BACKGROUND: An end may possibly be in sight to the insurgency of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the longest Kurdish rebellion in the history of the Turkish republic. After a quarter century of fighting, the death toll stands at around forty thousand. Yet although the Kurdish guerillas have sustained most of those losses, the Turkish state has nonetheless, step by step, been forced to abandon every one of its long held positions on the Kurdish issue. Since the insurgency started, Turkey has gone from denying the existence of the Kurds to recognizing “the Kurdish reality”, and the television of the state that had once banned the Kurdish language has been broadcasting daily in Kurdish since 2009. And today the Turkish state, represented by its National Intelligence Agency (MİT), is conducting a dialogue with Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, aimed at securing – to start with – a permanent truce. The government of the Justice and Development party (AKP) has denied that it is involved in any negotiations with the PKK, but has affirmed that the relevant institutions of the state are indeed engaged in talks with Öcalan.
The PKK guerillas launched a new wave of attacks on Turkish army outposts early this summer. The attacks threatened to poison the political atmosphere in the country and to undermine the position of the AKP government in the upcoming referendum on constitutional reform on September 12. The governing party was potentially vulnerable to the charges of the ultranationalist opposition, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) that the “Kurdish opening” that had been launched by the government last year had served to encourage the PKK to step up the violence, supposedly in order to obtain further concessions from the Turkish state which had, according to the ultra-nationalists’ interpretation, displayed weakness. Then, a couple of weeks later, the PKK announced a “temporary” truce, which was initially scheduled to last until September 20, but which was subsequently prolonged until the end of October. The decision of the PKK ensured that the referendum was not disrupted by violence. Indeed, the outcome of the September 12 vote spelled a significant defeat for the Turkish ultranationalist opposition, as a large section of the electoral base of the MHP unexpectedly shifted over to supporting the AKP government. The attempt of the MHP to turn the referendum into a vote of censure of the Kurdish opening of the government met with complete failure.
There were several indications that the PKK’s decision to halt the attacks had been arrived at after talks had been held by Turkish state representatives with Abdullah Öcalan. Former high level representatives of the Turkish Intelligence Agency have indeed acknowledged that a dialogue has intermittently been ongoing with Öcalan during the decade that he has been held prisoner on the island of İmralı in the Sea of Marmara. However, Aysel Tuğluk (pictured), Öcalan’s lawyer and a leading representative of the Kurdish movement, who was recently allowed to visit her client for the first time in five years, declined to describe the current talks as negotiations, choosing to underline that they are still at the stage of dialogue.
Although Öcalan is far from being officially acknowledged as an interlocutor in what may possibly turn out to be a prelude to upcoming, comprehensive peace talks, there can nonetheless be no doubt that the position of the Turkish government has shifted. Yalçın Akdoğan (pictured), the chief advisor of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has notably lavished public praise on the leader of the PKK. The result of the referendum has widened the AKP government’s room for maneuver, since Turkish ultra-nationalism has been revealed to be less of a threat to a government that wishes to pursue a reformist agenda than what had been generally assumed. Concurrently, the events of the past year have served to impress that the Kurdish strategy of the government was flawed. Until recently, the AKP government had sought to circumvent the PKK and the Kurdish representatives associated indirectly with the PKK. The Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), although represented in parliament, was not only held at arm’s length, but several hundred BDP politicians were arrested in December 2009. Liberal critics of the AKP government have accused the ruling party of attempting to pursue a “Kurdish opening” without Kurdish participation; the “opening” did indeed to all intents and purposes represent an attempt to bypass and to eventually marginalize the radical Kurdish movement.
The Turkish government had – mistakenly, as it turns out – initially assumed that a combination of liberal measures and a clampdown on the radical Kurds would open the field for moderate Kurdish representatives who would not tiptoe to the PKK. Yet as the PKK has succeeded in manifesting its staying power, the government has been forced to recalibrate its strategy toward the Kurdish movement; recognizing that the PKK as well as the BDP need to be taken into proper account, a public dialogue with the representatives of the Kurdish party has recently been initiated, paralleling the secretive dialogue that is simultaneously being conducted by the intelligence services with the imprisoned leader of the PKK.
