[Article] le 01 Mar 2023 par

Rethinking Borders: A Discussion on Vision of Borders in Democratic Confederalism

This paper will elaborate on the perception of borders in the idea of democratic confederalism, which has been shaped in the 1999-20005 period mainly with Öcalan’s statements of defense to courts and which was adopted as PKK’s new ideological trajectory. In this context, the first step will be to review the definition of and the literature on the concept of borders to offer a short history and a summary of the debates around it. Then we will look at the emergence, transformation and meaning of the concept of borders within Kurdistan throughout history. Finally, we will discuss the meaning or the non-meaning of the divided borders of Kurdistan for the ideological and programmatic transformation of PKK, which originally emerged as a national liberation organization with the goal of forming a nation state.


The old colonial borders drawn mostly by the French and the English was forced to change after the 1950s as a result of national independence wars, and also especially after 1980 due to the rapid popularity of the concept of globalization which accompanied worldwide political change. In reference to globalization, some social scientists emphasize the dominance of new communication and information technologies while others highlight the development of a “borderless” global economy along with intensified supranational culture and governance networks. In more extreme variants, concepts such as “end of nation states”- “borderless world”, “end of ideology”- “end of history” and even “end of geography” have been coined (cited in Anderson and O’Dowd, 1999: 599). Surely, in today’s world which McLuhan identifies as the “global village,” the meaning and function of nation state borders have changed due to worldwide social, political, cultural, technological and economic developments and it seems like they will continue to change. However, we cannot claim this change will bring about the end of borders or nation states as claimed above. In a globalizing world the popularity of the metaphor of borders is that borders, especially national borders are more permeable. This is of course true for certain contexts. However, as M. Mann also states, grandiose technological changes that seem to make everything in our lives faster, more mobile and closer also lie at the center of the ability of the state to rule its citizens. No matter what people think of globalization –real or imaginary- today there are more borders, more states and more types of government for managing borders (Wilson, 2014: 23).

As these debates continued since 1980s and throughout the 1990s, Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê/Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) has been in a longwinded guerrilla war against the Turkish state, in the Turkish part of Kurdistan whose envisioned territory is divided between four nation states, to ultimately create an “independent, united and democratic” Kurdistan. Anyone who reads the documents of the party might be less surprised by the attitude that Öcalan put forward in 1999, since it is visible that in reality alternatives to the idea of independence have been sought from 1993 on (Güneş, 2013; Jongerden & Akkaya, 2012). Yet Abdullah Öcalan’s first statements after being captured and delivered to Turkey on February 15, 1999 with an international operation led to political uncertainty and confusion within the Kurdish society and PKK that is bound to continue for a while (Tekin, 2009; Kapmaz, 2011; Özcan, 2014; Gürer, 2015). The leader of an organization that has been engaged in a longwinded guerrilla war with the Turkish state systematically since 1984 suddenly adopted a “compromising” stance right after being captured, which was considered “surrender” by certain circles. In his initial statements, Öcalan was indicating that the solution to the Kurdish problem must be based on equal rights and democratic methods, that they did not have any separationist demands and that he would do everything he can to establish peace.

Having declared that they became a party after leaving Ankara, became an army by reaching the Middle East and will become a state by reaching Europe, Öcalan (2000: 82) rapidly gave up his idea of becoming a state as soon as he was captured. Some people think Öcalan was aiming for an ideological and programmatic transformation within PKK since the middle of the 1990s (Güneş, 2013; Özcan, 2014). Nevertheless, the 1999-2004 period can be considered as a period of “depression and resurrection” (Akkaya & Jongerden, 2012: 8). Indeed, PKK organized numerous congresses between 1999 and 2005. These were also the throes of the structural and ideological transformations of PKK. The ideological and structural transformation of PKK was shaped by Öcalan’s defense to various courts. Akkaya and Jongerden divide these statements into two groups as statements to Turkish courts and statements to the European Court of Human Rights and Greek courts (Akkaya & Jongerden, 2011: 150). These texts would be adopted as PKK’s new ideology.

