A critical take on Turkey’s peace process

A critical take on Turkey’s peace process

Turkey’s fledgling efforts to give peace a chance have taken a crucial turn on Nevruz day with a tremendous crowd in the Kurdish-majority province of Diyarbakır, as many other millions across the country, held their breaths for the long-anticipated message of an outlawed group’s leader, Abdullah Öcalan.

On a day marking the arrival of spring and dubbed “historic” in both its literal and metaphoric meanings for Turkey, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) gave plenty of important messages blended with national and religious references as well as common historical connotations during his speech, the most important part of which was his opaque call for militants to leave Turkish soil – a key demand of his negotiation partner, the Turkish government.

The recent push for solving Turkey’s Kurdish question and its new phase with Öcalan’s message are deadly vital considering Turkey’s losses in the three-decade-long conflict. That being said, should the role of devil’s advocate be taken, the shortcomings in the peace process initiated by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) would feel a burning desire to resurface.

Today, it is obvious that the AKP government has engaged in a knife-edge task of solving the Kurdish question, especially via talks with the imprisoned PKK leader, who has been crucified for years by the state, the previous governments, nationalists and even sometimes self-proclaimed leftists or liberal groups, and belittled not only personally but also in a wider hostility to his people motivated by racism. While the AKP took the high risks of either winning all or losing almost everything by holding talks with Öcalan, it has done little to prepare the Turkish public opinion for the ongoing peace process.

The process has been arranged in a way that has so far failed to understand the sensitivities and desires of Turkish and Kurdish nations, not accessed the grassroots levels of society and neglected the traditionally skeptical Turkish public, which already has little sympathy or support for the talks with Öcalan. Acknowledging their significant role, not all but many news organizations’ U-turn on the legal and outlawed Kurdish movements and their leaders, particularly their recognition of Öcalan’s role as “yesterday’s arch-foe, today’s man of peace” in the process, was also eyebrow-raising considering the distorted and nationalist-fueled discourse of the widespread media.

Up to now, besides the anxious silence, no worrying signs among the public have surfaced, but the risk of backfiring is still high since even baby steps are highly flammable after a status quo shaped by decades of violence and bias.

And today, that status quo is the one sought to be taken down. In a step toward that goal, Öcalan offered his supporters the chance to turn the armed struggle into a democratic struggle. But like the government’s lack of clarity, Öcalan’s message also failed to give a clear picture, as he gave no further details on disarming nor on what he meant by a “democratic political process.” Obviously, the Kurdish movement is no more after the idea of forming an independent state, but where the level of their demands now stands in the middle of what Öcalan called a “rebirthing and re-standing” Middle East is also unclear.

Presenting the Turkish and Kurdish nations as “the two strategic powers” of the new Middle East, Öcalan also drew boundaries with a reference to the historic national pact that originally included today’s Iraqi Kurdish region on the eve of the birth of the Turkish Republic, which he said was established by the shoulder-to-shoulder fighting of Turks and Kurds. His national pact reference was a signal of his concern that his supporters might lean toward the influence of Iraqi Kurds in the new era, which he specifically underlined as “not an end, but a fresh start.”

Despite the shortcomings and unclear points, peace seems nearer than it ever has been and it will be the next steps, that are perhaps already awaiting the final touches of the government and the PKK, that will bring the real peace and long-needed reconciliation.