The PKK and Russia

By Oved Lobel on 18 November 2019

PKK at a terrorist training camp in the Asad regime-held Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, 1991 [source]

My friend Oved Lobel, a researcher focused on Russia’s role in the Middle East (among other things), found several interviews the Russian media did with Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leaders, one with the leader himself Abdullah Ocalan, talking about, inter alia, the group’s relationship with Moscow. He very helpfully translated them and with his permission they are published below.

The broad outline of the PKK’s relationship with the Soviet Union—and then the Russian Federation—is fairly clear. After the PKK was founded in Turkey in the late 1970s by Ocalan, it was evicted from the country during the 1980 military coup. The PKK moved to Syria, where Ocalan was already based, having fled Turkey in June 1979. From there, the PKK moved into the Bekaa area of Lebanon, at that time controlled by the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Asad, and the Soviets acted through Asad, as they so often did in dealing with terrorist groups, to build the PKK into a fighting force that was then unleashed in 1984 on Turkey, a frontline NATO state in the Cold War.

The PKK was Kurdish nationalist and separatist force that understood this objective as part of a global struggle against Western imperialism within the ideological framework provided by Marxism-Leninism. The PKK had a special reverence for Lenin and Stalin, whose works—as selected and interpreted by Ocalan—were used to indoctrinate new recruits. In the 1990s, post-Soviet Russia continued to provide various forms of support to the PKK, and the Turks responded in kind by dabbling with the Chechen insurgency.

The details about the mechanisms of the Russia-PKK relationship, its exact nature, the scale of support provided, and how it has changed over time are all deeply contested, and more so than ever since 2014 when the PKK’s Syrian department became the partner force for the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State Coalition. It is, therefore, interesting to look at some of the evidence provided by the PKK leadership itself.

— Kyle  

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Abdullah Öcalan

Abdullah Öcalan on the plane to Turkey after being arrested, February 1999

Abdullah Ocalan was interviewed by Leonid Gankin and this was printed in Kommersant, an independent Russian daily, on 24 November 1998. This was the first interview Ocalan gave since he had been forced out of Syria by its ruler, Hafez al-Asad. Having harboured Ocalan since 1979, Hafez relented—as the Ba’thi regime in Syria always does when faced with credible threats—after Turkey had threatened to invade Syria to uproot the PKK terrorist sanctuary in October 1998. Turkey was able to draw on Israeli pressure on Damascus from the south, and Hafez had reasons of his own for wanting to avoid conflict, namely his preparations for the succession of his son, Bashar. Having been briefly in Russia, Ocalan was in Italy at the time of this interview. At the risk of prosecution because of the war crimes and crimes against humanity he was responsible for, Ocalan left Italy in January 1999, moving back to Russia (even more briefly this time), then Kazakhstan, Greece, Belarus, back to Greece, and finally Kenya, where he was based for two weeks at the Greek Embassy before Turkish intelligence arrested him on 15 February 1999.

How did you end up in Russia?

At the start of October, Turkey was ready to strike Syria. I couldn’t allow a big war to break out on my account. I had to leave Damascus. On October 7 I asked the Russian authorities to allow me to enter Russian territory. But the situation had already escalated so much after one day that I had to leave Syria without waiting for a response from Moscow. I arrived in Russia on October 9.

You arrived in Russia on forged papers?

I wasn’t able to travel under my name. I had a passport under the name Abdullah Sarokurd (Atakurd).

Turkish intelligence realized you were in Russia after only two days. How did they figure it out?

I made a mistake: Having arrived in Moscow, I made contact with the branches of our party abroad by satellite phone. My conversations were intercepted, not by the Turks, but by [Israel’s intelligence service] MOSSAD, who passed the information on to Turkey.

And were you really, as Ankara claimed, in Odintsovo near Moscow?

Yes, that’s the case. True, I started moving around from place to place after that, traversing Russia and the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States]. But I wasn’t, as the Turks asserted, in Armenia.

Were you in touch with the Russian authorities?

