Jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan’s March 21 ceasefire call has revived hopes of ending a decades-old conflict in Turkey. But there have been truces before. Kurdish affairs expert Olivier Grojean analyses why this time, it could be different.
In the past, festivities commemorating Newroz, the Kurdish New Year, were banned in Turkey, which often meant the start of spring in the southeastern Kurdish region was marked by demonstrations and bloody crackdowns.
But this year, it was different. On March 21 – or Newroz - a crowd of tens of thousands of people, many waving the Kurdish red, yellow and green colours, gathered in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir as a pro-Kurdish politician read a statement by the jailed PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) leader Abdullah Ocalan calling for a ceasefire to end decades of bloody conflict that has killed an estimated 40,000 people.
"We are at a stage where guns should be silenced," Ocalan said in a letter written from his island prison cell, before noting that it was time for "politics to prevail, not arms".
Imprisoned by Turkish authorities since 1999 and held in virtual isolation, Ocalan nonetheless retains a charismatic hold on his people.
Despite several failed truces in the past, Thursday’s much-awaited peace declaration has sparked hopes that this time, it may work. FRANCE 24 discusses the historic development with Olivier Grojean, a Kurdish affairs expert and political scientist at the University of Aix-Marseille.
FRANCE 24: The PKK has declared several unilateral ceasefires in the past, but they have failed to put an end to decades of conflict. Is the March 21, 2013, truce declaration more likely to lead to a real peace process?
Olivier Grojean: The current process is fragile but well underway. Unlike the earlier ceasefires, it is supported by the Turkish government. Until now, these unilateral PKK truce declarations were ignored by the Turkish authorities and the Kurdish guerrillas continued to be targeted. The current one specifically states that the Turkish army will not attack PKK members who must withdraw to their rear bases in northern Iraq.
In addition, there is a real ambition within the AKP [the Turkish ruling party] to settle the Kurdish issue, with the involvement of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and senior government officials. It’s also important to note the statements by Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, which recognised that Ocalan is loved by a large section of the population.
FRANCE 24: What are the main obstacles to the peace initiative?
Olivier Grojen: There are several issues that remain unresolved and could derail the peace initiative. The Turkish government is willing to talk about decentralisation, but not the recognition of Kurdish identity in the Constitution. There is immense public opposition on this issue and the AKP does not have the two-thirds majority required in parliament to carry out a reform of the Constitution without a referendum.
Another key issue is what will become of the PKK militants who must withdraw to Iraq. The idea was that European countries could host them - but there are around 5,000 of them. Who will accommodate these people? Another complication is that if there is no amnesty, they cannot return to Turkey.
Lastly, there’s the issue of Ocalan’s place in all of this. There are Kurdish voices calling for his release or house arrest. Despite positive signs – the Kurdish leader is no longer being held in isolation - it is out of the question for the AKP to release him.
France24: After 14 years of imprisonment, does Ocalan have the political clout to impose these compromises on PKK militants?
Olivier Grojean: Even in prison, Ocalan is the uncontested leader of the Kurdish movement. He commands their respect and every time he says something, people listen. There will be no real open challenge to the PKK because it’s an organisation where anyone who criticises Ocalan is politically dead.
However, one can imagine individual Kurdish radicals who might ignore Ocalan’s call without necessarily denouncing him. This is what happened in the past, when a group of young fighters carried out attacks at a time when the PKK leader was trying to calm things down. Despite his immense moral authority, Ocalan is not on the ground to directly control the PKK militants.
Date created : 2013-03-22