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Turkey’s recent Kurdish opening: opportunities and the challenges ahead

The opportunity for a peaceful settlement of Turkey's Kurdish question came as a surprise to many observers, announced as it was in the middle of a period of growing tension. But despite support by both parties, ambiguities that could undermine the whole process subsist.

Selin Bölme Müjge Küçükkeleş
23 April 2013
PKK supporters hold pictures of imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan during a celebration of the Kurdish New Year. Demotix/Pazhar Mohammad. All rights reserved.

PKK supporters hold pictures of imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan during a celebration of the Kurdish New Year. Demotix/Pazhar Mohammad. All rights reserved.

Throughout history making peace has always been more complicated than waging war. Writing the story of peace is more difficult as well, especially in the light of a civil war that has haunted the political history of a country for 30 years. Looking back at the period from August 2012 to today, one can easily spot how the peace process and the strong nationalist discourse of the politicians were always, and thoroughly, intertwined.

On 17 August 2012, members of the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), which has been fighting an armed struggle against the Turkish state since 1984, intercepted the delegation of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the main Kurdish representation in the Turkish parliament, at a road junction in the Hakkari province of Turkey and embraced them. The images showing BDP members hugging PKK militants (considered as terrorists by Ankara) drew harsh criticisms from the prime minister, who later called for judiciary action against BDP members, implying that his own Justice and Development Party (AKP) would act to lift their parliamentary immunity.

The political tension intensified further with the launch of a hunger strike by Kurdish inmates in September 2012, in protest at the isolation of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan and his limited access to his lawyers. Erdoğan’s response to the hunger strike was severe: when questioned about it, he stated that there were no hunger strikes in Turkish prisons and all strike protests are just part of a "show". Erdoğan also broached the subject of the death penalty to intimidate Öcalan’s supporters.

A person who watched television and read the newspapers from August to December 2012 would probably get the impression that relations between the government and the Kurdish movement had arrived at an impasse. However, behind this tense political atmosphere, a process for peace was also running, and to everybody's surprise, a peaceful settlement of the Kurdish question now seems closer than ever. Did this outcome come out of the blue? No - it is, in fact, possible to find the traces of this process in the statements of both the government and BDP officials over the same period.

Roots of peace

As the war in neighbouring Syria heightened tensions with Ankara, who accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of arming the PKK, Prime Minister Erdoğan aimed to defuse the situation by mentioning in September 2012 that more talks with the PKK were possible. The initial step towards engaging Öcalan in a peace process was taken in August 2012. The push for starting negotiations with Öcalan came with the collective hunger strikes of Kurdish militants held in Turkish jails. In an attempt to gain Öcalan’s intervention to end the hunger strike, Turkish intelligence officials initiated talks with the Kurdish leader. On 17 November, Kurdish inmates accepted Öcalan’s calls to end the hunger strike.

The cessation of the hunger strike provided the government with an opportunity to push forward the peace agenda. Turkish Intelligence Chief Hakan Fidan was personally involved in negotiations in December, and these exchanges paved the way for a BDP delegation visiting Öcalan.

The details of Öcalan’s peace plan were made public on Newruz day on 21 March, after having first circulated in December 2012 following the initial negotiations. Under his three-stage roadmap for a solution, rebels would initially agree to a formal ceasefire in March, and withdraw from Turkish soil in the second stage. The success of the withdrawal was contingent upon political reforms that would guarantee political, social and economic rights for the Kurdish population. The Öcalan plan contained no demand for Kurdish autonomy; it rather sought recognition of Kurdish identity in the Turkish constitution and the strengthening of local administration. After the success of the initial three stages the PKK would put down its weapons in the final stage.

The start of a new era?

On 21 March 2013, Turkey entered a new period when a letter by Öcalan was read to crowds gathered in Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish populated city in Southeastern Turkey. In this brief, yet historic letter, Öcalan called for a cease-fire and asked PKK fighters to withdraw from Turkish territory. The letter did not contain the technical details of the withdrawal; nonetheless Öcalan’s remarks of "opening the door that leads from armed struggle to a democratic struggle" hinted at the idea of an autonomous Kurdistan being abandoned.

