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Turkey Analysis: A Big Opportunity? Ankara's Talks with Imprisoned Kurdish Leader Ocalan

PM Erdogan & PKK Leader OcalanSo Turkish authorities have been speaking with the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan, since last month. Indeed, the head of the National Intelligence Organisation (MIT), Hakan Fidan, visited Ocalan in his Imrali Island prison --- where he has been kept since 1999 --- for two days of one-to-one meetings. This was followed by the Erdogan Government’s high-profile if not vague statements of a peaceful settlement on the Kurdish issue and by the dispatch of two experienced MPs from pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), to Imrali.

This is not the first occurrence of negotiations with Ocalan and the PKK --- two years ago, the MIT was involved in a series of meetings in Oslo. There are key differences in the recent talks, however.

First of all, the Oslo discussions were secret, with British mediation; now they are open. Secondly, political parties are directly involved this time. Thirdly, these negotiations have been designed for reciprocation --- each side is to complete its own task before it is rewarded with the other side's planned step.

Lastly, and most importantly, Ocalan’s leadership over the PKK has finally been recognized by the Government. That is an effective admission that the long-time policy of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), neutralising the armed and political wings of the Kurdish movement through military operations and suppression of the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), has failed.

The general atmosphere in Turkey is a sense that plan could work with a sensitive approach.  The failure of Oslo came with the PKK's Silvan attack, which killed 13 Turkish soldiers. Then voice records of the MIT-PKK secret negotiations were leaked. The experience chastened Ankara --- that is why these meetings are publicly acknowledged and, from the start, acknowledged to be with Ocalan as the leader of the Kurdish movement.  

What is the New Deal?

Eyup Can of the daily Radikal reports that the agreement proposed in Imrali is for steps to "democratisation" and extension of rights for all Turkish citizens, rather than providing privileges for certain ethnic groups. BDP deputy Ahmet Turk complements this by saying Ocalan's demands would not put the Government in a difficult position. 

According to this plan;

- Ocalan will send letters to the PKK’s senior officers, calling on them to declare a ceasefire.

- In return, the government will free thousands of KCK detainees and it will speed up the writing of the new Constitution.

- Talks will begin on laying down arms. The government will put forth further confidence-building measures, such as the gradual removal of barriers to education in a mother language, a general definition of citizenship of the Turkish Republic rather than as a “Turk”, and removal of the reservations the European Charter of Local Self-Government.

- The PKK will disarm, with the possibility of a general amnesty and Ocalan’s move to house arrest resting on this. 

This deal is not that different from Ocalan's submission to the European Court of Human Rights in 2009. That proposed a PKK cease-fire in return for public diplomacy efforts for "peace" Government; a general amnesty after the PKK moving its fighters outside Turkey; and, finally, the democratisation process with return of exiles and PKK disarmament.

What Could This Deal Bring to Turkey?

The first steps are aimed at building mutual confidence, to prepare both the PKK's bases and the Turkish public for a ettlement which could lead to Ocalan’s departure from Imrali, the return of PKK exiles to Turkey ---- except around 50 PKK leaders who will be scattered across European capitals --- and the  dissolution of the outlawed organisation.

These initiatives can be accomplished, but the process of the new Constitution is vital, with Kurds looking for permanent support of local self-governance. They will also insist that Ocalan comes out of his isolation. BDP co-chairman Selahattin Demirtas confirmed that Ocalan’s house arrest should be at the top of the agenda. 

If both sides play their cards with goodwill and transparency, this process could lead to a long-term agreement. settlement. However, if the MIT-AKP alliance sees these negotiations primarily as a way of displaying government's authority ahead of elections, they will fail. Holding negotiations with Ocalan is not enough; there has to be a strong commitment to an open channel to build confidence.

And all of this may be jeopardised at any point by the resort ot military operations. 

- On 1 January, 10 PKK militants were killed in the southeastern province of Diyarbakir. On the same day, it was reported that 46 more had been killed by a series of cross-border attacks into northern Iraq since 22 December. Minister of Interior Idris Naim Sahin’s remarks were notable: “The operations will continue until there is no terrorist.” Air operations were carried out the following day. 

- On 3 January, Sahin said 2012 was the PKK’s “smackdown year”. He added that the KCK's model for regional autonomy would only divide the country.

- Erdogan remarked on 6 January, “There will be no general amnesty to those who have involved in terror and there will be no house arrest for Ocalan.”

- On 8 January,PKK fighters attacked Turkish troops in the southeastern province of Hakkari. One solider and 14 PKK members were killed.  

If there is to be progress, it must come before local elections in the second half of this year. Otherwise, the ruling AKP will accompany its promotion of a new Constitution with nationalist/statist discourse, standing firm against the threat of Ocalan, the PKK, and the misguided "peace camp". It will declare that a government which has supposedly taken all steps to resolve the Kurdish issue, only to be rebuffed, must be supposed as a firm defender against those who threaten Turkey.

And that will mean this "big opportunity", despite a promise far greater than Oslo in 2010, will have been set aside for a very long time.

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