Speculation abounds as to what (and how) Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan will or will not say on March 21, when Kurds in Turkey mark Newroz, their new year’s celebration. A most likely scenario is that Ocalan will reassert that he is in direct negotiations with the Turkish government to gain constitutional guarantees for Kurdish rights and that it is time to end the use of violence as a tactic in the Kurdish movement in Turkey.
Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), met with Ocalan on March 18. The Justice Ministry allowed this third visit to Imrali, the island off the coast of Bursa where Ocalan has been imprisoned since 1999, to demonstrate the government’s seriousness and dedication to the peace process. BDP deputies Pervin Buldan and Sirri Sureyya Onder joined Demirtas for what was their second visit to Imrali.
After the meeting, Demirtas said to reporters, "The current resolution process [on the Kurdish issue] is moving ahead positively. Our goal is to democratize the whole of Turkey." He then said that Ocalan will "make a historic statement on March 21 that will serve this purpose." He did not specifiy how the message will be delivered.
Since the public became aware of the government’s talks with Ocalan in December, the process has continued without interruption and with members of the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT) helping Ocalan communicate with his supporters. This invites the question of whether the government has carefully thought through its engagement with the PKK leader as the trial of 26 Ocalan lawyers continues in Istanbul for allegedly carrying information from their client to his supporters outside.
During the second visit by BDP parliamentarians to Imrali on February 23, Ocalan passed a letter to MIT to be carried to Kandil, the base of PKK’s armed groups in northern Iraq, and to Europe. MIT officials delivered the Kandil leaders’ response to Ocalan on March 16. The intelligence officers surely must have read the letters and would not have delivered anything that would lead to civil disturbances. Many have been tempted to interpret the response as being “historic.” Only time will tell. The only certainty is Turkish Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin’s denial of reports that Ocalan will address his followers via a videoconference.
Early Newroz celebrations, which began on March 17, were uneventful in Istanbul, but those in Ankara, Erzurum, Eskisehir and Izmit have caused some tensions involving the slogan for this year’s celebrations — “Freedom for Ocalan, Status for Kurds.” Sirri Sakik, a BDP deputy from Bitlis, took the slogan a little further on the rostrum in Ankara. “For Turkey’s future, let the PKK come with all its members and join in politics,” he said. “Let Mr. Ocalan come and present himself to the people. Let him be the prime minister, the president.”
While talks with Ocalan appear to be moving along quickly, they are still being debated. According to a recent public opinion poll conducted by Konsensus, a private Istanbul-based firm, three out of four Turks oppose talks with Ocalan, and 89.9% are convinced that even if the PKK leader were set free, the terror would not end. (The survey of 1,501 people was conducted by phone between Feb. 22 and March 4 across Turkey’s 81 provinces.) Regardless, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is adamant that his government is on the right path. “Once we finish with this terror, the country will move forward,” he said on March 17.
No sane person could be against anyone sincerely trying to bring peaceful closure to Turkey’s Kurdish issue, as it is crystal clear that there is no military solution to the situation. More than 40,000 people have been killed since the PKK carried out its first attack on Turkish soil in 1984. People are utterly frustrated with the cost of the conflict in blood and treasure. Moreover, Turkish mothers are constantly worried that their sons will be sent to areas where they might encounter fighting with the PKK during their compulsory military service.
In an interesting twist, Erdogan appears to be irritated by such concerns. “It’s incorrect to say ‘We don’t want to see martyrs.’ We grew up with the lullabies about being a veteran or a martyr,” Erdogan said on March 5, “because we’re the members of a civilization that considers martyrdom the highest rank in our belief system. Therefore it never fits us to underestimate the value of martyrdom.”
One would have assumed that a prime minister would seek the support of soldiers’ families by highlighting that once the terror ends, they would no longer fear losing their sons for the sake of the state. If that, however, is not an issue for Turkey’s leaders, then one might ask what they perceive as the benefit of these talks.
The fact of the matter is that no one actually knows what the government is promising Ocalan in return for the end of violent struggle and the removal of armed Kurdish militia members from Turkey. Another question that persists in the minds of those suspicious of the talks is why engage Ocalan instead of the Kurds elected to parliament, especially if the discussions are cloaked in enhancing democracy in Turkey? The BDP, like the other major parties, has three deputies on the Constitutional Reconciliation Commission tasked with writing the new national pact to redefine ties between the state and citizens.
Nazmi Gur, Van deputy of the BDP, offered one explanation for why the government is engaging directly with Ocalan. “Don’t forget the Kurdish movement is an armed struggle,” said to Al-Monitor. “The government had no other option but to directly engage with Ocalan. We as a party don’t have the same ties that existed between the IRA and Sinn Fein.” (The Irish Republican Army fought for independence from the United Kingdom, while Sinn Fein served as the political wing of the movement.) Erdogan, however, has refused even to shake hands with Demirtas because he considers the BDP to be the political wing of the PKK in parliament.
Despite the uncertainty of motives behind the talks, there is an atmosphere of heightened expectation that the terror will soon end, with the Justice and Development Party finding a peaceful solution to Turkey’s Kurdish issue and Kurds across the Middle East — from Iraq, Iran and Syria — turning toward Turkey. This is the ideal, and hopefully it will become the reality, but questions remain: What is the state offering Ocalan, and if the process is about Turkish democracy, why does the government need the blessing of the PKK leader?
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 Times, International Herald Tribune, The Middle East Times, Foreign Policy, The Daily Star (Lebanon) and the SAIS Turkey Analyst Report. She also had a regular column at The Washington Times for almost four years.
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