Contextual Factors and Causes of Prolonged Ethnic Conflicts: A Case Study of the PKK in Turkey

Document Type : Research Paper


Assistant Professor of Political Science at Department of Political Science at Bu Ali Sina University


Protracted or intractable ethnic conflicts are a type of clashes that, despite fluctuating levels of violence, seem to have no foreseeable resolution. An example of such a conflict is the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) crisis in Turkey. Despite its four-decade history and significant political and social impacts on the country, there appears to be no clear end in sight. The persistence of these conflicts not only jeopardizes the security of the conflict-ridden nation but also has a ripple effect on neighboring countries, draining their resources and hindering their development and prosperity. This paper aims to comprehend these enduring ethnic conflicts and analyze the factors and causes influencing them, using the PKK as a case study.
When it comes to the causes of ethnic conflicts, there are numerous theories and models, but their universality and comprehensiveness are often questioned. For instance, Ted Robert Gurr proposed four categories: salience for ethnocultural identity, incentives for action, dynamics for protracted conflicts, and capacity for action, each with its own facets and dimensions. Another scholar, Stuart J. Kaufman, believes that the outbidding of ethnic elites and their manipulation of ethnic symbols play a significant role in inciting hostility against the government or other ethnic groups. Shiping Tang, on the other hand, considers the four master drivers: emotion, interest, capability, and opportunity. As for the prolongation of conflicts, James Samuel Coleman identifies four dimensions: the context of the conflict, the issues at stake, the relations among ethnic groups, and the processes, outcomes, and consequences of the conflict.
This paper proposes a model based on the philosophical principle that “the persistence of an effect is contingent on the persistence of its cause”. According to this model, the perpetuation of dissatisfaction or the emergence of new dissatisfaction (either through the ongoing framing of contentious issues or their reframing) results in the perpetuation of the cycle of violence and revenge. This situation is further exacerbated by the enduring presence of international supporters or the emergence of new backers. Concurrently, these conditions solidify the geopolitical factors that have played a role in initiating and perpetuating ethnic conflicts.
Result and Discussion
The PKK emerged during the radical period of the 1970s in Turkey. This group highlighted the need to secure the national and ethnic rights of the Kurds, in addition to addressing the underdevelopment of Kurdish regions. The initiation of armed conflict by this group provoked a strong governmental response, leading to forced displacement, the declaration of a state of emergency, and an escalation in violence. Consequently, a broader segment of Kurdish society was drawn into the conflict.
Despite the fulfillment of some Kurdish demands during Erdogan’s tenure, particularly in the early years, the PKK and affiliated groups introduced new demands and a fresh framework of issues and conflicts. This group maintains its financial resources by engaging in smuggling and a variety of illicit activities. It has gained international supporters, in part due to the rise of ISIS and the need for extra-regional powers to leverage the PKK forces in combating it. By establishing a monopoly over Kurdish representation and eliminating potential competitors, the group has managed to maintain its position in the political landscape of Kurdish society and Turkey. Meanwhile, the geopolitics of the Kurdish regions remain relatively unchanged. On the other hand, the limited control exerted by Turkey’s neighbors over the country’s southern borders has not impeded border crossings, thereby reducing the effectiveness of the Turkish forces’ military pursuit of the PKK group.


Main Subjects

Kürt Özgürlük ve Demokrasi İttifakı kuruluşunu ve seçim deklarasyonunu ilan etti, Evrensel (03 Apr. 2023),