Political violence and solutions in three continents

Armed militant groups in three different continents have all engaged in peace negotiations. While one can discern a pattern in these processes, respective factors such as international relations, supra-state actors, the political conjuncture, civil society and the media also play a crucial role.

Barış Tuğrul

After the Second World War, anti-colonial movements played a crucial role in shaping the bipolar order of world politics. Upon examination of these movements' ideological discourses and inter-organizational disagreements, it is noteworthy that their building blocks often draw on similar concepts.

In this respect, examples such as the Algerian independence war, the Cuban revolution and the Vietnam war became sources of inspiration for anti-colonial movements.

Their influence is striking in such publications as the IRA's Green Book, the group's political and military code, in ETA's "Vasconia", penned by the ideologue Federico Krutwig and regarded as ETA's bible, as well as in the first editions of "Serxwebûn" from the PKK ideologue Mazlum Doğan.

Yet these movements have erupted in very different geographic, political, economic and social contexts. Each respective movement prioritized different political and military methods according to global developments and the political conjuncture of the country in which they are fighting. Their final negotiation processes have, to a great extent, unfolded according to these conditions.

Once they attained the capacity to affect and partially transform the socio-political structure from which they emerged, the ETA, FARC-EP and PKK movements were successful in bringing strong states such as Spain, Colombia and Turkey to the negotiation table. Those are the three most significant examples.

Within this framework, let us briefly assess the respective solution processes that came about as a result of these movements.

ETA: the last bastion of resistance in Europe

Now Europe's last armed national liberation movement, ETA started off as a cultural movement amid the Franco-led oppression subsequent to the Spanish Civil War. During the organization's third convention, Xabier Zumalde was elected as a military official. Until then, ETA's romantic rural guerilla adventure had been limited and short-lived. It was Zumalde who organized and recruited workers from the highly industrialized Basque society.

ETA refutes the period referred to as "the transition process to democracy" by official Spanish history, instead calling it "Francoism without Franco." After Franco's death, ETA carried on with its armed attacks, seeking to put on a document on the negotiation table which contained a series of provisions including the right to self-determination for the Basque people.

Following an extremely bloody fighting period, the organization reached its goal of bringing the state to the negotiation table. Peace talks between the Spanish government and ETA were held in Algiers in 1989. Yet as both parties differed greatly regarding the concepts of "peace" and "negotiation", the Algerian talks collapsed even before the negotiation phase could begin.

Later, as Spain became a liberal parliamentary democracy as well as a NATO and EEU (EU) member, Madrid gained the full support of its neighbor France in its fight against terrorism. Especially once the Gernika Autonomous Statute was adopted - which guaranteed Basque cultural, educational and linguistic rights, coupled with the Spanish security apparatus' focus on ETA - its political party (Herri Batasuna), media (Egunkaria, Egin), trade union movement (LAB) and umbrella organization (KAS), Madrid ensured ETA's social and political isolation.

This isolation policy was officialized in 1988 with the Ajuria-Enea Pact signed by all Spanish and Basque political parties, against ETA and Herri Batasuna (HB). ETA then directly attacked civilian targets such as Spanish political parties, justice members and Basque businessmen who refused to pay the "revolution tax". In the early 1980s, people in the streets traded the slogan "ETA, herria zurekin" or "ETA, the people are with you" for "ETA ez, BAKEA orain" or "No to ETA, now is the time for peace".

By the time of the 1998-1999 Lizarra-Garazi talks, Spain's Basque issue had largely become a struggle between democrats and anti-democrats in the official discourse. The prerequisite for negotiations to take place was ETA to leave arms. In contrast to the 1989 Algeria talks, the 1998 Estella (Lizarra) Pact was far more well-attended and comprehensive. All Basque political parties, labor unions and civil society organizations signed the document and a process began to take place using the Irish peace deal as a model.

Though ETA declared an indefinite ceasefire in 1999, Spain's two main political parties, the People's party (PP) and the Socialist Labor Party (PSOE), kept their distances from the Lizarra-Garazi Pact. Detentions and arrests subsisted. Despite the ceasefire, the Basque patriotic youth movement Jarrai turned the cities into battlefields, engaging in street fights (kale borroka). And after ETA executed a member of the military in Madrid, the painstakingly prepared Lizarra-Garazi Pact peace negotiations crumbled. With the PP-PSOE pact against terror introduced after the 1998-1999 process, ETA's political and social room for manoeuvre shrank.

In 2003, the Spanish Supreme Court declared the political parties Herri Batasuna, Euskal Herritarrok and Batasuna unlawful due to their support for ETA and lack of condemnation of violence. The patriotic media organ Egin was closed during the 1998-1999 process and in 2004, the Egunkaria newspaper printed in the Basque language was closed amid similar accusations.

