Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan’s paradigm, has gained global traction. At the same time, the international conspiracy against him, which resulted in his arrest and imprisonment in 1999, finds its current manifestation at the hands of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), journalist Ferda Çetin said in an interview.
The events leading to Öcalan’s arrest and the uninterrupted arrest of 23 years started with Turkey threatening war on Syria. The PKK leader left the country for Europe on Oct. 9, 1998, but his appeals for asylum in Greece, Russia and Italy were rejected due to pressure from the United States. He was taken to Kenya against his will and handed over to Turkish authorities on Feb. 15, 1999, in the most significant link in a chain of events to re-design the Middle East.
Kurds have since voided this conspiracy, peoples of Europe and other peoples as they embraced developments led by Öcalan’s alternative viewpoint on the existing capitalist order, Çetin said.
An excerpt from the interview published by Mezopotamya Agency is as follows.
You were a journalist and a witness to the conspiracy. Paint us a picture of the conditions at the time, how and why did this occur?
The word ‘conspiracy’ is not used randomly. There really are many aspects to the matter, and an international component. So, why was Kurdish People’s Leader Öcalan, the PKK or Kurds targeted in the first place?
The Soviet Union had recently dissolved, taking down with it the bipolar world order. Another significant element was the lack of an established system to rival the United States and Europe. There were no rivals; what was left was a unipolar world. This hegemony became clearer as the 1990s progressed. At the time, there was even discourse on the ‘End of History’ and the ‘New Century’. All these relate to U.S. hegemony. The United States and the United Kingdom took advantage of the situation and devised a master plan over new orders.
This grand plan had one aspect focused on the former Yugoslavia and the Balkans. They re-arranged the order there. Another aspect was the Middle East, in the narrow sense, and Iran. Both areas of influence for the USSR. As they made these arrangements, there were no states or powers to push back against them. On the contrary, governments were mostly pro-Western.
But in the Middle East, the PKK was there, as were other strong bodies organised for national liberation.
Exactly. PKK and Öcalan were capable of disrupting these arrangements. As an actor or the subject, they had the potential and ability to hinder the plans.
Was this a reason for the conspiracy?
Definitely. I will speak on that later. Now, this arrangement required the dissolution of the PKK and Öcalan. They had to lose their influence and their position in the Middle East.
This is not a high tale. Looking at articles written at the time, one can see this happening. Zbigniew Brzezinsky, national security adviser at the White House at the time, wrote that the turn of the century would be a new beginning for the United States and the rest of the world. This was the reasoning behind the targeting of Kurds and Öcalan.
There were details available on these arrangements as well. At first it was known as the Great Middle East Project, and it was not a secret. Washington posed this as the ‘democratisation’ of the region.
When Öcalan left Syria, he had two options: The mountains, or Europe. Many developments followed him choosing Europe. What was the reflex the powers carrying out the conspiracy expected from Öcalan?
Öcalan frequently says that he had two paths before him. It was not that both paths were bad, or one had to be chosen. Especially after 1993, Öcalan had told both Kurdish journalists and international ones and politicians that a political solution was possible and that such an option should be implemented. When he spoke with political parties from other countries, he told them their states could also play a role.
These two paths were not entirely equivalent. Would it be better or worse if he had chosen the mountains? That is a different matter entirely, but Öcalan saw his choice as an option he had discussed and focused on it for years, as an opportunity he wanted to realise. He thought the conspiracy had emerged due to pressure from the United States, and thus he would bring the Kurdish issue to attention if he were to go to Europe. The Kurdish issue would be discussed, and he would make it possible for political discussions on the matter to take place in host countries.
Then Europe, defying its own laws, rejected Öcalan’s appeals for asylum. He travelled from Greece to Russia, and then to Italy. What happened then?
Some groups in Europe had different attitudes, but European states took a stance to support the United States’ policy to remove Öcalan from Europe.
The conditions of that time are still in practice today. It is not the case that all of Europe and the United States are antagonistic. Some politicians and parliaments wanted Öcalan in Europe as well. For instance, 175 out of 300 Greek deputies issued an invitation to Greece in 1997. They wanted to discuss the Kurdish issue in parliament. In 1998 in Russia, the Duma voted for Öcalan to stay in Russia. There were 298 votes in favour, and one deputy abstained. The Duma wanted Öcalan to stay and even to recognise his political asylum. However, then-President Boris Yeltsin did not accept this.
In short, there were other tendencies in Europe, but states themselves determined their attitudes based on pressure and initiative from the United States.
How about in Italy?
It would be good to talk about the background a little. There were political parties and other bodies in Europe that disagreed with the governments. Then there was the assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986, which brought on the criminalisation of the PKK. That was the basis for all the bans that followed.
However, this was a murder committed by NATO and GLADIO and Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MİT). In 2020, the top prosecutor in Sweden announced that the suspect had lost his life and that the case was thus dismissed. The court said Kurds had no involvement at all. However, Palme’s death was the basis of Germany’s ban on the PKK, which in turn was the primary obstacle on Öcalan’s path to Europe.
What were the other obstacles?
