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Kurdish Issue Key To Erdogan’s Success

Resolving the Kurdish issue is critical for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to re-establish Turkey’s role in the region, writes Tulin Daloglu.
People hold signs as they attend the funeral ceremony of the three Kurdish activists shot in Paris, in Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast, January 17, 2013. The bodies of the activists, including that of Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) co-founder Sakine Cansiz, arrived by plane on Wednesday evening in Diyarbakir. REUTERS/Umit Bektas (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS OBITUARY CIVIL UNREST)

Turkey is scheduled to hold local and presidential elections in 2014 and parliamentary elections the following year. Thus in 2013, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has the freedom to take political risks in trying to find a workable solution to the Kurdish issue. If unsuccessful, Erdogan will have plenty of time before the elections to structure the public debate and blame other actors for the failure of the recently upgraded peace process. If successful, he will certainly secure another strong win at the ballot box. Devlet Bahceli, an opposition leader and chairman of the National Movement Party, estimates that Erdogan is guaranteed to take “70% of votes in the next election” if he resolves the Kurdish issue.

A politically and economically strong and stable Turkey is definitely the best scenario not only for the country, but also for regional stability and security. However, the way the Erdogan government has played its cards thus far makes 2013 a difficult year to predict in terms of Turkish stability in domestic and foreign affairs. Not everything hinges on the fate of talks with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, but there is no doubt that Turkey would emerge stronger if it could, once and for all, find a solution to the Kurdish issue.

After rising to power in 2003, Erdogan consistently criticized previous governments for having failed to address the Kurdish situation and accused them of doing nothing more following Ocalan’s capture and imprisonment in 1999. Today, after a decade of rule by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), not much has changed beyond the government engaging in direct peace talks with Ocalan and PKK European representatives. Despite this effort, the problem appears likely to remain chronic.

Turkey’s neighbors have always used the Kurdish card against it, but have never tried to strengthen Kurdish nationalists or the PKK to the point where they could actually attempt to secede from Turkey. The Kurdish population is spread across Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, and none of these countries wants to give any of the Kurds hopes of independence. Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, things have, however, changed somewhat. Iraqi Kurds govern their autonomous region and have only a loose relationship, to say the least, with the Baghdad government. In Syria, as President Bashar al-Assad fights to stay in power, there is speculation that he may use the Kurdish card to harm Turkey as he goes down.

European diplomats in Ankara stress that Turkey has no clear ally in the context of dealing with the potential uncertainties concerning Iraq and Syria and their Kurdish populations as well as general fallout from a revolution-weary Middle East. Until the recent upheavals in the Arab world, Turkey was undoubtedly considered a rising star, not only because of its position in the Middle East, but also by virtue of the AKP having secured support from the West. When internal debates ensued as to whether Erdogan’s policies were redirecting Turkey’s orientation too far away from the West in favor of the East, there was a coordinated stand in western capitals in support of Ankara’s shift in focus. This meeting of the minds, however, has now been replaced by western concerns about freedom of the press and the fairness and independence of the judicial system in Turkey.

Egypt has traditionally been looked to as the leader of the Arab world, so Erdogan now faces the challenge of having to deal with a strong, potentially rival Islamist leadership in Cairo. He has not been able, thus far, to develop a close relationship with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi as he did with Assad before the Syrian uprising. True, Morsi attended the 2012 AKP congress in Ankara, but he has purposely maintained his distant from Erdogan. In addition, Turkey’s number one trading partner remains Europe, meaning it is the key to helping Erdogan and the AKP stay in power. These economic ties will not deteriorate because of the Turkish prime minister’s strong condemnation of French President François Hollande for having known one of the three PKK women murdered in Paris earlier this month and for questioning European sincerity on the PKK issue.

In fact, Egemen Bagis, minister for European Union Affairs and Turkey’s chief negotiator in accession talks, said on Jan. 16 that there have been improvements in cooperation with Europe in the fight against terror. He stressed that France had carried out raids against suspected terrorists and frozen their assets and that Germany and the Netherlands had also acted similarly. “In fact, [former French president Nicolas] Sarkozy, who created big problems in our EU bid, exerted great effort to hand over PKK terrorists to Turkey,” he said. “Unfortunately, these were blocked by the judiciary.”

Although speaking about Sarkozy, Bagis must have been referring to Germany’s 2009 arrest of Sakine Cansiz, a founding member of the PKK and one of the women killed in Paris. European sources told Al-Monitor that Turkey had asked for her extradition, but could not tie her directly to terrorist activity in their official request to German authorities. As a result, she was released.

One should not forget that nearly three decades of fighting against the PKK have left Turkey traumatized. Many Turks might have expected Cansiz’ extradition simply because she was a member of the PKK, and additionally might have taken satisfaction in hearing their prime minister berate European leaders for their stance toward the Kurdish group. Thus, European diplomats perceive that Erdogan is playing to his domestic audience, relieving their leadership of having to respond publicly to his accusations. Then again, Europe’s patience and Turkey’s political capital both have limits, and it might be for the best if, for the time being, Erdogan were to be a little more thrifty with the latter. The year ahead will test his ability to do so. 

Tulin Daloglu is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. She has written extensively for various Turkish and American publications, including The New York TimesInternational Herald TribuneThe Middle East TimesForeign PolicyThe Daily Star (Lebanon) and the SAIS Turkey Analyst Report. She also had a regular column at The Washington Times for almost four years. She tweets from @TurkeyPulse.

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