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What Does Gezi Park Mean for Peace in Turkey?

20/06/2013 15:59 BST | Updated 19/08/2013 10:12 BST

A few weeks ago the hottest topic in Turkey was the peace process with the PKK, until a small scale demonstration to protect trees in an Istanbul public park erupted into mass anti-government protests. The protests have underlined a number of stark realities about Turkey and will also leave their mark on this resolution process. While they have very different worldviews, what the supporter of PKK and the Gezi Park protesters have in common are their demands for a more sophisticated form of democracy - one which protects minorities as well as respecting the wishes of the majority.

Beginning in 2009 the peace negotiations with the PKK have brought Turkey closer to peace than ever before. Even the language of the conflict has changed. Recently the PKK has been referred to as a terrorist organisation only by the staunchest of nationalists, and the taboo subject of 'making peace with terrorists' has been superseded by questions over how to democratise more in order to bring peace.

So how has Turkey made such progress? First, in a move to initiate EU membership negotiations in 1999, the country began to pass a number of legislative packages for the improvement of human rights, rule of law and civil-military relations standards. And although Turkey's democratic credentials still come under fire at home and abroad, the AKP government's effective handling of the economy since 2002 has helped consolidate the process.

These positive conditions have been coupled with the 'ripeness' of the political environment in Turkey. The conflict with the PKK has been raging for almost 30 years and these days both sides know it is a standoff - outright victory, if it were coming, would have arrived by now. Even the associations for martyrs and veterans' relatives now talk about making peace by peaceful means, proof aplenty that there is readiness for conflict resolution.

The 'Arab Spring' has also turned the balances of power upside down in Turkey's immediate region. Starting with the invasion of Iraq and the formation of the Kurdistan Regional Government, the unfolding events in the Middle East and North Africa have brought important lessons for Turkey. The people of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have shown what happens to repressive regimes in the end. The worrying thing about the Gezi Park protests is that they call into question the extent to which the government have actually absorbed this. While it would have been possible to deal with demonstrations peacefully by using well established crisis management tools, a confrontational approach from the government has ended up exacerbating the situation.

Finally, due the substantial changes in Turkish foreign policy since 2002, the country has sought to situate itself as an active player on global and regional issues. From humanitarian aid to peacebuilding programmes in Africa, the country has become an increasingly important actor on the world stage, sought after as a peace mediator internationally. Yet, for a country to preach peace it first needs to sort out its own affairs and several challenges currently stand in the way.

The future disarmament of PKK is likely to be a highly conflicting issue moving forward. Other experiences of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration around the world show that linking the future of peace to disarmament is a misleading approach. When armed groups disarm they often only give up their broken or unwanted guns, and the number of weapons collected is only the tip of the iceberg.

Another sensitive issue is how to gain the support of non-Kurdish population for peace. For this, the 'Wise People's Commission', which includes a group of 63 influential public figures has been formed, with the objectives of listening to anxieties for peace and letting people air their concerns. The public meetings of this Commission were the most topical news items before the protests started.

Questions have also been raised over whether or not a Truth and Reconciliation Commission should be established. In transitions from war to peace it is important to know truths about the conflict, including the whereabouts of missing people and the extent of unlawful killings; however there is a sensitive relationship between truth and justice. Truth and reconciliation commissions are usually established on the basis of pardoning atrocities in return for truth. These decisions need to be made with care as they can have serious implications on the public's relationship with their leaders and each other. In the post Gezi Park protests context, this is likely to become one of the most controversial issues in Turkey.

The wider framework for all of these undertakings relies on the further democratisation of Turkey, which is why the current process of writing a new constitution really matters. Both the state and society need to make an effort to eliminate the patriarchal and discriminatory features of life in Turkey, ensuring that those who are not Turk, Muslim, Sunni, male, non-disabled, and those with different sexual preferences would perceive themselves as equal citizens. For positive peace it is important to ask for much more than the silencing of weapons - also for social justice, sustainable development and fair distribution of wealth.

The Gezi Park protests have shown that the population of Turkey cares about democracy. The reason that thousands of people took the streets was to demand a more advanced level of it - they were not prepared to let a 'majority rules' type of democracy govern their lives. Apart from the police violence, the protests were generally peaceful, giving us a glimpse of what traditionally ignored groups in mainstream politics, such as youth and women, could have to contribute to democratic governance. These are certainly excellent indicators for the future of democracy and peace in the country, but it's crucial that this new wave of politics is not crushed by the political establishment.

Once the conflict with the PKK is resolved - which is more of wish than expectation at the moment - Turkey must start to build a new future. At the heart of this should be a vision of a country free from fear and poverty, where people live with dignity, and this can only be built by all segments of society.

Such a country is what Gezi Park protestors have been demanding too. It is only then that it will be possible to talk about 'peace at home,' as Atatürk did almost 80 years ago.