At long last, it's peacetime in Turkey. The 30-year-old armed conflict between the Turkish state and the armed Kurdish Workers' Party, a rebel group better known as the PKK, is taking a new turn as the rebels withdrew from Turkey and headed into Northern Iraq on May 8. It marks an end to a violent era that has shed around 40,000 lives since the rebel movement launched its first attack in a small province in the Southeast of Turkey in 1984. But several lingering, contentious issues must be resolved before peace can truly be declared.
PKK Commander Murat Karayilan publicly announced in a press conference late April at his base in Qandil, in Northern Iraq, that the rebels' withdrawal would be the first step of the peace process. Once the rebels complete their departure to Northern Iraq, the PKK expects the Turkish government to take further initiatives to meet its demands.
"There are 25 million Kurds in Turkey and they have to be given their natural rights," said Ahmet Güney, a high ranking PKK official and a spokesperson for Karayilan, in a phone interview. "We need a new constitution that will ensure our freedom, officially recognize Kurdish identity and language, and a decentralized government."
Turkey's current government, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is already planning to draft a new constitution, but some of the PKK's demands leave Ankara a little uneasy. One of them is the release of the PKK's leader Abdullah Öcalan, who's been held in solitary confinement since the Turkish authorities captured him in 1999. He has so far played an influential role in the peace process, directly negotiating with the government and convincing the rebels to declare ceasefire. In return, the PKK wants him freed and established as a political leader — Turkey's Nelson Mandela.
"If this is a realistic peace process then everyone has to be free," says Güney. "In this context, how can you keep the very person who's made the Kurdish issue part of the agenda and considered to be the leader of the people in prison?"
Another issue is whether the PKK will lay down arms. Karayilan explained in his press conference that "it is impossible to lay down arms during withdrawal, especially in this geography, even wolves in the mountains are a threat." Clearly, the PKK will only lay down arms after Öcalan is set free as Ahmet Güney reiterates that "[it] should be discussed at the very final stage, when everything else is settled."
For the public, the complete details of the negotiations remain murky, as both sides talked and strategized in complete secrecy. In the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, in Southeast Turkey, residents have qualms about the opaqueness of the whole process.
"People just don't trust Erdogan," posits Frederike Geerdink, a Dutch journalist based there, "but they trust Öcalan, and Öcalan seems to trust Erdogan."
In fact, Erdogan's 2011 re-election campaign was steeped with anti-Kurdish rhetoric, including suggestions of executing Öcalan — even though Turkey had abolished the death penalty after Öcalan's arrest in 1999. But in late 2012, it was the same Erdogan who ignited the negotiations by personally appointing Hakan Fidan, Turkey's Chief of Intelligence, to conduct a series of under-the-table talks with Öcalan. Towards reaching progress, the negotiations were publicized and included the Peace and Democratic Party, the PKK's Sinn Fein-like political wing. Eventually, Öcalan declared ceasefire through a letter delivered to the party members in late March.
Öcalan, who had once predicted that any attempts toward resolving the Kurdish issue would fail if he were to be excluded, emerges as the undoubted victor of the process. Past governments underestimated his influence; foolishly predicting the Kurdish insurgency would be a non-issue after his arrest. But time proved Öcalan right. In the last 14 years, the PKK not only carried on the armed conflict but also became a very influential force in the Middle East. It especially gained leverage in the last few years when Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad started supporting the Kurdish rebels in reaction to Turkey's attempts to topple his regime. Iran, Assad's main ally in the region, followed suit. These new alliances bolsters the PKK resistance and intensified the fighting, which claimed 870 lives between June 2011 and November 2012, the highest of the last 13 years, according to a report issued by the International Crisis Group.
In the end, the regional allegiances against Turkey tied Erdogan's hands, and forced him, somewhat involuntarily, to ease his hardliner policies.
"If the peace process had not gained momentum in Turkey, we would have looked at other options," hinted Karayilan during the press conference. "There are a lot of countries against Turkey in the region, we could've gotten outside support but we didn't. I don't need to name names but the regional powers are all against Turkey." A few days later, Turkey's Milliyet daily, based on government sources, reported that Iran had been trying to prevent the PKK from negotiating with the Turkish government.
Despite skepticism though, Erdogan remains hugely popular according to polls published in the Turkish papers. A recent survey in Sabah daily shows that 89.6% of the public supports the peace process. Even some of Erdogan's habitual critics believe he deserves credit because "at least the killings have stopped."
But for some observers, Erdogan is using the Kurdish issue as a political maneuver to become Turkey's first popularly elected president in 2014. "I want the process to succeed but we all know that [the presidency] is his dream and he needs the Kurdish vote for it," explained Kani Xulam, the director of the Washington D.C. based American Kurdish Information Network, in a phone interview. The same concerns are echoed among the Turkish secular opponents of Erdogan as well.
The bigger skepticism raised by critics though is uncertainty over the eventual consequences of the peace process for Turkey. Once, even expressing a slight sympathy for Kurds or Öcalan would lead to prosecution. Today, the Kurds are no longer a taboo and their future is the center of public debate.
"My biggest wish is that we remain to be united, but if we can't then living apart becomes an obvious option," said Orhan Bursali, a columnist who first raised the question whether Turks and Kurds should remain united in the ultra-secular Cumhuriyet daily, in an e-mail. "The Kurds have formed their own identity in the last 30 years, and this peace process is actually a nation building process, and an autonomous Kurdish zone may be the first step towards secession. But the consequences may be too severe for Turkey, which may than force us to live together."
"The Kurds movement has witnessed the collapse of countries like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, which set other nations free. That's on the back of their minds; it's on the back of my mind. People like me will ultimately strive for that," added Xulam.