Turkey's peace process with Kurds continues despite regional problems
ISTANBUL—The decadeslong conflict between the Turkish government and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is closer to an end than it ever has been before thanks to the ongoing peace negotiations, despite setbacks on both sides.
The Kurds have been demanding separation from Turkey to create an independent Kurdistan, or, at a minimum, more political and cultural rights for Kurds within Turkey. The strife has continued for more than 30 years and left some 40,000 dead on both sides.
The Gezi Park protests in Istanbul (which spread across the nation in June) and the incident in the town of Lice, in the Turkish province of Diyarbakir, in which local residents were fired upon in late June resulting in one dead and nine wounded while protesting the construction of a military post affected the talks but the process survived them, politicians here say.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is continuing to negotiate with the PKK’s convicted leader Abdullah Ocalan for the first time publicly and both sides voice the will for peace, despite some reservations.
Sebahat Tuncel, Istanbul Deputy for the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), said optimistically, “I truly believe this process will be successful. I am not pessimistic; I am hopeful it is not just the Kurds anymore. There is a strong demand for peace within the Turkish public.”
“I believe that although the current administration is not so willing it sees there is no other option but peace,” she added. The Kurds’ advances in Syria and Turkey’s Kurds not willing to back down despite government oppression forced the AKP’s hand, she told The Media Line.
She doesn’t think the Gezi Park protests have set back the process because the basic demand of the park protesters is more democracy, equality and freedom, the same goal as in the AKP-PKK peace process.
“The essential needs for the end of the Kurdish issue are: democratization, changing the anti-terror law, changing the law on political parties and coming up with a new constitution for the 21st century—all demands in harmony with the Gezi resistance,” Tuncel said.
“The government may perceive the demand for more democratization as a negative thing but we believe the Gezi protests are a positive thing that helped the peace process,” she added.
The Lice incident, on the other hand, was a negative development. “People protesting the construction of a military post were shot upon with real bullets. That is unacceptable. The AKP has to find out who is responsible for this provocation,” Tuncel told The Media Line.
Lawyer Emin Ekmen, former Batman province deputy of the ruling administration and member of the “Wise People” committees (founded by the AKP to explain the peace process to the people while also reporting the people’s reactions to the government) believes the peace press is safe and sound with only minor damage from the Gezi Park and Lice incidents.
“I saw the Kurdish groups political front present their sensitivities and political stance clearly regarding the Lice incident, just like the Gezi protest, but both sides carefully avoided turning this into a crisis that would break up the peace process,” Ekmen told The Media Line.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan referred to Ocalan as a “terrorist leader” at some rallies he held in June, for the first time in months since the negotiations were publicized. He also said at the final “Wise People” meeting in Istanbul about a week ago that only 15 percent of the PKK’s armed forces retreated from Turkish territory. Erdogan added that the government was not planning a legal reform package to achieve peace at the moment. It was feared these developments would undermine the peace talks, but Ekmen disagreed.
He said that he didn’t think Erdogan’s comments threatened the talks. The other statements, however, are important, he added. Turkish intelligence and his local sources confirmed that the PKK’s retreat is not satisfactory and there are new people joining the PKK, he told The Media Line. The comments on the reform package may be misunderstood and would be carefully reviewed. He added that the prime minister may not want to openly announce his plans regarding such a delicate process, and that is understandable.
Tuncel disagreed with Ekmen on these points. The AKP “has to change its rhetoric if it wants to change with the Kurdish people,” adding that insulting Ocalan is not the way to do it.
“Continuing [with this rhetoric] would keep the question of ‘Is the AKP sincere’ alive in the minds of the people, especially the Kurdish people,” she said. The PKK had taken solid steps, like releasing the prisoners it was holding hostage, declaring a unilateral ceasefire and a start to its retreat from Turkey, Tuncel said, adding the Kurds await similar steps from the government, such as releasing the political prisoners in return.
Ekmen said a successful end to the peace process is not only important only to Turkey, but for the Middle East as a whole as well. “It is important to advance the existing relations with Iraqi Kurds and to not experience a crisis regarding the future scenarios about Syria,” he said.
When asked what reaction could be expected from the West, Ekmen said it could not be evaluated as a whole. Some countries, he said, “probably do not want Turkey to solve this problem and become a stronger country.” The success of the peace process, however, would also strengthen the position of Turkey’s Western allies, he said.
“A solution is very important for the Middle East also, because the Kurds live within the boundaries of four countries: Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. Turkey solving the Kurdish problem means a lot for the democratization of the Middle East,” Tuncel told The Media Line.
A continuing conflict does not benefit anybody in the international arena, she said, adding that the Western world should reconsider its recognition of the PKK as a terrorist organization. The PKK is recognized as such not only by Turkey but also by the European Union and the United States. “I believe the recognition of the PKK as a terrorist organization internationally is affecting the peace process negatively,” she said.
Frederike Geerdin, a Dutch journalist residing in Diyarbakir in southern Turkey to work on a book on the Kurdish issue, said, “There is nothing happening on the political front in the parliament and maybe that’s a little bit logical because there are elections coming up and a lot has already changed in the last 10-15 years concerning the Kurdish question. But in the meantime, I think, the government should build trust. That is essential for a successful peace process.”
The perception in the Kurdish streets in the southeast does not include much trust. The building of new military posts, recruiting village guards (local people armed by the government as the official militia) and violently intervening in peaceful protests in urban areas do not help, she said.
“The people already don’t trust the state. You do not lose votes for the AKP if you do not build more posts, if you do not recruit new guards, if you do not smash up demonstrations,” Geerdin said.
The mood on the street, however, is not pessimistic, she said. “They trust their leader, Ocalan. That is one thing I often hear them say: ‘We trust ourselves and we will keep on going until this thing is resolved.’”