Meanwhile, Basque leader Arnaldo Otegi initiated the transformation of the post-Lizarra-Garazi Basque patriotic movement. Otegi's rejection of violence and efforts to return to peace negotiations were off to a good start with the 2004 Anoeta Declaration. With the support of Socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero taking office as prime minister that same year, early negotiations between veteran Basque politician Jesús Eguiguren and Otegi carried on with the 2006 Loiola negotiations.

As a result of ETA-Spanish government negotiations held in Geneva and Oslo, ETA declared indefinite and final ceasefire on March 22, 2006. Yet because ETA's newly appointed representatives could not obtain positive results regarding the status of the Navarra region and a bomb went off at Madrid Airport killing two Ecuadorian workers, the renewed peace talks collapsed.

Otegi, who had been conducting political negotiations, was arrested in 2009 and send to jail. ETA carried on with its armed attacks until it single-handedly announced its relinquishing of armed actions in 2011. In 2018, it declared it had ended its 60-year old political presence. A series of tragic issues such as the question of Basque political prisoners and refugees that could have been solved during the 2006 Loiola talks are now bound to linger.

The FARC-EP: Latin America's longest guerilla war

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were officially formed in 1966 after the US-supported Marquetalia operation that was conducted by the Colombian army in 1964 and the popular insurgency that followed. Its roots go back to the Colombian Communist Party’s VIII Central Committee meeting in 1949 when the attendees unanimously decided that the people's defense against reactionary violence was legitimate. Structural crises brought by the unjust land sharing in the 1920s and forced mass displacements have constituted the basis of the FARC's demands since its inception, that is, land reform based on the re-sharing of the land. 

The FARC's guerilla fight, which was based on the organizing and mobilization of poor peasants was treated as a minor issue by the Colombian state until the early 1980s. The development that changed the FARC's fate was its access to drug trafficking money. Until 1982, the organization had four fronts. But after its Guerilla Conference in 1882, it extended the struggle to 24 fronts. It also decided to form 48 fronts, declaring itself the "people’s army" (FARC-EP). Their guerilla teams now acted beyond traditional hit and run tactics and were able to organize direct attack operations, attaining the capacity to disperse Colombian military units. 

Upon the FARC's sudden and seemingly unstoppable rise, the Colombian state did wait for long to undertake steps for negotiations. Concerned with the violence spiral that was growing and threatening the regime, the Belisario Betancur government kickstarted peace talks. A political opening process was launched with the formation of Unión Patriótica (Patriotic Union) that was to work as a coalition of leftist parties. Yet throughout the process, some 2,500 members of the UP were killed by state-supported paramilitary groups. This dirty war method, which came at the beginning of guerilla-state peace talks and caused tragic results, fuelled an atmosphere of mistrust that deeply affected future negotiation attempts.

In the 1990s, no significant change came about through the armed struggle. The guerilla movement continued to gain ground under the César Gaviria government and fought against state-supported paramilitary groups. The oppression and violence these paramilitary groups exerted on civilians bolstered the legitimacy of the FARC, and swelled its guerilla ranks. Andrés Pastrana, who took office in the late 1990s, was ready to sit at the negotiation table. But by that stage, the conflict between the guerilla and the counter-guerrilla had spiraled out of control. Through the el Caguán peace process that was initiated in 1999 by Pastrana and lasted more than three years, the state could do little more than watch the clashes that rocked these regions and where the state had effectively lost its sovereignty. When the Head of the Peace Commission Senator Jorge Géchem Turbay was kidnapped and taken hostage by FARC guerrillas, Pastrana declared the end of the peace process.

When Álvaro Uribe became president in 2002, the Colombian state’s negotiation policies were suspended and the Plan Colombia signed with Washington was implemented. A modernized army equipped with heavy weapons was assigned to fight guerilla activities and coca planting - their main source of funding. The new security policy implemented struck a major blow for the FARC’s urban activities and the strategic gains it had achieved until then. The guerilla movement was drawn back to mountainous regions where the state had had difficulty exercising sovereignty and forced to return to the positional war strategy it practiced before the 1980s. With several of its leaders killed and a rising number of fighters pulling out, the FARC began to drift away from the military capacity of the el Caguán period and the "people’s revolution dream". The organization had to respond to the hand extended by the Havana process by Juan Manuel Santos. It was back at the negotiation table discussing land reform.

In a referendum on whether or not to pursue peace talks, the Colombian people vetoed Santos. Despite that, Santos carried on with the process. Finally, in September 2016, an agreement ending the 50-year old armed clashes was personally signed by President J. Manuel Santos and guerilla leader Rodrigo Londoño.