Yes, via our representative in Moscow, Mahir Walat [a.k.a. Numan Ochar]. We sent a request to the President, the Prime Minister, and Russian special services that I be allowed to remain in Russia. The confluence of Russia’s and Kurdistan’s interests in the Caspian Region and the Middle East gave us reason to hope for a positive answer. But Russia was not ready for this. The U.S. was applying severe pressure on it. Turkey had offered Russia lucrative contracts and financial aid and promised to positively influence the situation in Chechnya.

Do you know how and by whom it was decided that you couldn’t stay in Russia?

I know that this question elicited sharp disagreement at the highest levels. Since your President was ill at the time, the final word rested with Evgeny Primakov. And he was a solid “no”. I think this decision is a mistake. Especially in light of the fact that on November 4, the State Duma almost unanimously decided to appeal to the President to grant me political asylum. Of the 300 voting deputies, only one abstained. None voted against. The Duma recognized that Turkey was conducting a genocidal policy against the Kurds, and called on Ankara to resolve the Kurdish issue peacefully. The Deputies understand that my presence in Moscow could be a powerful weapon in the struggle for Russia’s interests. Unfortunately, Primakov did not heed their opinion.

Has your attitude towards Russia now changed?

I don’t bear any grudge towards Russia. Your country itself is now in a difficult situation. I think that we still have good opportunities for establishing close relations.

Why did they arrest you at the airport in Rome? They say someone alerted the Italian security services to your arrival.

No, as soon as I arrived in Italy I revealed who I was and requested political asylum. The follow-up process stipulated I remain in quarantine. On Friday [20 November], I was released on bail. On Wednesday [25 November], my case will be heard in the Court of Appeals of Rome. I hope the issue of granting me political asylum will be resolved positively by the end of the month.

Where are you living now? Have you got any security?

I live in a secure location where I have everything I need for work. External security is provided by the Italian police and internal security by Kurdish bodyguards.

Do you know that Kurds, seeking your release, commit acts of self-immolation?

I have called on my compatriots three times not to do this.

And what are the future prospects of the Kurdish movement? Is the PKK threatened by a split without your tough leadership?

The Kurdish issue has now become one that the whole international community will resolve. We have thereby entered a new political stage in our struggle. And in Rome I will be at the forefront of this struggle. We are ready for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question. If the Turks again refuse to sit at the negotiating table with us, they will discredit themselves in front of the whole world. Regarding the Kurdish Liberation Army, it is commanded by the General Staff, which during the course of heavy fighting over the past two months has shown that it is coping with its task.

 

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Senior PKK official Hoshnav Sipan[1] was interviewed for Kommersant by Leonid Gankin on 21 July 1999. By this time, Ocalan has been imprisoned on Imrali Island, where he still is, and sentenced to death by Turkey, a sentence that was formally commuted in 2002, shortly after Turkey abolished capital punishment. Sipan is concerned to deny that there have been ideological splits among the PKK leadership after Ocalan’s capture. Especially interesting from Sipan is his mention of “influential friends” the PKK has in Russia and his rage at Heydar Aliyev, the President of Azerbaijan, for having publicly supported Turkey’s sentencing of Ocalan.[2]

What’s Ocalan doing now? How’s he holding up?

He’s fine, hanging on. He listens to shortwave radio and reads newspapers. True, he complains that they bring them [the newspapers] late. He’s allowed to meet with his lawyers.

But what’s happening with the Party? They say there’s been a schism in the PKK leadership and some of its supporters advocate a rejection of Marxism.

There is a very poor understanding in the world of what the PKK is. It’s not just a Party. It is a national idea that has gripped the minds of millions of Kurds. Maybe in ten years or so our party will have another name and will fight not under the Red Banner, but some other one. But it cannot be destroyed. And there’s no schism in the party. On the contrary, after Ocalan’s capture the ranks of the Kurdish army were reinforced with 5,000 new fighters.

But what does the leadership of the Kurdish movement intend to do in relation to Ocalan’s sentence?

We adhere to the tactics of offensive defense, without ceasing hostilities in Kurdistan. But we urge our supporters to refrain from sabotage in Turkey. Everything will depend on Ankara’s readiness for dialogue and whether the sentence is carried out against our leader.

