Could the PKK change to a civil political party?

“But the problem which can be seen with many rebel army groups in this transition is their difficulty in adopting the ways of behavior that go with a democratic political system. She added that, “It is easy to transition into a civil organization, but it is difficult to transition to a civil organization that deals with a democracy.”

Aliza Marcus

By Mohammed Hussein: 6.6.2013 – Kurdistan Tribune – Kurdish Communities Union (KCK) Executive Council President, Murat Karayilan, declared that the PKK would withdraw its guerrillas gradually from Turkey, starting 8 May, 2013. This was a result of the ongoing peace talks between the PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan, and the Turkish government. But what PKK leaders haven’t talked about is their future political activity model; some people wonder how the PKK will change their role in Turkey and whether they plan and are capable of becoming a political party.

Osman Ocalan, an independent Kurdish politician and younger brother of Abdullah Ocalan, with a close relationship with PKK, said “PKK is ready to be a civil political party.” He added that, since 2003, PKK has wanted to change its political activity from military struggle to a civil political struggle, but Turkey’s policy has not helped this change.

He said that whenever the local and regional situation, and especially Turkey’s atmosphere, help this transition, the PKK would change its path. It would be in the same name or any other name. He also said, “Turkey does not let PKK to organize itself such a political civil organization.”

Likewise, Didem Akyel, an analyst at International Crises Group-Istanbul, said, “It is too soon to talk about amnesty for the PKK and accepting it as a normal political party”. She added that, “Topics like freedom of Ocalan and amnesty for PKK fighter are sensitive because of fresh memory of the crises.”

She said that it needs, at least, three years of peace process continuation and no casualties, no war. She added that, “People need some time to forget violence.” This is not how a Russian Kurdish former PKK member and Sulaimanya-based journalist with expertise in the Turkey-PKK issue, Ramazan Kareem, saw it in an interview: “Leaders who run PKK right now are not ready to become civil political leaders. Even, Turkey can’t accept these revolutionary leaders.”

Ramazan, who worked many years for PKK and held important diplomatic positions in Russia and the Middle East, explained that the PKK is a hard-line revolutionary military power; so that it would be difficult for it to change to a civil political power in four years. For more than thirty years the PKK’s elite leaders have fighting in the mountains and more than 40 thousand people have been killed.

While he was on the PKK presidency committee for more than ten years, Osman Ocalan said that the time for completely disarming hasn’t come yet. The PKK is at the stage of withdrawing its guerillas from Turkey right now, and the time of this change depends on how Turkey responds to the PKK and Abdullah Ocalan’s peace initiative.

He added that these technical steps need some facilitating conditions. It is not easy transferring PKK cadres from mountains to city centers and getting them involved in civic political activities. They need about two years of political training in order to function properly in the new situation.

On the other hand, Akyel said, “There is a belief on the Turkish side that Ocalan is ready for Peace and wants to be the person who builds the peace resolution and that he is going to do it.”

And he said that it is also clear that on the Kurdish side, the PKK leaders and Kurdish activists follow what Ocalan says although he has been in prison for more than fifteen years. This is also how Aliza Marcus, the author of Blood and Belief, one of the most important books about the Kurdish issue in Turkey, thinks. She said that the part of change is easy when it is giving up fighting and laying down weapons. But the problem which can be seen with many rebel army groups in this transition is their difficulty in adopting the ways of behavior that go with a democratic political system. She added that, “It is easy to transition into a civil organization, but it is difficult to transition to a civil organization that deals with a democracy.”

She explained that the PKK’s challenge might be in learning how to operate in a system where there are many voices; right now what PKK say ‘do this’, and that is what happen when you are in the rebel organization but, for the PKK. the main challenge would be how to understand others.

These concerns about the PKK’s ability to change are not held by Shna, 31 years a PKK guerrilla, originally from Sulaimanyah in Iraqi Kurdistan. She optimistically said, “The whole process will depend on the political situation and Turkey-Kurd relationship.”

