The Economist writes in its Aug. 18-25 issue that last week, in a landmark speech in Diyarbakir, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan became the first Turkish leader ever to admit that Turkey had mishandled the Kurdish rebellion in the country’s east. Like all great nations, declared Erdogan, Turkey needed to face up to its past. He added that more democracy, not more repression, was the answer to the Kurds’ longstanding grievances.
Erdogan’s visit to the largest city in the Kurdish region followed ground-breaking talks with a group of Turkish intellectuals, seen by some as mouthpieces for the outlawed PKK guerillas (“terrorist group,” says The Economist, accepting the US State Department’s official designation for the separatist army). In these talks, Erdogan pledged that, despite a renewed wave of PKK attacks, there would be no going back on his reforms. The Kurdish problem, he said, could not be solved through purely military means.
Of course, the opposition is crying treason. “This will inevitably lead to bargaining with the PKK,” fumed Deniz Baykal, leader of the Republican People’s Party. Nationalists within Erdogan’s own Justice and Development party have also responded angrily. The army has so far kept silent, even though some retired generals have called for re-imposing emergency rule in the Kurdish provinces.
Orhan Dogan, another Kurdish leader, fueled the nationalist backlash when he told a newspaper that Turkey would have to negotiate with the PKK and that the group’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, would walk free one day. Some Kurds saluted Erdogan for his courage, but they too insisted that he must match his words with deeds.
There are some encouraging signals. Within hours of returning from Diyarbakir, Erdogan urged media supervisors to allow regional radio and TV stations to broadcast in Kurdish. But the Kurdish provinces remain impoverished, and hundreds of thousands remain displaced by the army’s scorched-earth campaigns against the PKK. The Turkish interior ministry revealed this week that only 5,239 of a total 104,734 victims who had applied under a new law for such compensation had been considered, and only 1,190 were to be paid anything. With the deadline for applications past, the program “is a complete fiasco,” declared Mesut Deger, an opposition Kurdish deputy, who is pressing for an extension.
The Economist warns that “more needs to be done if Turkey’s Kurds are not to be infected by calls for independence by Iraq’s powerful Kurds next door.” The magazine (breaking now with the State Department line) states that “Mr Erdogan must find a way of giving an amnesty to 5,000 rebels, entrenched in the mountains of south-east Turkey and northern Iraq, that is acceptable to Turks and Kurds alike. The PKK was expected this week to announce a suspension of hostilities, to allow such a deal to be done.”
Meanwhile, even as Turkish Kurdistan appears to be stepping back from the brink, the PKK is making its presence felt in Iran. Turkey’s Zaman Online reports Aug. 23 that dozens of soldiers and guerillas alike have been killed in fighting in Iran in recent days. The PKK has announced a one-month ceasefire in Turkey, but an entity believed to be linked to the PKK, the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), has been ambushing army patrols in Iran. Zaman claims the US is encouraging PKK incursions into Iran from its bases in Iraq, pointing to a supposed PKK statement released in June that said: “As much as the US increases the conflict process against Iran, Kurds will have a much more important position and place in this fight. The US cannot win its struggle against Iran without gaining the support of the Kurds.”
Zaman also cited a quote (not given verbatim) from PJAK leader Haji Ahmadi to the Mesopotamia News Agency (MNA), the press organ of his organization, “that the US operation in Iraq plays an important role in the conflicts in Iran.”
Finally, the PKK ceasefire in Turkey looks shakey at best. Xinhua reported Aug. 27 that a clash erupted between Turkish security forces and PKK members in rural area of Besiri township of Batman province, leaving three PKK militants dead and another captured.