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April 11, 2013

Turkey Tries to Build Support for PKK Peace Talks

by Dorian Jones

The Turkish government has created committees of so-called "wise people" made up of well-known personalities whose task is to explain ongoing efforts to end the fighting between the Kurdish rebel group the PKK and the Turkish state. The endeavor is proving controversial, though.

Turkey's “wise people” initiative has selected 63 of the country’s best-known personalities - from actors and writers to trade unionists and journalists - to promote current efforts to end decades of fighting between government forces and PKK rebels.

Political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University said it could be a shrewd move.
 
"It’s a good initiative; Turkey needs to learn about it and people are curious, some are cautious, some are very dubious about the peace. So it's always good to talk people everywhere in Turkey. So I think it’s a very positive initiative," said Aktar.
 
The “wise people” have been split into groups to tour Turkey's seven regions. According to a government opinion poll, there is strong support in the predominantly Kurdish region of Turkey for the current talks with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who last month called on his rebel group to observe a cease-fire and withdraw from Turkey.

According to the same poll, however, people in the rest of the country are more divided, with only a small majority in favor of talks.

The “wise people” already have started holding meetings with local civic society groups and political parties.

Writer Sibel Eraslan said the strength of the initiative is their diversity.
 
"The mere fact that we came together despite all our differences is important," she said. "Our first meeting saw people from across the political spectrum attending. This is very positive."
 
But the initiative has been criticized by the largest pro-Kurdish party, the Peace and Democracy Party, which claim there are too few Kurds and experts on the Kurdish conflict among the "wise people."

Gokhan Gunaydin, deputy head of the main opposition Republican People’s party, accuses them of promoting the ruling AK party’s interests.
 
"They are traveling all over Turkey to make propaganda about the AK party," he said. "These artists must have one quality. They should be independent and objective. But there are serious concerns that those that are selected are not independent."
 
Observers warn the whole current peace process is threatening to fall victim to party politics. In parliament this week, there were angry clashes over setting up a parliamentary commission to work on the peace process. The main opposition parties accuse the government of pursuing peace for its own political ends.

Political scientist Aktar said more visibility into the process is urgently needed.

"This policy should become as transparent of possible to ensure of the ownership of it - the ownership by the other political parties, but especially the ownership by society,"  said Aktar. "So, therefore it needs to become transparent: we need to talk truth and reconciliation, we [need to] talk economic development, we need to talk decentralization, return of refugees, amnesty, legal and constitutional changes."

The government argues its “wise people” initiative is aimed at addressing transparency concerns. But critics say that with the current peace efforts largely confined to secret talks between the country’s intelligence chief and  imprisoned PKK leader Ocalan, suspicions over the talks will remain.

An expert on the conflict, political columnist Kadri Gursel of the newspaper Milliyet, said that even on the Kurdish side, where there appears to be widespread support for the peace process, that process needs to be widened.

"Negotiation must involve and include the bulk of the Kurdish movement, which is the military wing, the legal political wing, and the PKK in Europe. Without the systematic and real involvement of them, with only Ocalan, I think any peace process cannot advance," said Gursel.

Over the next two months, the “wise people” will be holdings meetings across the country to build up momentum for the peace efforts among Kurds and Turks.

Supporters of the effort argue such momentum is key to overcoming party political tensions and consolidating the peace process. But critics warn that without concrete steps to widen the peace process, suspicions and skepticism can only grow, which ultimately could derail it.