Still, influential names within the FARC such as Iván Márquez, El Paisa and Jesús Santrich have recently declared the agreement invalid and asserted their intention to resume the armed struggle against the state and the oligarchic structure supporting it. The final peace deal was fragile due to structural issues and has now become more questionable. While those militants loyal to the agreements insist the splinter group is marginal, the fact that some guerilla leaders have given the green light to cooperation with the ELN, another militant group based near the Venezuelan border, increases the likelihood that the guerilla war will start again.

The PKK: From Turkey to the Middle East

So-called ‘Apoists’ were a part of Kurdish movement which was fractured between different ideological clashes and disagreements regarding the future of the Kurdish political project. They first found place in the Turkish revolutionary youth movements of the 1970s and held an autonomous spot with the DDKO (Organization of Revolutionary Kurdish Youth). In 1978, they became a party during the first congress they organised in the village of Fis. The party was baptized "PKK". Prior to 1980, they fought with rival Kurdish nationalist organizations as well as Kurdish clans in the Hilvan and Siverek regions, albeit with very limited means.

By deploying in camps in the Beqaa Valley, the guerilla movement adhered to an internationalist line. Though it is often forgotten, prior to its Eruh-Şemdinli raids against Turkish security forces, the PKK gained its first guerrilla war experience by fighting alongside Palestinian groups against Israel. Its very first losses occurred during this war.

The 1980 coup d’Etat dealt a heavy blow to the revolutionist groups in Turkey in general and to Kurdish groups including to the PKK’s founding members. Yet for PKK Secretary General Abdullah Öcalan was, who was abroad during that time, as well as for the first-generation militants, the post-coup repression provided with some opportunities.

When the guerilla war moved to Turkey in 1984, there was no noteworthy movement left representing the Kurdish movement politically or militarily. The oppressive politics carried out by the military junta prepared a fertile ground where joining the PKK appeared as legitimate to the public. Security policies such as the state of emergency practices and the village guard system should be noted as factors contributing to the sustainability of this base.

Until the 1990s, the Kurdish movement was largely rural. But it was then that the movement began to gain ground in major cities and towns. With the Democratic Party (DEP) experience, though short-lived, Kurds found an opportunity for political representation for the first time. Mass insurgencies unfolded in key centers such as Cizre and Nusaybin.

Though lukewarm attempts were made to put forward a solution proposal not unlike the Basque model, negotiations could not be envisaged as the efforts by the security forces escalated and counter-guerrilla tactics including the evacuation and burning of villages were implemented. And since Kurdish political parties were closed down one after the other, the lawful playing field shrank.

As a result of the security policies adopted in the rural regions, despite the serious military and logistic blow on the PKK, the ever widening of the violence spiral brought several other consequences. This strategy incited a forced migration from the rural areas to Turkey’s metropolises such as Istanbul, Mersin and Adana. The sociological outcome of this would be the setting of the groundwork for the Kurdish movements' intensive organizational activities in these cities by the early 2000s.  

Though the Kurdish issue featured on the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) agenda in the beginning of the 2000s, the government was in a tricky situation with its Islamic tag, operating against a military tutelage system. The government would have to wait until 2006 for secret talks held in Oslo.

In the period between 1999 and 2000, following Abdullah Öcalan's capture, the PKK's then ideal "independent Kurdistan nation-state" project was replaced by the "four piece Democratic Confederalism in Kurdistan" system, the personal brainchild of Öcalan. The PKK's new paradign is a lot more suited to the negotiation platform.

The negotiations carried out in Oslo between 2006 and 2011 can be said to have gained a veiled officiality with the announcement, toward the end of 2012 that direct talks with İmralı (the island where Abdullah Öcalan is prisoned) had started. But both sides abused the de facto ceasefire and the government failed to introduce a serious reform process. The Erdoğan-led government, marked by rising authoritarian tendencies, was disappointed by the Kurdish initiative as it did not offer them any political gains. They thus reverted to nationalist-based security policies, and in 2015, the war resumed.

Meanwhile, the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War provided the PKK's Syrian branch PYD's armed units YPG/YPJ with the opportunities to find the suitable ground for regional control and militarization that they were never able to achieve within Turkey. This is an important development which affects both the solution process and deeply alters the paradigm on Turkey's Kurdish issue.

Turkey's Kurdish issue and its solution are no longer restricted to Turkey, but have become the crucial aspect of a now international problem. The dynamics of a region as fragile as the Middle East should be taken into account in any future solution attempt.

In short, three different political movements that embraced armed struggle in the respective social and historical contexts of three different continents have all sought solution processes at certain times. As one evaluates solution processes and their consequences, one can see that each peace process is shaped by respective political, societal and international conjuncture as well as structural factors. Such factors can act as impediments or facilitators in peace processes.

*Ph.D. candidate at University of the Basque Country, EHESS Paris