New roadblocks spring up to obstruct peace with Turkey’s Kurds
SOON after Turgut Ozal, a former Turkish president, spoke in 1993 of an amnesty for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), 33 Turkish soldiers were killed by PKK rebels in an ambush. His hopes for lasting peace went up in smoke. There was a sense of déjà vu on December 10th when the PKK claimed responsibility for the deaths of seven soldiers in Tokat, a Turkish nationalist stronghold in the north-east. The attack came soon after bold reforms by the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party to improve the lot of the country’s 14m-odd Kurds and perhaps end the PKK’s 25-year insurgency.
Kurdish and Turkish nationalists alike promptly declared the government’s so-called Kurdish overture dead. Clashes between Turks and Kurds intensified when the constitutional court voted unanimously on December 11th to ban the biggest Kurdish party, the Democratic Society Party (DTP), on the grounds that it had become “a focal point for terrorism”. Two DTP parliamentarians, including its co-chairman Ahmet Turk, were stripped of their seats and 37 party officials were banned. Some 19 other DTP deputies said they were pulling out of parliament with the aim of regrouping under a new label.
On December 15th two Kurds died in Bulanik, in the south-east, after a shopkeeper fired on protesters. Fears of ethnic conflict are growing. Might this be part of a plot hatched by rogue members of the security forces (and the PKK) to weaken the AK government? This is being claimed as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, ponders his next move.
Mr Erdogan’s overtures—easing restrictions on the Kurdish language, restoring Kurdish names to Kurdish villages, and reintegrating PKK fighters untainted by violence—have spooked the terrorists, who thrive on state repression. Nobody more so than Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned PKK leader, who ignited the protests in early December when he claimed he had been moved to a smaller cell. “I can hardly breathe,” he said, though it emerged that his quarters had barely shrunk. More reforms mean less support for the PKK. It seems that Mr Ocalan does not like being sidelined—and he still commands the allegiance of millions of Kurds.
Now he has decided to take a bloody gamble by unleashing the PKK once again. He may want to blackmail the government into direct, public negotiations. He also wants to be moved from solitary confinement into house arrest. Neither demand is likely to get very far. As ever, ordinary Kurds will pay the price as support for the AK’s Kurdish reforms fizzles out. Banning the DTP has reinforced the belief of many Kurds that they can get change only through bullets, not the ballot box. By walking out of parliament, the DTP has cemented this belief. Murat Karayilan, a PKK commander in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, has exhorted the Kurds to “flow to the mountains.” He says recruitment is up.
What should Mr Erdogan do? Pressing ahead could mean losing votes to nationalists. AK has already frozen its plans to ease penalties for Kurdish youths accused of “terror crimes” (usually chanting PKK slogans or hurling stones at the police). Yet Mr Erdogan could call Mr Ocalan’s bluff and pursue Kurdish reforms with greater vigour. The AK might lose a few votes, but Turkey could still win the peace.