The Kurdish people are the largest ethnic group in the world that does not have its own independent state. Currently Kurds can be found in what historically has been their homeland, a region spread across what is modern day Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Armenia. In each of these countries, ethnic Kurds have on some level sought independence and autonomy. In Turkey, this quest by the Kurds has turned violent. This conflict started with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of the Turkish state. During the early years of the Turkish Republic, Kurdish revolts were frequently put down without protracted effort from the central state.\ However, in the late 1970s and early 1980s the conflict escalated and spiraled out of control. From 1984 to 1999 the Kurds and the Turkish state were in an all out war in which close to 40,000 people died.
The purpose of this paper is to provide a brief summary of the conflict and a few methods of shifting the nature of the conflict from a state of violence to one of coexistence. What develops is a picture of a difficult conflict with substantial and legitimate grievances at its roots. The solutions offered are designed to be considered over a very long period of time. While not offering specific solutions, this paper will highlight the possibilities available to change the nature of the conflict. The goal of these suggestions is to provide options and alternatives for moving forward. However, before we can understand possible solutions to this conflict, we need to gain a better understanding of how this conflict emerged.
Mapping the Conflict
The Turkish Republic was founded in 1923 and immediately set about creating a new and unique identity known as "Turkish." The remnants of the former Ottoman Empire that made up the new Turkish state became redefined in a new and "modern" context. Almost immediately, this new identity was to replace, by any means necessary, any previously held sense of identity. Key in this process of transformation was the forcible change of the residents of Southeastern Turkey, the Kurds.
After the foundation of the Turkish state, the political elites sought to weed out the challenges to the unity of this nation building project. One of the challenges was individual ethnic group identity. "During the decades following the foundation of the Turkish Republic, those allegiances were declared as hostile to the state and to the nation." In this political framework, minorities were an obstacle to the process of homogenization of the new concept of the Turkish nation. "The Kurds, formerly a part of the dominant Muslim majority, were hitherto transformed into a minority without obtaining a juridical status offering them some rights." We see early in the process of creating the Turkish style of democracy there was no protection of minority rights. In essence, to protect these rights would have challenged the Turkish conceptions of what the new state was about. The goal in this state was to create a single looking, sounding, speaking and thinking Turkish Man where no such thing had ever existed before.
A substantial part of the Turkish project of creating an identity was to shift the meaning of what it was to be "Turkish." At the end of the First World War, being called Turkish was an insult. In the national identity creation process, the term was shifted to mean something else. "The contempt and humiliation which the Turks had suffered turned into a feeling of arrogant superiority and contempt for non-Turks...From 1930 onwards, these chauvinistic proclamations were shored up by a mythical Turkish history." For the Turks, their identity had to become a way to identify others as "not Turkish." From the beginning of the Republic, politics was based on identity and belonging to a particular vision. "It was this fantastic, aggressive and exaggerated nationalism which confronted the Kurdish people. Since the Kurds were the only minority within the boundaries of turkey, they were the only members of an 'inferior race' in contrast to whom Greater Turkish nationalism could assert itself." Because of this, eliminating the Kurdish identity had to become the main project of the state in order to shore up its own identity. For the Kurds, they suddenly found themselves in a state that did not want them.
While the tensions between Kurds and the central Turkish state can be traced to the emergence of the Turkish state in 1923, the current and most violent conflict started in the late 1970s and reached its apex in the all out war between 1984 and 1999. In the late 1970s a new radical Kurdish group emerged, the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK. The emergence of the PKK can be traced directly to particular actions in the Turkish state. During this time the state's rhetoric about the inferiority of the Kurds also became more bitter. A line can be traced between Turkish policies and a resulting radicalization of the Kurdish people. The PKK initially was formed with the intention of fighting for an independent Kurdistan, stretching across parts of what are today Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Open fighting between the PKK and the Turkish state began in 1984. Once the open fighting began, the violence was acute and intense. The PKK targeted government installations and individuals they felt sympathized with the government, including teachers. The government responded with overwhelming force by mobilizing their traditional military forces as well as arming local militias known as the Village Guards. "Indeed, PKK violence served the government's purposes to some extent by providing apparent justification for a large-scale assault on the Kurdish Southeast, publicly touted as counter-terrorism measures but also with the aim of forcibly removing Kurds from the Southeast and resettling them in the west." The PKK actions provided the government with a way to justify a stronger and more forceful attempt at assimilation.
The results of this open warfare were drastic. "According to official figures, 26,638 Kurds, 5,555 security forces and 5,302 civilians were killed in the fighting in the period up to the end of 1998, while 3 million were displaced from their homes in the Kurdish villages." The nature of the conflict was exacerbated by the way the governments during this period allowed the military considerable freedom to weed out "terrorist" targets. "In the government's view, the situation in the Southeast was characterized solely by terrorism inspired by Kurdish separatism, justifying all-pervasive state repression of manifestations of Kurdish identity and pro-Kurdish expression."
Kurdish attempts at forcing an independent state or even an autonomous region have not been successful. If anything, it has led the Turkish state to impose tougher restrictions on the Southeastern parts of the country over time. As a result, the Kurdish regions of Turkey are considerably underdeveloped. By just about every measure of economic success, the Kurds lag behind not only the rest of Turkey, but also behind many other parts of the Middle East. "Kurdish politicians and intellectuals attribute this gap to a peculiarity in Turkish economic development. Kurdistan, they argue, represents an internal colony, its natural resources plundered by Turkish and foreign firms with invested in return." While the government points to road development projects, Kurdish leaders note that the only real impacts these transportation projects have had is to allow Turkish security forces greater mobility in the Southeast of the country.
