BACKGROUND: There have been intermittent, and mostly indirect, contacts between the Turkish state and the PKK almost since the organization first launched its insurgency in August 1984. Starting in September 2008, representatives of the PKK and the Turkish state began holding face-to-face negotiations in what has become known as the “Oslo Process”, after the city in which the talks were held. Starting in August 2009, the Turkish delegation was led by Hakan Fidan, Erdoğan’s security advisor who was appointed to head Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) in May 2010.
When it resumed its insurgency in June 2004 after a five-year ceasefire, the PKK was aware that it was unlikely to defeat the Turkish military on the battlefield. Instead, it used violence as a form of psychological attrition in order to try to force the Turkish state to the negotiating table. During the Oslo Process, the PKK frequently scaled back its attacks, sometimes even announcing temporary ceasefires. The Oslo negotiations were supplemented by talks between Öcalan and MİT representatives on the prison island İmralı. But PKK representatives complain that it was only they and Öcalan who were bringing suggestions for a solution to the negotiating table and that the Turkish delegation never put forward any concrete proposals. In frustration, in May 2010, the PKK stepped up its insurgency. Erdoğan responded by sending another delegation to Oslo and the PKK announced another ceasefire, which it later extended until the general election of June 12, 2011. The AKP won the election with a landslide, receiving 49.8 percent of the popular vote. Apparently buoyed by his success, in the weeks after the election, Erdoğan publicly ruled out any concessions to Kurdish nationalist demands and vowed to eradicate the PKK by military force. Although there were occasional contacts with Öcalan on İmralı, there were no more meetings in Oslo.
Starting in spring 2012, the PKK once again stepped up its campaign of violence. In September 2012, in an attempt to maintain the pressure on the AKP during the winter months, when the winter snows traditionally force the PKK to suspend its insurgency, a handful of Kurdish nationalist prisoners in Turkish jails went on hunger strike, demanding greater cultural and political rights and autonomy for the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey. The hunger strike spread rapidly. By November 2012, when Öcalan intervened to call for an end to the fast, over 700 Kurdish nationalists were refusing solid food.
The combination of the demonstration of Öcalan’s continuing influence over the Kurdish nationalist movement and concerns about a likely escalation in violence in spring 2013 appear to have prompted Erdoğan to start a new round of negotiations – this time with Öcalan alone – in what has become known as the “İmralı Process”. However, so far, the talks have followed the same pattern as the Oslo Process. The discussions have all focused on proposals put forward by Öcalan. His interlocutors from the Turkish government have neither committed themselves to implementing Öcalan’s suggestions for a resolution of the Kurdish issue nor produced any detailed proposals of their own.
IMPLICATIONS: From one perspective, the decision to engage solely with Öcalan and deny him any direct contact with the PKK is an astute move. Experience has taught the PKK leadership in northern Iraq to be skeptical of Erdoğan. But the fourteen years he has spent in prison have done little to diminish Öcalan’s self-belief. The proposals he has been putting forward in his meetings with his interlocutors foresee not just the resolution of the Kurdish issue in Turkey but a radical redrawing of the entire political landscape in the Middle East – and are unrealistic to the point of delusion. But Öcalan is still confident that they will be implemented; and appears to be reveling in the attention that the İmralı Process is attracting. To many Kurds, his years of isolation on İmralı have also given Öcalan an iconic, almost mystical, status as a living martyr and symbol of Kurdish nationalism. The PKK itself has extensively exploited this image of Öcalan for its own propaganda purposes. Consequently, the PKK had little option but to comply when, on March 21, 2013, Öcalan called on the organization to withdraw from Turkey and announce a ceasefire while he negotiated with the AKP.