The Literature and Definition of Borders

The literature on borders emerged around the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, in the scope of a classical geopolitical perspective and in a time when nation states were rising and expanding. Borders in this period were usually defined as the linear limits of the territorial dominance of a state and was considered to be the indicator of the state’s scope and power (Bennafla, 2014: 12). As well as rapid changes in the literature in following periods, the most important distinguishing points of this literature was viewing the geographical borders themselves as the subject of research and looking at the centers from the borders/people living on borders (Akyüz ve, 2014: 3). In this context research focuses on people, in other words relationships between people and spaces (and thinking about space in terms of relationships can be said to reinforce the concept of tangibility), the politics and control of countries and circulation of people (Green, 2014: 34). The increasing interest on border studies in the decade following 1980 is related to critical economic changes –the triumph of the free market and neoliberalism, regional economic integration processes in North America and the European Union- as well as major geopolitical events (dissolution of the Iron Curtain, the end of Apartheid, emergence of new states, the rally of local identities and ethnic nationalism). Unprecedented technological advancements in transport and communications in addition to these changes paved the way for rethinking and defining the notion of borders together with its functions, materiality and positions at a different scale. Another important historical event that determined the approach to borders was the 9/11 attacks. After 9/11 a security paradigm has become considerably dominant in border studies (Heyman, 2014: 13). When approached with the dominant paradigm the concept of borders naturally has varying definitions. For instance, according to G. Simmel borders is sociological rather than spatial phenomenon or a sociological phenomenon with spatial implications. This definition by Simmel was formulated in the framework of economic and cultural contact with border zones (Bennafla, 2014: 13). Scott, on the other hand, defines borders as “extrastate spaces” (Özcan, 2014: 205) and this approach reminds us the autonomy of borders (also remembering that every extrastate space is not necessarily an autonomous area). In fact, a considerable portion of the definitions describe borders as “semi-autonomous spaces.” For instance, we can see borders with a semi-autonomous character in Heck’s ideas about borders (2014: 84-85).

Akyüz’s approach also presents borders in a semi-autonomous framework. For her, borders are also “liminal.” These areas are eerie, uncertain and insecure, but at the same time revive a liberating potential for being outside the nation state borders. As liminal areas, this eeriness for the actors of the border also provides the autonomy of not following the central authority’s rules (Akyüz, 2014: 87). Surely, this autonomy is related to a large extent to the condition of state authority in border areas. Borders, by definition, contain the functions of the internal state dynamics (Altug and White, 2009: 91-97) and it can be said that the semi-autonomy concept results from the blurriness of the authority of state dynamics at these borders. Naturally, changing economic, political and social events cause changes in borders too. They are simultaneously shaped by the conditions and shaping these conditions. They are unique and dynamic areas. Therefore, the meaning and importance of borders have been through dramatic changes throughout history (Anderson and O’Dowd, 1999: 594). However, some studies point out that these areas may not be autonomous under certain conditions or in certain periods:

“I emphasized that borders are seen, at the local level, as a resource that creates opportunity for commerce and profit, rather than a limitation or burden. Also, what I show in my examination on the inner structure of the border zones in Kamerun, which were the frontiers of the center, the village markets, was that border zones are not autonomous or new alternative places. These border zones are evanescent spatial constructs because the roads built for access to the border develop in time and market areas are short-lived.” (Bennafla, 2014: 26-27).

Looking at other attempts for definition, borders are, as ancient Greeks realized, not places where other things are located but instead something that starts with its own presentations(1). Borders should not be merely adorned with metaphors and understood around concepts such as penetration-impenetration, surpassing-unsurpassing and protection. The border itself is also a negotiation and we can say that this political negotiation can change with political discussions, and it is these changes that lead to the eeriness of the border (Özgen, 2013: 134). Moreover, according to Cassarino, and as anthropologists often emphasize, borders are not only an issue of restricting territories determined by interstate relationships. They are actually issues of territorial identity and representation with a socio-historical history of their own (Cassarino, 2006: 5).

E. Balibar states that defining borders means defining, limiting and documenting the identity of, or negotiating over, a territory (Balibar, 2002: 76, Akt, Görentaş, 2016: 36). Other definitions focus on the relationship between the state apparatus and space: for instance, borders are an expression and measure of state power for F. Ratzel (Giddens, 2008: 72) while it is an indication of power and sovereignty according to Newman and Passi (cited in Newman and Passi, Görentaş, 2016: 27). With a broader definition, H. Bozarslan states that borders, at least in nation states, define a dominant political culture, an education, a safe behavioral code and reproduction by the center (Bozarslan, 1997: 294). Finally, M. Foucher sees borders as spatial structures that have a function like geopolitical discontinuity and marking, and examines how this Notion is handled in terms of law. According to Foucher, law scholars such as Lapradelle approach borders as special zones with a special legal status: “Borders are spatial circles where rights are practiced by special institutions.” With this legal approach, borders mean an asymmetrical limitation between two states that have equal authority (Foucher, 1991: 45-46).