Furthermore, the political institutions in place are extremely limited, underdeveloped and ineffective. This is in part due to years of retarding the development of local political institutions in the region. The state has bought off a number of traditional Kurdish elites. Their purpose was to get the people with the ability to organize the Kurds to acquiesce to Turkish policies. At the same time, the Turkish government forced their position through "the destruction of the countryside or towns or the mass-assassination of Kurdish intellectuals." Hamit Bozarslan notes this has had the effect of radicalizing the Kurdish masses. The Turks have eliminated the traditional moderating forces through which they could approach the Kurdish people. The more invasive the Turkish policy, the more Kurdish actors are "pushed to the clandestine modes of action, or, to violence." Therefore, we can see the Kurdish resistance movements emerge as a response to the way Turkey has interacted with the traditional sources of cultural, social and political power in the Kurdish territories.
A part of this process was to directly challenge the validity and meaning of being Kurdish in the first place. In the 1960s Turkish political leaders were openly hostile to Kurdish identity and degraded any example or display of Kurdish culture. Gunter notes that "Turkish president Cemal Gursel praised a book that claimed the Kurds were Turkish in origin, and helped to popularize the phrase 'spit in the face of him who calls you a 'Kurd' as a way to make the very word 'Kurd' an insult. Peaceful democratic attempts to protest against such policies landed one in prison or worse." This hostility towards Kurdish identity provided the state with the supposed right to intervene in these very local affairs in a paternalistic way that has limited the ability of local populations to become involved with this state. It also devalued the identity of the Kurds and dissuaded the use of democratic and peaceful means of engagement.
Most of Kurdish society is still based around traditional tribal power structures and elites. This has been a consistent force for Kurdish identity over the years. It has also provided the Turkish state with an easy target for manipulation. The government was able to utilize these power structures and identify the few political elites that existed to get them to regulate local affairs. In time, this became a mechanism of trying to control the development of the independent Kurdish groups. These political arrangements between the central state and tribal leaders have given the tribal leaders "another opportunity to maintain their own power position vis-á-vis both the state and their own members of the tribe." The traditional elites have been given arms to fight PKK as long as they maintain their loyalty to the central state. This has driven a wedge between traditional political elites and emerging political groups.
The main parties that are most pressing to discuss are the Turkish and Kurdish groups from Turkey that are part of this conflict. There are clearly international contexts to consider, but to delve into all of them in great depth would not be prudent at this time. The main conflict under consideration here is between the government of Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
The nature of policy making in Turkey is unique. Issues are not always decided with the civilian authorities. "Routine legislation is in civilian hands, but crucial national questions, most especially the war in Kurdistan, are decided by military leaders." The military is not just a tool of the government: in some cases it is the government. The vast majority of soldiers serve under compulsory conscription, and the officer class is an independent body. Ciment notes the military sees its role as the protector of the nation and their job is to protect the stability and unity of the country.
The Turkish military sees itself as the protector of the Kemalist principles of creating a single, unified and homogenized state. Therefore, the military "has become an extraordinary factor in Turkish politics and in important participant in decision-making in the political system through its institutionalized position in the constitutional body of the National Security Council." This means that the military does not answer to the elected officials, but instead operates in some functions as a check on elected officials in its own autonomous way. "The way decision-making works points out an imbalance of power that does not favor the civilian authority...Kurdish demands for more self-realization are a priori regarded as a 'separatist' danger."
In the late 1970's, during the emergence of leftist organizations throughout the Middle East, groups emerged to challenge the state. For the Kurds "responding to the state meant for them to reproduce their symbols of power by Kurdifying them,[opposing] their Turkish counterparts by producing a Kurdish 'leader,' a Kurdish 'flag,' a Kurdish 'national aim.'" Bozarslan notes the result was the PKK in particular emerged as a group imposing itself as the Kurdish leadership in Turkey. When this group engaged in open conflict with the Turkish state, the nature of the PKK and its relationship with society changed. In the Kurdish context, the sole party present is both an influencing factor on the nature of the people, and is a representation of the people.
The PKK has been successful in presenting a new Kurdish identity. The group has been able to capitalize on the disaffection many young people have felt with regards to Turkish policies. "The PKK has succeeded in mobilizing tremendous political displeasure among large sections of the population and winning them over for implementing their policy even using force." Originally, the PKK sought a single, unified and sovereign Kurdish state. "This maxim demand has been surrendered in the meantime in favor of a federal settlement of the conflict within the borders of Turkey." The PKK understands they cannot win the military fight against the Turkish state, and therefore they have adjusted their goals. It seems the PKK is trying to make the shift from a radical separatist group to a group that operates within the broader realm of Turkish politics.
An important shift occurred in the PKK in the late 1990s with the capture of their founding leader, Abdulla Ocalan. He was tried in Turkish courts and sentenced to death for treason, separatism and murder in June of 1999. Ocalan had led an "insurgency against Turkey since August 1984, that resulted in more than 30,000 deaths (mostly of ethnic Kurds), the destruction of more than 3,000 Kurdish villages (mostly by Turkey in an effort to dry up support for Ocalan's guerillas) and the resulting displacement of as many as 3,000,000 ethnic Kurds." Ocalan is a polarizing figure, both in the Kurdish population and in the Turkish population. His capture changed the nature of the conflict. Turkey is now faced with a challenging predicament: if they follow through with the sentence and execute him they are likely to face an even more radicalized Kurdish population. However, "Turkey believes that by executing him it can successfully end the PKK's struggle and thus strengthen itself."
Ocalan is a continuing factor in the development of this conflict. He is one of the only leaders who can claim real credibility with the Kurdish people. Michael Gunter describes him in a similar vein as leaders like Yasir Arafat or Nelson Mandela. In his analysis, the Kurds have an incredible ability to be geopolitical spoilers in the Middle East because their traditional homeland sits on an incredible amount of oil and water. If Ocalan is serious about his willingness to pursue a fully democratic Turkey with limited Kurdish autonomy, he may be an important actor in the future.
