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February 19, 2013, Tuesday

Hope and caution

A lot of hope has been manifest in Turkish public life due to the positive statements of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, concerning a solution to the “Kurdish problem.” After long salvos of denigrating the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), condemned for its terrorism, and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) that represents the section of Kurds who applaud the PKK for at least wrenching autonomy, if not independence from Turkey, Erdoğan is now handing these organizations a peace pipe. However, he is not engaging with them directly for two reasons. The BDP has repeatedly denied taking an independent stance and shied away from being an interlocutor between the PKK and the government. It has pointed to Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the PKK imprisoned on İmralı Island, close to İstanbul, as the sole voice of the Kurds that have risen up against the system.

The PKK is still waging a war and so far has not evinced any possibility of reconciliation without autonomy (self-rule) fashioned after the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. However, Öcalan is within reach and the personal envoy of the prime minister, Mr. Hakan Fidan, the head of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), is contacting him regularly with the goal of achieving a negotiated peace deal.

It must be the positive outcome of these negotiations that Erdoğan is conveying to the people with bold statements like: “We have overcome all kinds of nationalisms, Turkish and Kurdish alike” or “We would like ideas to speak for themselves, not arms” or “I am ready to drink poison if peace will come to our country.” These are the words of a gritty leader and Turkey needs leadership at this moment. Public opinion polls show that more people (49.5 percent vs. 41.6 percent) do not want the government to negotiate with the PKK to abandon its arms. This figure is even greater in İstanbul, where one out of five citizens live (MetroPOLL public opinion polls conducted in December 2012 and January 2013). Don't they want peace? Yes, definitely, but the peace they want is in the form of a decisive defeat of the “enemy” (the PKK). Thus, the hardest task for Erdoğan is to convince the people that this kind of defeat is impossible and that methods other than violence are needed. And that is what the prime minister is doing by holding meetings in different cities and using every opportunity that the media afford him.

There are some uncertainties, though. The majority of Turks and the state have so far accepted paying the price of “defending the country from being partitioned,” as the PKK violence was officially described. Conversely, the Kurdish public that supported the PKK, either politically or by giving up their children to members of the militia, believed that there was no other way to push the Turkish establishment to accept Kurdish identity (inclusion on equal terms) and to achieve autonomy. Hence, violence on both sides was an affordable evil. There has not been a drastic change in this perception on either side. The game changer is Prime Minister Erdoğan, who believes that Turkey cannot be a regional leader and a global actor with this debilitating load that could be eliminated if he can convince the leader of the PKK.

The second question is whether or not the PKK will yield to the wish of its leader (when he is convinced) and accept an offer from the Turkish government that is much less than the expressed demands of the organization.

Hope is good, but caution is necessary.

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