How Turkey should respond to PKK overtures
March 26th, 2013
10:39 AM ET

How Turkey should respond to PKK overtures

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.

More from CNN: How will Turkey will respond?

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.

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Topics: Turkey

soundoff (25 Responses)
  1. SAS

    Let me get this straight – the PKK wages a campaign of terror against the Turkish state, causing the deaths of thousands of Turkish civilians in order to get the Turkish state to, among other things, initiate separate schools for Kurdish children.

    May I ask exactly what is so special about the right to be educated in the Kurdish language that innocents have to die for it. It is sad the Turkish government should have to find common ground with people like that.

    March 26, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Reply
    • Mico

      The conflict cost 45000 lives with 90% of the victims being kurds who were killed on the hand of turkish state .
      It is sad that people like Kurds have to fight for the right to learn their own language at school . In the least civilized society this right is granted without saying .

      March 26, 2013 at 3:31 pm | Reply
      • Ferhat Balkan

        Most civilian deaths were caused by the PKK. On the other hand, those 'Kurds' that you refer to were mostly terrorists. You're also not mentioning the fact that the PKK is also responsible for killing Kurds.

        March 26, 2013 at 11:24 pm |
    • Joseph McCarthy

      You conveniently forgot to mention that the Turks are also committing atrocities against the Kurdish people too SAS, by gassing them from the air and shooting indiscriminately into their villages. Yes, the Turkish government and the Kurds need to come together and put an end to this needless civil war. The international community can help by recognizing the Turkish state in northern Cyprus of Bayrak as legitimate in return for the Turks recognizing Kurdistan as an independent state.

      March 26, 2013 at 4:57 pm | Reply
      • Ferhat Balkan

        Perhaps you can provide some evidence to your accusations of 'gassing them from the air'? Believe me, if what you say was even mildly true, the press would be all over Turkey. Turkey has many enemies. Mostly leftist Communists such as yourself and then there are the Islamophobic Westerners who would do anything to stop Turkey from joining the EU, even funding the PKK. Turkey's borders are well established under international law through the Treaty of Lausanne. Treaty of Lausanne does not grant any special rights to Kurds. If Kurds seek independence, they'll have better luck in Northern Iraq.

        March 26, 2013 at 11:32 pm |
      • Joseph McCarthy

        Please Ferhat, do you honestly believe that the right-wing news media will publish anything against the Turks? I don't since Turkey has been such a "loyal" NATO member and a right-wing police state. These atrocities will remain covered up, no matter how true they may be!

        March 27, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
    • Aso

      You are the kind of person, who doesn't believe the right of human. you are the kind of those person who are thirsty for human's blood. What do you say about the terror of Turkish genocide against Kurdish people in south eastern of Turkey. Massacring thousands of Kurdish civilian in Mardin. Collapsing more than 4,500 villages. How about Armenian Genocide. I believe PKK in the last 3 dictates fought for Kurdish right. who doesn't have any human rights in Turkey. I want you to liberate yourself from one dimensional thinking. There is Kurdish people in Kurdistan the place who pronounced Turkey for thousands years ago, before Turk has come to this land. NOW SITUATION ARE DIFFERENT TURKISH GOVERNMENT MUST GIVE KURDISH RIGHT IN TURKEY AND SHARE THEIR LAND WITH YOU AND LIVE WITH PEACE TOGETHER.

      March 28, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Reply
      • Ferhat Balkan

        Genocide? Are you joking? The Kurdish population in Turkey has exploded since WW1. Turkey now has approximately 20-25% Kurdish population. When you have a systematic killing of a ethnic group of people within a country, the population tends to shrink, not skyrocket. Kurds have as many rights in Turkey as Turks do. Except for schools in Kurdish language which may also change in the near future. Still, you people make it sound like we are mistreating you in some way. Let me remind you that we even had a Kurd for a president in Turkey. Most of what you say is complete nonsense. You probably haven't even been to Turkey.

