Turkey's Close Encounters of the Kurd Kind

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Kurds in France, protesting against the imprisonment of Kurdistan Workers Party leader Abdullah Ocalan in Turkey.Credit: Reuters

In southern Turkey’s Imrali Prison, Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party ‏(PKK‏), awaits news of how Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposes to resolve the Kurdish problem. For 14 years the prisoner has been confined to a cell that was built especially for him, trying to persuade Turkish authorities that he has an offer worthy of their consideration.

His replacement in the field, Murat Karayilan − who operates his troops in the mountains of northern Iraq − also awaits the results of negotiations the Turkish government has initiated with the Kurdish separatists. And in the city of Diyarbakir, the capital of Turkish Kurdistan, leaders of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party are preparing to send delegates to visit Ocalan’s cell, to hear what the prisoner has to say and to deliver their own proposals.

Failing a last-minute turnabout, the meeting between representatives of the Kurdish party and Ocalan will be held this week. In its aftermath, a long, exhausting process should begin in the city of Erbil ‏(the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan‏). Should this process succeed, it will usher in a conclusion to the most violent nationalist struggle Turkey has endured since it gained its independence 90 years ago.

Is there any cause for optimism? On the Kurdish side, spokesmen say that, in contrast to past initiatives, this time there is a feeling that the Turks are serious, and that the personal intervention of the head of Turkey’s intelligence service, Hakan Fidan, contributes significantly to the credibility of the process. The political circumstances which compel Erdogan to rely on the Kurdish party as he presents his initiative for a change in the constitution to the parliament and public help stir hopes. Stiff European pressure for an improvement in human rights in Turkey, centering on attitudes toward the Kurdish minority, also adds weight.

On the other hand, the clutter of obstacles impeding the path of reconciliation is impossible to underestimate: an ideological and political chasm separates the Kurds and the government. “There is no Kurdish problem,” Prime Minister Erdogan declared last month, “though I recognize that our brothers, the Kurds, have problems.”

Last week Erdogan spoke in more detail, declaiming that “those who claim that their race is superior to that of others follow the path of Satan. We are one people which dwells on the land of the Republic of Turkey. Our people is comprised of Turks, Kurds, Arabs, Circassians and Laz.” Laden within this formulation is the heart of the Kurdish problem, one which Erdogan is now trying to resolve − after 30 years of conflict and the deaths of some 40,000 persons in the long-standing fight between the Kurds and the Turkish government.

For the time being, the Kurds have “suspended” their demand for an independent state whose parts would be taken from Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. The dream of “Greater Kurdistan,” Kurdish leaders in Iraq admit, cannot be realized in the near future. In its stead, the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish entity in Turkey has become an alternative aspiration. The question is what such autonomy would mean: the Kurds are deliberately avoiding precision in their interpretation of the term. “Autonomy means a semi-independent Kurdish government in an autonomous Kurdish belt in which there is an independent legal framework that does not contravene the legal system of the state [of Turkey], and which has a Kurdish educational system and a recognized culture,” a Kurdish activist in Diyarbakir told Haaretz.

This interpretation stirs controversy in Ankara. “Cultural autonomy would beget national autonomy,” declared a Turkey foreign ministry official. “That will never happen.”

Erdogan’s speech made manifest the gaps between the sides. His phrase “We are all Turks” means that he would be willing, at most, to confer to the Kurds some additional cultural rights. As things stand today, the Kurds can watch some Kurdish-language broadcasts on state television; perhaps they will be allowed to establish their own television station, albeit a supervised station. The Education Ministry is likely to expand the number of Kurdish language lessons that are given in schools.

Should the sides reach an agreement, Turkey might even be willing to set up a process of consultation in the appointment of the Diyarbakir governor − today, this official is appointed directly by Ankara, without any input from the local population.