However, the aspects of the İmralı Process that are difficult for the PKK to oppose – such as the open acknowledgment of negotiations with Öcalan and the calculated imprecision regarding their content – serve only to increase the fears of Turkish nationalists. In a country already constantly rippling with conspiracy theories, the lack of any indication of an AKP blueprint for a solution to the Kurdish issue is taken as evidence that an agreement has already been reached and that Erdoğan is merely biding his time before announcing full Kurdish cultural and political rights and granting the southeast autonomy. AKP officials have gone on national television to insist that the government is not engaged in a bargaining process with Öcalan and the PKK and that it has not committed itself to any concessions. This is true. But few Turkish nationalists believe it. Even those who are prepared to accept that the officials are telling the truth insist that it can only be a matter of time before concessions are made, arguing – correctly – that the PKK will not abandon its 29 year-old insurgency without securing something in return; and the longer the AKP refrains from explaining what concessions it might be prepared to make, the greater Turkish nationalists believe the concessions will be.
Since March 2013, there has been a heightening not only of rhetoric – such as from politicians from the Turkish ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP) – but also of violence. In recent years, there had already been a marked increase in ethnic tensions, such as clashes between Turkish and Kurdish youths in cities in western Turkey; although fear of incurring the AKP’s wrath has meant that few are reported by the Turkish media. Such incidents are now occurring more frequently, as is fighting between Kurdish and Turkish nationalist students on university campuses.
On March 31, 2013, the AKP announced a list of 63 hand-picked public figures, so-called “Wise People”, who had been divided into groups to tour the country to explain the “peace process” to local communities. Given that the AKP has yet to formulate a blueprint for a resolution of the Kurdish issue, in practice these explanations have been restricted to vague platitudes. Nevertheless, several of the groups have been attacked, particularly in the Black Sea region, which has traditionally been a Turkish nationalist stronghold. There is also evidence to suggest that some of the attacks have been coordinated by a network of Turkish nationalist NGOs. It is currently unclear whether Turkish nationalist violence will continue to increase or whether it will pose a serious threat to public order. But, as long as the AKP persists with its policy of willful uncertainty, tensions are likely to remain high – and, while they do, there is always a danger of relatively small-scale clashes spiraling out of control.
CONCLUSIONS: It is an open secret that Erdoğan plans to stand in the presidential elections in July 2014 and ultimately wants to replace the country’s current parliamentary system with a presidential one. His presidential ambitions now inform all of the AKP government’s policies. The İmralı Process is no different.
Going into the 2014 presidential election with the PKK insurgency at the same level as in 2012 would lose Erdoğan votes: from Kurdish nationalists because he had failed to address their demands and from Turkish nationalists because the continuing violence would be a reminder of his failure to eradicate the PKK. Similarly, resolving the Kurdish issue on the PKK’s terms would risk a net loss of votes. He would gain some votes from Kurds and the small number of Turkish liberals but lose the support of the large number of AKP voters who have Turkish nationalist sympathies and would be prepared to tolerate some minor concessions to Kurdish demands but not major ones, such as autonomy.
Privately, sources close to Erdoğan report that he hopes that Öcalan can be persuaded to accept only very minor concessions in return for an end to the PKK insurgency. But he does not expect Öcalan to agree. Instead, Erdoğan will try to prolong the İmralı Process as long as possible, at least through fall 2013. If the process subsequently collapses, he will be able to claim that his government has done more than any of its predecessors to try to resolve the Kurdish issue and accuse the PKK of being uninterested in a peaceful solution. Even if the PKK immediately returned to violence, it would not be able to begin re-infiltrating its militants into Turkey until spring 2014. Militarily, the PKK would be considerably weaker and it would take several months, probably the entire summer, to rebuild its support networks.
A period of non-violence could also weaken the PKK in other ways. Although they mostly share similar goals, Kurdish nationalists are not homogenous. The PKK has always used violence both against the Turkish state and as a means of asserting itself as the focus of Kurdish nationalism. A sustained ceasefire would allow non-violent Kurdish nationalists to come to the fore and, particularly if the suspension of violence failed to produce substantive gains, could threaten the PKK’s current preeminence within the Kurdish nationalist movement.
Gareth H. Jenkins is a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.