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Can Prime Minister Erdogan Disarm Turkey’s Militant PKK?

FILE - Demonstrators wave various PKK flags and images of jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir, March 21, 2013.
What are the chances that Turkey’s “Kurdish problem” can be solved anytime soon? That question has been given new urgency recently as Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has faced a series of major crises that have divided Turks along lines not seen since the founding of the Turkish state 90 years ago.

Those divisions have been especially pronounced in recent weeks, sparking mass protests over a variety of government policies and decisions. The biggest protests centered on government decisions to develop Istanbul’s Gezi Park into a project honoring the old Ottoman Empire, and the Turkish court that sentenced the former head of the nation’s armed forces and 13 others to prison on charges of trying to overthrow the government.

Both protests raised questions about whether Erdogan will have the political capital to negotiate a peace accord with Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The group is considered a terrorist organization in Turkey and by many other countries. Secret negotiations that began five months ago have not been popular with many Turks.

New questions about the talks

Meanwhile, little is certain about the status of the talks between the government and the PKK rebels.

Even the accomplishments of the first stage in these negotiations - armed withdrawal of PKK forces - is in dispute, said Abbas Vali, a sociology professor and political theorist at Istanbul’s Bogazici University. The government says no more than 20 to 40 percent of the PKK has pulled out of Turkey, but PKK leaders insist that more than 80 percent have withdrawn to Iraq.

The second stage – if it is reached – is what Erdogan’s negotiators will offer in return. The PKK demands for an autonomous region include: the Kurdish language be officially recognized along with Turkish and serve as the language of instruction in schools in the southeast of the country where Kurds predominate; amnesty for the PKK leadership and its military, the People’s Defense Forces, and about 4,000 Kurdish fighters and civilian supporters now in Turkish prisons; a repeal of the nation’s anti-terrorist laws; and lowering the percentage of electoral votes needed for their Peace and Justice party to take seats in Turkish parliament.

An armistice “may be possible” within the coming months, said Vali, but success depends on Erdogan’s skills in negotiating around some sensitive issues. Erdogan may agree to many of the demands such as the language issues.

“The statesmanship that Erdogan can show is to push for his demands without breaking the command structure of the PKK,” said Vali. The details of amnesty could split the PKK leadership, Vali said, and undo the talks.

Path to peace and the presidency?

“Erdogan went to the peace talks to pacify the PKK,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Washington Institute’s Turkey research project.“Erdogan wants to eliminate the PKK issue.”

The prime minister’s support of Syria’s rebels did not bear fruit, Cagaptay said, so he turned to the Kurdish issue to offer his country stability.

“He wanted to really pull ahead with the peace talks,” he said. “He wants to become president next year and he can’t afford to let the Syrian conflict spin out of control.”

Cagaptay points out that Ocalan is now 60 and would like his freedom.

“Perhaps to get out of jail, but perhaps to finally end the fighting that has been going on for four decades,” he said.

Negotiators have discussed what to offer the PKK’s rank and file and that could include safe passage to Europe or Australia. The PKK commanders are a tougher issue. Vali said commanders might be allowed to enter a neutral country such as Switzerland and request visas for a quiet return to Turkey.

“Erdogan must also tread carefully and avoid making disarmament a political football for the opposition,” said Vali. “What Mr. Erdogan doesn’t want to do is to provide grounds for … for [Kurdish] autonomy, cultural autonomy, decentralization power and maybe self-governance.”

In a recent report on Turkey’s political and economic future, Fadi Hakura of London’s Chatham House said he was pessimistic about the chances Erdogan could succeed in working out an overall agreement with the Kurds.

“I think the conditions for successful outcome to these peace negotiations do not exist,” Hakura said, citing the run-up to a full political calendar in Turkey: local and presidential elections in 2014 and parliamentary elections in 2015 and Erdogan’s desire to revise the constitution and rule as president.

“In such a political climate it is highly unlikely any government -- however strong it may be -- will risk alienating voters to meet the demands of the PPK,” Hakura continued.