Cautious optimism as PKK leader orders Turkish withdrawal

By bne IntelliNews March 22, 2013

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As expected, Abdullah Ocalan, jailed leader of Kurdish rebels, called on March 21 for a truce and urged PKK fighters to pull out of Turkey as part of the ongoing peace negotiations with the government.

Ocalan had promised days earlier to deliver an "historic" message to mark the Kurdish New Year - known as Nevruz - and there were cheers in the city of Diyarbakir in south eastern Turkey as his letter was read out during celebrations. For his part, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan - who has been in talks with the PKK leader via intermediaries - cautiously welcomed the call.

The PM and his government has been pushing to cement a peace process even as he clamps down on other opponents of his Islamic nationalism. Concessions on the use the Kurdish language in schools and courts in majority areas are seen as a major offering, with Anakara keen to get the Kurds on side as it looks to increase it sway over the region - and especially the energy rich autonomous region of Kurdistan, which is at odds with the central Iraqi government over oil and gas flows and investment.

The peace process has also attracted significant public support in Turkey, in light of more than 40,000 people having died in the 30-year fight over an ethnic Kurdish homeland in Turkey's southeast. Meanwhile, Erdogan is trying to push through a new constitution which would turn Turkey into a presidential democracy. The authoritarian PM is in his final term and is clearly eyeing a move into the president's chair.

"We have reached the point where weapons should be silent and ideas and politics should speak," Ocalan's message said, in what Turkish media reported was a direct repetition of an earlier call by Erdogan, reports the BBC. "We have sacrificed decades for [the Kurds] and have paid a big price. None of these sacrifices and struggles were in vain. Kurds regained their self-awareness, essence and identity. A new phase in our struggle is beginning. Now a door is opening to a phase where we are moving from armed resistance to an era of democratic political struggle," he said.

Erdogan stressed the importance of the implementation of any ceasefire. "I find the call, the invitation, as a positive development. But the essential thing is the practice," he told journalists, according to Hurriyet Daily News. He pledged that Turkish security forces would not undertake fresh operations against the PKK if Ocalan's call is respected.

"We would like to see the reflections of Ocalan's remarks in the shortest period of time," the PM continued. "Once this comes to practice, the atmosphere in Turkey and the region will change."

However, Erdogan couldn't resist offering his usual paternalistic disapproval somewhere along the way, and he criticized the fact that the Turkish flag was not present at the celebrations in Diyarbakir. "I would have liked to see our flag there," he said of the event hosted by a community that has been fighting bitterly for greater autonomy for three decades. "I believe that this is not only my wish but the nation's. This was a serious lack."

Regardless of the PM's apparent inability to put his self-righteous instincts to one side, however, analysts say that despite several previous ceasefires having broken down, this time it looks different. That's mainly thanks to the high level nature of the talks in recent weeks, as well as the fact that, while they may not agree with one another's agendas necessarily, the two main actors now appear to have few strong objections to one another's ambitions.

"The Erdogan government is known to have been holding non-too-secret talks for some months now," points out Tim Ash at Standard Bank. "Lets see how this pans out in terms of implementation and what it means more broadly for politics in Turkey, eg. Erdogan's plans for constitutional reform and the creation of an executive presidency. There have been numerous ceasefires before which have come and gone, but it seems this time that there are strong interests from the both the ruling AKP side and from Ocalan and his supporters to make this deal stick."

Erdogan in particular has bigger fish to fry. Not content with pushing back the boundaries installed by Ataturk on Islam's role in the Turkish state and stomping on the last remnants of the tradition of military intervention into politics that has persisted through those secular years, the PM is also intent on making Turkey a regional leader as the Middle East morphs alongside its growing economic clout.

It's clearly no mistake that Ocalan's message referenced that bid. "The Middle East and Middle Asia are looking for a new order," it said. "A new model is a necessity, like bread and water. It is time for unity."

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