Expert Panel Discusses Turkey’s Fragile Opportunity for Peace with the Kurds

MUTLU CIVIROGLU – RUDAW – 1. May 2013 – WASHINGTON DC- Turkey has a real opportunity to make peace with its large Kurdish minority, but real change will require commitment and is fraught with hurdles, speakers at a panel discussion said last week.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has declared a ceasefire in its three-decade conflict with Ankara, which has killed an estimated 40,000 people. It has said that its fighters will begin a phased withdrawal from Turkey to their mountain base in Iraqi Kurdistan on May 8.

Panel moderator Susan Corke, Director for Eurasia Programs at Freedom House, said there is a real opportunity in Turkey with the current peace process, acknowledging that the way will probably be fragile.

She added that real change will require real commitment on the part of Turkey’s leaders to fulfill the country’s democratic process, as there is a real danger that an authoritarian model could emerge.

Other speakers at the discussion by the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), titled “Turkey’s Troubled Politics: Rising Influence and Eroding Freedoms,” also voiced caution.

The event featured Howard Eissenstat, Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern History at St. Lawrence University and Turkey specialist for Amnesty International, and analyst and former Christian Science Monitor correspondent Yigal Schleifer.

Eissenstat said Turkey has some serious problems, some of them deeply rooted and difficult to address, and others easier to resolve.

He added that Turkish national culture is imbued with an allergic reaction to diversity, and a militarism that feels like the first half of the 20th century. He added that this situation made it very difficult for groups who are not seen as part of the national whole to freely voice their identity.

Schleifer, who has spent long years in Istanbul, provided a broader look. He noted that two years ago Turkey seemed to be at a crossroads with the European Union process looking dim, the “zero friends with neighbors” policy falling apart, and worsened relations with the United States.

Schleifer said although it was a discouraging picture, it later became a moment of reinvention for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). He said Erdogan injected new energy into the EU process, hardened and sharpened Turkish foreign policy, and most significantly, pursued a new Kurdish opening. He added that the emerging Kurdish power and the AKP’s desire to make better inroads in southeast Turkey to support constitutional efforts, encouraged Erdogan to choose to deal with the issue now.

Answering a question by Rudaw, Eissenstat called the Turkey-PKK negotiations a potential game changer that should be supported, but was pessimistic about their ultimate success.

“I have not seen any sort of generosity from the Turkish government in terms of their responses yet, even though Kurds have taken important steps and declared to withdraw their troops.”

He also said he is worried about a process in which PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan is negotiating from his isolated prison cell on Imrali island. He said that the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which has been mediating the talks, does not have a significant role in voicing the diversity of opinions within the Kurdish public.

Eissenstat raised concern that if the talks are not completed before the new constitution is in place, Erdogan can turn his back and leave the Kurds with nothing.

Responding to Rudaw’s question about PKK military leader Murat Karayilan’s announcement that fighters would begin a phased withdrawal from Turkey starting May 8, Schleifer said it was a positive step for confidence building, because there was a roadmap that everyone was following.

He said that securing Ocalan’s release was the PKK’s end goal.

“Releasing Ocalan is too early for now, and it is the ultimate big step,” he said.

He warned that political, social and economic reforms such as self-rule, mother tongue education and constitutional reforms that help establish Kurdish identity are expected by the Kurdish front. But he added that, like the majority of the Turkish public, he does not have a clear sense of the sacrifices Turkey would be ready to make. “Preparing the Turkish public for the next steps remains as a crucial issue” he noted. Schleifer said that the emergence of a Kurdish front in Syria had been the real impetus for Turkey to initiate the peace process. He stated that Ankara sees a possible Kurdish autonomy growing in Syria in addition to the existing one in Iraq. “Ankara understands that Kurds inside Turkey are looking across the border and seeing the developments and asking ‘why not us?’”