Whatever happened to Turkey’s peace process?

IssueDecember 2013
News by Emily Johns , Milan Rai

After some deft public relations interventions in September and November, Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is not expected to make any serious moves before the March 2014 local elections.

In April, we speculated that Erdogan was spurred to initiate peace talks with the PKK by the mass nonviolent uprising of Turkish Kurds last autumn, sparked by a Kurdish prisoners’ hunger strike that began last September (see PN 2556, and 2552-2553). It may need another dose of grassroots mobilisation to force the government to get serious with the peace process.

The initial signs were promising. The government passed laws in January allowing the use of native languages in court cases. The PKK reciprocated with the release of eight prisoners and the declaration of a ‘formal and clear ceasefire’ in March. The PKK also began withdrawing thousands of its fighters from Turkish territory in May, a process that was conditional on further concessions by the government.

These were not forthcoming, and the withdrawal was suspended in September.

At the end of September, Erdogan announced a limited package of reforms generally seen as inadequate.

Quick brown fox?

Erdogan dropped the requirement for schoolchildren to promise every week to be ‘a good Turk’, and proposed laws allowing the use of letters that appear in the Kurdish but not the Turkish alphabet, such as ‘w’, ‘q’ and ‘x’.

He allowed mother-tongue instruction in schools – but only in private schools. The prime minister also floated the idea of allowing parliament to vote on lowering the 10 per cent threshold for parties to enter parliament… sometime.

No prisoners were released (not even the 33 mayors from the legal Kurdish party, the BDP), and no reduction in the use of ‘counter-terror’ laws to detain and prosecute thousands of journalists and peaceful protesters.

Almost a month after Erdogan’s package was announced, the co-chair of the BDP, Gulten Kisanak, described the peace process to Al-Monitor on 25 October as ‘taut but not ruptured’. Earlier she had said: ‘This is not a democratisation package but an election package.’

Using Barzani

On 20 November, Erdogan took his most dramatic step, hosting the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan regional government, Massoud Barzani, in the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir.

As well as allowing Kurdish flags to fly, Erdogan used the word ‘Kurdistan’, never before spoken by Turkish officials. However, he did not make any substantive announcements in terms of changing laws or releasing prisoners.

The regional government in Iraqi Kurdistan is building oil pipelines to Turkey as the two economies become more intertwined and interdependent.

At the end of November, it was reported that the North Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP-Bakur), a Kurdish party linked to Barzani’s father, was seeking legal status in Turkey, raising the prospect that Erdogan and Barzani may be finding new ways to cooperate in undermining the PKK and its allies. Erdogan when he spoke alongside Barzani on 20 November specifically mentioned Barzani’s father’s 1932 visit to Turkish Kurdistan.

Both Erdogan and Barzani are worried by the development of an autonomous Kurdish zone – with strong links to the PKK – in Syria’s oil-rich north-east, neighbouring both their territories.

Topics: Peacemaking