations; it is motivated less by notions of cultural superiority than by the implications multiculturalism has for the welfare state (2001).

Turkey’s repeated failure to recognize the Armenian and Kurdish nations resulted in the escalation of tensions between the state and the civilians, both seeking acknowledgement of their rights to self-determination. The escalation led to more than just tension; rather, an assault leading to extremist behavior on behalf of the PKK as well as the Turkish state continues to ravage southern Turkish borders.  Ironically, Turkey’s decisions in an attempt to unite its people only worked to destabilize the state.

As stipulated in the United Nations (UN) Charter (1945, art. 1, para. 2).  Turkey became a member of the UN in 1945 and was only obligated to uphold rights to self-determination after that date.  Therefore, under international law, the above-mentioned human rights abuses cannot, under any circumstances, validate or excuse the atrocities committed by Turkey (or the PKK for that matter) in the name of national security.  

Globalization and National Identity Formation

The relevance of globalization and Turkey’s promotion of its Western-orientation is typical for many developing countries, as few can resist the influence of the homogenization of global ideals (as exemplified by the acceptance of globally recognized documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).  Globalization often results in a level of cultural homogenization that is commonly interpreted as Western hegemony asserting its dominance on other nation-states.  As proposed by scholar Mark Levene, Turkey’s established “‘zone of genocide’ … cannot be understood in isolation, but only in light of the role played by the Great Powers in the emergence of the Western-led international system” (1998).  This quote serves to expand understanding behind the origins of the Turkey-PKK Conflict.  Not only did Turkey physically provoke the Kurdish people through compulsory displacements, but it also instituted laws censoring the Kurdish language altogether, forcing their “modern” culture onto the traditional Kurdish people.

Further, the PKK outright “promised to ‘liquidate’ or ‘eliminate’ political parties, ‘imperialist’ cultural and educational institutions, legislative bodies, and ‘all local collaborators and agents working for the Republic of Turkey in Kurdistan’” (Human Rights Watch, 1998).  This statement reflects an archetypal, hostile reactionary response against forcefully imposed Western notions of imperialism.  An additional example of this defensively mechanistic behavior might include the so-called Islamic State, comprised of extremists fighting against oppressive Western culture.  As the state seeks to define itself by way of force, its factional nation retaliates to protect its pre-established identity.

Arjun Appadurai’s Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (1996: 27-47), comes to mind when considering the increased radicalization of the PKK as a backlash against the Turkish government. Appadurai states that “the volatilities that underlie movements for nationhood…grind against the vulnerabilities that characterize the relationships between states” (1996: 40).  In other words, the insecurities driving the pursuit of nation identity formation can create conflict in the relationships between states.  As each state individually seeks to clarify its identity, for the sake of domestic or international security, divisions entailing differences between states become increasingly evident.  This inverse correlation functions as a means to distinguish one state’s dominance over the other.  

This paradigm clearly plays out between the Turkish and Kurdish people. Turkey experiences insecurity when pressured to demonstrate its identity consistency (through political actions and successes) for the EU.  Turkey moves to clarify its identity through “forced assimilation.”  The Kurdish people experience insecurity when Turkey imposes its Westernized ideals on their villages.  The Kurdish villagers emphasize their distinct cultural practices and demand acknowledgement by the Turkish government.  Rather than acknowledging each other’s differences, each state enters into a battle for recognition of cultural legitimacy.

This Western-oriented drive toward an idealized form of development is not unique to Turkey, nor is the violent and vehement reaction of the Kurdish people unique to them.  Ethnic and civic nationalism resulting from the effort to protect an identity can be seen throughout human history. As exemplified by the breakup of the former Yugoslavia (emphasis intended), creating borders based on ethnic, religious and/or cultural ties alone so as to create ethnically pure states will not prevent conflict altogether. While it is true that Turkey is far from complete state collapse, the threat of state failure remains. To extend further the case in point, the political battle for Kosovo based on claims to ethnic inheritance still looms over the Balkans today.
Ultimately, it will be important for Turkey to consider the deteriorating effects of violent conflict spillover for the sake of nationalism, especially in the wake of the current Syrian Civil War.  The line between coexistence and conflict is narrow; but, if the international community discovers a way to help transform that line into a bridge to understanding, perhaps cultural differences might seem less stark.  Perhaps the world might see that the problems do not reside between groups (often defined by ethnicity, culture, or religion), but within groups.  Although the conflict between groups like the Turkish state and Kurdish people can be more easily justified as having external origins, Turkey’s desires regard maintaining stability domestically, enabling the state to develop toward Westernization.  The façade Turkey has constructed to justify war against the Kurds is unnecessary, though useful in snowballing political and economic power, thus reinforcing its need to participate in thinly veiled war against the Kurdish “threat.”  Acknowledging and addressing this internationally devastating pattern of achieving stability through conflict becomes of vital consequence.

Global Cities

To contrast the notion of globalization, it is crucial to explore what is termed “deterritorialization,” or the severance of social, political, or cultural practices from their native places and populations. (Appadurai, 1996, p. 38).  This “disjuncture” provides space for nations and states to obtain or assert dominance, especially with regard to defining “nationhood” (p.39).  Often, states claim a national identity coevolution with communities seeking state-status, but instead quietly absorb the community without a fight.  Evidently, this peaceful process is not generalizable to the Turkey-PKK Conflict. Regardless, the quest for power and recognition is not unknown; the relationship between nations and states is rife with contention.

As Peter Taylor writes in his book, World Cities in a World System: “From the ideal of national self-determination comes cultural assertiveness expressed concretely as multiculturalism in the city” (1995, p.50).

