Peace With Kurds at Risk as Erdogan Reels From Protests

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown on anti-government protests in western Turkey may make it harder for him to offer concessions to Kurds in the southeast, where he’s trying to end a three-decade war.

Kurdish militants have already begun leaving the region after the government started talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has been fighting there since 1984. Erdogan has promised wider freedoms for Kurds, who are seeking a degree of self-rule, without saying what form they will take.

Since anti-government protests erupted in May, Erdogan has adopted a more nationalist tone. As demonstrators accused him of authoritarian rule, he responded by denouncing extremists and terrorists among them, pointing to PKK flags among the crowds in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. With Turkey increasingly polarized, Erdogan may delay measures needed to end a conflict that Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek said last week has cost the economy $1 trillion.

“In this environment, it is very unlikely the government will grant significant concessions and reach an ultimate peace deal to fully resolve the Kurdish problem,” said Naz Masraff, an analyst at political-risk assessor Eurasia Group in London. “Erdogan will try to concede minor rights to the Kurds” through amendments to the constitution, with more substantial measures delayed until at least next year when local and presidential elections are due, she said.

That should be enough to “prevent an immediate return to PKK violence,” according to Masraff

Kurdish Support

Erdogan, 59, has made solving the Kurdish conflict, which has left tens of thousands dead, a central aim as he enters his second decade in power after presiding over economic growth averaging about 5 percent and record foreign investment. The peace process is “difficult” and needs an “iron will,” Erdogan said yesterday. Turkey also has improved ties with the Kurds who control oil-rich northern Iraq.

Other plans include an overhaul of the presidency to strengthen its powers, which may need the support of Kurdish lawmakers, and the redevelopment of central Istanbul, which sparked last month’s protests. Since they began on May 31, Turkey’s benchmark stock index has fallen 13.7 percent and the lira has weakened 3.7 percent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

No Agreement

The government and Kurdish leaders, including jailed PKK chief Abdullah Ocalan, have agreed on initial steps, including the withdrawal of the group’s fighters from Turkey. About 20 percent of an estimated 2,000 militants have returned to bases in northern Iraq since the pullout started on May 8, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said last week.

There’s no accord on the shape of a final settlement and signs of mistrust persist on both sides.

The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, which has links to the PKK, held rallies over the weekend in Diyarbakir, the largest city in the Kurdish southeast, and the southern provinces of Mersin and Adana, where many Kurds migrated during the 1990s when fighting was at its peak. They labeled the campaign “Government, Take a Step!”

Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay told Kanal 7 television on June 30 that the campaign, which claimed inaction by the government, is “seriously damaging the process.”

Political Struggle

“I don’t think it is useful for the future of the process,” Atalay said, hours after police used tear gas to disperse thousands of Kurds in Diyarbakir for carrying illegal PKK banners and portraits of Ocalan. Tensions mounted after the killing of a demonstrator during a protest against plans for an army outpost north of Diyarbakir on June 28.

Erdogan said yesterday that the protest was in retaliation to a military crackdown on the hashish and marijuana trade. “No sabotage or provocation will prevent us from seeking a solution,” Erdogan said. “However, we are not going to turn a blind eye to drug lords because of that.”

Bulent Arinc, another of the four deputy prime ministers, has accused the PKK of delaying the departure of its most “dynamic” men. In a move designed to fool any security forces tracking their communications, the PKK has sent radios across the Iraqi border, Milliyet newspaper said on July 1, citing intelligence reports.

“We are not asleep,” Arinc said on June 27. “This is a very difficult process.”

Erdogan’s overtures may include removing clauses regarding Turkish ethnicity in the constitution and enhancing the powers of local authorities, Eurasia Group’s Masraff said.

Nationalist Backlash

It’s not clear whether such steps would satisfy Kurds who demand autonomy, or whether a special status for the southeast would be acceptable to the rest of the nation.

The Peace and Democracy Party is pushing for abolition of terrorism laws used to jail thousands of Kurds for alleged ties to the PKK. It also wants the reduction of the 10 percent vote threshold for entering parliament, a demand that Erdogan has ruled out, according to Milliyet newspaper.

Another demand is for recognition of the houses of worship of the Alevi religious minority, many of whom are Kurds. Arinc said last week the government won’t consider that. The PKK wants an amnesty for fighters that would eventually encompass Ocalan, long labeled a “baby-killer” by Turkish media.

Such demands risk the kind of nationalist backlash that derailed Erdogan’s last Kurdish initiative in 2009.

Celal Adan, deputy chairman of the Nationalist Action Party, or MHP, the third biggest in parliament, on June 26 said Erdogan’s party was yielding to PKK demands under the “lie of democratization.”

“If they come to the parliament with such a dishonorable bill, we will make those responsible regret it,” he said.

Public Opinion

Devlet Bahceli, leader of the MHP, accused Erdogan’s party of encouraging terrorism by engaging Ocalan, who’s imprisoned on the island of Imrali outside Istanbul. “Every concession by the AKP opens a scourge on our heads,” he told his party on July 1. “When Prime Minister Erdogan negotiates with the monster of Imrali, separatist cannibals get excited and believe they’re going to succeed.”

To gauge and prepare public opinion, Erdogan has turned to advisers over the past two months. He told them on June 26 that the government is ready to eliminate tens of thousands of Kurdish village guards, who had been paid and armed to fight the PKK, and to allow education in Kurdish in some private schools, Milliyet said. Turkey has already allowed elective Kurdish courses and broadcasting in the language.

The groups of so-called wise people committees included academics, journalists and artists -- some of the groups that Erdogan has hit out at for involvement in the protests. He has blamed teachers for encouraging their students to join in, the media for distorting coverage, and television performers for attendance at rallies.

It will require “substantial amounts of political capital to provide vital concessions to the PKK,” said Oliver Coleman, an analyst for the Middle East and North Africa at Maplecroft, a risk analysis company in Bath, England. “Dealing with the protests has reduced Erdogan’s ability to move quickly or relatively unchallenged on these issues, and any severe delay increases the risks of a resumption in hostilities.”

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