South of Istanbul, in an island prison, sits Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). For the last 14 years, following his 1999 capture by Turkish Special Forces, he has lived in solitary confinement on the isle of Imrali.
After his arrest in Kenya, Ocalan was sentenced to death, a punishment that was later commuted to life imprisonment. His PKK, branded a terrorist organization by the United States, European Union and NATO, has waged a nearly three-decade-long fight for autonomy in Turkey’s southeast. This conflict has caused more than 40,000 deaths since 1984.
Turkey and the PKK have made attempts to reconcile, but the talks collapsed. Now, real peace negotiations appear in the offing. Ironically, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan would choose Ocalan — also known as “The Baby Killer” in Turkish media — as his fight-for-peace partner.
Last year, Erdogan asserted that if his party had been in power when Ocalan was captured, he would have been hanged. Then again, by choosing Ocalan — widely believed to still be pulling the PKK’s strings, despite his imprisonment — Erdogan is putting his best politically motivated foot forward.
Unlike previous efforts, these peace plans have been talked about openly and publicly.
The ever-fragile process – sometimes referred to as the Imrali process – perhaps saw a tiny breakthrough on March 13 when the PKK released eight Turkish hostages held by PKK fighters in northern Iraq.
Today, coinciding with the Newroz festival, the traditional Kurdish New Year, the 64-year-old Ocalan called for a ceasefire and the withdrawal of thousands of his fighters from Turkish territory.
“We have reached the point where the guns must be silent and where ideas and politics must speak,” Ocalan said through pro-Kurdish legislators. “A new phase in our struggle is beginning. Now a door is opening to a phase where we are moving from armed resistance to an era of democratic political struggle. We have sacrificed for decades for [the Kurds] and have paid a big price. None of these sacrifices and struggles were in vain. Kurds regained their self-awareness, essence and identity.”
The reopening of peace talks between Ocalan, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the BDP began in late October, following a rise in casualties last year — 700 dead in 14 months, which stands as a 13-year-high, according to the International Crisis Group.
Kurdish officials have said Ocalan’s “road map” for the laying down of arms and the withdrawal of fighters would be in a trade-off for Erdogan’s AKP passing reforms affording the Kurds greater independence.
Erdogan’s response to Ocalan’s message was somewhat cautious, placing emphasis on the implementation of the cease-fire, and saying that Turkish security forces wouldn’t undertake operations against the rebels once the move was implemented. Beyond that, Turkey’s government hasn’t revealed what further steps it will take to ensure the peace process is successful. Earlier this week, Erdogan ruled out any “bargaining, concessions, back-stepping” or moves that would “hurt the families of the violence’s victims, the AP reported.
“Whatever step we take, we take it for (the welfare) of the people and the country,” he said.
Under current policy, thousands of Kurdish students, lawyers, activists and politicians have been arrested under Erdogan’s government on the flimsy charges of terrorist ties. And, until recently, education in Kurdish was banned.
Nevertheless, Turkey wants to be perceived as the beacon of democratic leadership in the Middle East. Peace with the PKK is almost a requirement for that goal.
“If we can resolve this issue and Kurds, Turks and others can look at each other as human beings and not as ethnic groups, we will release an explosion of development in Turkey and be the undisputed regional leader,” a senior Turkish government officials involved in the talks was quoted saying by the Wall Street Journal, or WSJ.
To that end, the government has made some concessions to the Kurds. “As a precursor to the talks, Ankara has demonstrated its seriousness by pushing through a number of reforms allowing the Kurdish language into the public sphere: last month a court decision removed restrictions on using Kurdish in political campaigns, and Turkey courts have begun allowing testimony in the Kurdish language,” Soner Cagaptay and Tyler Evans wrote for Al-Moniter.
Peace also has potential political benefits for Prime Minister Erdogan, who has made no secret of his desire to run for the presidency once Abdullah Gul steps down next year.
Nor has he camouflaged his eagerness to see the presidency strengthened. The current parliamentary system in Turkey accords the prime minister a good portion of the decision-making power, as the head of government. The president is a largely ceremonial role. Switching to a presidential system would reverse the power roles, giving more power to the president, thereby allowing Erdogan — if he should win the presidency — another title without a loss in control. The proposal submitted by Erdogan’s AKP to the parliamentary Constitutional Conciliation Commission would give the presidency significant powers, and over the judiciary.
Peace with the PKK could also put a stop to the growing PKK-linked Kurdish group in Syria, which threatens to spill over into Turkey. This branch, backed by an armed militia loyal to Ocalan, has “taken control in pockets of the country’s predominately Kurdish northeast,” according to the WSJ.
“In order for the withdrawal to take place quickly, and for the peace to be lasting” Ocalan said through the BDP’s Demirtas, “I hope that Parliament will fulfill the obligations of its historic mission at the same pace.”
Turkey will have to give up something to attain real peace and “regional leadership.” Let’s hope Turkey wants it enough this time round.
Elisha Maldonado is the editorial page editor for the International Business Times. Image of Rumeli fortress in Istanbul courtesy of Big Stock Photo.