Selahattin Demirtaş, the head of the pro-Kurdish opposition party in Turkey, will visit Moscow this week to speak to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and open a satellite office for his party. The meeting follows a tense several weeks in which Turkey and Russia have all but severed their diplomatic ties.
“On Wednesday [Dec. 23] we will meet Foreign Minister Lavrov. We will also open a party office in Moscow,” Demirtaş confirmed on Turkish television Saturday. He will be the highest-ranking Turkish official to visit Russia since the Russian government repeatedly violated Turkish airspace on airstrike missions to defend Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, resulting in the shooting down of a Russian aircraft close to the Turkish border. Demirtaş is the head of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a relatively new left-wing political party that has enjoyed electoral success largely by defending the interests of the nation’s Kurdish population and protesting against the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) censorship of critical media.
“We plan to talk about the recent tension between Turkey and Russia during our visit. Many people, many businesspeople and students, are affected by this tension. Turkey does not take a step [to improve relations]. The president [Recep Tayyip Erdoğan] has closed all doors,” Demirtaş said of his mission there, adding that he believes the HDP has a role to play to help Turks stranded in Moscow by Russian sanctions following the Syrian warplane incident. He has criticized the AKP in the past for not doing enough to help “tens, even hundreds, of thousands of people who do business with Russia.”
The HDP generally has been using tensions between Turkey and Russia to highlight the perceived inability of the AKP to govern peacefully. “[Prime Minister Ahmet] Davutoglu, when he served as minister for Foreign Affairs, he declared a new policy of ‘zero problems with neighbours.’ But now after this crisis with Russia, Turkey has no neighbours anymore. They have a crisis with almost every neighbour,” HDP’s vice co-chairman for foreign affairs tells Middle East Eye. He noted also that Demirtaş would discuss Syria generally with Lavrov, not just the relationship between Russia and Turkey.
While Turkey is a member of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, the AKP government vehemently opposes the participation of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the fight, and has equated the Syrian Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG and YPJ) with the PKK. As the HDP has risen in popularity with Turkey’s Kurdish population, the ruling party has claimed their leadership is allied with the PKK. The PKK is a Marxist organization, which the United States has designated as a terrorist group. Turkey also considered the YPG/YPJ a terrorist group, though it is alone in having issued that designation.
In a speech last week, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu accused the HDP of “acting as if they are the spokesperson for the PKK terrorists,” stating that the HDP leadership’s claims to “extend the struggle” translate into support for the terrorist group. The remarks followed an extensive police operation that left 110 PKK members dead in Şırnak, Diyarbakır, and Mardin, the heart of Kurdish Turkey. One Turkish soldier also died in the operation.
The raid on PKK centers in the region followed a report, also relayed to the public by Davutoglu, that the PKK had “instilled hate speech to surround the youth” and encouraged students to attack schools. “The children and youth aged 8 through 17, who need to go to school, are given Molotov cocktails in their hands,” he asserted.
The AKP’s attacks on the HDP and links to the PKK follow months of HDP accusations that AKP sympathizers have engaged in violent activity against them. “You are murderers. Your hand is bloody. Blood has splattered from your face, your mouth to your nails and all over you. You are the biggest supporters of terror,” Demirtaş said of the AKP recently, regarding the government’s inability to stop deadly terrorist attacks against Kurds in Ankara and the border town of Suruç, near Syria. Turkish officials later found evidence suggesting the original target of the Ankara bombing, the deadliest such attack in post-Ottoman Turkish history, was an HDP headquarters.
Prior to Turkish legislative elections earlier this year, Demirtaş accused AKP supporters of being behind more than 400 attacks on HDP offices and supporters in a two-day span and labeled the results of the election, which saw a minor decrease in the number of HDP representatives in the legislature, “illegitimate.”