Nations seeking self-determination might be classified as a lesser variety of “Global Cities,” depending on the scope of their influence (Sassen, 1999, p. 48).  Focusing on the notion of Global Cities allows for an examination of “the possibility of a new politics by traditionally disadvantaged actors operating in [a] new transnational geography” (Sassen, 1999, p. 49).  Recognizing the potential positive impact of the reconceptualization of a nation like Greater Kurdistan is of extreme significance to the Turkey-PKK Conflict.  Rather than emphasizing the impact of immense capital on the globe, it seems significant to note the influence of smuggling of goods and arms that occurs behind closed doors.

Although Kurdistan may not be classified as a state, or even a Global City, it is certainly “still engaged in the global economy and politics, only now in increasingly unexpected, direct, and violent ways” (Reno, 1999: 13).  As reported by the New York Times, Kurdish civilians and the PKK create alternate means of trading and transporting goods (Bartkowiak, 2015).  The highly functional nature of smuggling is rarely documented; although, its benefactors can attest to its success worldwide.  Consider longstanding drug-smuggling operations as another example.  Is it conceivable that, a “once a genie contained in the bottle of some sort of locality (however large), [can] become a global force” (Appadurai, 1996: 41).

Though their extreme tactics and internationally recognized as reprehensible, it seems reasonable that the Kurds wish to formulate their separate national identity as they seek independence from Turkey.  As of now, they seem to have their own functioning, albeit illegal, business to sustain a basic standard of living.  The Kurdish culture and political outlook conflict with the Turkish ideal. Perhaps it is time for a formal acknowledgement of the “disjuncture” of the nation and the state.  After all, “global society accommodates new political authorities that stray considerably from conventional notions of what states should be” (Reno, 1999: 10) all the time, whether directly or indirectly.  The Kurds do not seem to want supreme power over Turkey.  They seek respect, recognition, independence.

Current Implications

This research initially focused on investigating possible unrest resulting from the influx of refugees; upon closer inspection, it became clear that the PKK’s violent actions and periodic, yet consistent, declarations of war over the past few decades contribute to the turbulence of Turkey’s civil society.  However, additional scrutiny resulted in the discovery of the origins of the Turkey-PKK Conflict: a mass suffocation and exterminations of its own citizens for the preservation and promotion of a singular national identity.  Turkey bears equal, if not greater, responsibility for the sad state of its present political climate.  

The increasingly multicultural nature of Turkey will likely create questions of national identity, similar to those mentioned earlier.  The war between the Kurds and the Turks, due to protection of rights to self-determination, culminated in a battle that continuously contributes to the ongoing chaos of Syria’s Civil War.  Turkey and Jordan have recently set up buffer zones to protect the flood of civilians fleeing the battle zones (The Economist, 2015).  It might be in Turkey’s best interest to adopt political strategies that enable it to continue successful state development practices and circumvent state “failure” that would prevent it from jeopardizing the bid for EU membership.  The first step might include the institution of a truth commission.  The hope is that clashes between government and Kurdish extremists will not serve as a model for future events regarding Syrian refugees.


In order to understand the apparently repetitive nature of Turkey’s blood-stained history, specifically concerning ethnic-based violence and acts of genocide, it is vital to take into account the reasons for Turkey’s conflict with the PKK, the importance of self-determination to a nation-state, and relevant theoretical discussions describing significant links between globalization, formation of nationalistic identity, and global cities.

The realities of the immense Syrian refugee crisis amount to much more than finding enough space for people to escape war.  As indicated in its high FSI score, Turkey’s unhealthy political climate poses a conceivable danger for those seeking asylum: clashes between the government and the Kurds and the resulting imprisonment of journalists are serious examples of the Turkish government’s domestic failures (2015). Though the PKK’s roots are inextricably twisted among the tragedies of the formerly peaceful Kurdish civil society, the current Turkish government and other world actors fail to recognize the immense loss of life and numerous human rights violations, including a disquieting repression of free speech, that enables Turkey to carry on with its vehement political agenda.

To emphasize the importance of both domestic and international political pressures as they correlate with formation of national identities the constraints and opportunities that self-determination poses must be examined.  In this case, external pressures on Turkey to assist the EU in coping with the refugee crisis serve to exacerbate existing  civilian unrest.  A positive result might be that by continuing to dangle the carrot of membership, the EU may be able to ensure that Turkey will handle these issues in accordance with EU political and human rights standards.

According to Yunis Paksoy, journalist for the Daily Sabah, the EU recently proposed an action plan that will help Turkey manage the large population of Syrian refugees it has admitted since the beginning of the war in 2011 (2015). Turkish and EU economic collaboration also represents a step in a positive direction for refugee management. In addition to the economic side, Turkey is attempting to address its problem with free speech by releasing those unlawfully imprisoned for violating severe censorship laws imposed under the harsh political climate (Uras, 2015).

Concerning Turkey’s potential EU membership, a prerequisite to Turkey’s admission to the EU should include a public acknowledgement and an acceptance of responsibility for its history of violating the human rights of its citizens.  By accepting responsibility,  the government may be able to reconcile with its former and current victims and make appropriate restitutions.  Acknowledging its guilt can help pave the way for a newly respected Turkey, while also setting an example for other nation-states and international actors that similarly struggle with a tortured history.  Additionally, prior to EU admission, a third-party investigation into the human rights violations on behalf of the PKK and the Turkish government must be carried out.  Since a discussion about Turkey’s previous failures in coping with an ever-changing identity remains absent in relation to the current overwhelming influx of diversity by the Syrian refugees, further research on the potential for yet another Turkish identity crisis that might lie ahead is recommended.


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