In an unprecedented move, in late December 2012 Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government started negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to resolve the protracted conflict between the Turks and Kurds. Crystallizing during the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire in the second half of the 19th century, the Kurdish question remains at the heart of Turkish politics, thanks to the Kemalist regime’s banishment policy, denial of Kurdish identity and the PKK’s armament thirty years ago. Some estimates show that at least 90,000 people have been killed in the protracted conflict, half of them being in the last thirty years. So, could the AKP and the PKK resolve this conflict? In other words, could a Kurd be equal to a Turk and learn and speak his language in public schools?
Although some argue that conditions are not ripe for peace negotiations, it seems both parties have reached a mutually painful stalemate and are aware that the unfolding regional instability might harm both parties’ interests. The AKP broke the taboos by acknowledging the Kurdish question and developed a policy of compassion and limited recognition. On the one hand, the AKP criticized early Republican misconduct and appointed governors who are more open to dialogue and able to develop relations with Kurds. On the other hand, a limited recognition policy was gradually implemented through first allowing Kurdish broadcasting as part of a broader opening to the wider Middle East, and then establishing a separate Kurdish channel, TRT6.Turkey’s greed for oil and will to regionally integrate its economy, as well as the Syrian civil war, facilitated the current negotiations.
The result was the Oslo Process, in which the government directly negotiated with PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan, and Kurdish representatives residing in Europe and Qandil. The negotiation process, however, failed thanks to the unexpected clashes between the Turkish military and PKK fighters in Silvan, Diyarbakır. Furthermore, records of the secret negotiations were leaked to the press; both sides resumed their fight after the leaks, but it seems they also resumed the negotiations while fighting. Turkey’s greed for oil and will to regionally integrate its economy, as well as the Syrian civil war, facilitated the current negotiations.
The negotiations between the AKP government and Kurdish leaders include three phases; Ceasefire and the PKK’s withdrawal from Turkish territories, Democratization process—drafting the new constitution and Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR),
Although Öcalan declared that the first phase was over as more than 600 guerillas withdrew from Turkey without disarming, the Turkish media reports that 1,400 guerillas are in the process of leaving Turkey. The first phase has been relatively successful, given the PKK rebels’ ongoing withdrawal, the AKP government’s establishment of the independent Wise People Council and the Peace and Resolution Process Commission. Öcalan expects the government to take important steps through amending current laws on terrorism, special courts and criminal law. More importantly, the release of the jailed KCK (the urban and nonviolent wing of the PKK) members will function as an assurance, but this will all depend on the courts. It reveals that the first phase and the second phase are indeed intertwined, although the government is expected to undertake a sweeping democratization effort by drafting a liberal democratic constitution.
The new constitution will respond to a basic question: Can a Turk, a Kurd and an Alevi (one of Turkey’s main minority groups, who have historically complained of discrimination by the majority Sunni leadership) be equals both in theory and practice?
This will all depend, however, upon whether the current Parliament will be able draft the new constitution before the 2014 general elections. The opposition parties, including the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), refuse to agree on articles regarding the character of the nation, the state and citizenship. If the AKP and the BDP do cooperate, the new constitution will be ratified because together they reach the necessary majority to pass the draft constitution. But whether the BDP will support the AKP is unknown. These political prospects will depend on whether the AKP will give the BDP a greater role in the peace process or not. The BDP has criticized the AKP government for picking the BDP members who will talk to Öcalan, rather than allowing the party to make its own choices. This is an important communication problem, not only among the negotiators but also for the stakeholders in the process.
Reconciliatory moves have played an important role so far by assuring that the process was functioning smoothly. The PKK leadership in Qandil highlighted that the PKK has made mistakes in the past, Turkish soldiers are not their enemies, and the Kurds do not want an independent state. The AKP government’s establishment of Wise People Council extended the peace process from the elite to the common people, but this extension remains very limited. Although some people in western Turkey protested the activities of this council, the sub-committees working in other parts of the country have been praised for discussing the process with people and reporting citizens’ input to the government. Nevertheless, there are no clear guidelines about the functions of the Wise People Council, and the government might not consider their suggestions, as their decisions are non-binding. Furthermore, the council should explain that the process is not a zero-sum game for Turks, but a win-win situation for the nation. The Resolution Process Commission in Parliament will have lasting impact in the long run, as it has a legal status and all political parties participate in its activities. This commission listened to many experts on the Kurdish question, citizenship and conflict resolution, but commission members should also talk to victims of the conflict and perhaps initiate programs to address their problems.
Perhaps the most challenging problems are related to the third step. It seems the current step-by-step negotiation process will find solutions to these problems as progress made. First, although more than 600 PKK guerillas withdrew from Turkey, they have not yet disarmed, and the Turkish media have reported that 1400 guerillas are still on the ground, even though they are supposed to gradually leave the country. The question remains: what will the PKK guerillas do once peace is achieved? Turkish government officials have stated that they will not accept those who committed terror crimes in Turkey, while Murat Karayılan mentioned a training program to prepare them for the political life. Some of the guerillas might join the ranks of the BDP as politicians, and those of Syrian and Iraqi origin might chose to return home. However, this is problematic as the government is keen to ensure that they no longer operate on the ground.
A larger problem is the nexus between justice and peace. The Turkish government has so far rejected launching an inquiry commission to examine human rights violations, state repression and other misconduct during the conflict. For instance, the civil court recently decided to hand over the case of the Uludere massacre to the military court, which means the military officers who killed 24 people in Uludere in December 2011 will not be punished. This makes the process fragile, as Kurds have been denied justice not only as individuals but also a community. Nevertheless, it is likely that the parties will agree on a truth and reconciliation commission in the coming months to heal the wounds of many Kurdish and Turkish families.
The unfolding protests are both a challenge and an opportunity for sustainable peace. They are a challenge because the Turkish government proved that it does not tolerate peaceful protests. Furthermore, although Kurds living in Istanbul and Ankara participated in the Gezi Park protests, Kurds in southeastern Turkey did not join the spreading movement. Many Turks revealed their unhappiness about the Kurds’ lack of support for the protest. However, the protests also provide a good opportunity to seek further individual liberties, freedom of speech and limitations on government powers. Turkish democracy might transform from an illiberal democracy to a liberal one if the government addresses such demands in the new constitution.
Overall, the first phase has been relatively successful and both parties should continue to invest in confidence-building steps. Perhaps the BDP could be given a greater role in the process, to localize peace and coordinate efforts for a sustainable future. The political prospects, however, depend on the new constitution and how the parties tackle the existing challenges, including nationalist reactions from both the Turks and Kurds.