Τετάρτη, 20 Μαρτίου 2013

CONFLICTING NARRATIVES, DEFLATING HOPES: PROSPECTS FOR THE İMRALI PROCESS


Gareth H. Jenkins
On March 13, 2013, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) released eight prisoners, all of them members of the Turkish security forces or state officials, in a goodwill gesture as part of the ongoing dialogue between the Turkish state and PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan to put an end to the organization’s 29 year-old insurgency and address the grievances of Turkey’s Kurdish minority. The Turkish media have hailed the release of the prisoners as proof that a resolution of the Kurdish issue is finally in sight. But there is still no sign that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is prepared even to contemplate meeting Kurdish demands and making the concessions necessary to persuade the PKK to lay down its arms.
BACKGROUND: In 2012, the PKK stepped up and diversified its insurgency in southeast Turkey, including attempting to assert its control over territory for the first time since the early 1990s. The campaign was initially successful. However, their resultant reduced mobility left PKK units more vulnerable to attack by the Turkish security forces and the organization suffered heavy casualties as a result.
Nevertheless, the PKK has remained upbeat. In recent years, the PKK’s main objective has been to use violence as a form of psychological attrition in order to force the Turkish state to the negotiating table. But, in 2012, hardliners in the PKK high command in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq increasingly began to talk of being able to achieve their objectives through a military victory on the battlefield. Such rhetoric appears unrealistic. Even though the Turkish military has been unable to eradicate the PKK, there appears little imminent prospect of it being defeated by the organization. But the optimism of the PKK hardliners is the product not just of an inflated assessment of the organization’s achievements and capabilities, but observations of events elsewhere in the region. In Iraq, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is becoming increasingly self-confident and its already tenuous ties with the central government in Baghdad are being stretched to breaking point. During summer 2012, the withdrawal of pro-regime forces from parts of northern Syria triggered the emergence of what are now de facto autonomous Kurdish enclaves. For the leaders of the PKK there is a sense that history is moving in their direction and that, in the region as a whole, Kurds are finally on the brink of achieving their ambitions of self-rule.
In September 2012, a handful of Kurdish nationalist prisoners in Turkish jails started refusing solid food. By mid-November 2012, over 700 Kurdish nationalists were on hunger strike. Their demands were virtually identical to those of the PKK, namely: full Kurdish language rights, including allowing its use in courts and as a medium of instruction in schools; an easing of the isolation of Öcalan on the prison island of İmralı; and the establishment of “democratic autonomy” for predominantly Kurdish areas of Turkey. On November 17, 2012, in a message delivered by his brother Mehmet who had visited him on İmralı, Öcalan called for an end to the hunger strike. In a demonstration of Öcalan’s continuing iconic status for Kurdish nationalists, the hunger strikers all promptly abandoned their fast.
It was this demonstration of Öcalan’s influence that prompted the Turkish state to upgrade its occasional contacts with him into full-blown negotiations in what has become known as the “İmralı Process.” From the outset, Erdoğan insisted that the dialogue would be restricted to the Turkish state and Öcalan. Neither the PKK nor the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which is represented in the Turkish parliament, would be included.
Starting in December 2012, officials from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) began briefing journalists that the İmralı Process would result in the PKK withdrawing from Turkey and abandoning its armed struggle. Erdoğan even went on national television to pledge that the Turkish state would not pursue PKK militants if they laid down their arms and relocated to another country. In an alarming demonstration of the cowed and sycophantic state of the Turkish media, only a handful of journalists had the temerity to ask what Erdoğan and the AKP would give in return.
IMPLICATIONS: On January 3, 2013, the AKP allowed a delegation from the BDP to visit Öcalan on İmralı. But the AKP made it clear they were only going to receive a briefing from Öcalan, not to participate in the negotiating process. On February 23, 2013, another BDP delegation was allowed to travel to İmralı, this time to be confidentially briefed on the content of some letters that Öcalan was going to write to the PKK high command in Qandil and to PKK activists in Europe. It was again made clear to the BDP delegation that they would not be involved in the negotiations themselves.