She maintained, “With a democratic system and situation that Kurdish people could enjoy their rights, it is easy for PKK guerrillas to adopt civil political activities. Of course, it is easier than what they could do on mountains.”

Challenges and obstacles of the peace process:

In 2003, hundreds of PKK leaders and guerrillas split from the PKK, and they formed a new party (Democratic Platform party) under Osman Ocalan’s leadership. What Abdullah Ocalan and the PKK leaders are doing right now for the peace talking in Turkey, the Democratic Platform party offered in 2004, but Turkey has not responded to them yet, said Ramazan Kareem.

He thinks that recent peace talking has been strengthened by the Middle Eastern situation and Arabic spring uprisings because Turkey has found out that it can’t deny Kurdish rights any more. The PKK also found out that it can’t struggle without any consideration for it becoming the only winner in the Syrian revolution. Therefore, the PKK needs this peace talking to protect its achievements in Syria. About what achievements the PKK has gotten until now, Ramazan mentioned that, these peace talks have helped the PKK redecorate its reputation in Europe and the US, and change its face from a terrorist organization to revolutionary party which defends people’s rights.

Practically, it also reduced pro-Turkey groups’ attacks on Sarekani, a small Kurdish town in Syria which is run by Democratic Union Party (PYD), the pro-PKK political party. He also mentioned the necessity of peace talks for all those towns and districts that are run by the PYD.

Ramazan is concerned about the challenges of this peace process, and he mentioned that so many regional powers don’t want these peace talks to succeed. He further explained, “Both Iran and Iraq don’t want this process goes easily, and they are ready to provide all logistic necessities for PKK fighters against Turkey. Exactly what Turkey gives to the Syrian Opposition against Assad’s regime, Iraq and Iran are ready to provide for the PKK. But the PKK has chosen another path, and so Iran is supposed to be a dangerous factor for this peace processes.

He also expected that Iran will use its influence inside Iraq against the PKK, which is clearly noted from Iraqi Shia parties when they raised their voice against backing PKK militants in their bases in Iraqi Kurdistan. Additionally, Akyel also mentioned the PYD party and KRG-Turkey relationship as external factors for the peace talks.

About the vulnerability of peace process on the Turkish side, she also said that there is a nationalist camp which does not like the process, and they will affect the next election. But, Kareem said, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, is trying to secure the candidacy for Turkey’s presidency in the next election. Erdogan’s ambition has caused a kind of disagreement with the Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, U.S. since the late 1990s.

“Because of his great impact on the Turkish ruling party, AKP, and the Turkish street too, Gulen could destroy the peace process if he tries to do. The success of the peace talks would be Erdogan’s success before anyone, so it is possible for people who don’t like Erdogan will try to destroy his peace efforts.” said Kareem.

He also mentioned some threats for the peace process inside the PKK, and added, “The most dangerous threat is the possibility of a split by a group of PKK guerrillas who with the Iranian cooperation start fighting against Turkey.

What needs to be done from both sides?

“Both Turkey and PKK are taking a risk. PKK leaders are very clear what they want and have to do, but what is less clear is what Turkey wants and is going to give,” said Marcus. She added that it would be a real challenge for Turkey to give signals about what it has to do in the next few months.

Similarly, Akeyl said that the PKK is doing what it was supposed to do, like withdrawing its guerrillas from Turkey, so “we already have seen the fruit of non-violence.”

And she explained that it is very important for to people to see what peace process brings. Now, the Turkish government needs to move, and it is Turkey’s turn to announce some reforms in some areas which are strongly demanded by Kurdish population, using their mother language, education in Kurdish and public service in Kurdish majority areas.

She also added in the next constitution modification some amendments are necessary, like removing the article in which announced “Everyone who lives in Turkey is Turkish” and changin anti-terror laws which have put thousands people in prison in the KCK (Union of Communities in Kurdistan) trials.

Osman Ocalan explained that, when Turkey grants Kurdish cultural rights, Abdullah Ocalan is freed, access for using Kurdish language in education becomes more available, the PKK can disarm its guerrillas and train them for civic political activity.

