Turkey: Jailed PKK Leader Gives Kurdish Peace Talks a Major Boost
He may be the sole inmate of an island prison in the Sea of Marmara, but Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), still knows how to command the headlines. Thursday, as Kurds celebrated the spring holiday of nevruz -- in years past an occasion for often violent protests -- Ocalan made what could turn out to be a game-changing call for the fighters of the PKK to cease fire and withdraw from Turkish soil.
From Reuters report on yesterday's events:
Hundreds of thousands of Kurds, gathered in the regional center of Diyarbakir, cheered and waved banners bearing Ocalan's mustachioed image when a letter from the rebel leader, held since 1999 on a prison island in the Marmara Sea, was read out by a pro-Kurdish politician.
"Let guns be silenced and politics dominate," he said to a sea of red-yellow-green Kurdish flags. "The stage has been reached where our armed forces should withdraw beyond the borders ... It's not the end. It's the start of a new era."
Ocalan's call for a ceasefire, which had been expected for some weeks now, gives a major boost to the ongoing "peace talks" between Turkey and the Kurds and represents a major turnaround in how both sides had been dealing with each other. Up until a few years ago, it was common for Turkish courts to charge Kurdish politicians with the crime of referring to the jailed PKK leader as "the honorable Mr Ocalan." On the other hand, until fairly recently, many Kurdish leaders in Turkey had written off the government led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), considering it and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as having been cut from the same Kurdish-identity denying nationalist cloth as previous Turkish governments.
Recent weeks and months, though, have seen both sides take a series of confidence-building measures -- yesterday's announcement by Ocalan being the most significant of them -- that have very quickly managed to change the dynamic of the Kurdish issue in Turkey. For Ankara, the necessity of creating a breakthrough on the Kurdish front became fairly clear over the last two years. With the Kurds in Syria gaining more autonomy as the Assad regime began to lose its grip on power and the Iraqi Kurds continuing on their road to a form of independence, Turkey now found itself in the dangerous situation where its own Kurdish citizens were asking why their grievances and political demands were not being met? At the same time, while the Arab uprising of the last two years gave Ankara an opportunity to assert itself as a regional leader and as a champion of democratization and human rights, its efforts at doing that were continually being undermined by the the Kurdish issue and a regional perception that Turkey doesn't practice at home what it preaches abroad. Clearly, a change was needed.
A peace deal could usher a new political settlement in Turkey and help realize the ambition of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to rule for another decade, according to analysts.
Mr. Erdogan, already elected for the maximum three successive parliamentary terms permitted by his party, bestrides Turkish politics like no one since the republic's founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The prime minister has made little secret that he is eyeing a run for Turkey's presidency when the country holds its first direct elections next year.
That post is currently a largely ceremonial role, but Mr. Erdogan's Justice and Development Party wants to overhaul the country's constitution to create an executive presidency that would allow Mr. Erdogan to stay in power.
Some analysts say Mr. Erdogan is betting support for his peace bid from Kurdish lawmakers, the Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, would enable him to overhaul Turkey's constitution and ride a wave of positive publicity to capture a beefed-up presidency at the polls.
As Yavuz Baydar points out in a very good column in Today's Zaman, there is room for both hope and skepticism right now and many difficult issues remain to be resolved. How will Turkey address the Kurds' demands for increased political and cultural autonomy? What will be the fate of the thousands of PKK fighters in northern Iraq should the organization decide to demilitarize? Will the hardliners within the PKK follow Ocalan's orders to lay down their arms or will the organization split into dueling factions? How will both sides deal with the inevitable provocations that will come along the way in an effort to derail the peace efforts?
Regardless of these questions, it's clear that Ankara and the Kurds are going down a road that they had not really tried going down before. At this point, though, they are only at the start of what will likely be a long and difficult process, one whose ultimate outcome will, in many ways, be shaped and determined by the ambition of two men -- Erdogan and Ocalan.