A Short History of Borders and Theoretical Discussions

It must be admitted that ancient cities, after the fall of the Roman Empire territories and empires have changed the heritage and forms of their own histories. Accordingly, the meaning of borders, like all other social phenomena, also took various forms throughout history. We can follow the genealogy of borders back to the city states of Ancient Greece where territory meant political borders. The concept of cité is embedded in the close relationship between territory and ville. Etymologically, cité means the land that surrounds the city. This land protects and perpetuates it. Although there were borders Athens, Phoenicia or Mesopotamia, and later in Italian city states, those borders did not provide all of the political functions that are associated with borders today. The description of the residents of a cité first of all indicates their responsibilities such as to obey, to feel possession and to be a historical family. This then is an important socio-political formation that definitely influences the approach towards borders. In this context, the territory of the cité is in the service of the center. In the cité there is a social use for the territory. Moreover, the city is protected by walls and this alone is the fundamental border. This border includes political, religious and wealthy structures. The periphery on the other hand, is in a common concentric location usually occupied by poor folk who cultivate the land. This socio-territorial structure of the cité has been inherited by almost every region in the world. In essence, cité is the fragmentation of regions. This narrow territorial construct is the expression of only a strict particularism and micro-collectivism (Badie, 2013; 17-18).

After the fall of Roman Empire period however, borders were endemic and unstable. Territories of medieval rulers were not uninterrupted but dispersed and divided. In other words, the sovereignty areas were not adjoined. The princedoms did not necessarily border each other. This led to an ambiguous and unstable notion of borders and the perception of territory changed with the shift to the period of empires. The territorial government approach of empires is called decentralization. As opposed to the nation state adventure, empires refused the idea of borders that are attached to the center. The world of empires was based on neither a national community nor a territorial nationality. Liberated from all national identities, an empire survived solely to restructure itself and stroke origin related projects. We also see empire policies in history that can be considered indirect rejection of the modern concept of borders. For instance, Russians adopted policies that reinforced multiculturalism after the conquest of Kazan in the 16th century. The Roman Empire accepted territorial divisions in reference to the dominium mundi but neither them nor the Chinese or any other empires were familiar with physical barriers. Meanwhile, lines (limes) were unsecure, unstable and militarized in the world of empires. This way of using territory (differing from the understanding of territoriality by the nation state) made borders flexible and ambiguous (Giddens, 2008: 20-28-127).

Empires did not have borders but frontiers and governors. These were called akritas, derived from akra, marquis, or marchese, derived from marche, or markraf, derived from mark. The concept of frontier, as a transition from what is ours to what is not, does not only belong to tribes, states and empires. It also applies to a piece of land between two houses. In every step you take towards your neighbor’s house your domain becomes reduced and your neighbor’s domain increases. Shared activities emerge in the middle of this area. Animals are grazed, third persons pass etc. When you come towards your house you are in your frontier. The concept of limits, which is already the expression of borders, comes from Latin word limes. But limes means frontier. For instance, the limes of the Roman Empire were the forces that put soldiers on the frontiers (Yerasimos, 1997: 1-2).

According to H. Ahrweiler, objective borders always turn into a “mystical national” object. However, this does not apply to the Byzantine border policies. In the Byzantine Empire the borders that are perceived as the end of the empire had ideological and cultural foundations. Borders were understood more in the context of the Caucuses and the Euphrates River. In the Ottoman Empire, where borders were in the form of governorships/clans, the old term “uj” (step, progress - marche) was replaced by “Serhadd” (frontier -frontalière) in the 14th and 15th centuries. In 1453, after certain changes in the administrative structure, the Ottoman Empire was more sympathetic towards centralization. Ottoman borders varied according to the structure of the political adjacency with Persian Muslims and Orthodox or Catholic Christians (Foucher, 1991: 69-70). M. C. Jones points out four elements in the transformation of border clans into borders (nation state borders: “establishment,” “limitation,” “marking” and “government.” The first one refers to the political agreement between states about the division of the territory among themselves. Limitation is about defining certain border places. Marking is about how borders will be actually marked in the physical environment. Traditional states sometimes establish outposts on border lines to demand payment or documentation from passers. However, these were usually located between provinces rather than states. The advancement of direct and indirect surveillance (customs officers, border guards, central passport information coordination) is a distinguishing feature of the nation state (Giddens, 2008: 163-164).