One of the clear fact based issues dividing the Turks and the Kurds is the articulated goal of achieving an autonomous Kurdish state. This desire to create a Kurdish state causes tension and concerns for the Turks. The idea of federalism or regional autonomy is not something the Turkish state is willing to consider. "The rigid application of the Kemalist understanding of the nation is the primary cause of the conflict and is being cemented by a centrally organized Unitarian state the make-up of which has no room for federal elements." The presence of the Kurds and any demand by them for autonomy is seen as a threat to the Turkish state itself.
Another clear issue at play is the Turkish attempts to coerce the Kurds to assimilate to Turkish culture, language and identity. "Turkey has tried to obliterate the very existence of the Kurds by assimilating them, claiming they were just 'Mountain Turks,' and legally banning their language, culture, and geographical place names, amongst other tactics." Out of this framework, we see clear trends in the Turkish political context. Minority groups found themselves in a new context where their very identity was not only devalued, but was seen as a threat to the state. This must have put Kurdish people in a very frightening place. Their internal conception of their very self was being challenged as a sudden threat to the state. The state saw the presence of "different' groups as a threat to the solidity and the consolidation of the state. In short, the threat the minority groups felt was not only perceived, it was articulated by the political elites as a public challenge to be overcome.
These trends continue today. Due to Turkey's resistance to even talk about the existence of a separate Kurdish identity, any potential for admitting there is a unique group living within their state is minimal. This means the policies of coercing language and identity assimilation are still the norm in Turkey. This puts the Kurds in a permanent defensive posture as they constantly feel their very identity is under threat.
In addition to a Kurdish desire for greater levels of political autonomy, there are other interests at play. In particular are issues of development, notably education. Historically, Turkish language policies restricting the use of Kurdish had a devastating economic effect on the predominantly agrarian population of the Southeast. "Authorities banned even the spoken use of Kurdish, at a time when only a tiny minority (3 to 4%) of Kurds spoke any Turkish at all. Special government officials were charged with enforcing this ban in the Kurdish urban centers. The main victims were peasants bringing their surplus to market." If they tried to sell their items, they would pay a hefty fine for speaking in Kurdish usually eliminating any profit they would have made from their sale. The government was aware of the lack of Turkish language instruction in the schools, but decided not to act and instead closed all schools that taught in Kurdish. The result was a reinforcement of traditional lifestyles and power structures and declining literacy.
This may seem somewhat contradictory considering the Turkish goal of assimilation. However, Kendal notes it was in the Turks' best interest to have a political force they could control. "They well understood that the best way of controlling the Kurdish masses was through the intermediary of traditional leaders whose support could be obtained in exchange for privileges. Indeed the government pursued a particularly obscurantist cultural policy in the Kurdish areas." Schools and political liberalization would have created a group able to challenge the power and control of the state.
The result today is a great educational problem. Kendal notes illiteracy is one of the greatest challenges facing the Kurdish regions. In the Kurdish regions, 72% of the population is illiterate, while in the other parts of the Republic, 41.4% of the population is illiterate. There is a considerable dearth of schools and qualified teachers in the Southeast of Turkey, and thus the problems perpetuate. Of Turkey's 175 universities, only six are in the Kurdish regions. In short, the central state, which oversees all education initiatives, has not provided equal access to Kurdish populations.
The primary rights based concern that Kurds have in Turkey is their status as citizens. The main concern is regarding the use of their language. Even though Kurdish can be used in the privacy of one's home, there are still no educational opportunities for Kurds in their native tongue and Kurdish is strictly forbidden in political discourse and government proceedings. This has led Ciment to suggest "education in Turkish Kurdistan, conducted strictly in the dominant language, remains a tool of Turkish nationalist indoctrination." This means those who do not speak Turkish, are kept out of schooling and out of the political realm.
This concern over the status of being considered a citizen extends to the Turkish constitution. The constitution of 1982 is blunt in its prescription for defining what is Turkish and what is not. "Political parties and associations must not claim that minorities exist in the Turkish territory based on differences in national or religious culture, ethnicity or language. They must not follow the aim of 'creating' minorities by fostering, developing and disseminating other languages and cultures thus jeopardizing the 'integrity of the nation'." For a group with an identity clearly not Turkish, they are excluded from participation in the state. For the Kurds, this is seen as attempt to either remove them from the status of "citizens" in the state or to further the state's attempts at forced assimilation. Either way, it is seen as a direct attack on the status of Kurdish citizenship in the state.
The PKK calls for an independent Kurdish state have derived from a number of triggering events over many years. Kurds have not been able to find an accommodating home in any of the existing countries in the Middle East. Iran, Syria, Iraq and Turkey have all "opted, from 1920s to almost the end of the 1970s, for a collective repression of Kurdish movements. In other words, they combined an internal coercion with a collective repression against the Kurdish movement on the regional level." From the 1970s to the present, these states have used the "Kurdish problem" as a way to destabilize their neighbors. Either way, in open oppression or as an instrumental pawn of another state, the Kurds have not been able to simply "be" in any country they have tried to live as a group since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. This has caused frustration on the part of the Kurds, and for the Turks it has created within their sovereign borders a group that has challenged their state.
While it is noted above why the Kurds feel the need to call for an independent state or some level of autonomy, it may not be as clear why the Turks have responded so aggressively to prevent this movement from taking hold. From a very early point in Turkish history, the state saw disunity as a threat to its stability and ability to succeed. "Kamal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish state, viewed cultural autonomy by national minorities, along with Islamist politics, as the two greatest threats to this vision of a modern, Western-oriented secular Turkey. Turkish leaders continue to maintain that cultural autonomy for the Kurds threatens the unity of the Turkish state and is a means by which foreign powers might divide Turkey into its constituent parts, as they did to the Ottoman Empire." For the Turks, the ideas triggering their reaction to any attempt to call for independence are rooted in the very nature of the state. There are still memories of a collapsing Ottoman Empire and the relatively weak position Turks experienced after the First World War. They fear that a collapse of their current state will further weaken them.
The conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state intensified during the 1980s. In 1983, the Turkish state banned the use of the Kurdish language. In an attempt to force the assimilation of all those who were standing outside the mainstream understanding of what it meant to be Turkish, this act was intended to finally bring linguistic minorities into the fold of the state. This was clearly a problem for those who had been raised speaking Kurdish. The immediate result was the radicalization of the PKK and the outbreak of violence in 1984. In 1991 this language law was repealed and Kurdish was allowed in private and business conversation. However, at the same time, further affronts were made with the creation of the Anti-Terrorism-Act of 1991. This act bans "any written or oral propaganda, assemblies and demonstrations, which (by whatever means, objectives and ideas) are aiming to destroy the inseparable unity of territory and nation." This means even using the word "Kurdistan" can be seen as a terrorist act because it alone implies dis-unity of the state.
A further shift occurred in the early 1990s. The president of Turkey, Turgut Ozal, pushed through a number of reforms. Ozal pursued a policy of engagement with the PKK as he saw political and diplomatic solutions as the only way to bring a meaningful change to the situation. "He was convinced that a genuine peace could only be achieved through negotiations with the PKK and the initiation of concrete steps toward an armistice." Ozal did not envision federalism or an autonomous region, in part because he saw a need for continued economic development in Southeast Turkey that would need central planning and support. "Ozal believed that a clear extension of competencies in local administration all over Turkey could help solve the problems best where they occurred. The governors of the provinces, prosecutors, police presidents, educational and health administrators were to be elected by the population at local level and the competencies of the local parliaments strengthened." This would not have just applied to the Kurds, but would have included all of Turkey. In the long run, Kurds would be able to hold local officials accountable for local concerns. Ozal saw as a necessary precursor to introducing such reforms the need to grant local cultural rights and protections as well as the development of local political parties. It appears Ozal was promoting cultural autonomy and political liberalization. This is not to be confused with federalism or the creation of a politically autonomous region. The state was still central, and the state was to hold the regional and local governments accountable.
These changes never came to be. Ozal died suddenly in April of 1993. Political leaders after Ozal promised reform and attempted to engage the PKK, but few were successful. In particular the military stepped up its involvement in "oversight" of these attempted engagements, often thwarting the government from making any concessions. The result was a further intensification of the conflict. Instead of mounting occasional military action in the Southeast, the military placed troops in the region permanently. Thus, the military also had an impact on the lives of civilians in the region as well. One of the official policies implemented was the forced migration of Kurds throughout the state.
By diluting the stronghold of the Kurds and spreading them out around the entire state, their numbers would be less influential in electoral races and they would be forced to adapt to the "mainstream" Turkish cultural traditions. The destruction of villages was not just a way to make the separatists want to stop supporting the PKK; it was also an attempt to intentionally displace people and force them to other parts of the state. The aim of this policy was to remove the Kurds from what they envisioned as Kurdistan. The result was an untenable situation.
Turkey's military response to the PKK was not limited to attacks on the PKK itself, but amounted to a full scale assault on the Kurdish countryside. Rural Kurdish communities were obliged by the Turkish state to prove their loyalty by joining the Village Guard; the state-sponsored militia employed to fight the PKK and responsible for violence, corruption and human rights abuses. If villages failed to put forward volunteers for the Guard, they would be placed in the dangerous position of being viewed as PKK sympathizers, and thus liable to attack by Turkish security forces.
This was the reality of an entire generation of Kurds. There was a clear rift being forced by the Turks between the usually urban PKK and the rural Village Guard. This escalated the conflict from being a PKK versus Turkey situation into an all out civil war in the Southeast of the country. The Turks efforts at creating the Village Guards exacerbated the conflict and perhaps helped to do little more than divide the society more deeply.
Abdullah Ocalan was able, from his jail cell, to call for a cease fire from the PKK. During the early 2000s the conflict was very mild and cease fires on the part of the PKK remained in effect. However, in 2004 the PKK rebranded itself as the Kongra-Gel and ended their cease fire. "The reason given for the resumption of the violence was ongoing state military operations against the organization's fighters." The violence has not approached the pre-1999 levels, but it does still continue. The military has gradually increased its presence in the southeast since 2004, and has again started to forcibly depopulate villages that are considered to be terrorist outposts. The conflict is again becoming more violent. Recently, the Turkish military moved its forces into parts of Iraq to hunt down suspected Kongra-Gel insurgents under the auspices of the "War on Terror."
Conflict Regulating Potential
There appears to be very little willingness on either side to negotiate at present. After the PKK cease fires ended and the PKK reemerged as the Kongra-Gel, there has been little movement towards negotiations. However, Ciment places the blame for the lack of negotiations on the government. He notes that "until the presidential administration of Turgut Ozal in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the government's official position was that the Kurds simply did not exist as a distinct ethnic and linguistic population within the state." Therefore, there was, on some levels, an unwillingness to acknowledge any negotiation would even be possible because, to the state, the Kurds did not exist. Furthermore, the government has consistently not recognized the cease fires the PKK has implemented. Recently the military has taken the global war on terror to be an opportunity to be more aggressive in hunting down Kurdish leaders. It even seems they have taken this opportunity as a carte blanche to further destabilize the Southeastern parts of the country.
Because of this, there are very few factors that can limit the state. The PKK/Kongra-Gel is weak and fractured. Major political and paramilitary leaders for the PKK are in jail. There are very few political limitations faced by the military in implementing their will. Without intensive foreign pressure on the central government there is not likely to be much within Turkey to limit this conflict. But, there are few groups capable and willing to put pressure on Turkey.
From the outside, there is very little that seems to have salience with the Turkish political elite. Probably the best prospect is the Turkish process of European Union accession. The European Union has been able to deny Turkey access to the EU on many grounds. In part, this denial has stemmed from concerns over Turkey's human rights record with regards to the Kurds, an only marginally stable democratic system, and economic concerns. If Turkey wants to be a part of the EU, it would seem they would have to make some substantial changes to their internal policies and address a number of human rights issues. Therefore, the carrot being dangled in front of them by Europe can help to provide a framework for motivating change in Turkish policies.
