News / Middle East

Turkish Government in Talks with Kurdish Rebel Chief

A person holds a poster of jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan as Kurdish demonstrators march in Istanbul, Turkey, April 19, 2011.
A person holds a poster of jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan as Kurdish demonstrators march in Istanbul, Turkey, April 19, 2011.
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Dorian Jones
— The Turkish government is in talks with the imprisoned Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan. However, questions remain as to whether the government is ready to make necessary reforms to persuade rebels to give up their fight when Kurdish nationalism across the region is increasing. 

A senior adviser to Turkey's prime minister, Yalcin Akdogan, confirmed Turkish intelligence officers have started talks with the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish group the PKK.

"The goal is the disarmament of the PKK," Akdogan said. "You can't win through armed struggle. You have to use other tactics and negotiation is one of them."

The Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK,  has been fighting the Turkish state since 1984 - a conflict that has claimed nearly 40,000 lives.  Akdogan expressed hopes that the rebels could give up their arms as early as spring and its leaders agree to go into exile.

But international relations expert Soli Ozel at Kadir Has University questions whether Turkey's government is prepared to give what is necessary to achieve such a goal.

"This is all geared towards making sure the PKK is dropping the guns, which is fine," said Ozel. "But we also have a political problem vis-a-vis the Kurds of Turkey which is a problem of citizenship primarily. We don't know where the government wishes to take the country and given the fact we are locked onto the presidential election of 2014, I really don't see the government moving in that direction, which might alienate some of the conservative and nationalists constituencies it depends on."

Observers warn the PKK is far from ready to give up fighting. In the last year, violence has returned to the levels of the 1990s,  the height of the conflict.

The rebels are fighting for autonomy and greater cultural rights. But with presidential elections not due for another year, Sinan Ulgen, head of the Istanbul-based research institute Edam, believes there is a window of opportunity for the government to make concessions.

"This is going to be a long drawn and gradual process," said Ulgen.  "I think there are two critical issues here. Indeed, one is how much the government is prepared to offer. That is certainly what is being currently negotiated. But the second one, is really the issue of trust. And, here it's a question more of the government trusting the parties that they are negotiating with, but also the PKK members trusting the Turkish government that it will actually deliver."

Ocalan has been cut off from his supporters for more than a decade while being imprisoned on the island of Imrali. Questions remain as to what influence he has over the PKK.

Political observers point out his credentials were enhanced last year when the Turkish government turned to him for help to end a protracted hunger strike by imprisoned Kurdish rebels.

International relations expert Ozel says this may be the best opportunity for the government to show it is moving in the Kurds' direction.

"The Kurdish nationalist movement regionally is making its presence known on the world stage," Ozel said. "A quasi-independent Kurdistan in Iraq, and autonomously-run Kurdish regions of Syria in the north, and the Turkish Kurds are seemingly being left behind in all these developments."

The last talks between Ocalan and the government broke down two year ago. The collapse in those talks saw a marked increase in fighting, which continues today. Observers say with Turkey facing a presidential and general election in 2014 and 2015, talks with the Kurds could present the best opportunity for success for many years to come.

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