He said Turkish officials talk a lot about finding a peaceful political solution for the Kurdish issue in Turkey, “but it is just talking and they haven’t done enough”.

“I know some changes have happened in Turkey’s hostile policy against Kurd, but it hasn’t accepted Kurdish rights as Kurds need and so that many Kurds become concerned about what Turkey has not been ready to provide to solve the problems.”

About the possibility of the PKK disarming, Kareem said that he does not expect the PKK to disarm soon because Kurds need their army. He reminded how the Kurdish fighters in Iraq, Peshmarga, haven’t been disarmed even though the President of Iraq became a Kurdish leader and many of their rights were realized in the Iraqi constitution. He also said the PKK wants some legal and administrative laws’ modifications in order to give local governments and mayors more powers and ability to implement their platforms. It wants also a political reform that let the PKK have the same chance as other Turkish parties have to operate in Turkey. Changing the election law is another PKK demand referencing to Turkey’s10 percent threshold for political parties to be voted into Parliament, which has prohibited Kurdish political parties from having their elected fractions in parliament.

Ocalan warned Turkey about not deceiving itself and Kurds too by slowing down the peace process, as it would be disastrous for both sides. Turkey should change its policy and accept Kurdish fundamental rights while “everyone is a winner with the peace process but no one will be a winner in fighting.”

Where do PKK guerrillas go after this peace resolution and how they go back to their families are the questions which can’t get easy answers because “There are many things behind the closed doors of this peace talk and no one know how the whole process is going on, what PKK should give up and what Turkey has promised to do, ” said Kareem.

He further explained that PKK guerillas have fought for their goal, which is a free, independent Kurdistan and, right now – if Ocalan is freed and some of the Kurdish rights get mentioned in the upcoming modified constitution – they will go back their homes.He added that typical PKK guerrillas would not have difficulties in going back cities, so they easily could get familiar with civil political activity. Only the PKK leading elite might face some difficulty to have a chance for operating their activities and so that they might go to some European countries to live.

Shna said, “Guerrillas’ nice behaviors and Kurdish people’s great love for them will facilitate this process.” And she argued that, if they could successfully adopt their tough life in the mountains, “even with wild animals”, why would it be it difficult to integrate with their own people?

There are some possibilities of cultural and moral clashes for those female guerrillas who left their families to become PKK fighter; they have gone to the mountains since the first half of the 1980s, so their knowledge and ideas have changed almost about everything. About how these differences could be digested by Kurdish society and what they expect, Shna said that she does not expect any moral and cultural clashes, and it also depends on the families and socio-cultural situations that receive the guerrillas.

Back to Akyel, about how the peace process is affected by the  Turkey-KRG relationships. She said that Turkey wants to control the situation on its southern borders where there is a rebuilding and establishment in northern Syria (what the PYD is doing in Kurdish majority towns). Turkey is acting like a big brother in the area. While it not talking with the PYD, very soon we might see such talks. With the Turkish-Kurdish opening, which is coming now, Turkey can start talking with the PYD transparently when they have solved their problem with the PKK.

Akyel said that, like Iraqi Kurdistan, northern Syria could be a market for Turkey. This is important for the Turkish economy and security too. Turkey wants to expand its economy and influence in the area. It can’t have good relationships with Kurds unless it has a good policy toward Kurds everywhere and has solved its Kurdish problem, although there is a paranoia in the Turkish street that, “If Turkey solves its Kurd problem, they mustn’t separate from Turkey”.

Marcus also thinks that what is going on between Turkey and the PKK has been affected strongly by Turkey-KRG relationships and their energy contracts. The Turkish consulate in Irbil and some PKK officials were telephoned to ask their opinions for this report, but they refused to answer the questions, and they did not answer further calls.This article was produced for one of the new journalism courses offered by the English department at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimanya.

Mohammed Hussein lives in Sulaymanyah where he is an editor for and an international study student at the American University of Iraq-Sulaymanyah . He has also worked as a translator and translated three books into Kurdish.