Shifting the Conflict Towards Peace
The best way to summarize what would lead Kurdish groups to stop their fight against the Turkish state is autonomous independence from the Turkish state. Likewise, the best way to summarize what would lead the Turks to stop their military action in the Southeast would be the elimination of Kurdish identity. Clearly, neither of these seem plausible, or even desirable, at this time. Instead, what we need to consider is how we can shift this current conflict from something intractable to something progressing towards dialog and coexistence. This paper will not advocate independence for the Kurdish regions of Turkey, nor will it suggest the full implementation of an autonomous region within the Turkish state. Instead, we will explore ways to implement the vision of former Turkish President Turgut Ozal of local administrations as a way to further Turkish democracy and bring a sense of peace to the country.
There are many reasons why autonomy and independence do not seem to be a good fit for the Turkish situation. First and foremost, we have to consider Kurdish economic and development concerns. Currently, the Southeast of Turkey is not only underdeveloped, it has suffered from maldevelopment. Judith Large and Tim Sisk describe maldevelopment as "growth that deepens inequality." As mentioned earlier, there are some strong economic indicators in Turkey. However, in the Southeast what development has taken place has not done anything to develop the region with the intention of creating greater equality. If anything, development in the Kurdish parts of the country has served the economic interests of the rest of the state.
Given this, there is some positive role that the central state can provide in terms of economic support, financial resources, and the broader stability provided by a central and organized state. There are very few political structures in place in the Kurdish areas of Turkey that would allow for a state to emerge at this time. This is in part due to Turkish action over the past eighty six years. Regardless, the point remains that despite the images projected by the PKK of what a Kurdish region would look like, none of the necessary institutions exist either in practical images or on the ground in any physical sense. In short, the Kurdish regions are not ready nor are they capable of managing their own independent region at this time. At the same time, the most radical Kurdish organizations seem to realize this. The PKK has not advocated for an independent state for quite some time. Instead, they are looking for ways to exercise a sense of autonomy in their own affairs within the Turkish state because the reality is that the Kurdish region needs central state involvement and investment.
With this in mind, we should turn our focus towards developing within the Turkish state methods of increased local political activity. Turkey, as a state, has a very robust set of democratic institutions in place. There is no need to challenge the unity or centrality of the Turkish state in this proposed model. The state will remain a coherent unit, and final authority will still rest with the central administration. What we should seek to implement are local administrations providing another layer of accountability to citizens throughout all of Turkey. In the grand scheme, these local administrations would not apply to just the Kurdish populations, but instead should be considered for the entire country.
What will this process end up doing? First, it will allow the central state to take its focus off the concern it currently has towards the development of autonomous regions. Important in the creation of these local administrations, in this context, will be clear articulation of the supremacy of the central state. Another important articulation is to make sure these local administrations are created as extensions of the central state. Note the language used is of administration, not government. This is intended to imply these local organizations and bodies are providing services of the state in a local manner as needs are determined locally. This is different than a local government that would have its own taxation and autonomy. This is a key level of distinction.
The second thing this will do is allow the Kurds control on a local level. Again, the purpose here is not to be confused with setting up another level of government per se. Instead, the purpose is to create a level of accountability and some decision making on a more tangible level for Kurdish people. Central mandates, resources, goals and the like will still be provided by the state. Once they are handed down to the local administrations, it is up to those localities to determine how to achieve those mandates, how to use those resources, and how to meet those goals. The accountability to the central state will still be paramount. Thus, the Kurds will be able to have a say in how the central state's vision is implemented thus allowing some level of decision making and building local capacities. At the same time, the state will not lose control This will develop local capacities at almost all levels of society. As John Paul Lederach notes, capacity building is akin to empowerment. The phrase "capacity building" itself relies heavily on the notion of developing what is already in society and in place. Thus, there can be value placed in what people have and are capable of. The goal is give people the skills and abilities to discuss and utilize the mechanisms of democracy instead of fighting.
In the end, these local administrations will change the dynamics of the relationships between the Kurds and the Turks. There seem to be four areas of change for both the Kurds and the Turks this style of governance will create. For the Kurds, we could expect to see the following:
- Commitment to the Unity of the State: If the Kurds enter into this process in goodwill, and execute their responsibilities without attempting to make a power grab through these local administrations, they will be able to demonstrate to the Turkish state they are willing to live in the state of Turkey.
- Commitment to Established Laws: The successful implementation of this policy will allow the Kurds to demonstrate they can respect the laws of the state if they are given a chance to work with the state in articulating goals and needs. This will help to allay Turkish fears and will help to inculcate a sense of respect for the rule of laws for the Kurds.
- Political Diversity: Within the Kurdish populations, we are bound to see diverse political groups emerge to compete on the local level for the right to be part of the local administrations. At current, there is one dominant political force amongst the Kurds, the PKK. The PKK will have to redefine itself if it wants to be a part of this process and other parties will be able to develop unique niches for themselves. The state will have very little reason to worry since these parties are about local concerns, not Kurdish autonomy.
- Creation of Political and Bureaucratic Capacity: The Kurds currently have very few political resources and have not been able to demonstrate much bureaucratic capacity to manage their own internal affairs. This process will require these capacities to develop over time. Ideally, this will allow more Kurds to eventually work their way into the institutions of the Turkish state. At the same time, efficiency and representation at the local level will be factors influencing the political nature of the region, meaning radical proclamations of independence will lose some of their credibility and utility.
There are also steps the Turks will need to take in this process of reform that may be challenging. However, if this process is to move beyond rhetoric and result in actual change, we will need to see some changes take place. In particular, the local administrations will allow the Turkish government to demonstrate the following:
- Commitment to Military Restraint: By allowing localities to be in charge of administering the goods and services of the state, the military will be allowed, at least a little bit, to pull back some of their reach in the daily lives of citizens. This does not mean we will see a complete withdrawal of the military completely, but we should be able to see at least a slightly less all-pervasive military-force because part of their function will be replaced by the localities. Clearly, there may be a concern if the localities are deemed to not be in compliance with the state that the military will intervene. However, this hopefully will become the exception instead of the norm it currently is.