There was a sharp divide in terms of ideological and political approaches. The United States and the European Union conduct their relations in the Middle East and elsewhere around the globe via governments that are loyal to them. They have no connection to communities in these countries. Öcalan and the PKK were not compliant with these. For forging relations with Europe over a divvying up of power, the PKK and Öcalan were the wrong choice. They conducted discussions on the system. At a time when socialism was on the decline, and national liberation struggles were weakened, this was a threat to the United States and the EU. That is why they all joined in the siege, clearly because the PKK and Öcalan posed a threat to the system.
Would it be possible to say that the United States was afraid of Öcalan’s ideology and perspective as it attempted to pose itself as the owner of the world?
Of course. This was definitely a concern. Looking at the Italy process, we can clearly see this animosity and hostility. Öcalan was detained the minute he set foot in the airport in Rome on Nov. 12, 1998. He was arrested immediately. Why? The arrest was based on a German court order from Jan. 12, 1990. The warrant had been sent to Interpol.
There were three paths ahead of him after the detention in Rome. The first was to face trial. He would either be tried at an international court or be extradited to Germany. There was no other legal recourse. Massimo D’Alema was prime minister in Italy at the time. D’Alema and the German chancellor got together at a larger gathering. In a press statement that followed, they said Europe would take the initiative and take action to resolve the Kurdish issue peacefully. Foreign ministers of both countries also said they would handle the matter. It was obligatory, not a favour. This happened on Nov. 16, 1998. On Nov. 28, 1998, Sandey Berger from the United States issued threats that Öcalan would not be able to face trial according to international law and that he would have to be extradited to Turkey. He even said Italy and Germany had no right to put Öcalan on trial. The next day, foreign ministers of Italy and Germany met in Rome. They later said they had reached an agreement on an initiative for a solution, that they were going to form a commission of experts, and that they would “resolve this matter as Europe”.
It is odd that they said so, going against the United States. Did Washington do anything after?
The later change of heart in Italy and Germany clearly stemmed from pressure from the United States, which removed from the table any option for a joint solution.
The United States and the EU came head to head. On Dec. 3, 1998, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Council of Ministers had a meeting, after which German foreign minister Joseph Martin Fischer issued a statement saying Italy and Germany could not establish a court and try Öcalan.
After this, Italy no longer had to provide a trial to Öcalan, establish an international court, or extradite him to Germany. Öcalan was released to his so-called ‘freedom’. He was allowed to travel to whichever country he wanted. These are the international elements in the plot. All of these happened one after the other, and the plot continues.
What was Turkey’s role?
Bülent Ecevit, prime minister at the time, said, “We do not know why they extradited him.”
In his defence statements, Öcalan said he had seen a general representing the United States and a woman who represented the EU on the day he was taken to the İmralı Island Prison. Then-general Engin Alan was also present, representing Turkey.
The U.S. general had said the operation had been ordered by the U.S. President. The EU bureaucrat told Öcalan he was in their custody, while Alan said nothing. The Turkish general’s position was to bring Öcalan to Turkey and act as his guard on the way from Kenya.
The pressure Öcalan faced, forcing him to go to Italy, Russia and Greece, did not come from Turkey, but Turkey’s position was that they committed many murders to diminish the people’s sympathy for Öcalan.
This was a systemically carried out conspiracy, as you’ve said. Is it over?
It is not just the Kurds who say Öcalan’s capture was a conspiracy. A few months after Oct. 9, the International Strategic Research Centre in London issued a report saying Öcalan’s exit from Syria would result in fractures within the PKK, and the administrators would start to look for new alternatives among Kurds influenced by Öcalan. This was the purpose of this conspiracy. The disbanding or resignation of almost half of the PKK leadership in 2004 and 2005 should be understood to be part of this conspiracy. This is the context for the notion that the plot continues.
It was widely accepted that the Kurds would think of new alternatives. The expectation from this report is kept alive. There are groups, organisations, parties working to make this a reality. Among them many are Kurds.
What is Öcalan’s approach to the development of the perspective he put forth, or the approach towards it from Europe and the United States?
International powers wanted to support the Kurds but disbanded the PKK. Looking back from today, this is clear. Those who imposed this harsh isolation on Öcalan are at the same time are coalition partners to Kurds.
This is important. On conspiracies against Kurds, especially those against the PKK and Öcalan, the U.S. Secretary of State at the time said they did not anticipate such widespread and impactful reaction from the Kurdish people. In many countries around the world, in Kurdistan, people protested heavily. There are two things at play: On one hand, the United States and the EU say Kurds exist; they have rights. On the other, they say Kurds, PKK and Öcalan are separate. This is not compatible with the truth of the connection between Öcalan and Kurdish society. It is what they wish for. There are many reasons why their plots fail, but the main one is that the Kurdish people took a definitive and harsh stance on this matter. It was very clearly visible and organised.
And the crux of the matter is the United States, and the EU now know that they cannot implement a conspiracy without making the Kurdish people complicit. Germany, Britain, France and Sweden know this.
So they think Kurds are well and good and should be supported, but the PKK is to be disbanded. Kurds are their partners in the fight against Islamic State (ISIS) and other fundamentalists. Take it one step further: They provide funds for a hospital in Shengal, a school in Kobane. They do help. But, they stay silent when the buildings are targeted by Turkish jets and drones.
They mean to say they do not want to carry out the conspiracy, that they are friends to the Kurds –but Öcalan and the PKK are bad. They are asking the Kurds to stand with them against the PKK. They try to make Kurds complicit. This is the main change from the conspiracy in 1998.