With the replacement of empires with nation states, we see a different perception of borders and territory –that has some disconnections and continuities with the old (as mentioned by Badie in the periphery example). Here, territories have drawn borders and are expressed as the indicator of national sovereignty. The history of this meaning of the concept is surely no longer than 300 years old. The basis of its current meaning and use of the term is based on the determination and definition of the territories to be governed and dominated by the nations. Territoriality in essence is a “spatial strategy” for controlling an area/region and governing and influencing the resources and people in that region. This is why territoriality necessarily produces borders and attracts attention on the borders (Anderson and O’Dowd, 1999: 598). Considering nation states it is found that three principles constitute the foundation of this structure. These are “the people”, “the state” and “the territory.” The relationship between the nation and the territory is described by geographer James Anderson: “Nations and states are defined territorial formations. The idea of nationalism in nation states, however, implies a geographical overlap between two formations: ‘The land of the nation and the land of the state must be the same and each nation must have its own state and be culturally homogenous’” (cited in Yıldırım, 2013; 8). As Aron indicates, the nation state model was born in Europe. However, Europe’s colonial experiences can be said to turn it into an extensive territorial state model in Africa, Asia and America. Colonial borders usually offer an arbitrary, artificial and unfair representation drawn by external actors. These arguments are sometimes applicable internally. In cases of disagreement this can be observed from Guatemala to China. At the end of the 1980s, the borders of empires in the third world disappeared and states became “independent.” However, the colonial experience left its mark in terms of borders, as in many aspects, to the newly found states. Not all but many colonial borders in South America, Mexico, Maghreb, Asia and the East turned into nation state borders (Foucher, 1991: 45).

Kurdistan and its State Borders

 Ruled under various regimes for many centuries, Kurdistan has been directly affected by all the socio-political changes that we mentioned in the short history above. The first liminal spaces or borders in Kurdistan emerged with the Qasr-i Shirin Treaty (May 17, 1639) signed between the Ottoman and the Safevid states. We can call this “the first liminalization process” of Kurdistan. At the time, this agreement drew the Ottoman-Iranian border that stretched from Northeastern Kurdistan to the Persian Gulf and determined the current Turkey-Iran and Iran-Iraq borders to a large extent. After this treaty Kurdistan was divided into two and continued to be a de facto peripheral border zone between two big empires, which did not control their border zones with complete domination like modern regional states and was content with making their presence felt in urban centers (Schmidinger, 2016: 47-48).

Kurdistan’s “second liminalization process” came about following World War I. Although the Ottoman state was defeated in this war, the resistance forces led by Mustafa Kemal, who continued fighting, founded Turkey with the Treaty of Lausanne. The Ankara government and the French state signed the Treaty of Ankara on October 20, 1921, which left Western Kurdistan (Rojava) in modern Syria while another agreement with the same name in 1926 with the British gave Southern Kurdistan (Başûr) to the Iraqi state (Yaresimos, 2015: 184). During World War I, the Treaty of Sevres (1920) did not recognize the territorial integrity of Kurdistan. Nevertheless, a small Kurdish state was stipulated around Diyarbakır. The treaty distributed other cities with a large Kurdish population between the Armenians, the French and the British. And this treaty was one of the most important reasons that the Kurdish people joined the Kemalist movement.

The Kurds, who started to live under rule of four separate states After World War I, did not turn into separate, disconnected atomized societies as a result of this division. They managed to keep a common ground for various socio-economic, cultural and political reasons because there is always a tension between the constant, durable and strict necessities of borders and the variable, temporary, flexible necessities of people. While the basic construct of the nation state is ethnic, racial, linguistic and cultural homogeneity, borders keep refuting this structure (Cited in Horsman and Marshall, 1995, H. Donnan ve T.M. Wilson, 2002: 11). When Kurdistan was being divided into four, one of the fundamental elements that provided “national unity” was the permeability of those borders. Today however, this unity is thought to be rather due to globalization, information and the development of technology networks. The Turkish-Syrian border is a good example. This border was drawn on March 9, 1921 in London by the Franco-Turkish Treaty; it was amended for the first time in October 1921 with the Treaty of Ankara and was amended once more in 1926 with the Treaty of Jouvenal. This border did not follow any ethnic divisions. The treaty was giving the heavily Kurdish occupied Kurd Mountains, Ayn Al Arab and Jazira to the Syrian Government. Although these areas are separate they are adjacent to Western Kurdistan. The same border also left two Arab majority areas (Harran and Antep) on the Turkish side. Since Kurdistan and Syria had been under foreign rule for centuries the border between Arab and Kurdish regions was not clear. These two ethnic groups have been living together since pre-Islamic times and this is clearly visible in Jazira (Vanly, 2005: 113).

Border violations with various motivations put the Turkish-Syrian border high on the agenda for Turkey. Despite treaties and correspondence between French and Turkish authorities for “order, stability and security”, this border was unrecognized by certain local dynamics and related laws were violated. The state authority has to be established on both sides of a border for it to be an effective barrier. However, economic, logistic etc. circumstances of the time on the one hand, the differences between the understandings of the French and the Turks of borders (despite mandatory rhetoric the French viewed the border as imperial “limes” rather than national borders of Syria while Turks considered the border in the framework of the nation state mentality) and their political rivalry on the other hand, kept the Syrian-Turkish border a blurry zone (Altug and White, 2009: 93). Borders were like binding instruments to a certain degree, but in the beginning of the 1930s the state was still far from dominating its territory (Mizrahi, 2003: 182).

