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January 20, 2013, Sunday

Kurdish initiatives compared: any difference?

Raised hopes and bitter disappointments have been the recurrent experiences of those who wish to see an end to the Kurdish question. Most recently, in 2009 the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) took a bold initiative to address the Kurdish question and many at the time expected a breakthrough in the conflict. Yet the initiative encountered fierce resistance from almost all quarters: the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and its political representatives, opposition parties, the deep state, the military and even the media.

The hope is that this time it may be different. Now Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the PKK, is the direct interlocutor of the government, and this is declared to be so to the public. Such a strategy certainly empowers Öcalan and constructs legitimacy for him. A powerful and legitimized Öcalan, in return, will be needed to implement the agreement once such an agreement is made. In comparison to these bold steps, the 2009 initiative seems more like a public relations and public education endeavor.

Another important difference is about the PKK and Öcalan's perception of their negotiating counterpart; that is to say, the question of whom to make a deal with. The PKK in 2009 was of the opinion that it was not the government but the state, i.e., the military, with whom they should negotiate. The idea was that one should make peace with whomever one is at war with. For the PKK, that was the military/the state. The ruling AK Party was regarded as something temporary, while the state/the military was seen as permanent. So the government initiative then was not taken very seriously.

Now the PKK and Öcalan see that the military is no longer the ultimate decision maker, the patron, to make a deal with, but it is the AK Party that has become the state. With the removal of the tutelage system through constitutional amendments in 2010 and the judicial scrutiny of military officers who are involved with deep state activities, the military's autonomy and authority in the system have been significantly lessened, thus empowering the government as the ultimate decision maker.

The result is that the PKK and Öcalan now know that if there is to be a peace agreement, it should be reached with the government.

On the other hand, the government seems to have realized that Öcalan is an asset and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) will be instrumental in carrying out the will of Öcalan to implement a future deal. Öcalan is an aging man and in an era of post-Öcalan Kurdish politics it will be impossible to find or create a leader like him to make peace with.

The engagement of the BDP in this process may also make an important difference. After all, the representative power of the BDP cannot be underestimated. If a solution is to integrate the PKK and its social base into Turkey's politics, it will be through the BDP. Its engagement in the process will empower the BDP among the Kurdish constituency and its armed wing.

Moreover, the ruling party now has a vision to rule the country through 2023, the centenary of the republic. If they are serious about this vision, then they cannot really afford not to resolve the Kurdish question and disarm the PKK, and thus remove the constant threat of destabilization through violence. The PKK has proved that it is capable of hurting the AK Party government and hampering its regional and global vision.

Moreover, there is an Iraqi Kurdistan dimension to this equilibrium. In 2009, when the first Kurdish initiative was initiated, the relationship with Arbil and Jalal Talabani in Baghdad was not as stable as it is now. Over the years, relations between the Kurds of Iraq and Turkey have improved significantly. For Iraqi Kurds, given the growing tension with the central Iraqi government, Turkey has emerged as the only regional ally and balancer vis-à-vis Baghdad.

For Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan is both a valuable market for its products and now is a likely provider of its energy needs. It has also become a strategic partner due to worsening relations with the central Iraqi government and the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Thus, mutual strategic and economic interests make it ever more likely for the Iraqi Kurds to act as facilitators in the new Kurdish initiative of Turkey.

These are the differences between the government's 2009 initiative and the current process. They may make a difference to the end result.

Previous articles of the columnist