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Erdogan's Domestic Challenges Of Peace with the PKK

Prime Minister Erdogan's peace initiative with the PKK should be understood in the context of his other domestic political initiatives, writes Kadri Gursel.
A demonstrator stands next to a portrait of jailed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan during a protest in Strasbourg February 18, 2012. Thousands of demonstrators protested in support of Ocalan, who was captured on February 15, 1999, and is currently serving a life sentence in Turkey. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler (FRANCE  - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)

The slaying of three PKK activists at the Kurdish Information Center in Paris last Thursday made it clear that the Turkish government’s renewed efforts to disarm the PKK won’t be a stroll in the park.

It appears Turkey will continue to be confronted by provocations that could be traced to third parties meddling in Turkey’s Kurdish issue.

But then provocations that could set back what the Turkish media has dubbed as the “Imrali process,” an allusion to the Imrali Island Prison where Turkish government officials have been meeting the PKK’s founding leader Abdullah Ocalan, don’t necessarily have to originate from third parties.

Peculiar features of the bilateral contacts between Ankara and PKK produce plenty of challenges themselves that could be more destructive to the process.

For example, there could well incidents that could have provocative effects that could bring Turkish security forces into serious combat with the PKK. A total of 25 PKK militants have been killed from the last days of December when the talk of ''Imrali Process” began to circulate until the day this article was written on Jan. 14. On Dec. 31, Turkish security units detected and killed 10 armed PKK militants in the rural area around Diyarbakir. In retaliation, a week later the PKK attacked a gendarmerie outpost at Cukurca area near the Iraqi border. One Turkish non-commissioned officer and 14 PKK militants were killed in that clash.

But we have to note that until this attack, the PKK had refrained from major scale operations over past few months.

The latest incident was killing of an armed PKK man described as “senior level operative” in town of Nusaybin of the Mardin province.

AKP government is following a “linear approach style” against the Kurdish movement that it explains with the slogan ‘’negotiations with politics, combat against terror.” This has now become “negotiations with Ocalan, combat against the PKK.” But the sooner the Turkish officials realize that this can’t go on like this, the better will be the odds of salvaging future peace. Continuing operations create a perception in the PKK ranks that the true goal of the Turkish government is to eliminate the PKK and this only deepens the distrust between the parties.

The second challenge, should real peace negotiations commence, will be the political demands of the PKK. The PKK is no longer threatening the territorial integrity of Turkey, but it does want autonomy for the Kurds. “Democratic autonomy” is the label of the political solution the PKK has been advocating since 2010 to live together in Turkey. What the PKK wants under this autonomy is to assume wide powers from the central government including forming a defensive force and even to establish confederal ties with other Kurdish administrations in the region without the involvement of the central authority. Naturally, public opinion fears such demands could lead to a potential break up of the country after a while. Turkish government spokesmen say a ”unitary state” is not up for discussion.

For a while now AKP quarters have been saying that the PKK’s autonomy demand could be satisfied within the framework of the European Council’s 1988 European Local Government Charter. Turkey had approved this Charter with a series of reservations.

Abdulkadir Selvi, the Ankara representative of the pro-AKP, Islamic-leaning daily Yeni Safak, reported on Jan. 9 that Ocalan had given up on “democratic autonomy.” Since Ocalan is in isolation and had not been able to meet his lawyers, we did not have a chance to confirm and or deny this news report.

What is to be noted however is the silence of the Kurdish media on this matter. If Yeni Safak’s report is accurate, it would mean that a very crucial psychological/political threshold to resolve Turkey’s Kurdish issue can be crossed.

To make progress Ocalan will have to convince the PKK’s military wing and Turkey will have to remove the reservations it placed on European Local Government Charter. To be able say ‘’something is new’’ the first signal, positive or not, will have to come from Ocalan.

The other challenge is the transition to presidential system which is actually the personal political agenda of Prime Minister Erdogan. Introduction of the presidential system and peace process with the PKK require constitutional amendments. Somehow, some sort of a political linkage between these two matters as part of the constitutional debate may well be necessary.

The number of parliamentary seats AKP has is not enough to unilaterally amend the constitution and submit it to referendum. AKP needs the support of other parties. The only party that the AKP can bargain with to lay a constitutional groundwork that will smooth the way for the PKK to give up arms in return for supporting the presidential system in the parliament, is the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, BDP.

If AKP and BDP can make a deal, a draft that will include the constitutional amendments enabling transition to presidential system and paving the way for peace will most likely be submitted to a referendum in the fall of 2013. It can’t be any later because in March 2014 we will have the local elections and presidential elections in September.

But should the Turkish prime minister link the peace with the PKK with his personal agenda and make both issues a precondition of each other, he would be putting the peace process under heavy time pressure and increase its fragility.

Moreover, Erdogan has to obtain the support of the nationalist Turkish constituency in the referendum. This is why, before the referendum, the PKK be shown as the party continuously conceding and not getting much in return.

In practice, what does this mean? Release of a few thousand Kurdish detainees through some legal modifications, improvement of Ocalan’s incarceration and in response to ceasing anti-PKK operations, for several thousand PKK militants to fully leave the Turkish territory and begin giving up arms.

For Erdogan to direct this constitutional amendment process without mishaps requires high level of concentration, orchestration and virtuosity. It will be a true challenge and test of finesse.

All these were just a few of the challenges of peace with the PKK.

Kadri Gürsel is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse, and has written a column for the Turkish daily Milliyet since 2007. He focuses primarily on Turkish foreign policy, international affairs and Turkey’s Kurdish question, as well as Turkey’s evolving political Islam.

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