Like for all other Middle Eastern societies, state borders meant the risk of dividing up tribes, sects, villages and even families and the dissolution of existing group ties for Kurds. Thus, these new political borders were in direct contrast with the virtual borders of the group that each unit experiences as the definition of its closest vicinity. However, ethnic, or in this case “macro-ethnic” groups (when Kurds are in question) can withstand the state by maintaining cross-border solidarity networks such as tribe and cult confederations. At the cultural level, the desire of the state to create a homogenous population in Kurdistan was conflicting with the desire of the Kurds to maintain their relationships with similar linguistic groups beyond the state borders. Similarly, certain sections of the macro-ethnic groups considered smuggling natural and even legitimate, because the continuity of commercial exchange between the members of their own society prevented them from “betraying” their pre-state social groups. Disputes over borders were both the continuous source of the armed conflict in the region and the factor that determined the cross-border nature of the Kurdish problem (Tejel, 2015: 151).

Although political borders offered political, economic and cultural advantages to Kurds, Kurdish nationalists had to reject them, as Bozarslan states, to be able to grow and even to survive. Kurdish uprisings stemming from this rejection allowed separated Kurdish tribes to establish cross-border connections and each of them to turn into regional resurrections. The border problem is among the factors that complicate the Kurdish problem in the Middle East. It is not limited to internal dynamics but also enriched by border crossings. State borders involve division of tribes, sects, cities and even ordinary families. These divided groups are the opposition in real borders and they experience a limitation of their actual environment by every entity. The border triggers fraternity and the reaction of tribal entities (Bozarslan, 1997: 251-293). The Kurds that were divided between the states of Turkey and Syria were to a large extent positioned along with the political developments of the group above the border. Conflict dynamics were becoming more severe especially due to politically motivated border-crossings. Essentially, Kurdish uprisings on border zones lasted longer. For instance, the main advantage of the Ağrı Uprising over the Dersim Uprising was the state border between Iran and Turkey. The Kurdish movement led by PKK in today’s Northern Kurdistan is also experiencing the advantages and disadvantages of the border dynamics. Similarly, the borders that divide Kurdistan can be considered diversifying the practices of experiencing borders for local dynamics. These border zones with their economic, logistic, cultural and political elements, as known, emerged during the construction of the modern nation state and border crossings occur frequently because the locality sees them as artificial and external interventions that divide the history, society and culture of the geography where they emerge (Aras, 2014; 30). Exactly at this point, it can be easily said that both the Iraq-Turkey border and the Syria-Turkey border, and partially the Iran-Turkey border, have been determinants of the mobilization and continuity, even if not the emergence of PKK. Although PKK adopts as new political approach that rejects nation state borders today, it constantly and problematically deals with the “conflictual dynamic of the border” (Bozarslan, 1997: 302) and the advantages and disadvantages of this dynamic. In other words, as much as the border itself is a dynamic of conflict, it also is an element of presence or sustainability (for PKK).

Öcalan’s Statements of Defense and PKK’s Ideological Transformation

 The program that was published in 1978 and was considered PKK’s founding statement which indicates that the purpose of the party is to create a “united, independent and democratic” Kurdistan (Öcalan, 1993: 127). As mentioned in the introduction, although PKK’s united Kurdistan ideas opened its doors for new pursuits since the second half of the 1990s, the idea itself stayed on the party’s program until 2005. In 2005, PKK defined the nation state as an obstacle against freedom and the party thus declared that it gave up the idea of forming becoming a state, programmatically as well (Jongerden, 2015). The uncertainly, depression and eventual ideological transformation within the party that started in 1999 with Öcalan’s capture, as a whole, was shaped by Öcalan’s defense to various courts.

