ISTANBUL, TURKEY— Kurdish leaders say further steps could be taken soon to support the peace process that would end fighting by the Kurdish rebel group the PKK. The move follows the release this week of eight Turkish hostages held by the group. Though there is growing hope that the decades-long conflict could end soon, but obstacles still remain.
The release on Wednesday of eight Turkish hostages held by the PKK was described by one Turkish newspaper as "the first fruits of peace efforts" to resolve the decades long conflict between the Kurdish rebel group and the Turkish state.
Political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University said the releases are significant.
"It’s a positive gesture by the Kurds, it was very well received by public opinion, by the government, and everybody expects that will give way to more positive moves," said Aktar.
In an unprecedented move last October, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan initiated talks with the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Observers say the move is politically risky for Erdogan because Ocalan is such a divisive figure among much of the Turkish public.
More than 40,000 people have died since the PKK took up arms in 1984 for greater Kurdish rights and autonomy. Both the European Union and United States designate the PKK as a terrorist organization.
Co-leader of the pro Kurdish Peace Democracy Party, Gultan Kisanak, said celebrations next week for the Kurdish new year Nowruz could see further steps towards peace by the PKK.
"The public is focused on the magical word of 'cease-fire.' I can say that if there is a call [from Ocalan on Nowruz] it will certainly mean more than just a cease-fire, she said.
Kisanak called on the government to turn the talks with Ocalan into formal peace negotiations. But the Turkish prime minister has ruled this out until the PKK withdraws and disarms its estimated 3000 fighters in Turkey.
Kadri Gursel is a political columnist for the daily Milliyet. He warns that a unilateral move by the PKK is unlikely.
"The disarmament or withdrawal of the PKK armed groups from Turkish territory is a strategic step, the key factor for a political solution. I don’t think that the PKK could be so trustful or naïve to take these steps, before government provides or offers necessary guarantees or establish sound mechanism to negotiate a peaceful settlement to Kurdish question," said Gursel.
But the PKK has another bargaining chip. Erdogan wants to turn Turkey into a presidential system, ahead of his expected decision to stand in next year’s elections. But the prime minister needs the support of another parliamentary party to change the constitution and none support him.
The pro Kurdish Peace Democracy Party's Kisanak said they are open to discussion.
"We believe in a strong parliamentary system, but we are open to discussing a presidential system. There are examples of strong presidential systems, which are democratic," she said.
The complexities of resolving the decades-long conflict have resulted in numerous peace efforts ending in failure. Observers point out, though, that there appears to be much stronger support this time from both Kurdish and Turkish public opinion.