Last week Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK, called for a ceasefire with the Turkish state. The announcement garnered widespread international coverage largely because the announcement was made to coincide with the Persian/Kurdish New Year and not long after the government announced it was in direct talks with Ocalan himself. But will this lead to a meaningful lasting peace?
In the media there has been much made of the optimism surrounding the ceasefire. And, while no one wants to see the thirty year war of attrition between Kurdish fighters and the Turkish state continue - it has killed up to 40,000 people - it is not quite as simple as layering on positive press coverage and hoping for peace talks to prevail.
The PKK have called countless ceasefires in the past but they were not recognised by the Turkish state. The last one I witnessed personally come to an end in 2010 with a bold attack against riot police stationed in central Istanbul. It was a Sunday morning and I'd strolled through the square forty minutes prior to the attack. It had been a close shave and a reminder that Turkey is very much at war with itself. Later, I was on the exact same route home only to discover a very different scene. I entered the square just ten minutes after the bomber had struck. The injured were being ferried away in ambulances while some lay seriously wounded on the ground. Burned bodies were visible for old and young to see.
So why is this ceasefire different and should we believe the government and Ocalan when they say they want peace? Supporters of the Kurdish cause say that Ocalan's demands have changed and therefore provide a stronger starting point for negotiations. They say his old demands of democratic autonomy have shifted towards a more realistic view and that the recognition of more Kurdish rights and freedoms is the priority. The same demand accompanied by the armed struggle has in the past decade seen the lifting of a language ban on Kurdish, new Kurdish language media springing up inside Turkey and Kurdish language taught in some universities.
So what more can be done? At the very least, the recognition of Kurdish identity can be secured and enshrined in a new constitution presently being worked out in Ankara. Article 28 will define the identity of Turkish citizenship. In the present constitution all who reside in Turkey are described as 'Turk' an ethnic reference to identity that is rejected by the Kurds. The constitutional commission, a body that was formed from all four parties in parliament, seems to be close to agreement on this article with the ruling AKP party, main opposition CHP and Kurdish BDP party all seeking to use the term 'Turkish citizenship' or 'citizenship of the Turkish republic'. The nationalist MHP party strongly disagree however, and all points, must be agreed by consensus.
Pundits close to the government say Article 28 is the least of the commission's worries and that it is far from agreement on a host of other main Articles, for example, those that refer to freedom of religion and national security. Hundreds of Kurdish officials are currently in prison. Kurdish journalists are harassed and arrested for voicing their opinions.
Yes there is fresh momentum behind finding a lasting peaceful settlement between the PKK and the Turkish state, which would include disarming Kurdish fighters, but haven't we been here before? A Turkish journalist and long time watcher of the Kurdish cause who has studied the issue for his PhD told me that there is no real peace process. There is no suggestion from the government that an amnesty would be in the making and surely there needs to be talk of reconciliation for any type of peace process to move forward.
The timing is advantageous with Prime Minister Erdogan seeking to become Turkey's next president in 2014 - the first ever to be elected by popular vote after changes to the presidential election law were made in 2007. Changes made because Turkey struggled to accept the rise of a pro-Islamist president to the presidential palace, a post traditionally held by a pro-secular personality. Erdogan needs the support of the Kurds if he is to be elected president, and whether you love or hate the man, he is an extremely savvy politician.
I sincerely hope that this is not just a play by the Turkish government as Erdogan seeks election to the presidential palace - the solution to his constitutional last term in power as a leader in Turkey - and that a lasting peaceful solution may be found. But if history is anything to go by, the Kurdish initiative that Erdogan launched in 2009, fell flat on its face because it never addressed the fundamental issue of reconciliation.
There is of course another pressing issue for Turkey and that is the Syrian crisis. The political changes in the region are seeing Kurds from Iraq, Syria and Turkey find a common cause - the desire for an independent Kurdistan. This seems historically much closer to the present given the ongoing disintegration of the Syrian state. The Iranians are nervously watching these developments too. There is a large Kurdish population inside Iran.
Whether Ocalan can negotiate a peaceful end to the bloodshed with Erdogan remains to be seen. PKK fighters may withdraw to their bases in northern Iraq, but laying down their arms seems a long way off. We have seen PKK fighters agree to this step in the past, only then to be rejected and arrested by the Turkish state. There will be factions working against the peace process, there always are, but the parties working towards it must take an honest step towards reconciliation rather that just forwarding their own political aims. The bigger question therefore remains - is Turkey ready for reconciliation? And surely that should be the starting point for any real peace negotiations.Suggest a correction