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Bargaining Kurdish rights with the PKK

Mahir Zeynalov

Published: Updated:

A peace process aimed at burying decades-old hostilities between the Turkish state and its Kurdish minority has emerged as a hopeful positive development but soon turned into a battle for influence and electoral calculations.

For years, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government was busy banging its head against the wall and groping for ways to improve the rights and freedoms of its Kurdish citizens.

The first serious effort to broaden Kurdish rights emerged in 2009, when the government launched an initiative to isolate the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and embrace Kurds. This and other similar efforts failed to yield a significant return.

The violence has started to accelerate since early 2011 and reached the climax in the summer, right after the parliamentary elections. In late 2012, the Turkish authorities announced that they were holding talks with jailed leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, in an attempt to end the violence that has left more than 40,000 people dead.

High-level violence surprisingly replaced with a peace process that ended PKK’s “armed struggle.” The withdrawal of PKK militants from Turkey started this May.

In sharp comments to the Turkish government, leader of the PKK’s military wing, Cemil Bayık said in August that the peace process is on the brink of collapse and that the PKK is set to launch a new war if the government doesn’t address to their demands.

Possibility of war

The possibility of war increased last week, when Bayık said they are halting the withdrawal process and that they maintain the right to retaliate if the army launches a military operation against them.

“Where to from here?” is the tougher question.

The PKK is consigned to the role of the outsider peering in, unless it starts to embrace the entire Kurdish population, something that is not too likely given the PKK’s history of violence and terror.

The PKK is consigned to the role of the outsider peering in, unless it starts to embrace the entire Kurdish population, something that is not too likely given the PKK’s history of violence and terror.

Mahir Zeynalov

According to the last electoral results of the PKK's political arm, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), enjoys only 30 percent of popularity in southeastern Turkey, an area predominantly populated by Kurds.

Unsure about the government’s intention, instead of withdrawing its militants from the Turkish soil as part of the peace process, the PKK is altering its conventional structure in the region.

Government officials frequently claim that only up to 20 percent of PKK militants have left Turkish territory into Iraq since May. Aware of the fact that the Turkish military won’t launch raids to maintain the fragile peace process, the PKK has set up a number of military checkpoints in southeastern Turkey, taxing rich Kurdish families and terrorizing villages.

The PKK is exploiting the peace process to entrench its regional influence. In a remark highlighting this fact, Erdoğan acknowledged that the PKK established checkpoints in the region but stressed that the media is exaggerating the situation.

With rising expectations that the peace process may be the last chance at peace, a sense of unease was often heard among the Turkish public.

Unwilling

The PKK wants what Ankara appears unwilling to give: their demands being addressed without further moving their members out of Turkish soil. The Turkish government finds the concessions the PKK demands are far too lopsided.

A collapse of the peace process would be a potential stinging blow to the government ahead of key elections next year. A series of intense meetings of top-level Turkish officials in the past few weeks have highlighted Erdoğan’s seriousness about reviving the peace process.

Turkish officials are preparing to endorse a package of reforms in November that includes granting more rights and freedoms for the Kurdish minority in a bid to get a tattered peace plan back on track.

It is still unclear what type of rights the reform package will offer for Kurds long oppressed under previous Turkish governments and whether or not it is going to satisfy the PKK, which is already showing signs of abandoning the process.

Demands

The PKK’s demands include Kurdish-language education in schools, amendments to harsh anti-terrorism laws, the lowering of the 10 percent electoral threshold and the allowing of municipalities more discretion of their use of power.

With the exception of the demand that Kurds can receive education in their native language, these demands have little to do with the basic rights of Kurds.

Instead, these demands are largely aimed at increasing its influence in the region and are directly related to the BDP’s electoral calculations.

Leaving Kurds at the mercy of the PKK is equivalent to sowing seeds of destruction of the peace process. Ahead still lies the harder work of matching the expectations of Kurdish people.

Instead of bargaining the inalienable rights of Kurds with the PKK, the Turkish government should endorse sweeping reforms to advance rights and freedoms of its Kurdish citizens, regardless of the fate of the peace process and steps PKK promised to fulfill.

Doing so will eventually consign the PKK to history and make its negative influence in the region insignificant.


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Mahir Zeynalov is an Istanbul-based journalist with English-language daily Today’s Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.