AKP officials continued to brief journalists, who dutifully wrote paeans to Erdoğan’s “courage” for attempting to solve the most intractable problem in modern Turkish history. The Turkish media also began to publish details of what they said would be the content of Öcalan’s letters, including a roadmap for a resolution of the conflict: starting with the release of eight prisoners who were being held by the PKK, followed by an announcement of a ceasefire at the Kurdish New Year of Newroz on 21 March and culminating in the PKK withdrawing from Turkey and laying down its arms. Again, the AKP officials gave no indication of what the Turkish government would be prepared to give in return and – most extraordinarily – few in the Turkish media dared to ask. Instead, most reported the end of the PKK insurgency as if it was virtually a fait accompli.
Not surprisingly, Kurdish nationalists have been more cautious. For many, Öcalan’s incarceration on İmralı has transformed him from a guerilla to a living martyr for the Kurdish nationalist cause, whose isolation has only added to his mystique. Until the contents of his reported roadmap became clear, few Kurdish nationalists – even the PKK command in Qandil – were prepared to comment on what it might contain.
However, the relentless disinformation in the Turkish media eventually proved too much for some members of the BDP who had read the confidential minutes of Öcalan’s meeting with the BDP delegation on February 23, 2013. They leaked the minutes to Namık Durukan, a Kurdish journalist working for the daily Milliyet, which duly published extended extracts from them on February 28, 2013.
The publication of the minutes prompted a furious reaction from the AKP. Erdoğan immediately accused the BDP of attempting to sabotage the “Peace Process”. In fact, the real damage caused by the publication of the minutes was not to the negotiations but to the AKP’s version of them that it had been assiduously feeding to the Turkish media. In the minutes, Öcalan’s long monologues to the BDP delegation are characterized by the rambling paranoia and often intellectually semi-coherent world view familiar from his published writings. At one point, Öcalan even claims that he has been personally responsible for enabling the AKP to remain in power for the last ten years, while the BDP delegation fawn over him like gushing teenagers meeting a pop star. But what the minutes also make very clear is that each of the different stages in the roadmap that Öcalan has drawn up – and which has been selectively leaked by the AKP to the Turkish media – comes with a price.
For example, Öcalan does call on the PKK to release the prisoners that it is holding. But it is in the expectation that it will be followed by the reciprocal release of Kurdish nationalists from Turkish jails. In essence, Öcalan’s roadmap consists of a series of confidence-building measures to be taken reciprocally by both the PKK and the Turkish state – not, as the AKP has been briefing Turkish journalists, by the PKK unilaterally. Öcalan also makes it clear that any final resolution of the Kurdish issue, including the PKK laying down its arms, is dependent on the AKP meeting all of the Kurdish nationalists’ demands, including not only full cultural rights and self-rule for predominantly Kurdish areas but his own release from prison. Erdoğan has repeatedly insisted that he is not prepared to meet even a fraction of these demands. Indeed, given the level of Turkish nationalist sentiment in the country and the visceral hatred with which Öcalan is regarded by a substantial proportion of the population, it is debatable whether any government could afford to meet all of Öcalan’s demands without risking mass public protests and severe domestic instability.
CONCLUSIONS: Many Kurdish nationalists suspect that the İmralı Process is merely a ploy by Erdoğan. They argue that he is trying to create a sense of optimism and convince people that he is genuinely committed to resolving the Kurdish issue so that, when the process eventually collapses, he can use the AKP’s control of the media to lay the blame on the Kurdish nationalists, He would thus be able to go into the presidential elections in 2014 claiming that he had done everything possible for peace without offering any concrete concessions that might alienate Turkish nationalist voters. These suspicions were hardly allayed by the recent intensification of Turkish air raids against PKK camps and bases in northern Iraq.
However, there is still a possibility that the PKK may follow up its release of its prisoners by announcing a temporary ceasefire or scaling back its insurgency when the spring thaw ushers in the new campaigning season in late March. Although some hardliners believe that a military victory is possible, the PKK has repeatedly expressed its preference for a negotiated settlement. Even if it remains deeply skeptical of the AKP’s intentions, the PKK may decide to reduce its campaign of violence until the İmralı Process can be shown to have failed.
Under the current circumstances, the gap between the Kurdish nationalists and the AKP is too wide for a respite from violence to be anything but short-lived. Realistically, both sides need to make major concessions before there can be any realistic prospect of a permanent solution. This is a major challenge for Kurdish nationalists, not least because the younger generation of Kurds have much higher demands than their parents and their ambitions are being further whetted by events elsewhere in the region. But it also means that, if there is to be one, the real test of Erdoğan’s courage still lies in the future.
Gareth H. Jenkins is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.

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