- Commitment to Party Development: The constitution is a reality the Kurds and the Turks are going to have to work with. The Turks are concerned Kurdish parties as they are created now are nothing more than mouthpieces for secession from the state. In this new model, local parties can be created that will be focused on very local issues, such as providing basic services, education, etc. This will allow groups to come together and articulate visions, but not threaten the nature of the state because these parties will not be concerned with other issues.
- Commitment to Democracy: As previously mentioned, Turkey has a history of democracy and democratic institutions. However, the Kurds feel they have been left out of this experience in part by the silences imposed from Ankara. This process will allow democracy on a local level for all citizens. This can only deepen the sense of democracy in Turkey and strengthen the use of democratic institutions. Once people are familiar with these institutions, it is hoped they will become the preferred method of expressing needs rather than fighting.
- Demonstrate Appreciation for Minority Rights: This may fall under a different heading of "what Turkey needs to do." However, it is important to understand this type of devolution of administration to local levels can demonstrate that the central state at least respects those who are, by the state's definition, "not Turkish" and their abilities to perform tasks of state. This can open the door for the Kurds and other groups who currently have no protection of basic cultural and human rights in Turkey. Respecting and enshrining minority rights is not only going allay some concerns the EU has with Turkey's application for accession, but it will also deepen their democracy and garner more trust from groups like the Kurds.
At this point it is important to mention the role of the military. Given the military's relative autonomy and its focus on stopping any manifestation of independence and autonomy, this institution will need to see some reform for real change to take place. However, at this time the military is almost an untouchable organization: it has considerable autonomy and takes its role as the defender of the state quite seriously. In short, there is substantial groundwork that needs to laid before reform can happen. Included in this groundwork is a shift in Turkish society, a change to the constitution, and the fortitude of civilian leaders to implement some checks over the military. The framework created by the suggestions below is designed, in part, to start laying the social roots necessary for these changes in the long-term.
The above mentioned are ideal goals. Given the nature of this conflict and the nature of the state we are looking at, it would seem prudent to move forward with caution and make small steps towards achieving a complete level of local administration in Turkey. The next part of this paper will detail some important steps necessary to start this process, and then provide some examples of what specifically can be implemented.
Before too many changes can be made to the actual operations of the state and the localities, we need to consider human rights concerns raised by both sides in this conflict. This will require Turkey and different Kurdish groups to be willing to move forward in this conflict. With regards to the Turkish state three specific policy changes would be beneficial.
The first is with regards to the policy of forcible depopulation of villages. The Southeastern part of Turkey is primarily agrarian, and when farmers are kicked off their land and their villages destroyed, a substantial and significant change in society takes place. Mass urbanization in the Kurdish cities is a result of this, and these cities have been prime spaces for Kurdish political radicalization (these cities are where the PKK is able to draw most of its support). Kurds are also forcibly moved to Western Turkey. In both cases, the Turks have created a major problem of internally displaced peoples within their borders. This will need to be addressed in some way for the problem to be fixed. The simple answer would seem to be "let them go back home." However, this does not consider the extreme costs of moving this many people and restarting towns and villages across a very rural and decentralized part of the state. Remember, roughly 3,000,000 people have been displaced in the last twenty five years. It will take considerable time to make progress on actually returning these people home. In the short term, to start making progress, the Turkish state must abandon its policies of forced depopulation and massive relocation.
The second major policy shift needs to take place with regards to the Village Guards. It is clear this practice has had an incredible and negative impact on Kurdish society. It has pitted families and towns against each other in a civil war within a civil war. At the same time, it has strengthened impotent leaders who maintain control with an iron fist over small communities. This has had a negative impact on both economic and political development. For the Kurds to be able to trust one another and thus to be able to work with the state in moving forward, this system needs to be dismantled, and this includes disarming any existing Guard units.
Finally, if the state wants to engage with the Kurds, they will need to reverse the ban on the use of the Kurdish language completely. This is not to suggest that Kurdish has to become another official language of the Republic. Indeed, in formal state affairs it would seem prudent to have one official language. Instead, the trend towards loosening the restrictions on Kurdish needs to be seen through to its logical conclusion: use of one's native tongue should not put an individual in jail.
The PKK also needs to reexamine some of its policies if it wishes to move forward in its negotiations with the state. On a number of occasions the PKK has issued cease fires, but it has always kept open the possibility of using violence again and this has led the state to not put too much credence in these proclamations. While it is unlikely that the PKK and its offshoots are going to be willing to completely back away from having weapons at its disposal in the short term, there are some things they can do to demonstrate they are serious about change and peace.
The main change the PKK ought to consider is their method of punitive attacks on civilians who work for the central government and their families. For example, in the past the PKK has even gone to the point of targeting teachers and their families for assassination because of their connections to state institutions. This is going to have to change if the PKK wants to be taken as a credible and legitimate organization in the reshaping of Turkey and the Kurdish territories. Ideally the entire organization could be shifted from its paramilitary focus to purely a political one. While this should be a long term goal, in the short term issues of tactics need the most attention.
After these basic policy shifts are put into motion, the stage will be set for more conversation and negotiation. As previously mentioned, there is considerable healing that needs to take place within the Kurdish region between the PKK and other groups like former members of the Village Guard. After these initial conversations, it would seem prudent to move on to the relationship between the Kurds and the central state. To aid in starting the discussion, it may be necessary to engage outside groups. The Council of Europe has proposed involvement by aiding in the development of a discussion forum for Turks and Kurds to come together to identify agreeable truths in this conflict. In the long run the Council envisions this forum becoming an institutionalized type of reconciliation commission similar to the one in South Africa.