We can see influences from many thinkers in Öcalan’s statements of defense. These include Leslie Lipson, Antony Giddens, many thinkers from the Frankfurt School, Michel Foucault, Fernand Braudel, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Antonio Negri, Michael Hardt, Murray Bookchin and many more (Gürer, 2015). However, the main source of Öcalan’s theoretical approach was Murray Bookchin. Bookchin mentions two different historical understandings of democracy: the Hellenic model and the Roman model. The Roman model is the centralized and statist model while the Hellenic model is based on active citizenship. Bookchin gives 18th century American and French constitutionalists as an example for the hegemonic Roman model and the Paris Commune, Soviet councils in the October Revolution and Spanish civil war for the Hellenic model (Jongerden, 2015; 2017). Bookchin defines the confederal system, which is the alternative he proposes to the nation state, as a network that is based on active citizenship that is woven by village, town, city and region councils, where the citizens have the right to recall elected officials (Jongerden, 2017: 255; Akkaya & Jongerden, 2012: 6). PKK’s new political paradigm was just like Bookchin’s proposal, envisaged outside the nation state. Öcalan defines the “democratic nation,” which is a part of this new paradigm, as a vision beyond flags or borders (Öcalan, 2009: 39). Öcalan states that PKK and the Kurds do not need a nation state for self-determination and instead they need a deep, grassroots democracy, and that they are not designing new political borders (Öcalan, 2009: 31). However, Öcalan adds that this does not mean that nation states and borders will disappear immediately and according to him a confederal structure can be established regardless of the borders throughout all pieces of Kurdistan (2009: 31). Öcalan’s new approach brought an approach that socially reconstructs the Kurds. This restructuring process reflected on the institutional and organizational structures of PKK too. For instance, it led to new organizations such as KADEK, Kongre-GEL (People’s Congress), KKK (Koma Komelen Kurdistan), KCK (Koma Civaken Kurdistan). At the 7th congress of PKK on January 2000, ARKG and ERNK were replaced by HPG and YDK and these changes also meant a new ideological and organizational structure for PKK (Akkaya & Jongerden, 2011: 147-148). On April 4, 2002 PKK declared a unilateral ceasefire and held its 8th congress where PKK was replaced by KADEK (Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress). Marxist Leninist PKK terminated and transformed itself into a congress, followed by the announcement of Kongre-Gel during the November 2003 Congress (2011: 148-149). The 2003 congress brought along cleavages within PKK and one group of PKK cadre left the party and found Partiya Welatpereze Kurdistan (PWD), which was not very effective. Between 2003 and 2005 more than 1500 fighters are estimated to have left PKK (Akkaya & Jongerden, 2011: 150).

In 2005 PKK defined the nation state as an obstacle against liberation. But how would it be possible to live beyond the nation state and its borders? Öcalan’s answer to this question was the model that he formulated in three variations, which is accepted as PKK’s new ideology. He formulated this model as Democratic Republic, Democratic Autonomy and Democratic Confederalism. Briefly, democratic republic was the separation of the state from nationalism and separation of the people from ethnic identity. This formula was implying a new constitution that will define citizenship on the basis of civil rights. While democratic republic was emphasizing the redefinition of citizenship on the basis of civil rights, democratic autonomy meant redefining the political relationship between citizens and the state on the basis of autonomous governments. Finally, democratic confederalism pointed to grassroots organization as an alternative to the nation state model. For Öcalan these are complementary concepts (Jongerden, 2015; Gürer, 2015: 201-205). PKK’s resurrection congress gathered in 2005 and according to the congress the party was to be shaped above seven pillars. These were the Party Leadership (Öcalan), the Congress, the Co-heads, the Party Assembly, the Executive Committee, the Disciplinary Committee and the Institutions (Akkaya & Jongerden, 2011: 151). PKK completed its ideological, programmatic and institutional transformation in 2005 using Öcalan’s new ideological perspective.

Alter-Modernity, Alternative Borders of Borderlessness?

Öcalan’s statements of defense, especially to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) constituted the foundation of PKK’s new ideological program. Öcalan’s statements to local courts in Turkey are not ideological or institutional and they even led to arguments/tension within PKK (Akkaya & Jongerden, 2012: 5). However, Öcalan added a theoretical dimension to democratic confederalism in his statements to the ECHR, which would become PKK’s new ideology. Öcalan’s first statements to the ECHR (2001; 2004) are shaped around civilization analysis and criticism of the nation state. In his second set of statements (published in five volumes titled Democratic Civilization Manifesto) Öcalan offers an analysis of Kurdish and Middle Eastern history, a critique of the nation state form and eventually a new model that he is proposing (Gürer, 2015: 158). The subject of this paper is not an analysis of the thousands of pages of statements written by Öcalan. However, the perception of borders in democratic confederalism, which is our subject, can only be understood by following the analyses in those statements(2).

The path that took Öcalan to challenge nation state borders to blur existing borders, if not eliminating them was actually related to his analysis and critique of civilization and modernity. Although capitalist modernity clearly emerged in the 16th century, it can be tracked back to the Sumerian Priest-Kingdom (Öcalan, 2009a: 108). According to Öcalan, the nation state in capitalist modernity used to be “God” and its economic and political power groups used to be the “priest-king” in the Sumerian Kingdom. In both systems the producers are the lowest class. This means that the nation state is actually loaded with a type of “divinity” within a historical process and the society was defenseless against this divinity. The main creator and sustainer of the nation state, then, is nationalism, which Öcalan calls the religion of the state. As a result, the nation state in capitalist modernity means turning a nation into a state and actually means that nation being oppressed. Here, Öcalan distinguishes national state and nation state and states that a national state can be multinational (2009b: 230).

