Thomas Benedikter: Autonomy in the Kurdish region will not disrupt Turkey, but makes country a better place

THOMAS BENEDIKTER is an economist and social researcher in Bozen (South Tyrol, Italy, 1957), graduated in Economics at the University of Munich (D) and in Political Economy at the University of Trento (I). Besides many years of professional activity in empirical social and economic research in his home region South Tyrol, since 1983 he has been continuously committed to activities in humanitarian co-operation projects and human rights NGO activities with particular regard to minority issues and indigenous peoples rights, peace and international conflict, information on North-South-issues. T.B. has been director of the South Tyrolean branch of the international NGO “Society for threatened Peoples” (based in Germany) and some other international solidarity initiatives. Since 2003 he is collaborating with the European Academy of Bozen (Department for autonomy and minorities) for an “Exchange Programme for the Politics of Recognition” (minority rights and minority protection systems) with South Asian partners.

I am deeply grateful to the editor and translators of Aram Publishing House who had the courage and the strong conviction that the concept of autonomy should be put on the agenda of Turkish politics and public debate. Although some may consider this kind of solution quite far away, I am convinced that one century after Kemal Atatürks coming to power Turkey could overcome this outdated ideology. Autonomy in the Kurdish region would not disrupt Turkey, but make it a better place for both, Turks and Kurds.

Necat Ayaz: You use word of “modern” to define autonomy in today’s world. What are the differences between “modern” and “not modern” or “pre-modern” autonomy systems?

Thomas Benedikter: The qualification of “modern” in my approach is strictly related to the modern State, not only in the Western sphere. A modern State should be based on democracy and the rule of law. In history there have been several forms of autonomy or self-governments of communities with or without their own territory, but almost all of them were embedded in non-democratic states. Two examples: Finland’s autonomy in Tsarist Russia had self-government, yes, but without genuine democracy. The Christians and other religious communities on the Balkans of the Ottoman period enjoyed the Millet-system, a kind of cultural autonomy, but under a monarchic regime. Modern autonomy means that the whole system is fully part of the State’s legal order and democratic system. Thus, what make the difference between modern and pre-modern is democracy and the rule of law. Modern autonomies, in this sense, came into being only in 1921 with the creation of the autonomous Aland Islands. Some scholars might disagree, but in my view to talk about modern autonomy in authoritarian systems makes no sense.

Necat Ayaz: Despite it is a federal unit in federal Iraq which has a developed federal system considering power sharing and other mechanisms, South Kurdistan region’s politics and sub-state institutions are dominated by powerful tribes and families and two political parties mainly gain their power from these feudal ties. Can we label South Kurdistan as “modern” considering these facts?

T. B: There are various criteria for defining a state “democratic” and different approaches to measure one state’s democratic standards. On the one hand there ist the legal and political system, the constitution, the laws and procedures; on the other hand the democratic maturity of the society, of the people with its traditions and cultures. Formally South Kurdistan’s political system appears to be sufficiently democratic with a democratic constitutions, working elected  institutions and free elections (in 2009 there where 24 parties running for polls). When looking deeper into its social reality it might be different. By formal criteria of rule of law, democracy and power sharing between the central Iraqi state and the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan we could term this territory a modern autonomy. However, this doesn’t mean that democracy over there is already at his best.


Necat Ayaz: In your book Solution for Ethnic Problems Through Self Government you say that instead of “creating an ethnic space”, territorial autonomy should create a “legal space.” You call it “common democratic space” in a other place of the same article. Can you give more information about what is “common democratic space”? Is there any territorial autonomy in the world having this feature?

T.B: A “common democratic space” means that a territorial autonomy creates a legal framework for a meaningful democratic life, exercised by all people legally residing in that territory: a regional democracy with a minimum of powers, with institutions and politicians selected by its citizens who are equal in their rights. There are currently about 60 autonomous regions in 20 states of the world respecting these basic characteristics. Democracy can fully unfold in such a space, regarding the powers attributed to the autonomous region, if there is equality of political rights of all citizens. This is not the case in several autonomous areas around the world, which are autonomous just by name, and not by fact. “Common democratic” space also means: it is wise, although not necessary, to use the democratic system in an autonomous area to govern together, to strive for ethnic harmony and conciliation.

Necat Ayaz: In the section about South Asia of the same book, you state that India and Pakistan “could not accommodate all demands of self-government by federalist devices.” So, can we say that federalism are more successful in the west countries (USA and Australia) where ethnic basis does not exists or in countries (Canada) where ethnic demands are fully accommodated?

T.B: Indeed, neither India nor Pakistan could yet accommodate all demands of self-government. Unfortunately they did not even exhaust all opportunities to establish autonomy systems on a sub state level, which is perfectly possible (look at Canada’s asymmetric federal state). India’s federalism is far from being perfect. But can you imagine a democratic state on that subcontinent, embracing such a cultural variety, without federalism? Thus the point is: federal systems with an ethnolinguistical homogeneity might be governed more easily, but ethnically very diverse countries have no other chance than federalism (or a state of autonomous communities, if you look at Spain) or in scientific terms: “a complex territorial power sharing system”.

Necat Ayaz: Regarding the federalist experience in the world, and considering geographical, regional and dialectical differences, is it possible to say that territorial autonomy is more appropriate for Northern Kurdistan?

T. B: Yes, territorial autonomy is more appropriate for Northern Kurdistan, since Turkey, besides the historical Kurdish areas, is not ethnically so diverse. There are no significant minority peoples claiming for federalism or autonomy except the Kurds. Turkey – as Macedonia or Spain – had to find a settlement for one or just a few smaller second nations, confined in the same State borders. In such a case, territorial autonomy is a suitable solution, if just one or a few conflicts are to be accomodated.

