By Fadi Hakura, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Fadi Hakura is associate fellow on the Europe Program at Chatham House. The views expressed are the author’s own.
Kurds are celebrating the arrival of spring amid hopes of a breakthrough between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish government. Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s imprisoned leader, announced last week that he has negotiated with high-ranking intelligence officials a ceasefire and a vague promise of withdrawal of PKK militants to northern Iraq.
But Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has cautiously welcomed the move, must be careful not to raise expectations too high.
He has, for a start, so far shown no willingness to countenance PKK demands for separate Kurdish schooling, devolution of substantive powers to local administrations and reform of the constitutional definition of citizenship. He has also steadfastly refused to contemplate a general amnesty to the PKK – unsurprising given the hostility of Turkish popular opinion to these demands.
Since 1984, the PKK has fought a bloody campaign for an independent Kurdistan in the impoverished south-eastern part of Turkey, which has claimed the lives of more than 45,000 people and cost the Turkish exchequer hundreds of billions in defense expenditure and lost investments.
Erdogan’s previously muscular and robust posture towards Kurdish nationalism now appears to be easing. Yet this could be linked to attempts to garner the support of pro-Kurdish parliamentarians to introduce a powerful executive presidency, an office he hopes to occupy in 2014.
History is littered with peace efforts that failed when expectation was not met with reality. Twenty years ago, the handshake between then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn generated optimism and excitement that now seems a bitter sweet memory.
The optimism that greeted the latest announcement could prove to be similarly misplaced unless the Turkish government takes some critical, and difficult, steps.
First, it should prepare the Turkish public for the necessary concessions that are inevitable if the Kurdish question is to be resolved. Up to now, there has been a perceptible reluctance on the part of officials to spell out the price of peace clearly and consistently.
Second, the government should not attach artificial deadlines to a process that could drag on for years. Patient diplomacy, confidence-building measures and hard bargaining will be crucial for the success of these negotiations. The positive outcome of the Northern Ireland peace process over 14 years is testament to the importance of diplomatic patience and long-term thinking.
Third, the political opposition must be included in the process to widen the domestic base for the talks with the PKK. In the case of Northern Ireland, there was consistent cross-party support for a negotiated settlement in Westminster. In comparison, Turkey’s confrontational winner-takes-all politics could poison the atmosphere and complicate the talks.
Finally, Turkey cannot sustain the momentum toward peace without engaging Tehran, Erbil and Baghdad. They should be aware that tensions between the U.S. and Iran have encouraged division among various Palestinian factions that has fatally undermined the negotiating stance of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with Israel. Turkey could find itself facing similar challenges, particularly if Iran and other regional players influence the PKK in the wrong direction.
These steps, though significant, will not be sufficient to buttress a peace process over the long-term. What is needed most of all is a democratic and human rights’ revolution in Turkey that lays the foundation for accommodating the aspirations of Turks and Kurds alike. Turks will then see the fruits of liberalization as not exclusive to the Kurds. In other words, Turkey would avoid the appearance of granting “group rights” to the Kurds and privileging them over other segments of the population. On that score, Turkey has a long way to go. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2011 Democracy Index ranks Turkey’s democracy 88th out of 167 countries, and Freedom House classifies Turkey as only “partly free.”
The ceasefire represents a rare opportunity to bring the costly war with the PKK to a close if the Turkish government handles the process delicately and heeds the lessons of the past. The rewards of success would be truly immense. But failure would represent a damaging blow to Kurdish aspirations and would likely spark a renewed period of intense violence.