Öcalan proposes democratic modernity as an alternative to capitalist modernity. Democratic modernity is a challenge against or the anti-thesis of a Euro-centric and unified, universal modernity narrative (2009b: 210). Öcalan proposes democratic confederalism as an alternative to the nation state. In this proposal, i.e. democratic confederalism, organization of the nation state over a certain piece of land is criticized. In other words, he emphasizes that a confederate organization that is not limited by land, outside the nation state which is imposed as the only and mandatory area the society, is possible. Öcalan evaluates democratic confederalism under six titles: pluralism, moral and political society, democratic politics, self-defense, anti-hegemony and global confederate union (Öcalan, 2009b). Democratic modernity, according to Öcalan, constitutes an alternative model outside the nation state for the solution of the Kurdish problem, because Öcalan associates the Kurdish problem with capitalist modernity and proposes “democratic nation” and “democratic autonomy” models as the solution (2012: 203). The concept of democratic nation is not anomalous from democratic confederalism but inherent and complimentary to it. Öcalan claims that in the formation of the democratic nation ethnic unity is not sought and that the democratic nation is based on a kind of “voluntary unity.” Democratic autonomy, then, is complimentary to the democratic nation. In his words, “the body of the democratic nation is democratic autonomy.” In the democratic autonomy approach it is emphasized that the Kurds can practice being a nation without establishing a national state over the divided territory of Kurdistan. Additionally, the democratic autonomy model is not only proposed for the Kurdish society, but also for Turkey. It is foreseen that Turkey is reorganized into a democratic autonomy and the Kurds play a leading role in the construction of this model.

In this new model proposed by Öcalan, PKK and the movements revolving around it are ideologically and institutionally reorganized within the borders of four different states. It is apparent that a significant success has not been achieved in Turkish Kurdistan. However, Öcalan’s ideas are de facto applied in Syrian Kurdistan since 2011, under the circumstances of the Syrian civil war.


We have mentioned the liminalization process of Kurdistan’s borders and it can be easily inferred that the Kurdish geography is facing a new liminalization process today. Exactly at this point, the discussion on whether the borders nation states have inherited from the colonial tradition and the states they constructed as homogenous societies are dissolving is the subject of another study. However, it is clear that borders are being reshaped, not only in Kurdistan or the Middle East but all around the world. Although necessitating a discussion on practicality exactly in this aspect, Öcalan’s proposal of blurring borders, at least the way we understand it, can be considered a challenge on its own. On the other hand, although not complete in every way, we can claim that this proposal is de facto alive in terms of Kurdistan’s borders, especially since the second liminalization process. We can establish a similar analogy to the relationship between the success of the Kurdish uprisings and borders during the early republican period by avoiding political discussions. The fact that PKK is/can be present as a political movement in the four-piece Kurdistan today is not only related to the kinship (asabiyet) among Kurds but also that political borders are considerably permeable, although not completely ineffective.

What we would like to discuss here is not, of course, whether multitude can be constructed as a revolutionary subject against global empire, with inspiration from Hard and Negri, or whether grassroots democracy can be normatively applied in reference to Bookchin. Indeed, it is clear that this model, the democratic confederalist model, and its nation-border relationship constitute a radical challenge against Euro-centric modernity and the nation state form. In other words, the fact that the main motivation of the anti-colonial and national independence movements since the 1950s was “emancipation”, although their content was revolutionary, and the fact that this emancipation was pointing at the nation state and new borders (and PKK was part of this tradition as well), meant the reproduction of the Euro-centric notions of nation state and borders. Although Öcalan reads power as a multipartite structure, he thinks that its most explicit form is the nation state and therefore, freedom is only possible by dispersing the monopolistic power of the nation state and making the homogenous perception of the nation heterogeneous, rather than creating a new nation state and new nation state borders. The actor/s that will accomplish this is still within the society, even if in the form of nuclei. Therefore, this shift in terms of approach is sought not externally but right inside the society. This approach also contains an alternative that is directed both at positivism and progressive interpretations of Marxism, because the condition of progress or liberation is not a struggle between opposite poles but the existence of the opposite poles in an agonistic relationship (Laclau & Mouffe, 1992). To summarize, the nation state form that constantly needs conflict, homogeneity and territorial borders is replaced with territorial borders that are not as sharp in democratic confederalism, both in terms of borders and the homogeneity and conflict dynamics with which it produces and reproduces itself, by a heterogeneous definition of nation and an agonistic relationship. In Öcalan’s words, constructing nation building on a cultural and democratic method without condemning it to borders (2009: 233), or as Mustafa Karasu proposes, without taking the state as a fundamental structure and drawing new borders, democratic confederalism as a model that goes beyond borders and makes them meaningless is a challenge against the Euro-centric definition of nation, the nation building process and the nation state (Karasu, 2009).