Modern Autonomy Systems Benedikter version 2010-1

Necat Ayaz:  Kurdish movement declared autonomy for Northern Kurdistan in 2011. Is there a possibility of achieving autonomy by unilateral declarations in today’s world ?

T.B: A unilateral decision of autonomy may have a very high symbolic value and give a strong political message, but on the ground this does not change the facts. Remember that autonomy has to be supported  by the rule of law, has to be entrenched in the Constitution, has to be legally established. Self-declared republics as Transnistria, Northern Cyprus and Abkhazia are no republics unless not recognized by a major part of states. In the same way the autonomous area of the “Caracoles de Chiapas”, Mexico’s Zapatista autonomous area, are self-governing to a certain extent, but no modern autonomies. Sure, a self-declaration may be an act of resistance of oppressed peoples willing to develop a peaceful alternative, but autonomy at the end has to be established by the sovereign state.

Necat Ayaz: What is your opinion about preparations for declaration of autonomy by Kurdish forces in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) considering absence of state in Syria? 

T.B: “Not only with regard to Syria, but also to all other areas with violent conflicts, absence or failure of state, collapse of rule of law and democratic procedures we should keep in mind that ‘genuine’ modern autonomy cannot be established in such circumstances. We should be clear about definitions: they help us to distinguish autonomy systems from self-ruled areas of any kind and other autonomy-like arrangements of power sharing (see “Modern autonomy systems” on the Internet). Self-declarations are acts of political struggle. The Kurds of Rojava might have plenty of reasons for declaring self-government in their area, but as the Caracoles de Chiapas, the liberated areas of FARC in Colombia, former LTTE-held areas in Northern Sri Lanka and some self-ruled areas of Somalia, Rojava isn’t an autonomous region. Also remember: the Palestinian autonomy, although officially termed with this label, is no modern autonomy at all, but little more than a kind of limited self-administration under military occupation. I do hope that Syria’s Kurds will achieve their fundamental and political rights as soon as possible, but I am not in the position to judge whether autonomy in a future democratic Syria will be the proper solution for them.”

Necat Ayaz: Sanjay Barbora says that “autonomy and autonomous institutions have not delivered justice.” What kind of mechanisms are needed for an autonomy to be able to deliver justice?

T.B: S. Barbora’s statement is related to some special cases of autonomous entities in India’s Northeast. We could put him the counter question: which State of India has provided full justice? Most of them surely not, and would he thus claim to abolish the federalist system? Justice in a material sense is not the matter in autonomy. Democratic self-government and minority protection do matter. But non-discrimination of the internal minorities of an autonomous area is the crucial point. If new conflicts have to be avoided, the elected governments of autonomous regions should refrain from harassing minorities (including the members of the State’s titular nation). For this purpose some good mechanism have been developed in European autonomies.

Necat Ayaz: Independentist movements in the North Italy and in many developed regions in Europe have been directed by more conservative ideology. The main idea behind this position is the desire to stop paying to poor regions inside the same state. At the same time, xenophobia has been growing in these regions and especially inside the some leading parties of these movements. Do you think that this development in the West constitute any harm to struggle for autonomy or independence in the world?

T.B: It is true that economic egoism, the perception of being abused as a cow to be milked and some xenophobic trends are present in such regions prone to secession. But Italy’s Lega Nord, a xenophobic populist force, cannot do much harm with regard to legitimate autonomy claims in other parts of the country. In Italy a special autonomy or secession for Northern Italy is neither legitimate nor credible, but this does not mean that Italy shouldn’t develop a full fledged federal system.

Necat Ayaz: In the last section on Solution for Ethnic Problems Through Self Government, you offer adoption of “international covenant of the right to autonomy” as a solution to ongoing ethnic conflicts. Are there any persons or organizations working to realize this aim?

T.B: As far as I know there is only the Federal Union of European Nationalities FUEN which in 1994 firstly proposed an international covenant, but immediately faced strong resistance among the member states of the Council of Europe. Imagine Turkey. The idea and concept of such a covenant are still exciting and the arguments valid, but the core problem is identical with the refusal of States’ to exactly define when the right to self-determination should be applied. I propose for 2014 to organize some moments to relaunch this idea.

Necat Ayaz: Two of your books related autonomy have been published in Turkey recently and one of your book is expected to be published in Turkey about the same topic. What is your opinion related growing interests about autonomy system in Turkey in generally and interests for your books especially?

T.B: I appreciate very much this interest, but first of all I am deeply grateful to the editor and translators of Aram Publishing House who had the courage and the strong conviction that the concept of autonomy should be put on the agenda of Turkish politics and public debate. Although some may consider this kind of solution quite far away, I am convinced that one century after Kemal Atatürks coming to power Turkey could overcome this outdated ideology. Autonomy in the Kurdish region would not disrupt Turkey, but make it a better place for both, Turks and Kurds.


Derbarê Necat Ayaz

Necat Ayaz is an exiled Kurdish writer and journalist originally from Turkey. He is editor and founder of Infowelat online magazine since 2013. He has been living in Belgium since 2020. He is the author of Katalonya: Dirok Ziman Otonomi (Catalonia: History Language and Autonomy) and Ispanya”da Ozyonetimin Tarihi (The History of Self-Government in Spain).

Li vê jî binêre

We don’t have our own state to fully revitalize the language

In our context, it is fundamental to say that in Euskal Herria we do not …