IMPLICATIONS: The Kurdish opening, which had until recently been declared dead by most observers, is now being re-launched. While the first phase of the opening had been predicated on the assumption that the Kurdish movement could be circumvented, what is officially described as the second phase of the “democratic opening” wagers on the Kurdish movement moderating its positions. In an article in the daily Star last week, Prime Minister Erdoğan’s chief advisor Yalçın Akdoğan called upon the PKK and the BDP to display moderation. The Prime Minister’s chief advisor exhorted the BDP to assume greater responsibility, to be more circumspect in its rhetoric and to abstain from its usual demand that the PKK be accepted as an interlocutor. Addressing the PKK, Akdoğan requested that the guerilla organization prolongs its truce, that it withdraws its guerillas from Turkish territory, that it ceases to intimidate the Kurdish NGOs and Kurdish businessmen that defy the PKK in the Kurdish dominated Southeast of the country, and that it ensures that renegade elements within its ranks are checked.
On the diplomatic front, Turkey is simultaneously engaged in an effort to secure the disbandment of the PKK. Interior minister Beşir Atalay has paid visits to northern Iraq and Syria during the last weeks. Atalay is reported to have reiterated in his conversations with Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan regional administration of northern Iraq, the long-standing Turkish demand that the PKK’s camps in northern Iraq are closed and its guerillas disarmed. The consent and assistance of Barzani’s administration in any such endeavor is essential, yet Barzani is reported to have been less than forthcoming.
Aysel Tuğluk, Abdullah Öcalan’s lawyer, says that a closure of the Mahmur camp in northern Iraq and any disarmament of the PKK are “definitely out of question”. Her remarks also suggest that the recent reports in Turkish media according to which the PKK had already started to withdraw some of its forces from Turkish territory – in order to avoid getting into clashes with the Turkish security forces that might then be capitalized on by those who would seize on the occasion to derail the nascent peace process – had been precipitate. Referring to Öcalan, Tuğluk says that “he wants to keep them as a defensive force”. “And I don’t think that he looks favorably on bringing up these matters (about the withdrawal and disarmament of the PKK units) for a year.
CONCLUSIONS: Turkey has by now concluded that there is no military solution to the Kurdish problem. The military option is nonetheless not discarded in Turkish strategic reasoning. It has recently been reported that the authorities are concerned that the PKK has established a strong, controlling presence in the Southeastern province of Hakkari, and that an operation against the PKK in that province is thus being considered. Yet it has also come to be recognized that such operations invariably work against the aim of the government to distance the Kurdish population from the PKK.
The Kurdish opening that was launched last summer by the AKP government and which has recently been given a new lease on life, testifies to the determination to explore a new path that reconciles Kurdish aspirations and the security needs of the state. At this stage however, the Turkish government remains unprepared to commit itself to the kind of constitutional changes that the Kurdish movement requests. These include the right to Kurdish language curriculum, a removal of Turkishness as the norm that defines citizenship, and devolution of power to local and regional administrations. In the short term, Öcalan calls for a halt to “military and political operations”, the latter being a reference to the detentions of the BDP politicians. In the long term, he expects that preparations for drafting a new constitution are made, and not least that he is permitted to maintain contact with his organization and with the other parts of the Kurdish movement. However, Prime Minister Erdoğan is less than forthcoming; he has stated that any comprehensive overhaul of the constitution will have to wait until after the elections that are due in June 2011, and he has spoken out against the introduction of a Kurdish language curriculum.
Yet if the dialogue that has presently gotten under way between the Turkish state and the Kurdish movement can be sustained over a longer period of time, the prospects for a resolution of Turkey’s intractable conflict would look brighter than ever.
Halil M. Karaveli is Managing Editor of the Turkey Analyst and a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".