Robert Olson has been a pioneering and prolific scholar of Kurdish nationalism. In Blood, Beliefs and Ballots, he analyzes Kurdish political activism and the Turkish state’s attempts to manage this activism between the July 2007 parliamentary and 2009 local elections in Turkey. Olson extensively documents political developments during this period on the basis of interviews he personally conducted, news sources in Turkish, and secondary literature. The fact that Olson gives voice to a variety of actors ranging from the Turkish political elite to Kurdish nationalists to liberals substantially enriches the book. He convincingly demonstrates how increasing political pluralism and competition in Turkey makes the Turkish political elite and Kurdish nationalists develop new positions. Interestingly, these actors may adopt more moderate and radical stances depending on the nature of criticisms and political competition they are faced with.
His main arguments can be summarized in four points. First, the language issue has become central to the Kurdish question in Turkey (pp. 12, 41-44, 227). While Kurdish nationalists occasionally put forward territorially oriented demands such as the proposal of dividing Turkey into autonomous regions (p. 99), their most consistent demand has been the allocation of public resources to Kurdish education. At minimum, they have demanded that Kurdish be taught as an optional language in public education. The Turkish political elite appear to be unwilling to meet this demand, and have instead opted for policies to erode popular support for Kurdish nationalists. Second, the Turkish political elite have aimed to counter the challenge of Kurdish nationalisms mainly through economic and religious appeals, military operations, and improved relations with the Iraqi Kurds. In this regard, the priorities and policy preferences of the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) government and the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) have been very similar (pp.22-23, 68). They have been unwilling to recognize Kurdish political rights and address widespread human rights violations. Additionally, the TAF has appeared to be content with the AKP and the Gülen movement’s appeal among the Kurds, and has perceived organized Islam as an antidote against the Kurdish nationalist movement. Olson also argues that the Turkish state decided to develop close relations with the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) in Iraq, especially after a PKK cross-border incursion resulted in the deaths of 17 Turkish soldiers on October 3, 2007 (pp. 114-117).
Third, Olson’s narrative also makes it clear that the AKP has failed to capitalize on its success in the 2007 parliamentary elections and to develop a consistent policy that expands the scope of political rights and civil liberties. The AKP hoped that its populist policies, including distribution of cash and white goods, and its reliance on Islamic networks would be sufficient for victory in the 2009 local elections (p. 193). The Kurdish nationalist party, the DTP (Demokratik Toplum Partisi), responded to the AKP by pursuing a campaign centered on Kurdish identity and portraying the local elections as a referendum on the fate of the Kurdish nationalist movement (pp. 192-193). This strategy was partially successful and the DTP managed to win in more municipalities in 2009 than in the 2004 local elections. Consequently, the growing influence of more liberal Turkish and Kurdish voices neither resulted in democratic changes in the state’s Kurdish policy nor lead to the widespread Kurdish condemnation of PKK violence. Nonetheless, the judicial case against the “Ergenekon conspiracy” has demonstrated the limits to military’s political autonomy. It is an important step in ending the culture of impunity that pervaded the security forces during their fight against Kurdish nationalists (pp. 123-136). Finally, Olson’s analysis is informative in outlining how the Kurdish question in Turkey is closely linked with regional developments and changes in international affairs. In particular, the evolution of relations among Turkey, the US, and the KRG greatly affects the strategies of the Kurdish nationalist movement in Turkey (pp. 232-234).
The book would benefit from two additions. First, a section comparing the recent events with the period between the capture of Öcalan in February 1999 and the 2007 elections would be helpful to develop a comparative perspective and directly address several significant questions. What have been the continuities and changes in the Turkish political elite’s attempt to counter the challenge of Kurdish nationalism? How have Kurdish nationalists responded to Turkey’s diminishing prospects for membership in the EU and the consolidation of an embryonic Kurdish state in Iraq? How do interactions between Turkish and Kurdish nationalists affect each other’s platforms? Second, Kurdish Islamists deserve a more comprehensive treatment. They are the only force other than the secular Kurdish nationalist movement with mass mobilizing capacity in the Kurdish regions of eastern Turkey. They are not just pawns in the Turkish political elites’ project of managing Kurdish nationalism and are highly critical of Turkish Islamic movements for being insensitive to the Kurdish suffering. The Kurdish Islamists have autonomous organizational bases with substantial grassroots support and pursue their own ideological goals. For instance, they organized a huge rally in Diyarbakır in support of Hamas on January 4, 2009. Not surprisingly, the PKK and its ancillary organizations are greatly concerned with the Kurdish Islamists’ influence and the competition between two forces has occasionally turned violent. In this context, it is important to analyze the broader implications of the competition between Kurdish secular and Islamist nationalists.
The real value of Blood, Beliefs and Ballots lies in its successful portrayal of the diversity of the positions participating in the extensive public debate about the Kurdish question in Turkey. This book makes it clear that neither the Turkish state nor the Kurdish nationalist movement is a homogenous entity pursuing well-defined and rigid political agendas. The interaction among the Turkish and Kurdish political actors and their attempts to influence public opinion in Turkey and international actors remains central to any scholarly understanding of the contemporary evolution of the Kurdish question.