Friday, Feb. 15th, was the 14th anniversary of the capture of Abdullah Öcalan, the founding leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). On that date in 1999 he was forced to leave the Greek Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, in a joint operation between the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT) and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Four months earlier in October 1998, following an ultimatum by the Turkish government, endorsed by Egypt and Iran, Hafez (the father of Bashar) al-Assad had to end his long stay in Syria. After spending months on the run between European capitals such as Athens, Moscow and Rome, he was brought to and jailed in Turkey on Feb. 16, 1999. For the last 14 years he has been in a room that is slightly larger than 11 square meters.
On Friday, stories were leaked to the Turkish press - possibly by sources from the İmrali island prison in the middle of the Marmara Sea, south of Istanbul -about the days Öcalan spends in captivity. He spends about 300 liras ($167) a month on newspapers, crackers and snacks from the jail canteen; he has read around 2,300 books and magazines so far; and he has grown a Stalin-like moustache. The leak was a typical psycho-op, a way to familiarize the Turkish public with a possible normalization of the situation.
It would not be wrong to hope for a normalization in Turkey’s chronic Kurdish problem, which was enflamed when the PKK started its armed campaign around 30 years ago with the target of carving an independent Kurdish state out of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, which has claimed 40,000 lives so far. The process was initiated by Erdoğan when he restarted talks for a political solution between Öcalan and Hakan Fidan, the head of MİT, late in 2012. Soon after, the Kurdish problem-focused Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which “shares the same grassroots” with the PKK, became involved in the talks and sent a delegation to İmralı, after receiving permission from Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin and with the approval of Erdoğan. This was something unthinkable until a few years ago, but it received unexpected, though cautious and silent support from Turkish society. People – and the parents of both soldiers and militants - are fed up with this enduring conflict. Only the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) is openly opposed to the talks.
Now another BDP delegation is expected to go to İmralı this coming week. Expectations are high. To start with, Erdoğan wants the PKK militants in Turkey to abandon their arms and leave the country, with promises that unless they themselves attacked, the Turkish security forces would not touch them on their exit. The PKK, on the other hand, wants the release of arrested alleged members of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), the popular front of the PKK, as a first step. That one could indirectly be provided by a legal plan (the “Fourth Package” as the government calls it) that is expected to be submitted to Parliament this coming week, too.
What Öcalan wants
The question is: What does Öcalan want? As the 64-year-old leader of an armed organization that has failed to succeed its original goal, but at the same time has succeeded in surviving against one of the strongest armies in the Western alliance NATO, and having spent his last 14 years in a room little more than 11 square meters, spending 300 liras a month wearing a Stalin-like moustache, what does he want?
He would like to be free, of course. If that is not possible at first, he would like to live under better circumstances, better prison conditions, to be able to be in better communication with his people and, of course, knowing that the whole picture could go back to square one if the “normalization” becomes violated. As long as the stakes are as high and as attractive as freedom, there is room to be hopeful for a political solution to the Kurdish problem.
Murat Yetkin is the current editor-in-chief of Hurriyet Daily News and a columnist for Radikal, a Turkish publication. He is a political commentator on Turkish and Middle Eastern affairs and has previously worked for BBC World Service and AFP. He can be found on Twitter: @MuratYetkin2.