Ocalan’s Newroz Speech Similar to Last Year’s – Commentary by DAVID ROMANO – 27 March 2015 – RUDAW –

A lot of hype preceded jailed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan’s Newroz speech. Especially the Turkish government but also the Kurdish political movement in Turkey predicted a “historic” speech, hinting that Mr. Ocalan would tell his followers to lay down their arms and end the armed struggle.Nothing of the sort happened. 

When the Spring equinox of the Kurdish new year finally came to pass, the speech delivered on Ocalan’s behalf sound very much like the one given in 2014. Just like last year, Mr. Ocalan’s message focused on the need for “peaceful, democratic politics.” Fraternity, women’s liberation and “democratic community” made their usual appearance in both speeches.

In the same way as before, the PKK leader also spoke of dark conspiracies that caused the people of the region so much grief. In 2014, he railed against “international plots,” “the 200 year old conspiratorial-putschist regime based on capitalist modernity” and the attempts at “domination” by the “international GLADIO” (“Gladio” refers to what were originally anti-communist “stay behind” forces set up by NATO, which in Turkey are thought to have morphed into an unaccountable criminal element and key part of the “deep state”).

This year, Mr. Ocalan adjusted the conspiracy discourse slightly, stating that “We must know that ISIS is the latest tyranny to emerge elicited by the imperialist forces, who haven’t given up their ambitions on the Middle East.” For 2015, Mr. Ocalan again drew attention to “the crisis brought by the neoliberal politics of imperialist capitalism and its despotic local collaborators.”

As for the call on the PKK to lay down its arms, the message of 2015 did hint more towards this than before, but clearly stopped short of the “historic” call people had been led to expect: “…I see it as historically  necessary to hold a congress to bring to a stop the nearly 40-year armed struggle carried out by the PKK against the Turkish Republic, and to determine societal strategies and tactics suitable for a new period. I hope that it is possible to come to a principled agreement in a short time through the truth and reconciliation commission, which is composed of parliamentary members and the monitoring council, in order to make this congress successful. With this congress the new period begins.”  As we all know, a “congress” can take a lot of time to organize, may or may not happen soon, and could arrive at a lot of different conclusions.

So why the dashed expectations? Behind the scenes, the Turkish government – led by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc – had been negotiating with Mr. Ocalan and the PKK for some time to finally end the conflict. This time the Kurds were apparently demanding concrete statements and concessions in return for ending their armed struggle, and Ankara was devising policies to meet them half-way. So what happened?

President Erdogan happened, apparently. Although supposedly occupying a ceremonial, symbolic post, President Erdogan in the days before Newroz seemingly intervened repeatedly to derail the negotiations. He criticized a government he used to lead for its negotiations, repeatedly contradicting a Prime Minister in whose hands he was supposed to have left the government. When the government in Ankara said they would form a monitoring committee to oversee the talks, Mr. Erdogan immediately lashed out against the idea.  He then most helpfully took to podiums across Turkey, explaining things such as “We never had a Kurdish problem in this country. But it’s being kept on the agenda on purpose. We resolved this issue in my speech in 2005 in Diyarbakır. My Kurdish citizens may have problems but he or she has problems as much as Turkish citizens have.” Instead of using his considerable political capital and charisma to prepare Turkey for the demobilization and reintegration of the PKK and its supporters, which one might think is necessary for peace, President Erdogan seems to use every speech to continue demonizing the group (something which the Prime Minister and others also remain guilty of as well, although less glaringly). He even equates the Syrian Kurds with the PKK and the Islamic State, insisting they are “the same.” 

Given all these interventions from the dear President, even the imprisoned PKK leader – whom many suspect of suffering from some level of Stockholm Syndrome – could not go so far as to ask his movement to abandon a 40-year old uprising for nothing concrete in return.

Watching this whole sorry scene, many might lament the region’s tendency towards strong leader worship.  No matter what they did for their constituents and no matter how loved they might still be by many, there comes a time for fresh faces.  As Mark Twain famously remarked, “Politicians and diapers must be changed often – and for the same reason.”

David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He is the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and author of The Kurdish Nationalist Movement (2006, Cambridge University Press) and co-editor (with Mehmet Gurses) of Conflict, Democratization and the Kurds in the Middle East (2014, Palgrave Macmillan).

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.