As to the question of whether Turkey will be willing to allow the Kurds to restore the Kurdish names of towns and village, Turkish spokesmen provide garbled answers. “The names of villages are familiar to everyone, and there is no dispute about them. That’s not the heart of the controversy,” says a Foreign Ministry official. In order to grasp the gist of this demand, one has to imagine how the government of Israel would respond were the Arab parties to demand that the original names of Jewish communities established on their lands be restored. New names are part of the history of new national movements, in Turkey as in Israel, and recalling names from the past therefore poses a national threat.

For his part, Erdogan wants one thing: for PKK operatives to lay down their weapons and leave Turkey. At this stage, he is willing to allow them to leave the country, without Turkey’s army taking measures against them as they depart. He wants the Kurdish organization, whose name is always alluded to in the media as a “terror organization,” to refrain from carrying out attacks on Turkish territory, and he is willing to pay a price to accomplish this end.

In actual fact, he has already started paying the price. A year ago, intelligence service head Fidan was on the brink of being prosecuted for having conducted secret talks with PKK delegates ‏(defined as belonging to a terror organization‏) in Oslo. In recent weeks, meetings with the PKK leadership have become part of a visible policy that is supported by a majority of Turkey’s public.

To a great extent, responses to such meetings can be compared to the Israeli public’s response to indirect talks conducted by Israel’s government with Hamas. “Most Turkish citizens want to bring an end to terror, and support talks with the PKK,” a poll published in Turkey last week concluded. Erdogan has made dialogue with the PKK legitimate. “Erdogan is a virtuoso when it comes to forcing topics onto the agenda. He knows how to bluff and enlist support for his agenda. We have not seen anyone form the agenda and knows how to force discussion of any particular topic the way Erdogan knows how to,” wrote one commentator in Star magazine.

Change in terror law

The recognition and understanding that there is no military solution in the conflict between Turkey and the Kurdish minority has pedigree. In 2009, Erdogan tried to move ahead with an initiative to solve the Kurdish issue; the effort stalled, however, because the Kurds judged that the initiative offered them too little in exchange for a cessation of violent struggle. The cease-fire that had been created by Erdogan’s initiative collapsed noisily after a short time.

Erdogan is now prepared not only to listen to Kurdish demands. He is willing to take the practical step of changing the law that defines terror activity in a way that could bring about the release of thousands of prisoners and political detainees. These include journalists who previously wrote about the Kurdish problem and demanded reform in Ankara’s policies toward the Kurdish minority.

The proposed change in the terror law stipulates that “those who visibly conferred legitimacy to violent activity, or to threats posed by terror organizations, or those who manifestly incited in favor of such violent action, will be punished by jail terms of between one and five years.” This formulation would replace the law’s current terms, which provide for punishment of those who merely “support terror,” and which traduce free speech rights.

This week, Turkey’s government is scheduled to bring this proposed amendment to parliament for approval, as part of confidence-building measures instituted ahead of a dialogue with the Kurdistan Workers Party. This step is also designed to placate highly attentive European Union officials, who are empowered to authorize the continuation of discussions about Turkey’s inclusion in the EU.

A huge number of complaints about human rights violations in Turkey have been filed in the EU’s human rights court ‏(16,789‏); these constitute 13 percent of the total complaints submitted to the court. The approval of Erdogan’s proposed terror law amendment, and the attendant easing of human rights restrictions in Turkey, are likely to improve Turkey’s status in this court, and in the EU in general.

For Erdogan, reconciliation with the Kurds could yield a number of dividends. His goal is to change the country’s constitution in a manner that would confer broadened powers to the presidency, the office he plans to vie for in 2014. Some people are categorizing such broadened powers, including the authority to disband parliament and the subordination of the legal system to the president, “sultan powers.”

To bring about such changes, Erdogan needs all the support he can muster in parliament, and so backing from the Kurdish party is crucial to his agenda. Public opinion polls indicate that most of the people oppose such expansion of presidential powers, yet Erdogan has trained the public to believe that what is good for him is good for it. In large measure, he is now dependent upon the man with the mustache who is confined to an Imrali prison cell. Should Ocalan persuade his fellow rebels to lay down their arms ‏(which would be no small feat‏), the road to the presidential palace in Ankara would be paved for Erdogan.

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