ISTANBUL — The scene could not have been imagined just two years ago. Before a million Turkish Kurds, many waving their own tricolor flag, and with millions more Turks following it live on national television, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish PKK insurgency called via written letter for an end to his 30-year insurgency.
“A new era begins now, in which politics, not arms, comes to the fore,” Abdullah Ocalan said in the letter read in Turkish and Kurdish by leaders of the Kurdish-dominated Peace and Democracy Party. “Today we are waking up to a new Middle East, and a new future.”
Lest anyone doubt his goal, Ocalan, who is serving a life term in a Turkish jail, stated it repeatedly: To move “from armed struggle to democratic struggle.”
He spoke of “fraternity” between Kurds and Turks, the sacrifices both made in the war for Turkey’s independence, and used the very same words often spoken by Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan: “Let the weapons be silenced now, and let ideas and politics speak.”
Erdogan, who made Thursday’s event possible in the southern city of Diyarbakir, kept a low profile and was not even in the country. With critics in his own ruling Justice and Development Party and the nationalist opposition in mind, he welcomed Ocalan’s letter as a “positive development” but called for actions to follow the words. He criticized the Kurdish organizers for failing to display the Turkish flag at the rally.
But in fact he took a reciprocal step Friday. Responding to Ocalan (pronounced Odjalan), who called for the complete withdrawal of insurgents from Turkey – thought to total at least 1,600 armed militants – Erdogan (pronounced Erdowan) pledged that Turkish forces would not attack the PKK as they withdrew.
There have been previous false starts in efforts by Turkey, which has a population of nearly 80 million, to reach terms with its Kurdish minority of some 14 million, and the main question one day after Ocalan’s landmark statement was whether this effort would come to fruition.
One reason it could go further than anything that preceded it was that Erdogan appears to have prepared his part of the initiative carefully, through preliminary talks with Ocalan through the Turkish intelligence agency, and by initiating a series of reforms that could culminate in a new constitution and collectively would grant broad new rights to the Kurdish minority.
Current laws on terrorism and pretrial detention are used disproportionately against Kurds, among them Kurdish journalists.
Although no one will claim that the “fix” is in, and reconciliation is a certainty, the Turkish government knew the content of Ocalan’s speech before it was delivered and gave the all-clear to the country’s television channels, which often ignore major Kurdish rallies, to broadcast this one.
Ocalan also appears to have modified his goals, backing down from demands for a separate state or a federal state to a desire for a new national structure of more autonomous regions, akin to Britain, which has devolved much of its powers to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, or the United States, whose constitution has given extensive powers to the 50 states.
The new constitution now being discussed in the Turkish Parliament would establish a popularly elected president – a job Erdogan would very much like for himself – and is likely to strengthen regional autonomy.
A process of reconciliation with Turkey’s Kurds would have enormous implications for the constitution’s prospects, enabling the Kurdish party members to align with Erdogan’s Islamists to win approval for it.
If Ocalan’s PKK guerrillas follow his orders and in fact return to their redoubt in the Kurdish region of Iraq, Turkish authorities would be pressed by Turks as well as Kurds to loosen up the tight control now maintained by the center through appointed governors and subordinates in the different provinces.
The government has made a number of small confidence-building steps over the past months without prior announcement, none of which has caused a major flurry. Turkey’s national television channel has begun broadcasting in Kurdish. Governors appointed by Ankara have spoken of putting Kurdish language markers at the entrance of Kurdish towns.
Some steps are extremely subtle. The police chief in Diyarbakir, the biggest Kurdish city in Turkey, last week published an advertisement in local media offering congratulations – in Kurdish as well as Turkish – for international women’s day.
One of the strongest reasons the new initiative holds promise is that Erdogan has staked his own future on it. If he can end a 30-year-long conflict that has cost tens of thousands of lives, and usher in a new constitution that strengthens democratic institutions, he will be seen as a historic, possibly transformative figure. Besides strengthening Erdogan personally, it will also raise Turkey’s stature throughout the Middle East. Erdogan got a major boost Friday as Israel apologized to Turkey for its 2010 attack on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish aid ship carrying supplies to Gaza, in which nine Turks were killed.
In withdrawing from Turkey, the PKK guerrillas are also confirming the extent to which the insurgency has run aground. An offensive that the PKK mounted last summer led by hard-line field commanders, with the aim of seizing and holding territory, resulted in at least 112 Turks killed but three times that number of guerrillas. Meanwhile, the Turkish military continued frequent air attacks on Kurdish camps in the Qandil Mountains, the impact of which neither side has announced.
For an organization with an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 fighters altogether, the losses in Turkey were considerable. But the biggest problem for the PKK was that repeated opinion polls of Kurds in Turkey showed a desire to take advantage of Turkey’s remarkably successful economy, its expanding educational system and all the opportunities offered by a prospering country rather than seek a future in a separate, landlocked country that might take generations to turn into a successful state.
Special correspondent Joel Thomas contributed.