Wednesday, 27 March 2013

What the Columnists Say

Published in Roundup of Columnists

Imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan’s call for a cease-fire and for the withdrawal of the PKK’s armed militants from Turkey has been more or less universally greeted as a historic step that heralds the advent of peace. Some commentators in the mainstream Turkish press  nonetheless point out that the Turkish government will have to take steps that enhance the freedom of expression and organization in return, releasing Kurdish prisoners, and they raise the question how that is going to be accomplished “unseen”, without provoking a Turkish nationalist backlash. The observation is also made that Turkish-Kurdish polarization has in fact grown, with especially the Turks becoming more hostile toward the Kurds. And as prominent columnist Etyen Mahçupyan, writing in the daily Zaman, observed, the real historical challenge ahead for Turks and Kurds is going to be to learn to live together and lay the foundations of a common future.


Nuray Mert in Birgün writes that a very important step toward peace with the Kurds, and toward the emancipation of the Kurds has been taken. This will of course be a long road with many obstacles along it, but a very critical threshold has nonetheless been crossed. Above all, thanks to the fact that all eyes were fixated on Diyarbakır as a result of Öcalan’s message, the whole of Turkey was for the first time offered  the opportunity to witness close-up the reality of the Kurdish issue. From this point on, it will not be easy to engage in denial. The television broadcasts brought home a reality to the whole of Turkey:  everyone was able to see that what was used to be called a terrorism problem is a societal phenomenon, and that Öcalan, who until recently was being referred to as “the head terrorist” is the hero of the Kurds. It will not be possible to retreat from this threshold. Even though there will be those who find it hard to swallow, this scene is extremely important for the establishment of societal peace.  What is more, the fact that Öcalan declared that the armed struggle is over for the Kurds demonstrates that a serious agreement has been reached between the Kurdish movement and the government. The “well-being” of this agreement is something that everyone who lives in this country needs to care about and needs to assume responsibility for.

Ertuğrul Özkök in Hürriyet is circumspect as to the possible effects of Öcalan’s statement among the Turkish part of the population. The excitement was for sure great in Diyarbakır, but what about the rest of the country? Silence reigned in the rest of the country. Silence is something that is difficult to interpret; it could either be interpreted as a good or as an ominous sign. All of us pray is that it was a good sign. I wonder how this day will be recorded by historians come twenty years – will it go down in the annals as the first day of unity, of living together, or as the last day of the unitary state? Let’s not forget: 63 precent of the population is opposed to talks with Öcalan. And as many wants to retain the reference to “Turkishness” in the constitution. Prime Minister Erdoğan took this historic step well aware of this reality. That is a very bold step for a politician.

İhsan Dağı in Zaman writes that even though many questions regarding the details of the peace process still remain unanswered, the hopes have nevertheless been raised and the doubts have diminished. The scene in Diyarbakir (where Öcalan’s message was read out to the assembled masses) demonstrated that the Kurdish political movement wholeheartedly endorses the peace process. Meanwhile Öcalan’s leadership has been fully restored. He has step by step been strengthened as the interlocutor of the peace. Now, the turn has come to create a similar support (for the peace process) among the Turks. Öcalan proposes to the Turks that they join together under the “banner of Islam”; he speaks about unity and brotherhood. And he transmits a message of shared vision to the governing party by holding out the promise of a “New Turkey and a new Middle East”. Öcalan has been persuaded to choose peace. Those who have been instrumental in persuading him deserves to be congratulated. The peace which Öcalan has been persuaded to endorse is an “Ottoman peace”. It is a plurilingual, multiethnic “Ottoman peace” where room is made for multiple identities and which amounts to a refutation of the republican era of the nation state.

Kadri Gürsel in Milliyet writes that Öcalan in Diyarbakır stated not what is going to happen, but what could happen. In order to realize the things that Öcalan held out, that is making the cease-fire official and ensuring that the armed PKK groups leave Turkey, confidence building measures will now have to be taken. So what are some of these steps? Securing the freedom of the press, of expression and organization. In this context, the Kurdish activists, numbering in thousands, who have been jailed accused of terrorism must be released. Öcalan stated that “the new platform of the struggle is democratic politics”. How is that platform to be created without the freedom of expression and organization? How else is the transition from armed struggle to peaceful politics going to be made possible? And how is Prime Minister Erdoğan going to make sure that he can take the different confidence building measures “unseen” during the period until the probable referendum on the new constitution so that he does not appear to be offering concessions to terrorism in the eyes of the nationalist conservative electorate?

Etyen Mahçupyan in Zaman observes that two developments underpin the peace process: one is that the Turkish state has abandoned its attempt to impose assimilation on the Kurds, and the second one is that the PKK has decided to abandon violence as a method to counter the former practice of the state. Yet the settlement of the Kurdish issue will require more than silencing of the guns. The fact that the two sides abandon former practices saves us from further destruction, but does not necessarily save the future. We are at the threshold of a world where every problem to which a solution is brought will create new possibilities and produce new demands; in such a world keeping countries and societies together requires a precipitate adoption of a democratic mentality. Yet the underlying impulses behind the peace process do not spring from a democratic mentality. That does not minimize the significance and value of the step that has been taken. But neither can we escape the reality that neither the state nor the Kurdish politics have accomplished the change of mentality that is crucial for creating the Turkey of the future. Even though the emancipation from the archaic errors of the past secure peace today, it does not guarantee the peace of tomorrow. Because we have to admit that we don’t know how to “live together”. To refer to the Ottomans or to a supposed golden era of Anatolian coexistence is to fool ourselves. In the past we knew not to live together, but to live side by side, and when the Ottoman state order collapsed the communities found that they were estranged from each other. The distance between them remains a fact, and what’s more, it does so in a global atmosphere that encourages separation and identity politics. The silencing of the guns and the new constitution will constitute a moment of creation for us; we will be embarking on a path where the past is going to offer precious little guidance, that will carry us to a common future only if a change of mentality is realized. And that will be the real historical challenge.

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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