Although PKK have been through an ideological transformation we shortly mentioned above, according to Cizre, the idea of an independent Kurdistan in a classical territorial form was a fundamental motivation within PKK until the beginning of the 2000s (Cizre, 2001; 24). Emerged with the argument of “making new borders” the PKK movement later realized that this was not possible and right at that point channeled itself towards experiences of surpassing state borders in different ways. Actually, when we carefully examine the political transformation of the Kurdish movement, as Jongerden and Akkaya states (2012), it does not seem to be possible to say that PKK gave up on the idea of an independent Kurdistan. We can say that, for PKK, the road to independence shifted from state building to society building. When it was founded, PKK aimed to establish a united, socialist state, a people’s republic. Today however it aims to realize the project of democratic confederalism and create the “Democratic Society of Kurdistan.” The ultimate aim of independence is not sought in a classic state structure but in establishing and developing a sort of self-governing system (which reminds us of council communism). Instead of a classic state building process that establishes a government structure that encompasses everything from the top, Kurdistan is tried to be built from the bottom via democratic confederalism (Jongerden & Akkaya, 2012: 139). And according to Öcalan this interconnected three fold political program aims for “Democratic Union of Kurdistan” (Öcalan, 2001: 143).

It is possible to say that the proposed political model accepts the existing borders but tries to blur and even eliminate them. And ironically, the marks of a perception of borders that is similar to the perception of the Ottoman period for the territory of Kurdistan can be found in PKK’s new political program. However, this approach is not visible in the current southern Kurdistan movement. Although the borders demanded for the vision of Kurdistan by the Kurdish political movements in separate states are similar on the map, the policies adopted to accomplish this vary significantly. Recently a referendum for an independent Southern Kurdistan that can be defined by state borders resulted in 92% of votes for independence. As much as we can observe, the demand for independence was strongly supported by Northern Kurdistan. Naturally, the attitude of the grassroots towards an independent or democratic confederal Kurdistan is the subject of another study.


The postmodern rhetoric that disseminated the discourse of “a borderless world” in the 1990s lost its vigor in the 2000s. Examples such as the division of Sudan into two new states, the European Union protecting its outer borders more strictly against Middle Eastern and African refugees that flee from war and famine, England leaving the EU (Brexit) and terror attacks in European metropolises by organizations such as ISIS necessitate a reevaluation of the notion of borders. Surely it should be noted that nation states are currently in multiple crises. Research on potential new alternative territorial models is equally important for social scientists. However, as M. Horsman and A. Marshall stated, a new territorial model that can replace the nation state does not exist, at least not yet: “… As the longest lived political, social and economic organization form, nation states are weakened by the powers that are both distanced from the center and getting closer to it and there are not any candidates to replace it in the horizon” (cited in Bozarslan, 2016: 199). Although Öcalan (2004) points at an EU style transformation, regional unions (like the EU) are undoubtedly not an alternative to the nation state and on the contrary they double the phenomenon with their national and regional borders (Kaşlı, 2014: 45).

The rise of the classic form of nation state within the EU, independence referendums in Catalonia and Southern Kurdistan, the referendum on the agenda in Scotland, and separatist demands of regions like Lombardy and Veneto in Italy, all imply creating new borders that can be mostly associated with right wing populism (Aktoprak, 2017). It is clear that new nation state borders will be drawn in these examples while the forms of the new nation states are left out of the discussion. On the other hand, the collapse or destruction of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East has not led to an alternative form yet. Changing the existing nation state borders does not mean shrinking them and contrarily, in the cases of Iraq and Syria, we see once again that war and violence ends up drawing new borders while surpassing existing ones through sectarian divisions and constant efforts of dozens of different violent groups to draw new borders.

While we witness a fragmentation that is similar to and even more intense than the colonial liminalization at the beginning of the 20th century in the cases of Syria and Iraq, we are also faced with the case of Syrian Kurdistan, which challenges the political, ethnic and sectarian fragmentation trend in the Middle East and essentially applies Öcalan’s confederalism idea. In Syrian Kurdistan, Patiya Yekîtiya Demokrat/ Democratic Union Party (PYD), Salih Müslim, stated at the Brussels Flemish Parliament in 2014 that drawing borders and dying for these borders is a disease of the 19th and 20th century Europe (Jongerden, 2017). This approach, which overlaps the confederalism idea and practically being implemented in Syrian Kurdistan, forces Kurds to return to their historical borders and defend these for reasons including the continuity of the war and the multiplicity and constant variability of the actors. To summarize, while the neoliberal crisis and the accompanying rise of right wing populism once again impose the nation state and new borders, confederalism as an alternative and radical challenge to this and the idea of surpassing or blurring its borders is still an “incident” and we will see in the medium and long run whether this will turn into a “phenomenon.”