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October 23, 2012, Tuesday

‘Search mode’ or negotiations?

Twenty years have passed. Late on Sept. 20, 1992, Musa Anter, known to the Kurds as “Ape Musa” (Uncle Musa), was assassinated by a death squad in Diyarbakır. He was a deeply respected, elderly intellectual who had had his share of torment, humiliation and denial as a Kurd.

When I heard yesterday that his two children, Dicle and Rahşan, were joining in the mass hunger strike of Kurdish prisoners, I wasn’t sure if I was surprised or not. Then, I was only left with a bitter sense of history. As much as their father’s life was spent -- “wasted” is a more proper word, perhaps -- in a struggle for dignity, so was theirs. They had to live with an open wound as Anter’s murder case was never cleared and his assassins never faced justice. But, like Kemal Burkay, a politician from the same generation as their father, they have never been known for having any sympathy for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), nor for any armed struggle or any killings in the name of politics; the fact that they joined in the hunger strikes “in solidarity” symbolically for 24 hours yesterday show us the escalation of the Kurdish issue.

Another symbolism was seen in Van. While Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was launching new houses for the families victimized by the earthquakes, the mayor of the city was already into the 10th day of his hunger strike in the city prison. There are now about 650 prisoners -- all linked to the PKK and Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) trials -- who have been on a hunger strike, many of them for more than 40 days. If they go on with it into the seventh week, the critical threshold of the “death fast” will be passed. They demand two things: the implementation of the right of education and legal defense in Kurdish and the end to the “isolation” of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. In comparison, it can be said that the prisoners are copying the methods of Irish Republican Army (IRA) members in British cells.

We have now seen, since the bloody summer, the unleashing of all the possible means of opposition manifested by Kurds, in or out of prisons, who are loyal to the PKK and its jailed leader. It has included peaceful acts such as giving testimonies in Kurdish but also, on the other extreme, loathsome acts of kidnapping teachers and burning schools in the region. All in all, this tumultuous picture is the one that poses the greatest challenge to Ankara. President Abdullah Gül, fully aware of the magnitude of this, is now moving towards some form of facilitation and Erdoğan is realizing that this type of opposition, different from the ones that came from traditional politics or dark segments of the “inner state,” requires more steadfastness, flexibility and sophistication. The Kurdish issue is the toughest of nuts to crack and, it is understood, old methods and tools have suffered badly from abrasion.

What is next? There are several dimensions as Turkey enters Eid al-Adha. Ankara is again filled with rumors -- and serious analysis -- that a multi-track format of talks is already the name of the game. A new “Oslo process” on the horizon? No one is sure. But something will be in the air, if we are to understand that acts such as hunger strikes become serious.

On one level, President Gül is already encouraging Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) deputies to join efforts for a cease-fire and the return of PKK units to Iraq. Many BDP deputies show signs of talking, keeping their eyes on Erdoğan, whom they see as key for a lengthy process of settlement. A group of “wise men” continue to prepare a report under the leadership of Şah İsmail Bedirhanoğlu, the chairman of the Southeastern Anatolia Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association (GÜNSİAD). This group, independent of party lines, is in contact with the BDP and figures close to the PKK, as well as some key figures in Ankara.

The question lingers: Will the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government once again enter into a negotiation mood? Not yet. I understand that the necessary “channels” are being tested. Erdoğan continues to attack the BDP severely though he does not show any objection to what Gül and the wise men are doing. His path may look contradictory, but from a vantage point he seems to be venting Turks’ frustration while remaining in a steady “searching mood.”

A couple of positive steps are expected: First, Öcalan will reportedly meet with both his family members and lawyers during Eid. Second, the government will reportedly pass an amendment after Eid which will make legal defense in Kurdish possible. These two are bound to have impacts. Interestingly, the more the issue occupies Ankara, the more steps are being taken.

But a challenge is there in the long run. The heart of the matter is whether or not to move Öcalan to house arrest; all roads seem to lead to it. Also, what sort of role Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), will play in dealing with Kandil -- and, why not, Öcalan -- will be crucial for the conditions on negotiations to mature. It is a long and winding road.

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