The initiation of PKK withdrawals prompted the government to work on the psychological impact of the process. On 23 March, 'wise men' commissions were formed by the government. Made up of 63 representatives from civil society, academia, business, media and the arts, these commissions have begun to travel to the concerned regions to explain the peace process to the public. The composition of the commissions, however, has raised some criticisms. Some critics stressed that the commission was formed by the prime minister himself; some questioned whether these people could act outside the government framework; and others raised questions as to how, and until when, they would operate. Despite the ambiguities, most agree the commission is an interesting innovation in peace process 'dissemination'.

Meanwhile, the government has begun to take political steps to strengthen the peace process and build up mutual confidence. For example, a new judicial reform package, although not exclusively about the Kurdish issue, will address some of the major problems that Kurdish inmates suffer from by revising the terrorism laws.

Challenges ahead

By virtue of demonstrating that there is a process in action, all these developments are important, and promising. However, first and foremost the ambiguities that surround the timeline and content of the peace process are a source of worry for observers. Within the current political context neither the government nor the Kurdish movement appears to predicate the process upon a certain timeline. It is a common presumption that the resolution of the complex Kurdish issue as a whole will take a long time; but there is no rough schedule on how long each stage of the Öcalan plan should approximately be. Furthermore, it is also unclear how the three stage formula should be carried out and what each step should exactly consist of.

Ambiguities are not one sided - they are also valid for the Kurdish movement. Except for some well-known demands, Kurdish actors have yet to come up with a specific list of demands. It is not to argue that they do not know what they want. It is rather they have not conveyed a specific list of demands to the government. Even if such a list was kept secret for the moment, there is still extensive confusion in Turkish society regarding what Kurds really want. This confusion, in turn, creates fear of division in the public mindset. Unless they are clarified soon, the ambiguities surrounding the peace process will only create more problems as it goes forward.

Aside from ambiguities regarding the scheduling and content of the process, another problem that could trouble the peace efforts is the prevailing approach towards solving the Kurdish issue itself. It is unrealistic to expect a solution to this problem without democratization. The political rhetoric used by politicians to justify the current peace process should move away from highlighting an end to armed conflict; instead it should prioritize democratization. There is no doubt that resolution of the Kurdish problem will enhance Turkey’s democratic credentials. In the same manner, democratization reforms in Turkey will benefit Turkish society as a whole - including its Kurdish population. That being said, democratization in itself is an essential but not sufficient element for the resolution of the problem. A peaceful resolution to the armed conflict will not make Turkey’s democracy a consolidated one, nor will Turkey’s democratization be a full remedy for the Kurdish issue. The solution lies in an approach that encompasses democratization, but goes beyond it.

The third problem concerns the possible setbacks that could be caused by those who oppose the process. It is true that recent events have solidified Öcalan’s position as a representative of the Kurdish movement. However this doesn't mean he will be able to control all the actors within the movement. Further acts of sabotage, provocation and attacks are a real possibility. They may reverse the peace process by causing a huge public backslash against the settlement. The BDP should assume greater responsibility for coordinating the different facets of the Kurdish movement to prevent any accidents.

The same risk applies to the state as well. Despite the fact that the peace process is mainly a political process, coordination between different state institutions, primarily the judiciary, is of utmost importance. This is especially the case when it comes to the implementation of new regulations and laws by judges and prosecutors who could invoke the gaps in the new laws to block substantial reform. The need for more comprehensive legal guarantees for both state and non-state actors involved in the peace process is urgent.

The rhetoric of peace             

The possible setbacks and problems that might be experienced along the road towards peace do not end with the aforementioned ones. The paramount precondition for the success of this process is good intentions by both sides - and support and patience from the Turkish public for the attainment of peace. Here, the rhetoric of political actors on both sides is critical. Both the government and the Kurdish actors should refrain from using negative discourse that could upset the process. Developing policy initiatives by themselves may not be sufficient; actors must also better explain the logic and goals of their policy in order to reduce the damage caused by historically dominant images and preconceived ideas within Turkish and Kurdish society. For example, one of the main reasons why a significant part of  the Turkish population has reacted unfavorably to the peace process to date is the extremely negatively rhetoric employed by politicians on the Kurdish issue for decades. Even as Turkey appears to be closer to peace than ever before in its history, a failure of the negotiations may backfire, generate unprecedented polarization and take the country to a low point much worse than before.

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