When do you expect a verdict in the Ocalan case?

Ankara is drawing it out, waiting for the end of the holiday season. After all, because of Ocalan’s capture and trial, Turkey’s tourism industry has suffered losses of $4 billion, whereas its total revenue over the past year was $9 billion. Western tourists refused to travel to Turkish resorts for fear of terrorist attacks, and now only tourists from Russia and the CIS vacation there.

Apparently, the court of appeals will consider Ocalan’s verdict no earlier than the fall. If the court leaves it unchanged, the sentence must be approved by parliament and signed by the president. Turkey is attempting a desperate bargain with Europe, demanding accession to the European Union in exchange for Ocalan’s pardon. But most European countries refuse to give it any guarantees.

The OSCE called on Turkey to pardon Ocalan at the beginning of the month. Eight countries wouldn’t sign the request, including Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan. That’s how they repaid Turkey, which gave them the money for the admission fee into the OSCE.

But what especially outraged the Kurds was the fact that Azerbaijan’s President Heydar Aliyev sent a congratulatory letter to Turkey’s President Suleyman Demirel after Ocalan’s sentence. Have you ever heard of such a thing? Congratulations for pronouncing a death sentence! And this is after Aliyev conducted negotiations with our party and swore his brotherly relations with the Kurdish people.

When was that?

At the start of 1993, when Aliyev headed the Supreme Soviet of Nakhchivan. He received 3 representatives of the PKK leadership and discussed issues of cooperation with them. We also had contacts with his opponent, Elchibey. In Azerbaijan, where almost 500,000 Kurds reside, the opposition always attempted to use us in their power struggle, but we preserved our neutrality.

Has the Kurdish attitude towards Russia changed after Russia didn’t grant Ocalan political asylum?

We proceed from the assumption that Russia is a natural ally of the Kurds, and we don’t conflate the Russian people with its current government. Regimes change, but the people remain the same. Moreover, we have many influential friends in Russia.[3]

Are you here to get in contact with them?

No comment.

 

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Mahir Walat (Numan Ochar)

Mahir Walat (Numan Ochar)

The Russian edition of Rudaw interviewed Mahir Walat (Numan Ochar), a founding member of the PKK and former Central Committee member, on 11 May 2011. Walat was very close friends with Abdullah Ocalan and served as the PKK’s representative to Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), as well as carrying out various political tasks in Syria and Iran. As soon as Ocalan was captured in early 1999, he was summoned to the PKK headquarters in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq for harsh interrogation; the PKK accused him of being an accomplice in Ocalan’s capture. Walat escaped from Qandil, left the Party, and fled back to Russia.

You left the PKK twelve years ago. What have you been doing since, and why have you kept so quiet?

There are a lot of reasons for my silence. In the first place, I don’t want to become an enemy of my people. Thousands of courageous young men and women sacrificed their lives and thousands were injured and imprisoned. I didn’t want to desecrate their memory, so I kept silent.

The PKK leadership accused me of participating in Ocalan’s capture. I went to the mountains to explain to them what really happened, but they put me under arrest and interrogated me. The interrogation lasted 45 days, and I wrote a detailed report. They didn’t respond to my report.

I gave two reports to the PKK leadership, but after a while two of my interrogators came and told me that I had to write a new report. They wanted me to confess to my participation in Ocalan’s capture and to demonstrate that I was a traitor and a spy.

So, what did you do?

I was already in a bad psychological state because of what happened to Ocalan. I became ill, and they didn’t respond to my request for medical treatment. I asked for evidence that they had anything against me, and they wouldn’t give that to me, either. They just gave me a few written statements by [the PKK leader’s brother] Osman Ocalan and a few other comrades who had spoken against me at the conference on Ocalan’s capture.

A comrade secretly handed me the [August 1999] ceasefire decision, which upset me very much, because I believed that the fight should have intensified, since the capture of Ocalan had inflamed nationalist sentiments across all Kurdish lands. The Syrian government was confused and did not know what to do. Due to this difficult situation in the PKK, I could not continue to remain in this organization. Some say that I left the PKK. Others say that I escaped from them. Let them say whatever they want.