        March 28, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
    • Kamal

      You are a lunatic person You don't have any sense at all,we are talking about 25 Million people living in that land for thousand years before Turks came in,wake up man.

      May 14, 2013 at 4:33 pm | Reply
      • Kamal

        Ferhat Balkan,you the only one have been in Turkey wake up,go to school and learnt more or go to Mosque pray that God forgive you for what have been saying have read History before Turkish came around Kurdistan read history B.C.

        May 14, 2013 at 4:44 pm |
  2. Apo

    30 million kurds live in turkey.they should be independent.turk people from magnolia and they have to give back land to the Kurd.

    March 26, 2013 at 10:23 pm | Reply
    • Ferhat Balkan

      Racist much? First learn how to spell, it's Mongolia, not 'magnolia'. To be honest, as a Turk I'm proud to have Mongolian heritage. Also, keep dreaming. We'll never give up our lands to you. If you hate living in Turkey so much, you can always go live in Northern Iraq. No one is stopping you.

      March 26, 2013 at 11:39 pm | Reply
  3. Apo

    PKK for ever

    March 26, 2013 at 10:25 pm | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Time will tell if the ceasefire is a perpetual "farewell to arms". Does it mean that there is no turning back this time after the jailed Kurdish rebel leader, Abdullah Ocalan, announced a ceasefire? Attempts at a truce had failed in the past. If both sides now want change, they have to be determined and firm, because there are many actors in the region, who don't want a détente between the Kurds and the Turks.

    March 27, 2013 at 9:10 am | Reply
  5. Ay Tek

    what would happen if the Kurds in America claims?

    March 29, 2013 at 11:10 am | Reply
  6. Ay Tek

    just tasteless that the Turkish government with the terrorists themselves at a table set .

    March 29, 2013 at 11:11 am | Reply
  7. Ay Tek

    it is not right that 30 million. Kurds live in Turkey .. Kurdish population in Turkey is 14 million

    March 29, 2013 at 11:13 am | Reply
  8. deniz boro

    Let's see how it goes this time. However I cannot stop for saying "we have heard of all of this before". You just cannot turn around an economy founded on terror versus smuggling overnight. And the eastern borders of Turkey ate still vulnerable.

    March 29, 2013 at 3:58 pm | Reply
  9. clyde marshal

    as an american, i am ashamed at my govt. for not giving the 40 million kurds in the middle east ( whom over 52% live in turkey) their basic rights. did the US govt. forget that the US was once occupied by those facist brits tooo? long live pkk freedom fighters and kurdish human rights activist ocalan

    April 8, 2013 at 7:32 am | Reply
  10. ilhan ari firincioglu

    Certainly Turkey still have some way to go before being a truly democratic state. All the citizens, Turks and Kurds alike will benefit from democratization. On the other hand, establishing Kurdish as the medium of education and administration would only lead to the estangement of the Kurds and their eventual seperation; there are several examples of this phenomenon. We Turks do not mind, it is upto the Kurds to decide. Yet it is a well established fact that at least 80% of the 14 million Kurds are only interested in democratic rights and prosperity.

    April 30, 2013 at 8:20 am | Reply
  11. kurdistan

    I love Kurdistan

    May 12, 2013 at 1:36 am | Reply
  12. Kurdo

    PKKs are fighting for freedom All Kurd Love Them saport them die for them The fonder of Turky was the bigest terorest in the world we Kurds are the most peasful people in the world. one Day a Turkish man ask me where are u from i say Kurdistan and he olmost kill me but i was stronger then him he had a knight i had my kurdish hand take it from him that was in uk then the police take him away and i go home

    May 12, 2013 at 1:44 am | Reply
  13. Kurd by Blood

    Long Live Kurdistan.
    Long Live Ocelan.
    Long Live America.
    Long Live Israel.

    That's all Folks!

    September 23, 2013 at 8:49 pm | Reply
  14. Kurd by Blood

    How come I never see a Turk in Kurdistan? You imprison 20M+ Kurds, yet none of you dare to take a step in my country?

    September 23, 2013 at 8:54 pm | Reply

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