Turkey and the PKK: A peace process without end goals?
Turkey and the PKK: A peace process without end goals?
Turkey and Russia’s Complicated Relationship
Turkey and Russia’s Complicated Relationship

Turkey and the PKK: A peace process without end goals?

This interview with Crisis Group’s Europe and Central Asia Deputy Program Director, Hugh Pope, is republished here with permission from .

There is much talk about the peace process, but there are no concrete steps to reaching a peace deal with regards to Turkey’s long-standing Kurdish issue, which is underlined in the International Crisis Group’s (ICG) recent report “Turkey and the PKK: Saving the Peace Process”.

The government and Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who is imprisoned on İmralı Island, have been conducting a series of meetings since 2011 in order to end the four-decade-long conflict between the PKK and the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) which has claimed 40,000 lives.

The ongoing talks had stalled in early October when scores of Kurds took to the streets to protest the government’s inaction over the Kurdish-populated Syrian town of Kobani, where radical Islamists and Kurdish groups fought for control of the town. More than 40 people were killed during the protests in Turkey.

In an interview with Today’s Zaman, Hugh Pope elaborated on the issue.

First, with regards to the title of your report, “Turkey and the PKK: Saving the Peace Process,” the government is not calling it a “peace process” but a “settlement process.” Have you spoken to any government officials about why they are not calling it a “peace process”?

There is a problem on both sides with the language that is used. It’s true that there is a difference between a “settlement process,” which implies that it’s a much lesser process than a “peace process,” which implies that there is a war. I suppose that’s the reason: Turkey never called it a war because that implies different rules — the treatment of armed combatants, allowing the International Red Cross access to people, etc. It’s good point. In practical terms, everyone knows what we are talking about; this is a peace process that started with the democratic opening of the [Justice and Development Party, also AK Party] AKP government in the 2009 period — the peace and brotherhood project. You can say this for both sides: The leaders are trying to present what they are doing in the least difficult language for their own constituency.

Talking about constituencies, the AK Party is always playing to its constituency and when it comes to the Kurdish issue, it sometimes competes with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in order to appeal to nationalist voters. We have another election approaching. What are you expecting?

The election affects the AKP’s willingness to engage and move forward with the Kurds. And it’s clear that the AKP has a high interest in making sure that the cease-fire does not break down and towns in the Southeast do not explode into rioting, like we saw a month ago. Our report is trying to argue: “Look at the all positive things that have been accumulated over the last nine years; both sides don’t want to go back to war, and the fact that you have two strong leaders who can negotiate, agree and implement a deal; and what you have right now may not exist next year.” Nobody knows what the future holds. A deal is only as good as the time in which you do the deal. It seems right now, especially given the international context, it will be better not to obsess about elections. However, most people in Ankara think that the final steps will not be taken until after the elections.

It seems like the government is not offering some concrete steps to make the process more transparent. What do you suggest in this regard?

That’s one of the main things that we set out to do with this report, to put out some concrete concepts that could be discussed — for example, maybe Öcalan could be freed; he has already spent 15 years in jail. He will never be completely free and live comfortably, he probably will have guards around for the rest of his life. For others, there could be criteria to suspend or reduce sentences for crimes and you have to negotiate the criteria. Transitional justice would require that both sides allow justice systems to deal with major human rights violations and mass crimes.

There is no such thing as “transitional justice” in the language used in Turkey right now.

Exactly, but someone has got to start talking about this. In Turkey, the idea of “general amnesty” is there. That’s a nice idea — some kind of sultanic or imperial idea that on the sultan’s birthday, there will be general amnesty and everyone will be free. That’s fine if you are living on an island but Turkey is not an island. There are international laws that Turkey adopted which means that if you let people off things, there are local actors who can challenge the peace deal in international courts, which will be very unfortunate. Turkey could really benefit here from learning about the Colombian peace process, where an enormous amount of work has been done to work out how to apportion justice fairly according to the world’s new rules. It is important to discuss things publicly; you cannot just surprise people with a deal — like what happened in Habur in 2011. You have to prepare people. That’s not happening enough. Neither side is talking clearly about what this deal would bring. It’s one of the problems of the peace process — there is no agreed end goal. The PKK also has to be clear about disarming in Turkey; it has to say that to the Turkish public opinion. It also has to say what democratic autonomy is. This is also not something to be negotiated between the PKK and the Turkish government since the PKK does not represent the Kurds. Demonstrably, the Kurdish national movement party gets less than half of the Kurdish vote, and more than half of the Kurds live in western Turkey, far away from a possible democratically autonomous area in the Southeast. This is an issue that affects all people in Turkey. If there is to be decentralization discussed in Turkey, it should be discussed in Ankara, in Parliament, and the [Peoples’ Democratic Party] HDP and the other Kurdish parties — [the Free Cause Party] Hüda-Par, Kemal Burkay’s group, AKP Kurds — should be involved as well.

