A general sense of cautious optimism has emerged in Turkey in the last couple of days against the background of the government's recent overtures to broker a deal with the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader, Abdullah Öcalan, over ending a conflict that has killed tens of thousands over the past three decades.
While advocates of the government's move claim that imprisoned Öcalan can play a key role in convincing the PKK to surrender its weapons as part of the solution to the larger Kurdish problem, others criticize it, saying that similar attempts in the past failed precisely because the PKK has no intention of laying down its arms but rather has a vested interest in maintaining a lucrative criminal enterprise and benefiting from all sorts of illegal activities in Turkey's Southeast.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's chief adviser, Yalçın Akdoğan, is hopeful about a solution to the problem but cautioned that a quick fix should not be expected, noting that the problem is deeply rooted. Emphasizing that the new peace initiative deserves to be approached in good faith by all political parties, with terrorism being Turkey's “bleeding wound,” Akdoğan told Today's Zaman, “The main aim is to ensure that the PKK lays down its arms.” He is hopeful for a solution to the Kurdish problem, but yet, not overly optimistic or unrealistic.
PKK terrorism is a problem that Turkey has been struggling with for almost 30 years now, and around 40,000 people have been killed since 1984, the year the terrorist organization started its attacks. “We have set out in good faith to settle the problem, which is not only a hindrance for Turkey's economic and political stability, but also for its influence in its region,” Akdoğan went on to say.
A new peace process on the Kurdish issue began on Thursday with the meeting of two Kurdish lawmakers with Öcalan. The era of armed struggle to achieve the political goals of the Kurds is over, Öcalan reportedly said to Mardin independent deputy and senior Kurdish politician Ahmet Türk, and pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) deputy Ayla Akat Ata who talked, following the issue of a special permit by the Ministry of Justice, with the PKK leader at the prison on İmralı Island.
In the meeting, which is said to have lasted for two-and-a-half hours in some reports, and nearly five hours in others, Öcalan informed the two deputies about the talks he recently had with top National Intelligence Organization (MİT) member Hakan Fidan. Ata from the BDP has told Today's Zaman that she was not allowed to speak about the issue, as the BDP decided that party's co-chairs would announce on Monday what the party's position is as regards the current negotiations, considering the importance of the peace process.
What Erdoğan's chief advisor emphasized was the need for the issue not to be abused politically in order to attack the governing party, which was the case, he noted, regarding the Oslo peace process in which leading MİT officials met several times with PKK representatives in 2009.
Political parties in opposition have generally adopted a positive attitude towards the new peace initiative by the government. BDP Co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş said they favored negotiations with Öcalan for the settlement of the Kurdish issue, but he also chose to take a cautious stance, saying that expectations should not be overly exaggerated. Murat Karayılan, a senior leader of the PKK, speaking to the Fırat News Agency, said the issue should be handled seriously and responsibly.
The leading opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), also reacted positively to the negotiations the government had started with the leader of the terrorist organization. “Negotiations to end terrorism, to ensure that the PKK lays down its arms, may be held so long as they serve a positive purpose,” CHP Deputy Chairman Sezgin Tanrıkulu said, in a reaffirmation of the government's initiative.
However, Tanrıkulu is critical over the way the government has been managing the new peace process. “Turkish ambassadors were briefed on the negotiations with Öcalan, but the main opposition party is still in the dark on the issue,” Tanrıkulu commented to Today's Zaman. Criticizing the government for seeking support without providing any information he said, “Under these conditions, the mere fact that the main opposition party does not have a negative attitude regarding the peace initiative is a contribution in itself.”
The only negative reaction came from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). “The process which started in Oslo, and which has now reached İmralı means that the AK Party has surrendered to terrorism,” Oktay Vural, parliamentary group deputy chairman of the MHP, maintained on Friday in a press conference held in Ankara. Vural also maintained it is shameful to have to deal with Öcalan, who is responsible for the killing of thousands of people, as a negotiating partner.
The meeting came days after Akdoğan said the government is discussing disarmament with the PKK leader. Öcalan, who reportedly thinks the government is sincere in its initiative to find a solution to the Kurdish problem, told BDP deputies that the PKK should not engage in armed clashes any longer, and that the PKK should give the peace initiative a chance to succeed. The two BDP deputies are expected to share the messages expressed by Öcalan with the present leaders of the terrorist organization, who reside in the Kandil Mountains in northern Iraq. The details of the meeting will be revealed on Monday, the BDP Ağrı deputy Halil Aksoy announced on Friday.
Nurettin Canikli, deputy chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AK Party) parliamentary group, said Turkish authorities have made "important progress" in talks with Öcalan aimed at ending the Kurdish conflict.
"Talks have reached a certain stage, some important progress has been made and some results have been achieved, or will be achieved," Canikli told reporters in Ankara.
Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin said, on Thursday evening following the dinner organized on the occasion of the Fifth Ambassadors' Conference being held in Ankara, that should the government's initiative for peace proceed as desired, then such meetings of BDP deputies would also be allowed in the future. “But should the peace process be exploited, and the talks held [with Öcalan] are misinterpreted, then no further meetings with Öcalan would be allowed,” the minister stated.
Numan Kurtulmuş, deputy chairman of the governing Justice and Development Party (AK Party) said, on Friday in Elazığ, noting that such talks can be held in democratic countries to end terrorism, that “the place to look for a solution to the problem of terrorism is the parliament, not the mountains.”
Ümit Fırat, a leading Kurdish intellectual, sees the new peace initiative of the government as a positive step and finds it appropriate for the government to deal directly with Öcalan in the negotiations, instead of with all the parties representing the PKK. This was the case during the Oslo peace process, in which representatives of the PKK living in Europe, PKK leaders in Kandil and Öcalan were all included in the negotiations. “It's better to keep the negotiations in process with Öcalan as a sole negotiator, and allow him to convince his own organization [about a prospective deal],” he told Today's Zaman, noting that the BDP cannot, in any case, act as a negotiating partner. It only has the capacity to act as a messenger as it lacks the authority to negotiate. “There is no meaning for the government deal [as a negotiating partner] with the people in Kandil. It's more effective to talk with Öcalan, and convince him” he commented.
Öcalan, who founded the organization in the 1970s to fight for an independent Kurdish state, is widely reviled by Turks who hold him responsible for the deaths of more than 40,000 people since the PKK took up arms in 1984.
Erdoğan is under pressure to stem the violence, though, which has included bomb attacks in major cities as well as fighting in the mountainous southeast, particularly with presidential elections looming next year in which he is expected to stand for re-election. Erdoğan's government has widened cultural and language rights for Kurds, who make up about 20 percent of Turkey's 75 million people, since taking power 10 years ago. However, Kurdish politicians want more reforms, including steps towards autonomy.
There was no abating of the fighting against the PKK terrorists, though. On Monday, Turkish troops killed at least 10 of them and seized weapons in the southeastern city of Diyarbakır. Another 46 were killed in late December in a cross-border military operation into northern Iraq, Turkish media said.