A welcome new opportunity has opened up to settle the thirty-year conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). After eighteen months of bitter clashes, the re-launch of discussions between National Intelligence Organization negotiators and jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan has been spurred by a mutual realization that neither side can win outright, whether politically or militarily. In addition to an apparently broad public support for peaceful negotiations, the annual winter slow-down in fighting, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s need to secure his position before the 2014 presidential elections are bolstering the chance of success.
Still, it is of critical importance that both Ankara and the various factions of the Kurdish movement learn lessons from the past rounds of talks, which repeatedly failed. Both sides must quickly make use of this new chance to reach a comprehensive, sustainable end to the bloodshed, which has killed more than thirty thousand people and cost Turkey USD 300 billion.
To win the government’s trust, the PKK (and the Kurdish political movement that it controls) must adopt a realistic approach to prove that it seeks a sustainable end to the conflict. The insurgents cannot expect freedom for Öcalan, or other top Kurdish leaders’ return to Turkey, before peace is fully established. Their public rhetoric should assuage deep-seated Turkish concerns and recognize that, while the most important single player among Turkey’s Kurds, there is no evidence that they speak for the majority of the 15–20 percent of Turkey’s population that is Kurdish-speaking. They must end all terrorist attacks and clearly define the PKK goal of “democratic autonomy” in terms that can fit in with the rest of Turkey. To be successful, this definition would ideally focus on provincial decentralization rather than trying to create a separate Kurdistan region and work towards a market economy rather than the PKK’s old Stalinist model, a framework recently discussed in The Majalla‘s article Mr. Öcalan’s Philosophy.
For its part, the Ankara government must end injustices to help build confidence. Any excesses of the security forces must be transparently investigated and expeditiously brought to court. It must end the practice of preventive detention, which since 2009 has seen several thousand Kurdish movement activists held for years without any charges of violent activity. This should be part of a package with four other main elements: a goal of providing education and public services in mother languages throughout Turkey, wherever there is sufficient demand; a lowering to 5 percent of the current 10 percent national vote threshold for parties to enter parliament, thereby ensuring that the Kurdish movement party has fair political access; a proper debate on decentralization to improve governance and local rights nationwide; and changes to laws and the constitution to remove all discrimination based on identity from the legal system.
Further down the road, both sides will have to compromise on some thorny outstanding concerns. For example, the PKK may be unrealistic to demand that its insurgents be turned into a kind of southeastern police force, but the government must, for its part, offer to deal with the real problem of more than fifty thousand government-backed “village guards” in the country’s east and south-east, who have often appropriated land that belongs to pro-Kurdish-movement villages by force.
The dangers of quick deals to gain short-term political advantage are clear for all sides. The last major round of talks broke down in June 2011 because neither side was willing to commit to working on a comprehensive package. Since then, a minimum tally of casualties kept by the International Crisis Group counts over 890 people killed—299 security forces, 508 PKK, and 89 civilians—a rate not seen since the 1990s and a sobering reminder of how many more people risk being killed if this round fails. At the same time, prospects look promising: backing from Turkey’s main opposition party, the way that Turkish public opinion has accepted with equanimity the news of the renewed Turkey–PKK talks, and the new hopes it has aroused among Turkey’s Kurdish speakers should encourage both sides to act decisively and end the conflict now.
If the talks move forward positively, both sides must also start synchronizing their public statements. There must be no repeat of the public relations disaster of competing narratives that destroyed the last peace effort in 2009. The prize for success will be great: a settlement of the Kurdish problem will lift the biggest millstone holding back its democratic progress from around Turkey’s neck, represent a huge step forward for domestic security at a time of real regional turmoil, and be the cause of enormous joy and renewed prosperity in Turkey’s Kurdish-speaking southeast.