Starting democratic dialog at the top is not going to be the best way for this conflict to move forward. John Paul Lederach provides a number of models for understanding conflict and potential for peace building. In his models he notes the best place to engage societies in conflict is at the middle levels of leadership. To do this successfully it would appear necessary to engage different groups and different issues at different times. In short, starting with top down negotiations and hoping for compliance from below might not be the best model to start with. It would then appear it may be useful to engage other groups beside the dominant players. In the long-term these types of forums could be moved up the ladder to include official parties and high level leaders.
After some base level understandings of the past have been developed, it would seem sensible to move forward with devolving some levels of administration to the different parts of the state. In order to move forward a common ground has to be in place and both sides need to feel some sense of security. The policy changes mentioned above and the dialogues and forums should help to create the base from with wider scale political changes can be made.
It is difficult at this time to precisely envision how the process of localizing administration would look in the Turkish and Kurdish situation. Therefore, we will spend some time providing two examples of what this could look like: education reform and the creation of local utility districts. This is not to be taken as a prescription of specifically what ought to happen, but instead as a few ways the Turkish state could hand some levels of administration down to organizations when they are ready. Any actual process will need to be crafted over time through careful negotiations with major parties from the state and representatives from regions across the state. This will in fact be necessary so all sides can articulate a shared vision of the goals we have discussed so far.
One of the first areas that should be considered for local administration is in the field of education. A primary Kurdish concern is over culture and the use of language. Currently, the Turkish state dictates the curriculum, language of instruction and goals for education. This has left those who do not identify with Turkish culture as outsiders in the community and in some cases without access to education since they do not know Turkish. By devolving the administration of the education system down to the local levels, much can be accomplished.
From the central state we would expect to see a common set of standards and funding per student across all regions of the country. However, the local regions would be free to determine how they want to meet those standards and use their funding. In the Kurdish context the biggest change from the traditional Turkish curriculum would be the use of Kurdish in the classroom. The standards students would be expected to meet in terms of skills and abilities would likely remain similar to existing standards. The goal is to make the education relevant to and approachable by students.
With this goal in mind, it would be necessary to create local school boards to provide direction and oversight to this process. This will allow for a few important factors to develop. First, this will develop local accountability. If the school board is elected through regular elections, then those who sit on it can be held accountable. This will create majorities within the region based on particular interests at particular times. Second, this will build capacity amongst the administrators. By holding office they will have the expectation they perform in a particular way in exercising their duties. If they do not, they will lose their positions. Finally, this will help get the population at large be involved not only in education but also in the democratic process. Instead of simply pulling a child out of a school because a parent does not like how it is run, perhaps he or she will vote in a different way or run for the position. Either way, this can be a ground level for building the initial stages of democracy.
The use of Kurdish as the language of instruction immediately brings up questions about how to create such a system. Currently, there are no opportunities at the university level in Kurdish in Turkey and there are no teaching materials in the language either. To address the first issue, it would be necessary to address the disparity of higher education opportunities in the Kurdish areas as a part of education reform. As mentioned earlier, there are very few institutions of higher education in the Kurdish part of the country. Of Turkey's 175 universities, only six are in the Kurdish regions. In short, the central state, which oversees all education initiatives, has not provided equal access to Kurdish populations. This reform will entail the creation of at least some new universities to meet the needs of the Kurdish population. Roughly 3% of Turkish universities are in the Kurdish regions, yet almost a quarter of the Turkish population lives there. Therefore, it will be necessary to create education boards to approach the creation of new universities that teach in Kurdish. This will create yet another space for a cross-group cutting majority to develop. The districts for these universities will clearly be larger than local school districts, but smaller than the entire state itself. Ideally this will provide space for a local, indigenous intelligentsia to develop as well. Over time this new system of universities will hopefully produce teachers who can instruct in Kurdish.
The second concern, regarding the availability of resources to teach in Kurdish, is also understandable. The production of new teaching materials like textbooks can be very expensive. It does not seem this will be that challenging of a cost over time. Given the substantial size of the Kurdish population, the relative cost of printing books will decrease given the high number of people. Since the standards for education are already in place, and the texts already exist, the challenge will be in producing legitimate and authentic translations of these resources into another language. Again, there will be some cost associated with this process, but it should not be prohibitive.
This reform is something that will impact all aspects of society. Compulsory education will provide access to students from all backgrounds. Because of this, parents from all levels of society will have a stake in the process. Interests will form across lines in society and the success, or failure, will be shared by all in the society. Furthermore, this reform will have lasting effects: it is very unlikely the education system will simply cease to exist any time soon. The relative permanence of this institution means long-term interests will be developed for multiple parties within a locality.
In addition to the creation of local education districts, another model for local administration can be developed through the creation of public utility and resource districts. The specific areas that could fall under this rubric are vast, but could include mining, water and electricity. These three are chosen because they are prominent in the politics of the Kurdish areas and substantial interest could be built around them. Take, for example, the possibility of hydro-electricity development in the Southeast of Turkey. The Kurdish territories of Turkey are extremely mountainous and there are many rivers and waterways. It is estimated these waterways have "a very high hydro-electric potential, estimated at over 90,000 million kWh3." Combined, the hydroelectric potential of these water sources is similar to the generation potential of the Hoover Dam.
There are three specific issues these districts could address. The first is access to local resources. As mentioned earlier, there is a sense the Kurdish regions of Turkey have become like a colony within the state of Turkey. Some see the Turkish use of the Southeast region as merely resource extraction to increase the rest of Turkey's wealth. The intention of creating these districts is not to put sole control in the hands of the local populations, since that would likely not be agreed to by the Turkish government. Instead, the goal is to create a way for the local populations to be involved in how these resources are developed and to share in their extraction and use.
The second goal of these districts is to put in local hands the potential for business and economic development around these resources. By creating districts with locally based constituencies the localities can define how to proceed with the development of particular resources. For example, this can include how to utilize resources such as land, irrigation and electricity created from hydro-electricity in the region to attract business interests. The main point here is there is incredible potential in this region in terms of its natural resources. If the local population can have input in deciding how to develop these resources there is potential for economic development on the ground in an economically depressed region.