What is necessary to point out is that after Ocalan left Syria, I tirelessly traveled to many countries for four months trying to help him, and, apart from me, none of the PKK members did anything. During that time there was a PKK conference. They need to tell people what they did at this conference. Farhad, Abbas, Juma, Zara, and Botan must explain this. If they still won’t say what they did, then they are suspects in the capture of Ocalan, especially Osman Ocalan and his supporters, who launched a propaganda campaign against me.

These comrades said that I stole the organization’s money, used it in private business and got rich. This is all a lie. I still live in a difficult situation on the salary of my employed spouse.

Why did Ocalan leave Syria? Did he consult with the PKK Central Committee and the leadership of the Council on this issue?

On 10 July 1998, as I was reporting on my activities to Ocalan over the phone, he interrupted me and said, “Haven’t you heard the news? I’m in danger. I have to leave Syria. Can I come there?” It was all unexpected.

Why did Ocalan decide to go to Russia? How was he received there? What were the positions of the Russians and why didn’t they let him stay?

From Syria, Ocalan went to Greece, which we viewed as a friendly country, but they wouldn’t allow him to stay. After this I spoke with Ocalan on the telephone, and Comrade Rustam [Broyev, who was responsible for diplomatic activities and relations with the Duma] recommended I speak to [Aleksey] Mitrofanov. Mitrofanov was the head of the Duma’s International Affairs Committee, the Russian parliament, and a member of [Vladimir] Zhirinovsky’s [fascistic Liberal Democratic] party. He knew Ocalan and pretended to be a friend. The next day I met with Mitrofanov in person to avoid the use of telephones and [the risk of] interception. We also turned up the television volume before we began speaking.

Mitrofanov said, “Okay, let’s speak to Zhirinovsky”. We met with Zhirinovsky that day, and he said he was ready to help. Letters were sent to the Duma and Prime Minister Evgeny Primakov. We spoke with the representatives of the political parties in the Duma, and I kept Ocalan apprised of all of these endeavors. Ocalan and I contacted one another every hour.

We sent an invitation to Greece for Ocalan on Zhirinovsky’s behalf. Ocalan came to Russia with [Ayfer Kaya, a.k.a.] Rozerin, Omer Osse, and [Muhammad] Marwan al-Zarki.[4] We set up Ocalan in Zhirinovsky’s house. A few days later, Ocalan wanted to use the phone, but I did not want to allow this, for his safety. But he spoke on the phone for extended periods and our whereabouts were therefore traced by the CIA and MOSSAD.

There was only one organ that could keep Ocalan in Russia, and that was the Duma, since he had shown up without official agreement. Thanks to the efforts of Comrade Rostam, the Duma adopted a resolution, the first time in history a political resolution on the Kurds had been adopted. However, this decision of the Duma was not implemented. Russian media began to pressure Zhirinovsky and weakened him. A senior Russian diplomat met with us and told us to leave the country.

Ocalan set off for Italy, but then went back to Greece. One gets the impression he lost initiative and authority and the ability to make decisions.

That’s true. They met Ocalan at the airport in Greece and wouldn’t allow him into the country. We had no alternatives, and the PKK had no Plan B. All our endeavors in Europe and other countries were foiled by a hidden hand.

Could the PKK really not do anything to prevent Ocalan’s capture?

Ocalan himself and the Central Committee, of which I was a member, have a general responsibility for his capture. The greatest weakness of the PKK was diplomacy and international relations. In the PKK, there was no decent preparation for this crisis. I believe that what Ocalan said, describing the lack of preparations as “weak friendships”, was correct.

Is it true that Ocalan said that if Europe denies him entrance, he will go to the mountains between Iraq, Iran, and Turkey?

Ocalan thought about this, and we discussed it many times. We contacted the diplomatic branches in order to facilitate his travel to this region through Armenia and Iran. We also discussed this with the leadership of the PKK Council. We even prepared a new passport for him, should the need arise. We wanted to transport Ocalan to Armenia via Russia, but the Russian authorities wouldn’t allow this.

