yadirgi book

Veli Yadirgi argues that there is a clear relationship between the intentional de-development of mostly Kurdish regions of Turkey and the Kurdish question, finds Adam Tomes


Veli Yadirgi, The Political Economy of the Kurds of Turkey, From the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic (Cambridge University Press 2017), 316pp.

This is an academic book that deals with the role and impact of economic development in the mainly Kurdish areas of Turkey, Eastern and South-eastern Anatolia (ESA), on the rise of the Kurdish question. Yadirgi opens by posing some importance questions to set the direction of the book, asking whether the stunted economic growth of the region is a ‘by-product of uneven capitalist development in Turkey’ or the result of ‘discriminatory policies the Turkish state implemented against Turkey’s Kurds’ (p.1). These questions are critical as they enable the reader to gain a sophisticated understanding of the peculiar form of underdevelopment of the region and places government policies in their historical and international context.

The Kurdish Question is presented in the book as a multidimensional issue and this approach helps to illuminate the ongoing crises around the question in the twenty-first century. The Kurdish question includes the huge socioeconomic disparities between ESA and the rest of Turkey, the denial of the collective rights of Kurds, the popular mobilisation of the Kurds against Turkish identity and authoritarian policies, the desire for autonomy, and the post-1984 insurgency by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Kurdish Identity

One of the most interesting questions in the book is the discussion of Kurdish identity in terms both of what it means and where it came from. The book settles on the ‘least controversial definition is the degree of consciousness among Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria that they constitute a people’ (p.17). The Kurdish identity really begins to emerge from the start of the twentieth century and is a reaction against a number of key events.

These events include the assimilationist policies of Arab, Persian and Turkish nationalism that forces the Kurds to try to conserve their own identities against the oppressive policies of these societies and their associated states. The second influence is the uneven social, economic and political development, where the disadvantaged group, the Kurds in this case, assert their own identity against that of the economic success of the dominant culture (Turkish). Thirdly the spread of war between Kurdish organizations and the states where Kurds live since 1960 has nurtured a sense of cultural identity amongst Kurds. The final element was the rise of the Arab Spring in 2010 with its demands for ‘more democratic, pluralistic and decentralized governments and broader civil/political rights’ (p.21) and the rise of ISIL. In July 2012, Syria’s Kurds took control of Afrin, Jazira and Kobane (known as Rojava) and the genocidal assaulton the Kurds in Rojava in 2014 brought Kurds closer together. Indeed, it led to declarations of autonomy by the towns of Cizre and Doğubeyazıt in ESA in 2015 by PKK affiliated local, political structures, which was perceived as a direct threat to the Turkish state by the Turkish elites.

These factors have tied together with Kurds appealing to a national myth to create ‘an imagined community’. This national identity traces the origins of the Kurds back to the first millennium BC and this myth has been ‘highly influential in the awareness by Kurds that they constitute one people’ (p.23). The mixture of the myth and the very real socioeconomic and political factors have led Kurds to desire an independent state, but they have been held back by interwoven international, historical, political and economic factors. So, the Kurds ‘claim the status of the largest nation without a state of its own’ (p.24). This raises further questions about the international community, and its reaction to the terrible persecution of the largest nation without a state and why it does not support Kurdish statehood. 

The Prevailing View

The prevailing view has been that the has been ‘a unilinear continuum of inadequate development’ (p.260) however the book takes issue with this. The view of course largely emerges from how history is written, and in the case of the Kurds much of the history has been written by the victor in these regions. Hence Kurds are often left out of the Ottoman historiography, or their history has been reflected defectively due to the interest of the Turkish state in making history conform to its ‘ideological interests and policies’ (p.10). In place of this, Yadirgi presents three distinct periods to enable a greater understanding of the present.

Sixteenth century to 1830

Opposing the idea of a unilinear pattern of underdevelopment, this was a period of economic development. Diyarbekir and Erzurum were important sources of income for the Ottomans and ESA grew at a faster rate in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than the bordering Anatolian regions of which modern-day Turkey is made up. Much of this can be put down to the fact that despite constant struggles for power between local Kurdish elites and the state to control the collection of agricultural surplus, the Kurdish emirates kept their own infrastructure and autonomy. Whilst these structures did become increasingly receptive to Ottoman demands, the autonomy allowed locally powerful groups to ‘respond to increasing opportunities of commodity production for long-distance markets by carving out large estates for themselves and by escalating the exploitation of the dependent peasantry’ (p.94). So, in direct contradiction to the prevailing view, this was a period of growth, not underdevelopment, and local autonomy was in fact not ‘a formidable and obstinate impediment to economic development’ (p.260).

Eighteen-thirty to the first quarter of the twentieth century

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman state started to implement centralization policies and by 1847 not a single Kurdish administrative unit remained in existence. These oppressive reforms, included state confiscation of the lands held by Kurdish notables acted as a ‘major barrier to the expansion of commerce and export trade’ (p.261) in Ottoman Kurdistan by seriously damaging agricultural output and trade. This led to the pauperisation of large numbers of the peasantry across the ESA region whilst many of the Kurdish notable families relocated to western Anatolia, both voluntarily and involuntarily. This led to a power vacuum in the region, with strengthened tribal networks and the feudalization of Kurdish society creating instability and contributing to economic underdevelopment.

