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Where is Turkey in the Kurdish Peace Process?

galip dalayDespite the roiling protests of the past summer, the Kurdish peace process still remains the most important political initiative in recent decades for Turkey. Initiated in the closing days of 2012 by the dialogue between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) incarcerated leader, Abdullah Ocalan, and the chief of Turkey’s national intelligence service, Hakan Fidan, the process has been the most audacious political step towards settling the Kurdish issue in Turkey’s history. Of course, this is not the first attempt in trying to politically solve the Kurdish issue. In fact, there have been other attempts – both before and during the AK Party’s rule – in bringing this conflict to an end through peaceful means. Yet, this new approach represents a novelty in two respects:

1) This new process was started and is supported at the highest level on both sides. While it was Ocalan and Fidan who engaged in dialogue and negotiations, Prime Minister Erdogan threw his full and open support behind the process.

2) Unlike the previous attempts, this new initiative is taking place in front of the public eye.

These two novelties are regarded by many as a sign of sincerity and commitment on both sides in trying to bring this long-standing and bloody conflict to a terminal end.

This new approach has encouraged both sides to take bolder steps. The most dramatic moment came when Ocalan wrote a letter to be read out to over a million of his supporters gathered in Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish city in southeastern Turkey, on 21 March, a symbolic day because it is Newroz, which is celebrated to mark the beginning of spring in Mesopotamia and Central Asia. Two things constituted the central premise of Ocalan’s letter. First, the PKK seeks a solution to the Kurdish issue within Turkey’s borders and through further democratization – thus effectively renouncing any irredentist claims. Second, the era of armed struggle has come to an end. In the new era, the struggle for Kurdish rights will be carried forward through political means. To that end, Ocalan called upon the PKK members to withdraw from Turkey in order to demonstrate their commitment to the peace process and clear the way for further dialogue, negotiations and democratization steps.

The PKK leadership, in a press conference held on 25 April, declared their support for the new vision outlined in Ocalan’s letter and marked 8 May to be the beginning of the PKK’s withdrawal from Turkey. The withdrawal of the PKK members from Turkey represents the first of a three-phased process. In the second phase, the government is to undertake legislative and democratization steps, and the third phase will focus on the reintegration of the PKK members into society – many also call this last phase “normalization”. The parties, especially the PKK side, have also defined tentative time frames for each phase. While the first phase was supposed to be completed by 1 September, the second phase, the legal and democratization steps, was supposed to be announced by 1 September and put into practice by 15 October.

On 5 September, Cemil Bayik of the PKK announced that the PKK would discontinue its withdrawal from Turkey due to the fact that the Turkish government had not yet undertaken its obligations within the framework of the second phase. He said that this demonstrates a lack of determination and commitment on the government’s side to the peace process. Such procrastination, he said, shows the government is trying to buy time before the next year’s elections – local and presidential – without undertaking the necessary steps to complete the peace process successfully.

After this announcement, some critics were quick to spell the demise of the peace process, or at least its failure. However, such a hasty judgment is flawed and does not capture the nature of this move accurately. A closer examination of the peace process and of the PKK leaders’ discourse reveals that the peace process has already produced significant gains, and the recent announcement represents more of a tactical rather than a strategic move.

It is important to highlight how, in 2013, there has so far not been a single death on either side, thanks to the peace process. Such an achievement is a significant one, given that this bloody conflict has cost over 40,000 deaths according to official statistics. Furthermore, almost regular visits paid by the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) MPs both to Ocalan and to the PKK leadership in the Qandil Mountains have accelerated the process of the politicization of the Kurdish issue at the expense of securitization. Thus far, BDP MPs have visited Ocalan ten times in his prison cell on the Imrali Island. After each visit, they have either partially or completely shared Ocalan’s message with the public – and the same applies to visits paid to the PKK leadership in the Qandil Mountains. This in return induces a vigorous public debate about the PKK-Kurdish issue and gradually de-criminalizes (de-securitizes) them.

Conceiving the Kurdish issue in political terms, rather than in security-oriented terms, will make it relatively easier for the government to deliver on thorny issues such as education in the mother tongue, some level of de-centralization, and other cultural and political rights that are an integral part of the solution to this issue. Thus, far from being a failure, the peace process has already produced significant gains, and in this respect, it can be regarded as a success.

Moreover, while Bayik announced the discontinuation of the withdrawal, all the Kurdish actors – including Bayik himself as well as other BDP, PKK and KCK (Kurdistan Communities Union) representatives -‎ were also quick to explain that this decision was not to be interpreted as a termination of the cease-fire or of the peace process tout court. The KCK stated that freezing the withdrawal was a response to the government’s unwillingness to take the necessary steps vis-à-vis democratization to solve Kurdish issue. However despite this, they also expressed their steadfast support to the process and for upholding the cease-fire. Similar lines have been almost unanimously repeated by all the Kurdish politicians and representatives. This demonstrates that the decision to discontinue the withdrawal was a tactical, rather than a strategic one. The main goal here is to exert pressure on the government to be more forthcoming in the peace process.

Of course, this is not to say that the PKK’s decision is worthless nor does it suggest that there is no cause for concern: the peace process can’t be taken for granted. This decision needs to be heeded by the government, even though it should not be treated as a cause for alarm. In this respect, PM Erdogan’s announcement that he is going to reveal a comprehensive democratization package on 30 September is a step in the right direction. This package might not meet all the demands of Kurdish politics, but it is highly likely that it will revitalize the process; therefore, there is a real cause to be optimistic that the peace process will once again get on the right track.

President Gul once remarked that the Kurdish issue is the number one issue Turkey has been facing. This was an apt description of the matter. What he did not say, but what is common knowledge to all observers of Turkey, is that at no time in the Republic’s history has Turkey had such a real prospect of settling the issue peacefully. The peace process is the most concrete and audacious step to date in bringing this issue, or at least its armed manifestation, to a complete end. In this regard, no topical issue or political calculation can justify the derailment of the process by either the government or the PKK-Kurdish side.

Middle East Monitor

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