You’ve done a lot in your work for the PKK. So, after all this time, how do you see the future of the Kurds and their current situation in the world?

Kurdistan is an international colony. There are many atrocities and massacres committed against the Kurds in the name of socialism, Islam, and democracy. However, the Kurds did everything in their power and made sacrifices in order to survive and defend their honor.

The current predicament of the Kurds is a disgrace and a scandal for the international community. Nevertheless, events are moving in the direction of a resolution. Kurds are living through a historical era. Part of the Kurdish lands [Iraqi Kurdistan] received official and legal status in the world. Our people in Turkey are still fighting, in Syria and Iran they are also fighting, and their consciousness is increasing.

In short, all four parts of our land are headed towards independence. The world has changed and continues to change. Retrograde, reactionary, repressive regimes are disappearing one after the other.

On that subject, do you see any national unity between the Kurdish parties in Turkey or among the Kurdish parties in the countries where they exist?

The PKK is a very large party, but I cannot understand its position regarding the national unity of the Kurds in Turkey and in other countries. This PKK parochialism calls to mind that of the Yazidi Kurds. Our Yazidi Kurds were formerly victims of massacres and war in the past. But they constantly protect themselves and act like a closed community in their relations with the outside world. Assaults on the PKK in Turkey, Iran, and Syria—and internal criticism of the PKK—have forced the PKK to isolate itself in order to defend itself.

They should open up and cooperate with other Kurdish parties that are not affiliated with the occupiers. They must be open to criticism. The PKK is waging a national struggle in the Kurdish world. I do not want it to be weak. I want it to become stronger, because without the PKK, the Kurdish nation will be weakened and dissolved.

In the last ten years, the Kurdish strategy in Turkey has changed from demanding an independent state to democratic autonomy. What are the advantages and disadvantages?

The PKK has become like a state, with all of its institutions and agencies. The PKK should demand an independent, unified Kurdistan. In my opinion, a democratic republic, autonomy and Kemalism are not for the PKK. The point I wish to press is that the Party is the power and guarantor of the Kurdish nation, and therefore the consolidation of the Party’s power is what’s required, not its dilution.

 

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NOTES

[1] It is possible that Hoşnav Sipan is the same person as Sipan Hamo, the commander of the PKK’s armed units when they operate in Syria, the People’s Protection Forces (YPG). If this is so, it would suggest Sipan was charged with handling the Russia file for the YPG/PKK. Sipan Hamo was the first senior YPG official to (publicly) visit Moscow and has taken point in maintaining relations ever since.

[2] The consensus view in Azerbaijan is that the KGB was involved in creating the PKK, and Heydar Aliyev, the head of the secret police in that republic of the Soviet Union in the relevant period, was the personal initiator of the PKK project. Such accusations have been made by, among others, Abulfaz Elchibey, the first elected president of independent Azerbaijan, who was overthrown in a coup by Aliyev in 1993.

[3] It seems very likely that among the “influential friends” Sipan is referring to is Yevgeny Primakov, the long-serving Middle East expert in the Soviet Politburo who had just been removed as Boris Yeltsin’s  prime minister, and quite possibly Vladimir Putin, who had left his office as head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), one of the successor agencies to the KGB, a few months earlier, and was at this time functioning as the Secretary of the Security Council (SBRF), which coordinates executive policy.

[4] According to David McDowall in his A Modern History of the Kurds (p. 479), Al-Zarki set up the Syrian Democratic Gathering Party (Hizb al-Tajmu al-Dimuqrati al-Suriya) in August 1998 under the sponsorship of the Hafez al-Asad regime. Al-Zarki defined his party’s mission as resisting various Zionist imperialist conspiracies, particularly their desire to pit Kurds and Arabs against each other—ethnic tensions that would not exist otherwise, of course—and denounced thoroughly the Israeli-Turkish alliance that threatened Syria. Unsurprisingly, these issues were all important concerns of the Asad regime at that moment.

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