Jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan has called for a ceasefire and urged armed followers to withdraw from Turkey. Experts, however, still expect a long and difficult peace process.
Turkey and its Kurdish population have taken a major step toward ending the three-decade conflict that has claimed more than 45,000 lives.
On Thursday (21.03.2013), Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the banned Kurdish group PKK, called for a ceasefire and urged his armed followers to withdraw from Turkish soil.
"Let guns be silenced and politics dominate," Ocalan said in his declaration, which was read by pro-Kurdish politicians to hundreds of thousands of people gathered for the Kurdish New Year celebrations in the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey.
"A new door is being opened from the process of armed conflict to democratization and democratic politics,” said Ocalan. "It's not the end. It's the start of a new era."
Hopes raised, but caution remains
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cautiously welcomed the statement, but stressed that it was important to see the implementation.
Soon after Ocalan's declaration, PKK top commander Murat Karayilan said the group would implement the ceasefire. "Everyone should know the PKK is as ready for peace as it is for war," he told a pro-Kurdish news agency from the group's headquarters in northern Iraq.
Ocalan's historic call has raised hopes in Turkey. Most observers see the Turkish government's negotiations with Ocalan, which started late last year, as the most serious effort so far to end the decades-long conflict. But experts still see a fragile, difficult and long process ahead for a peaceful settlement.
"Ocalan's declaration marks the beginning of a new period, which will see more serious negotiations with the Turkish government," said Nihat Ali Ozcan, a prominent PKK expert with the Ankara-based think tank TEPAV. But he cautioned against high expectations.
"It's not possible to reach a settlement in the Kurdish problem overnight. We are talking about a negotiation process which would take a long time," Özcan told DW. "We are not talking about a problem which can be solved in three to five months, or in a couple of years."
Talks began in late 2012
The Turkish government started direct talks with Ocalan last October, by instructing Turkey's National Intelligence Organization (MIT) to come to a peaceful settlement. Three years ago, MİT made contact with PKK leaders in secret, but the so-called Oslo process failed to develop a positive outcome, leading to a new wave of violence in 2011 and 2012.
But pressing developments in the region and the civil war in Syria have forced Turkey to try a second attempt. This time, the Erdogan government decided to use a more transparent process, informing the public about the dialogue's main points.
Despite several setbacks over the past few months, both the Turkish government and Ocalan continued their commitment to the process.
According to Ozcan, negotiations between the Turkish government and Ocalan set a new paradigm in the decades-long conflict, and that process is almost irreversible.
Despite some initial questions about Ocalan's current influence in the PKK organization - he has been in jail since 1999 - the process has shown that he still has a significant impact.
Peace process will not be easy
According to Ozcan, there may be attempts by hawkish groups to torpedo the peace process, and he thinks several crises are likely.
"This process is not limited to a ceasefire, the laying down of arms. It also includes major political and constitutional changes," said Ozcan. "The question is how Ankara will share power and sovereignty with Kurds, whom PKK claims to represent. There should be a reworking of the constitution.
"The Turkish government will try to synchronize negotiations, the constitutional process and its security policies," he continued. "Most probably, the PKK will come up with maximum demands, and the Turkish side will propose the minimum."
Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is promising broader political and cultural rights for its Kurdish citizens, together with broader authority for local administrations.
Galip Ensarioglu, an influential Kurdish deputy from the AKP, hailed Ocalan's declaration and underlined the fact that the ceasefire would bring about a new period for Turkey.
"Ocalan did not raise any demand for an independent state, or even for autonomy. Instead he called for a common future, based on equality and democracy. This is important," he told DW. "Kurds will be able to raise all their political demands."
According to Ensarioglu, the negotiation process and Turkey's solution of the Kurdish problem will also have an impact in the region.
"The current peace process in Turkey, the democratization process will also bring peace in the Middle East, in Syria and in Iraq. It will have a positive impact on regional developments," he said.
"Turkey's solution will develop a new understanding, a new model. We will also reach out to the people of Middle East, Kurds in Syria and Iraq. This process would bring economic, social and political integration with the people of the region, and Kurds in the region. A new process is beginning for Turkey and Middle East."
Opposition expresses doubt
While the Turkish government is optimistic for the future, Turkey's center-left and nationalist opposition parties are still expressing distrust.
Some critics see Erdogan's move as an attempt to get Kurdish support for his plans to change the constitution and introduce a presidential system, which would further consolidate his power.
Sezgin Tanrikulu, a Kurdish deputy from Turkey's center-left Republican People's Party (CHP) says Erdogan is himself responsible for the lack of progress on the longstanding Kurdish problem.
"Erdogan has been ruling the country for more than 10 years. He is responsible for the failure to find a solution to date," he told DW. "In 2002, when the AKP came to power, PKK's armed militants had left Turkish soil. But the AKP failed to show courage and lacked a democratic vision at that time, and missed an opportunity to find a solution."
According to a CHP deputy, the secret talks between the Turkish intelligence and PKK leaders three years ago also focused on Erdogan's election success, and did not yield results.
"But as CHP, we are always for a peaceful, democratic solution, and we support laying down arms," said Tanrikulu.
Unlike CHP's support for a peaceful solution, Turkey's nationalist opposition has backed tighter security measures to eliminate the PKK threat. Nationalist opposition leader Devlet Bahceli has accused Erdogan of "treason" and of "selling out the country to a bunch of bloody bandits."
Not a short term process
PKK's 29-year armed campaign for self-rule has claimed more than 45,000 lives. The PKK is estimated to have around 2,000 fighters in Turkey, with several thousand more in bases in northern Iraq.
According to security expert Ozcan, despite Ocalan's historic call for a new era of a political struggle, PKK's definitive end to armed struggle is not likely in the short term.
"I don't believe that PKK members who withdraw from Turkish soil will rapidly lay down their arms," he stressed. "The PKK will likely try to maintain a strong position against the Turkish government during the negotiations, and will try to maintain its weapons."
Ozcan added that the organization will likely focus its military strategy on Syria, which may create more worries in Ankara. Turkey views the creation of a PKK-controlled state in northern Syria as a national security threat.
"Turkey's successful negotiations with the PKK are closely related with global and regional developments and dynamics. One cannot find a solution to PKK problem without a solution to the Syria crisis," he stressed.
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