On 23 March, the Kurdish Workers’ Party (the PKK) declared a ‘formal and clear ceasefire’ in the guerrilla war it has been fighting with the Turkish government since 1984, which has cost over 35,000 lives.
While this is the third major PKK ceasefire since 1999, there are signs that this time there may be an opportunity for a genuine peace process.
Jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan (known as ‘Apo’ or ‘uncle’) said on 21 March it was ‘time for the guns to go silent’.
Öcalan called on the thousands of armed PKK fighters in Turkish Kurdistan to withdraw to bases in northern Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan).
Murat Karayilan, the PKK’s military commander, responded publicly: ‘We will implement with determination the process initiated by our chief Apo.’
The withdrawal will take place by August, if the Turkish government grants greater rights and autonomy to the 15-million-strong Kurdish minority.
The government has been showing its willingness, passing laws in January allowing the use of native languages in court cases, as well as discussing the use of Kurdish in education.
In what may have been a reciprocal move, Öcalan in February ordered the release of eight Turkish prisoners held by the PKK, freed on 13 March.
It is now known that the negotiations with Öcalan began in October. The question the mainstream media is not asking is: why October?
The reason, quite clearly, is the hunger strike begun on 12 September by 670 Kurdish prisoners, which by October had turned into a mass uprising of Kurdish civil society.
The government estimated the number of hunger strikers inside and outside prison at 1,700; the parliamentary Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) claimed 10,000 were taking part – including seven of its MPs.
In Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish south-east, shops and transport services were on strike, and clashes began with demonstrators, raising fears of what would happen if any of the hunger strikers died.
The hunger strikers were demanding that the Kurdish language be permitted in education and court hearings (as is now being granted), and for the start of peace talks between the PKK and the government, naming Öcalan as a key participant.
The hunger strikes came to an end on 18 November – when Öcalan ordered a halt, confirming his position as leader of the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary movement as well as of the PKK’s guerrilla forces (see PN 2552).
There are powerful reasons for Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to follow through on his deal with Öcalan.
Erdogan’s major political project at the moment is establishing a new, more authoritarian, presidential constitution (with himself as president). He is opposed by all the other major parties – except the Kurdish BDP, whose votes could be critical to passing the new constitution. Öcalan has no objection to this quid pro quo.
Secondly, Sunni Turkey faces increasing friction with Shia-led Iran and Iraq, and Alawite-led Syria. Making peace at home removes a worrying vulnerability (as does making up with Israel).
Turkey may be preparing for a major geopolitical move. In January, Erdogan threatened to seek membership of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (aligning with Russia and China), rather than continuing to seek membership of the EU. This was probably just a bluff.
Either way, quieting the Kurdish insurgencies – armed and nonviolent – may be a small price to pay, given the stakes Erdogan is playing for.