Kurdish Opening: Opportunities and the Challenges Ahead

On March 21, 2013 Turkey entered a new period with the reading of a letter from Öcalan to the crowds gathered in Diyarbakir on Newruz day, the traditional Kurdish Spring festival, calling for a cease-fire and the withdrawal of PKK fighters from Turkish territory. The letter did not contain the technical details of the withdrawal; nonetheless Öcalan’s remarks of ‘‘the opening of a door that leads from armed struggle to a democratic struggle’’ hinted at the departure from the idea of an autonomous Kurdistan. Following Öcalan’s call the PKK declared ceasefire the next day and the very same week a group of 100 militants left Turkey and passed to the PKK camps in northern Iraq.


The initiation of PKK withdrawals prompted the government to work on the physiological part of the process. Prime Minister Erdoğan announced that Wise Men commissions would be formed soon.  In the meanwhile the government has begun to take political steps that would contribute to the peace process and build up mutual confidence. The fourth judicial reform package is significant in this sense.

One of the most important amendments the package brings is a revision to terrorism laws. The bill suggests a clear distinction between those practically involved in terrorist activities and those involved merely in propagandas legitimizing violence. It also distinguishes between the people who avoid violence and those who make use of a discourse inciting violence.

By virtue of demonstrating that there is a process in action, all these developments are important and promising. However, first and foremost the ambiguities that surround the timeline and content of the peace process are a source of concern. Within the current political context neither the government nor the Kurdish movement appears to predicate the process upon a certain timeline. It is a common presumption that the resolution of the Kurdish problem as a whole will take a long time; but there is no rough schedule on how long each stage should approximately be. Furthermore, it is also unclear how the three stage formula would be carried out and what each step would exactly consist of. Strong and decisive political will of the government does not always translate into a definite political program that will be carried out to solve the issue.

Ambiguities are not one sided—they are also valid for the Kurdish movement. Except for some well-known demands such as amnesty for Öcalan, the use of the Kurdish language in education, and changes in the definition for citizenship, Kurdish actors have yet to come up with a specific list of demands. Even if there is such a list, there is still prevalent confusion in Turkish society regarding what Kurds really want. Unless they are clarified soon, the ambiguities surrounding the peace process will only create more problems along the way.

Another problem that could trouble the peace efforts is the prevailing approach towards the solution of the Kurdish issue. The political rhetoric used by politicians to justify the current peace process should move away from highlighting an end to armed conflict and instead prioritize democratization. That being said, democratization in itself not sufficient for the resolution of the problem. In other words, it would be overly simplistic to reduce the Kurdish issue to Turkey’s democracy problem or Turkey’s democratization to the Kurdish issue alone. There is no doubt that resolution of the Kurdish problem will enhance Turkey’s democracy standards. In the same manner, democratization reforms in Turkey will benefit Turkish society as a whole including its Kurdish population. The solution lies in an approach that encompasses democratization, but goes beyond it.

The third problem concerns the possible setbacks that could be caused by those who oppose the process. It is true that the recent events have solidified Öcalan’s position as a representative of the Kurdish movement. However this doesn’t mean he would have no problems in controlling various actors within the movement. Acts of sabotage, provocations, and attacks are a real possibility. They may reverse the process by causing a huge public uproar. Therefore the BDP should assume greater responsibility to coordinate between different legs of the Kurdish movement to prevent any road accidents. So far, the party has only performed a mediator role, carrying messages between Öcalan and the PKK. Instead, it should more actively get engaged in the peace process, developing its own projects and plans to help the process proceed. 

The same risk applies to the state as well. Despite the fact that the peace process is mainly  political, coordination between different state institutions, especially the judiciary, is of utmost importance. This is especially the case when it comes to the implementation of new regulations and laws by the judges and prosecutors who could invoke the gaps in the new laws detrimental to the ongoing process. In this respect Turkey’s Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors’ (HSYK) decision to set up new criteria for the promotion of judges and prosecutors is significant. According to the new regulation judges and prosecutors whose discretionary rulings do not comply with the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) will not get a promotion by the HSYK. This practice is worth praising, however the need for more comprehensive legal guarantees for both state and non-state actors involved in the peace process is urgent.

The possible setbacks and problems that might be experienced along the peace road do not appear restricted to the aforementioned ones. The paramount precondition for the success of this process is good intentions by both sides and support and patience of the Turkish public for the attainment of peace. In times when Turkey appears to be the closest to peace than ever before in its history, failure of the negotiations may backfire and take the country to a point worse than before.

Selin Bolme is a visiting researcher in the Defense Studies Department at King’s College London. Müjge Küçükkeleş, a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Turkey Young America program, is a researcher in the Foreign Policy Program at the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Studies.

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