Erdogan Cabinet Changes May Boost Turkey’s PKK Peace Initiative

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s appointment of a new interior minister as part of a Cabinet reshuffle may boost the government’s efforts to end a decades-long war with Kurdish militants, according to analysts.

Erdogan appointed four new ministers late yesterday. Muammer Guler, a former governor of Istanbul, will take over as interior minister. His predecessor, Idris Naim Sahin, had angered Kurds with hawkish remarks over a botched aerial attack that killed 34 civilians instead of PKK militants.

Turkey is in talks with Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, in an effort to end a conflict that began in the early 1980s and has left about 40,000 people dead. The group, which has bases in northern Iraq, is demanding autonomy for Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast, the right to education in Kurdish, and the release of Ocalan and other prisoners.

Guler’s appointment “might prove to be a medium/long-run positive” if he can play a more constructive role in talks with the PKK, Inan Demir, chief economist at Finansbank AS, said in an e-mailed report. “Resolution of Turkey’s age-old Kurdish conflict could significantly reduce Turkey’s risk premium and it would constitute the ultimate argument for re-rating Turkish economy and assets.”

No Apology

Sahin had ruled out talks with the PKK a year ago. After the killing of Kurdish civilians in Uludere, near the Iraq border, by Turkish jets in December 2011, Sahin said the victims were smugglers who would have been prosecuted if they had been captured instead of killed. “It’s not an incident which requires an apology” by the state, he said.

Guler was born in Mardin province in the southeast, and that “gives him a better understanding of the region,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan, a security analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara. “Guler is likely to handle the delicate Kurdish policy more cautiously based on his long years of experience as governor in several provinces.”

Erdogan also sacked Culture and Tourism Minister Ertugrul Gunay, replacing him with Omer Celik, a longtime confidante of the premier.

Local media reported that Gunay fell from Erdogan’s favor after he sought to interpret the premier’s description of an unfinished statute in the eastern city of Kars as a “freak” because it overshadowed a nearby Islamic shrine. The statue, intended to promote reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia, was demolished within four months of Erdogan’s visit to the site in January 2011.

Steinbeck ‘Immoral’

Gunay had also called on the Education Ministry on Jan. 3 to overrule a local education board in the Western city of Izmir that had called for the removal of John Steinbeck’s novel “Of Mice and Men” from the curriculum because several passages were “immoral.”

Erdogan appointed another longtime adviser, Nabi Avci, as education minister to replace Omer Dincer. Avci is regarded as the architect of changes to the education system this academic year that opened the way for elective religious courses in elementary schools, a measure popular with the grassroots of Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party.

The other change was at the Health Ministry, where Recep Akdag, who had held his seat in the Cabinet since Erdogan came to power in 2002, was replaced by Mehmet Muezzinoglu.