PKK militants start withdrawal from Turkey, fueling optimism for peace process

Kurdish militants have battled Turkey's government for decades. Once interested in independence, the PKK is now pressing for limited autonomy, broader language rights, and full political equality for Kurds.

Firat News Agency/AP
Rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey close to the border with Iraq on Tuesday. A Kurdish party leader said Wednesday rebels have started to move out of Turkey to bases in northern Iraq, a key stage in the peace process with the Turkish government.

Kurdish rebel fighters today began departing from southeast Turkey to bases in northern Iraq in their most solid step yet toward ending a 29-year insurgency. The withdrawal by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas has fueled optimism surrounding a peace process started late last year between Ankara and Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s imprisoned leader.

Analysts say the withdrawal heralds a new, more difficult phase in the process, with pressure mounting on Turkey to concede to a long list of Kurdish grievances.

Altan Tan, a Kurdish politician from the PKK’s legal political affiliate, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), says the PKK has permanently renounced violence.

"Even if the government doesn't offer anything, they will not go back to arms because that time is over.... In the past, the government used the armed struggle as a reason not to negotiate. They no longer have that excuse," he commented. 

Tensions remain high, however, with the PKK’s leadership issuing a statement saying that increased Turkish drone surveillance and military movements were hampering the process. It said it will take several months for its fighters, estimated to number around 2,000 in Turkey, to fully leave the country.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday criticized the PKK for not first laying down its weapons.

“The main issue is to lay down weapons and just withdraw. They surely know the routes from which they have entered Turkey and can use the same routes to leave," he told Turkish media.

Founded in 1978, the PKK originally sought independence for Turkey’s repressed Kurdish minority of around 15 million, which has faced decades of state-driven attempts at cultural assimilation.

In recent years, however, it has moderated its goal in favor of limited autonomy, broader language rights, and full political equality. In a speech last month written in his prison cell and read before crowds at Nowruz, the New Year festival celebrated by Kurds, Mr. Ocalan said the PKK announced a cease-fire and said that it was "a time for politics, not arms."

The significance of the withdrawal has been heightened by comparisons with the only other time the PKK extracted its forces from Turkey, when Ocalan announced a general withdrawal after his capture in 1999.

Then, Turkish forces harried the retreating rebels, who sustained high casualties. Kurdish leaders claim that this time, however, government statements encouraging the withdrawal amount to a guarantee that such attacks will not occur again.

Kurdish demands

“The next step is democratization, and this needs to follow quickly,” says Mr. Tan. 

In addition to an amnesty for PKK fighters and leaders, Kurdish demands include the revision or abandonment of draconian antiterror laws that have led to the imprisonment of several thousand peaceful Kurdish activists in the past five years, and the release of those prisoners.

They are also asking for the right to educate their children in Kurdish, which is currently prohibited, and the scrapping of a clause in the Constitution that defines all the country’s citizens as "Turkish."

Additionally, they are seeking the end of an electoral ban on political parties garnering less than 10 percent of the vote from entering parliament – a restriction widely regarded as intending to keep Kurdish parties out of formal politics.

Most controversially, they are also seeking steps toward a more federal Turkey, with power devolved from Ankara to the regions, bringing Kurds closer to their long-cherished dream of autonomy.

In recent weeks, governing politicians have hinted they may be willing to give ground on some of these demands, but serious doubts remain over the ability of Turkey’s deeply divided political leaders to hammer out agreement on specific issues.

The government and the BDP, however, have signaled that they are willing to work together, “even [though] now relations are not very good, we can’t speak about a proper dialogue,” says Tan.

Preparing public opinion

Hugh Pope, director of the International Crisis Group in Turkey, believes the government is underplaying its willingness to compromise while it prepares public opinion for the talks.

“I think that the Turkish leadership is maneuvering itself into a place where it can tell people that these will be for the good of all Turkey,” he says.

The Turkish public was long encouraged by an aggressively anti-Kurdish national media to view the issue as one solely of terrorism. “There has been so much propaganda that people won’t be able to get it quickly,” says Mr. Pope.

In one survey by polling company MetroPoll last month, 51 percent of respondents disapproved of the peace talks, and 69 percent did not believe the PKK will disarm.

The talks face particular opposition from Turkey’s powerful ultranationalist movement, which itself has a history of terrorism and street violence.

Devlet Bahceli, leader of the far right Nationalist Movement Party, has accused Erdogan of "treason" in engaging with the PKK in a series of rallies around the country that have attracted crowds of up to 70,000.

Ironically, a trend that itself is attracting increasing concern may lubricate the process: Ankara’s tightening grip over the national media.

In recent weeks, newspaper bosses scared of incurring official wrath have fired columnists who criticized the talks. Meanwhile, a 63-member Council of the Wise, picked by the government and including more than 20 prominent journalists, is touring the country to raise support.

End of violence will help maintain momentum

The most decisive factor in maintaining momentum, many observers believe, is the absence of the almost daily deaths that have plagued both sides in the war, which is estimated to have claimed the lives of some 40,000 people.

April was the first month in more than a year and a half that there were no deaths in the conflict, according to figures compiled by the International Crisis Group.

“When people are no longer preoccupied with deaths and coffins arriving daily, they will start to see that the PKK is playing an important role in this process,” says Umit Firat, a prominent Kurdish writer and civil rights activist.

Like many observers, his biggest fear is that the radical fringes on each side of the talks may seek to derail them with provocation attacks.

He says nonetheless that the days in which Turks and Kurds address their problem through force of arms are numbered.

“Turkey has reached a point of no return," he declares. "It may be stopped or paused for a few years, but it will always continue in the same direction.”

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