At this point, the Turkish government does not seem to be ready for decentralization; on the contrary, it is taking steps to make the central government even more powerful. There is a debate on the issue. Academic Mithat Sancar, who is still with the body of ‘wise people’ formed by the government to solve the Kurdish issue, believes that Turkey’s Kurdish problem can be solved even if the AK Party government shows dictatorial tendencies. On the other hand, academic Baskın Oran, who resigned from his position in the group of ‘wise people,’ told me in last week’s Monday Talk that “believing the AKP can solve the Kurdish problem at this point is only wishful thinking. The AKP has adopted and is still adopting laws that allow the judiciary to be under the direction of the executive branch.” What do you think?

All governments can make peace if they want. It would be preferable to make it as broadly based as possible. It is an advantage to the peace process that there are two strong leaders involved. Erdoğan can clearly deliver to his constituency if he decides to do it — he could push for a peace deal, and it would cost him some political capital. If he wants to reach his objective of a strong Turkey in 2023, he has to get rid of this burden. Turkey can never really leap forward unless this problem is sorted out. Intellectually, he gets that, but given his political agenda, it could be too expensive for him. So we see delays in implementation. It’s the same thing for Öcalan. He has an authoritarian past, but it’s clear that he has immense authority over the Kurdish national movement. The Turkish government appreciates that because they have someone to deal with, but the Turkish government also has to be quite careful not to abuse that. Each time Öcalan saves the peace process from the brink of extinction — as happened last month and other times in the past — he seems to move a little further away from the Kurdish street, which is very volatile and angry, especially over Kobani. Öcalan is clearly committed to making it work, but if he gets too far away from the street, he will draw back from the negotiations. Authoritarians can make peace deals, sometimes more easily than democrats who have to go through the whole democratic process — compromise, negotiation, etc. — which is a work in progress in Turkey.

Do you think the recently suggested delegation of 16 people — eight from each side — will be useful?

It is absolutely vital that the negotiators agree on a watertight system of verifying and monitoring whatever is done. The breakdown of the process in Habur in 2011 showed how important it is to prepare. As the process in Colombia shows, preparations can take years — to make everything legal and implementable. But the better prepared the process is, the clearer the work of verification will be.

So is there anything to expect from the government leading up to the elections in 2015?

I expect slow progress. Some things have to change. The government has to commit to the process in a more convincing way, especially to bring the Kurdish street closer to it. It has to build confidence that something good is coming. For instance, the election threshold should come down to 5 percent. It is unfair for the national Kurdish movement that they have to compete in a national election with this artificially high threshold. The government can also speed up the negotiations and give a greater sense that they are genuinely happening. If Turkey allowed Öcalan, the PKK and the diaspora to come together in the negotiations, it would be good. It would also be good for the PKK people to see how different western Turkey is than the mountains in the east today; they have been away for a long time.

Can we say that the government’s main objective is winning the next election but not the peace process?

Yes, the main political objective of the government is winning the next election. Legalizing the negotiations is also a step forward. I have trouble saying that peace is not the main objective because I’m told there is a lot more going behind the scenes than is apparent to outsiders. There is a lot of traffic on İmralı; there are a lot of people in Ankara involved. The AKP has understood the long-term economic imperative of making peace, but that is always going to take second place to an election imperative.

What is the danger, the worst case scenario?

The danger is that the two sides go back to fighting. Tension is very much alive in eastern Turkey as an extension of the Syrian war, which could jump the border and come in. Having the peace process moving forward is a guarantee against that happening. Another danger is that as long as this kind of “process for the sake of process” atmosphere continues, the PKK will continue to build its parallel state structures in the east, which is provocative — it is not able to run the southeast, but at the same time undermines the official structures there. It confuses people and makes things less easy to solve. It’s unfinished business. There is an economic cost as well. As long as people see it unfinished, people will not make investments there. And the regional situation is very threatening to Turkey. Turkey can do nothing about the situation in Syria or Iraq. Those conflicts are damaging to Turkey. For Turkey to defend itself, it needs to consolidate its home front, and make a settlement where it can control things better behind its own borders.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