The first quarter of the twentieth century to the present

After the coup d’état of 1913, the late Ottoman rulers changed their approach, which to date had been about ‘preserving the territorial and political integrity of a multinational empire’ (p.266). In its place they adopted the economic model of Milli Iktisad (national economy) and a move to Turkify the inhabitants of the land. This nationalist approach lasted through to the end of the Ottoman Empire and formed the basis of the ideology of the Turkish Republic up to 1950. During this period, the policies of both the late Ottoman Empire and the Republic are summed up in this speech by İsmet İnönü, Turkey’s second President: ‘we must Turkify the inhabitants of our land at any price, and we will annihilate those who oppose the Turks’ (p.3). Policies included ‘genocide, forced migration, confiscation of economic resources, and the suppression of all forms of non-Turkish identities and cultures’ (p.265). Clear evidence can be seen in the fact that during this period, the ESA was depopulated by about three million people, with over half of those dying. It should be noted that the Armenian Genocide and the forced deportation of Kurds accounted for around two million people, and this took place before the Republic was established. The main aim of this process was the de-development of the ESA regions. The Turkish elite’s core desire to maintain national unity and territorial integrity led them to de-developing the region to ‘ensure that there will be no economic base to support an independent indigenous existence’ (p.xiii).

Following the move to multiparty politics from 1950, the Turkish state modified its approach from ‘dismembering’ the Kurdish ESA regions in order to ‘incorporate’ (p.269) them, especially with the rise of Kurdish radicalism from the 1960s. The state built up ties to a clientele of the Kurdish propertied class, so that this class would ‘substitute and repress the radical Kurdish challenge against the Turkish state’ (p.270). However, this did not involve recognizing Kurdish identity nor did it involve changing the existing economic relationship, with the state refusing to modernise ancient land ownership or invest in the region. The failure to invest left no modern infrastructure, while the return of the Kurdish notables to their own lands left the peasants landless and poor, leading to the mass migration of peasants from ESA to western Anatolia. So, whilst the rest of Turkey saw industrial development and economic growth, the Kurdish regions were left behind.

From the early 1980s onwards, the region was in a conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK, a nationalist liberation movement with a Marxist outlook. The conflict, which centred on mountain villages in the south east, claimed over 36,000 lives and included roughly 6,700 civilian deaths. This ongoing violence saw further displacement of workers and the destruction of villages. This issue has been compounded in the conflict since 2015, with the mass destruction of urban centres such as Sur, the ancient city of Diyarbarkir.

This issue goes hand in hand with the failure of GAP (the state led Project of South-eastern Anatolia)which was supposed to promote sustainable socioeconomic regional development in ESA. Instead GAP has ploughed its money into supporting the energy sector, as ESA accounts for 99% of all crude extracted in Turkey (p.272), so the natural resources have acted more as a curse than a source of wealth. All the money goes into supporting the energy sector, which benefits industrialised regions in Turkey, whilst the government is loath to give rights of autonomy to Kurds for fear of losing this wealth of natural resources. This leads Yadirgi to conclude that de-development in the Kurdish region cannot be attributed to the existence of years of armed conflict, but in fact is a direct result of the dominant ideology of the state, Turkish nationalism. This ideology has led the state to deny the ‘Kurds’ existence, issues and rights’ (p.272).

The twenty-first century

The author argues that the Kurdish question in the twenty-first century has needed re-evaluating in light of five specific factors. The desire of Turkey to pursue neoliberal economic policies and gain EU membership has forced the state to change its approach to the Kurds as it needs to show democratization and the protection of minority rights. The capture of Abdullah Ocalan, a key figure in the PKK, and the subsequent changes to his political ideas has opened up new possibilities. Ocalan has changed his approach from overthrowing the Turkish state through revolution, to adopting a peaceful approach of establishing a nation without a state. This involves the democratization of Turkey and autonomy for the Kurds, so they would have collective rights and regional self-governance. Furthermore, Turkish citizenship would no longer be based on Turkish national identity.

The other three factors include the establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq after the Iraq war of 2003, the rise and dominance of the AKP in Turkey with its neoliberal economic agenda, and the success of Kurdish political movements in elections. All these point to the possibility of a restructuring in Turkey, especially as a ceasefire was agreed between the state and the PKK in 2013, although this broke down in 2015. This would involve both the restructuring of ‘the Turkish political and administrative system’ and ‘a comprehensive regional development strategy that can remedy long standing socioeconomic issues in the regions’ (p.267) if a peaceful resolution to the Kurdish question is to be achieved.

However, since 2015, there has been a crackdown by the Turkish state on the fourteen million Kurds, who make up about 22% of the Turkish population. This involved over 500,000 Kurds being uprooted from their homes in the ESA due to Turkish military operations with the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights issuing a report stating these operations were brutal and led to widespread human-rights violations. The government has also targeted the main Kurdish political party, the HDP, which won 59 seats in the 2015 elections. Twenty-nine HDP MPs were arrested on the grounds that they were a threat to national security whilst Abdullah Ocalan of the PKK, remains in prison. In Afrin, the Turkish military is involved in brutal attacks on the YPG (Kurdish People’s Protection Units), due to their links to the PKK, which the Turkish state has defined as a terrorist organisation, as it maintains that it has a goal of secession through armed struggle, despite this not being the stated ambition of the PKK. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stated that wants to give ‘Afrin back to its rightful owners’ in a brutal statement of the Turkish position.

The Kurdish Question

This book clearly illustrates that it is the policies of the elites of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic which have ‘not only fettered economic development in ESA, but also targeted the cultural, political and social progression of the Kurds’ (p.278). Yadirgi finishes with an excellent summary that is worth repeating:

‘the inexhaustible struggle of the Kurds against oppression, assimilation and destruction has played a defining role in countering the domineering objectives of the dominant classes, in exhibiting the brute policies of the hegemonic elite in the Ottoman Empire and Turkish Republic and in asserting the need for a peaceful resolution to Turkey’s Kurdish question’ (p.278).