ISTANBUL — The Turkish government's initiative to explain its peace moves with an outlawed Kurdish rebel group is facing increasing resistance from Turkish nationalists amid criticism over the handling of the peace process.
Members of the Turkish government’s "Wise People" initiative are facing growing protests from Turkish nationalists.
For the last month, groups of well-known academics, media stars and celebrities have been traveling around the country to explain the government's attempt to end fighting with the Kurdish rebel group, the PKK. But the initiative is becoming a lightning rod for growing unease among Turkish nationalists.
Recently addressing a gathering of tens of thousands of supporters, Devlet Bahceli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, strongly attacked the peace process, asserting it will lead to an autonomous Kurdish state in Turkey,
He also gave a warning. With the crowd chanting “Tell us to strike and we will strike, tell us to die and we will die,” Bahceli answered back: “Don’t worry, the time will come for that, too.”
For nearly three decades the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, has been fighting the Turkish government for greater minority rights in a conflict that has claimed more than 30,000 lives. But on May 8, the PKK began withdrawing its forces from Turkey as part of a peace process. The government has yet to reveal what it is prepared to offer the PKK in return.
Retired general Haldun Solmazturk, who is now an international relations expert, says there is deep suspicion over the peace process.
"PKK will never disarm unless they achieve a greater Kurdistan within Turkey. So an ambiguous understanding is just imposed on the Turkish state - so, in a sense, blackmailing the future of our coming generations. This is very disturbing. Turks are not aware of the final outcome because of the self-censorship imposed on the Turkish media," said Solmazturk.
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan strongly attacked a newspaper that reported on documents leaked from the peace talks. And a well-known expert on Kurdish issues and newspaper columnist was fired for his reporting, which was critical of the handling of the peace moves.
Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University, believes that opposition to the peace efforts remains limited.
"I don’t think there is a nationalist backlash. I think there are minority groups who are very vocal and who are against any deal which will include the Kurds. But there are not as many as they pretend. We see an overwhelming majority of the Turkish public [positively inclined] towards the peace process," said Aktar.
Opinion surveys point to conflicting views among the public. A strong majority favors a peaceful solution to the conflict, but there are equally strong feelings against talks with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.
A recent poll showed a drop in public support for the government, although it still remains well ahead of the opposition. Polls also show a bump in support for the pro-nationalist MHP.
Haber Turk newspaper columnist Soli Ozel says the recent protests against the wise people are an indication that the peace process is at a critical stage.
"Ambiguity is the big problem. The government has to do a better job of explaining what it is doing. There is a lot of ambivalence, there is a lot of suspicion, there is a lot of concern. But that’s why this withdrawal of the PKK forces [is important], also the fact that nobody has died in the last four months. If that continues throughout the summer, I suppose that will change the climate," said Ozel.
The withdrawal of PKK forces from Turkey is due to be completed in a few months. By then, the government is expected to start unveiling steps it will take to address Kurdish demands. Until then, political observers warn that members of the wise people initiative could be in for a rough ride.