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January 10, 2013, Thursday

Hope springs

A new attempt by the Turkish authorities to negotiate an end to the Kurdish conflict has revived cautious optimism at a time when it was much needed. Hope springs eternal, but in this particular case it comes sprinkled with a healthy dose of caution. Rather than holding our breath and expecting swift results, we need to settle down for a long, arduous but vital process.

The government's return to a more pragmatic approach is welcome. With local and presidential elections scheduled for 2014, the prime minister has gone out on a limb by making public ongoing negotiations with Abdullah Öcalan who, in spite of having spent nearly 13 years behind bars, remains the undisputed leader of the Kurdish movement. Including Öcalan in the talks was a necessary pre-condition for any meaningful initiative to begin, but the negotiations will have to be multipronged and include the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) commanders in the field, as well as the Iraqi Kurdish leadership. A step by step approach, involving confidence-building measures and leading eventually to PKK militants laying down their weapons, is on the cards but there is still a long way to go.

The recent encounters between National Intelligence Agency (MİT) Undersecretary Hakan Fidan and Öcalan on İmralı are key steps forward, as was the visit to the prison island by Kurdish deputies. Much is at stake, not least because internal dynamics are not the only elements influencing the Kurdish question. With the Middle East in turmoil, political circumstances beyond Turkey's borders are in a state of flux. With Kurds of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) now major players on the other side of the Syrian border and tension high between Iraqi Kurds and the Baghdad government, power balances are shifting. Should this new peace initiative fail, another opportunity for the Turkish government and the country's Kurdish movement to seek a political settlement may not come again, at least in the near future.

The prime minister must have taken these factors into account when he gave the go-ahead for this new plan. The government's moves have so far received broad support across the political spectrum in Turkey, which is encouraging. Many people realize that the Kurdish question remains a fundamental threat to Turkey's long-term stability and the biggest obstacle to its democratization.

The speed at which the mood can change in Turkey can make your head spin. Within weeks, we've gone from full martial mode with harsh talk from politicians and nationalist headlines in the media to a more constructive atmosphere. The media will have a crucial role to play in helping sustain popular backing particularly if, or more likely when, the process hits rough patches. Politicians on both sides will have to rein in the fiery rhetoric and take the long view as they work to convince their constituencies and keep popular expectations in check. Excessive optimism that a swift outcome is within reach could lead to disappointment at this early stage.

Past experience suggests that positive developments are often followed by provocations designed to sabotage negotiations and sour the popular mood. The killing in Paris of three Kurdish militants, including PKK founder Sakine Cansiz, may well fit in this category. In 2009, the government launched its Kurdish initative, only to retreat hastily after the Habur incident, fearing popular reactions. It then made a U-turn and opted for a security approach, arresting thousands of people allegedly connected to the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), while the PKK for its part stepped up its armed operations, causing much anger and grief across Turkey.

The start of the " İmralı process" is renewing hope that 2013 will be more peaceful than the year we have just left behind and fewer people will die needlessly. But the process Turkey has just embarked on is not a 100-metre speed race. It is a political marathon, one that includes many hurdles and requires endurance and the willingness to push past the pain barrier when it is reached. The prize at the end of it, however, is a more stable and inclusive Turkey. It is well worth it.

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