People forget that 10-20 years ago, Turkey was burdened by the omnipresent torture of people. Turkey has been able to clean up its act. The process over the past nine years has helped that. The PKK has also changed; having a discussion with the PKK was very difficult, [because] they had a dogmatic approach. The Kurdish national movement has become a much broader movement. It’s very refreshing to talk with HDP deputies. And on the issue of the Islamic State [(IS), also referred to as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)], Ankara rejects any deals with the IS leadership. If you ask Kurds, they assume that Erdoğan is the secret caliph of the IS, but the IS wants to eat Erdoğan for dinner; he is on their list of targets, and just not on today’s list. Both the PKK and the [Turkish] government have a common enemy: the IS. They should act on that, they should vocalize it and they should reassure each other on this important point.

Some people in Turkey believe that the AK Party, especially after the elections, will make Turkey more Islamic, and therefore may be more appealing to the IS.

Of course, there are signs of the government slowly enacting an Islamic agenda. But I think you can push Turkey just so far. Turkey is not going to become like that — an Islamic state. It cannot be run like a Middle Eastern state with an oil income that will force everything in one direction; no, that’s not my working assumption. I think those who seek to put more Islam into Turkish politics should take a lesson from what’s happened in Iran. Yes, 35 years after the Islamic revolution, it is still an Islamic republic, but the once very pious Iranian people are now one of the most secular in the Middle East.

Is the PKK seeking international legitimacy?

Definitely, the PKK is seeking international legitimacy. The organization was very happy to get — for the first time — very positive international coverage. And it’s true that the PKK has saved tens of thousands of people from the IS. And the PKK’s ability to strengthen the peshmerga’s [military] lines in Iraq got them a lot of points in Iraqi Kurdish society, and in Syrian Kurdish areas, too. International coverage of the PKK was suddenly quite positive; of course, it helps the PKK to be on the same political side as the United States, and the US loves an ally that loves Americans. In the New York Times, a report said, “At least the Kurds like us.” The [Kurdish] legitimacy is a goal, and it should be available to the PKK if there is a final peace deal in Turkey. At the same time, we need to be aware that last month, four off-duty service members in civilian clothes were murdered in cold blood; the PKK denies that it was them, but it was clearly associated with people close to the PKK. This kind of activity is, of course, against the rules of war.

Could the US and/or the EU take the PKK off the terrorist and drug-smuggler list?

There is interest in doing that, but it’s not going to happen until Turkey says so. Even when Turkey does that, it’s not going to change overnight. Look at the PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (N. Iraq)] and the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party (N. Iraq), also known as peshmerga]; even if the US is fully engaged with them, they are still in the secondary terrorist designation list in the US Congress to this day, even though the US is fully engaged with them. It’s like mud being thrown; once you are registered as a terrorist, it stays there. And it is not just that, many of the PKK leaders have been registered as kingpin drug smugglers. That’s very difficult to get rid of.

Podcast / Global

Turkey and Russia’s Complicated Relationship

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker and Hugh Pope talk to expert Eleonora Tafuro, a research fellow at ISPI, to make sense of the complicated relationship between Russia and Turkey that has veered from collaborative to adversarial, often landing somewhere in between.

Russia and Turkey’s complex relationship sometimes baffles outside observers. In many respects, Turkey and Russia are fierce competitors: Moscow and Ankara back opposing camps in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh, and Turkey is a member of NATO – the alliance Russia views as both adversary and threat. Nevertheless, this has not prevented collaboration between the two powers, who share profound economic and cultural ties and have made concerted efforts to deepen diplomatic relations, often to the frustration of Turkey's Western allies. 

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker and Hugh Pope talk to Eleonora Tafuro Ambrosetti, a research fellow at ISPI, about Russo-Turkish relations. Eleonora helps unpack the two countries’ complex relationship and sketch out the deep economic and cultural ties connecting them, as well as the numerous sources of tension pitting Ankara against Moscow. She discusses Turkey’s juggling act in balancing relations with the EU and the Kremlin, and how Russo-Turkish relations and soft power shape geopolitics in Central Asia, the Caucasus and Africa. Mainly recorded prior to the massive invasion of Ukraine by Russia in late February, this episode also includes a brief addendum to reflect those events.

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

N.B. Please note that this episode was recorded in late January 2022.

For more on Turkish foreign policy, check out our Turkey regional page. For analysis on the Ukraine crisis and its global implications, make sure to explore our Ukraine page and read our latest Q&A: “The Ukraine War: A Global Crisis”.

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