Third, the services offered by utility districts will be administered from a very local level. Theoretically, by placing authority and accountability at a local level the service will be more responsive to local needs, concerns and issues. This means the elected individuals who serve on the boards will be engaged in a democratic process of meeting the needs of their constituents in order to continue to be elected. It also means the state can then concern itself not with serving individual municipalities but instead on crafting a broader and more general plan. By taking a step back, the state will be able to focus on the macro-level concerns and spend less time on the micro-level decisions.
There are also benefits for the Turkish state in this process. Again, it is important to note these districts would not be completely free and independent from the state, nor would they necessarily create a new layer of government below the level of the state. Instead, these could be locally administered bodies that are representative of the state in local affairs. At the present, services are not being provided and resources are not being utilized. A local administration could help the state get easier access to much needed water and power. In this case, like education, standards and expectations would be set by the state (i.e. price, labor standards, etc.). How these goals would be met would be in the hands of the local people. Turkey will be able to integrate a vibrant and resource rich region into its economy and the Kurds will be able to share in the leadership and create benefits for development.
Obviously, this is a huge undertaking. There will need to be substantial investment in infrastructure on many levels, including household water and electricity service all the way up the maintenance of roads and waterways for moving mined materials, the potential creation of hydro-electric dams, and the like. Without a detailed set of negotiations to see how this would proceed, it would not seem prudent to suggest a list of potential projects at this time. Instead, this is intended to suggest there is potential for local involvement in projects like this. The potential for changing the conflict comes on many levels. First and foremost, the issues of basic services to be provided by the local utility districts will affect many levels of society. This can range from improving access to clean drinking water to creating irrigation districts to better meet the needs of agriculture. It is clear there will be substantial involvement and interest on the part of many people at the grassroots levels in this type of reform.
At a mid-level of involvement, there is great potential for business and community leaders to be involved in these projects. Elections will be needed to fill positions on the boards of districts, and this will create a public competition and thus a forum for debate and the expression of ideas. At the top level of the political elites in the Kurdish region, there will be interest in becoming involved in the processes of development. In order to become involved, their current rhetoric of independence will have to be shifted towards the actual focus of the individual boards they seek to be involved with.
The conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurds has very long and deep roots. In order to make any progress forward towards change, both sides are going to have to make some conciliatory actions to demonstrate their sincerity. Once these moves have been made, the main parties can come together to start the process of mutual truth building and eventual reconciliation building as proposed by the Council of Europe. After this process begins, it may be time to realize the goal of President Ozal and create state-wide local administrations that are accountable to both the central state and the local population. By placing some implementation for state policies in the hands of local people, the Turkish government can achieve a stronger and more peaceful state by demonstrating commitments to military restraint, party development, democracy and minority rights. At the same time, the Kurds will be able to work with the Turkish government to more fully articulate their position as full citizens by committing to the unity of the state and its established laws, diversifying their political institutions and structures, and creating the capacities necessary to engage as full and productive members of the Turkish society.
It is not exactly clear what the local administrations will look like or what they will cover. The examples above demonstrate there are benefits for both parties in this type of agreement. Included in these benefits we can find cross cutting majorities and cross class interests. Further benefits will include a sense of local ownership and a voice for Kurds within the Turkish state. All of these have been missing in the Kurdish experience within the Turkish Republic. What will be important is for parties both from the Southeast of the country and from the central government to work together to articulate specific goals, responsibilities and duties. Without a shared, common vision, this process is likely to fail.
Amit Ahuja and Ashutosh Varshney, in their explanation of the success of Indian federalism note there are clear lines for different levels of actors in the Indian system. At the top is the union government, in charge of defense, external affairs, major taxes, etc. The second level is the individual state, which is responsible for administering public order, agriculture and primary and secondary education. The two levels are expected to work together on issues of economic and social planning and higher education. In India there are clear lines around not only the powers, but also the duties, of each level of authority. This is why India has been successful in handing down some authority to lower levels as a way of maintaining a stable and coherent state. On one hand this prevents a duplication of efforts, but it also decreases the areas where there might be a power grab. By creating delineations of who does what and for who, India has been able avoid some major problems in state building. This is not to suggest a model for Turkey to emulate, but there is a clear lesson in this for Turkey: if the central state does agree to decentralize some of its administration, all parties have to be on board and understand the specifics of the plan.
One of the main benefits of this type of articulated process is it will move all parties towards an active status in the greater state of Turkey. Instead of simply imposing a power sharing agreement in the Kurdish region without empowering the Kurds with the resources and abilities to do anything, this process will give the Kurds a role in the success of the state. As Philip Roeder and Donald Rothchild note there has to be role for minority parties to have voices in decision making processes. This means there has to be some sort of inclusion in the administration of the state. If this is the case, the peace building process ramps itself up as the administration grows to include more and more people, and thus more and more interests are found at the local levels. In this regard, by creating local administrations we can engage many levels of society and give them roles and stakes in the process.
In the end, we have to go back to the beginning. The role of reconciliation is where we have to start this process of political restructuring. There has to be some process of reconciliation at the beginning stages in order for anything meaningful to happen later. Lederach notes reconciliation is about rebuilding relationships that have been fractured over time to build a common, shared understanding of the future. This can only be done if the past is discussed and worked through meaningfully. From this process a set of understandings have to emerge as to how the parties can develop a shared vision of the future over time. This will allow for greater coordination at more levels of engagement. Lederach describes this as "future building". This suggests a continual process that must be worked on over a very long period of time. For the Kurds and the Turks, this will necessarily include a constant set of negotiations and a continual articulation of needs, identities and resources. It will be a long process to change the nature of the conflict in Turkey and it will take resources and patience. In the long-term though, we can see there is great potential for shifting this conflict from intractability to a place where Kurds and Turks can live together in the same state.
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