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Erdogan’s 'Now Or Never' Moment In Turkish-Kurdish Peace Process

Pressure is mounting on Turkey’s peace process, with such issues as teaching the Kurdish language in schools proving particularly important. 
Syrian Kurds practise reading the Kurdish language at a school in Derik, Al-Hasakah October 31, 2012. Iraqi Kurdish President Masoud Barzani warned Kurds in Syria against being sucked into the "fires of discord," urging them to preserve Kurdish unity as tensions between rival factions threaten to spillover into violence. Syria's Kurds see the war ravaging their country as an unprecedented opportunity to gain the kind of freedoms enjoyed by their ethnic kin in neighbouring Iraq, where they live autonomously

Lack of mutual confidence — the missing link of the Kurdish peace process — still prevails after nine months into the talks, which are vital for Turkey’s future.

Statements in recent days from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan and the Peace Democracy Party (BDP), the political wing of the PKK, all point to potential problems in the future if this critical issue is manipulated for tactical moves.

The peace process, launched on Jan. 1, 2013, was divided into three phases: withdrawal of the PKK from Turkey; constitutional reform; and normalization that entails giving up arms, general amnesty and reintegration into society.

In a private conversation in May, a key government minister raised the following points: "If the withdrawal is completed before the parliament goes on recess, we can take one or two reform steps and thus assure the continuation of the second phase after the summer break."

He continued, "There will be problems if we are delayed because in March 2014 Turkey will have local elections. This means we have time at most until mid-November. In December, the parliament will be fully occupied with the budget and afterward there will be no deputies left in Ankara because of election campaigning. This is why time is of essence.’"

The main reform package, said to be addressing the basic Kurdish demands to move the process forward, is now with the prime minister. Its contents, not fully known, will be announced by Erdogan once he studies and approves them.

Upon his return from a foreign visit, Erdogan was questioned about the elements of the package that the PKK and the BDP are most concerned about. Concerns included allowing education in Kurdish and implementing a general amnesty.

As for education in the mother tongue, Erdogan said: "No, there will not be. Not in private schools either. This is not something we can deal with now. We have already enabled teaching of mother tongue in schools. But if you open the way for full education in mother tongue, then you will be damaging the official language."

On general amnesty, he was equally clear: "A general amnesty is not in the cards. I have a different opinion on amnesty. In crimes against individuals, granting amnesty is up to the victims. The state has authority in crimes against the state. The state has no authority on murders, etc." 

These comments demonstrate that there is still apprehension causing controversy, at least with the prime minister.

In an interview with the daily Tarafremarks by Gulten Kisanak, the co-chair of BDP, emphasized the persistence of the Kurds on main issues: "Legal modifications may take time. We want to see at least the political position of the government. This is not clear from the prime minister’s words. He is clearly saying 'No, it can’t be.' This is but a new version of the former unitary state mentality that prefers status quo."

"Let the prime minister say, 'Kurdish is a mother tongue, it is a public right. We as the state will make our preparations and gradually advance this process.' But if there is no political position, on what will we depend on? Old arguments, old approaches, old narratives. So what is new?"

"They can’t solve the issue of education in mother tongue from the capital. Turks are said to oppose Kurds being educated mother tongue. OK, fine, let them be. Let’s authorize the local administrations to handle the educational system. If there is demand for such education in that region, let’s meet the demand. If not, forget about it. Simple as that." 

These mutual recriminations don’t appear to be a way of adopting positions for potential bargaining. This time, the BDP and Ocalan favor a totally rewritten constitution instead of the previous patched-up and partial versions. This means they want strong assurances of education in mother tongue.

As the pressure of time is mounting, there are also growing questions on the issue of PKK withdrawal.

Yalcin Akdogan, chief adviser to the prime minister, wrote in his Star column on Aug. 20:

"The ratio of organization [PKK] members who have actually left Turkey is around 20%. The organization knows this and defends itself by saying all its units are on the move and it could take them months to cross the border. This is not true. The ratio of those on the move or relocating is not above 10%." 

The answers of the BDP and the PKK to questions on this issue are vague. With both sides disregarding the valuable element of time, it indicates the possibility of sacrificing the process to tactical moves. Ankara thinks that Ocalan is more concerned with improving his own conditions.

Both the PKK and the BDP’s hands are becoming stronger. The Kurdish National Congress, set to convene in mid-September in Erbil, has the potential to push Ankara, which is already stuck in a foreign policy impasse, into a tight corner in the peace process. Erdogan may lose the initiative next month.

The statement of Selahattin Demirtas, the other BDP co-chair, after his last meeting with Ocalan was obviously based on that presumption:

"The process may make progress, but the fragility of the contents of the package and lack of preparations to clear the way for the process may become serious handicaps. Although the prime minister said what he said, some things may change after discussions. This is what political struggle is all about. The government knows this clearly: If the Kurdish side detects tactics of stalling and gaining time in the negotiation process it can create serious impediments to its progress."

Both internal demands and the regional dynamics have added brand-new risks to Erdogan’s "slow motion solution." By November, he will either have to opt for a substantive and bold Kurdish reform or a different but more dangerous approach.

It's clear that the playing field is getting narrower by the day.

Yavuz Baydar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. A journalist since 1979, he has been a radio reporter, news presenter, producer, TV host, foreign correspondent, debater and, in recent years, a news ombudsmen for the daily Sabah. His opinion pieces can be followed in the English-language daily Today's Zaman.

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