On 28 February the pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party (HDP) and Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan held a joint press conference at which an HDP member read out a statement from Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Ocalan called on his supporters to take a “historic” decision to lay down their arms and convene a congress this spring to end the movement’s armed struggle, while Akdogan expressed his support for the disarmament call.
Ocalan’s statement also said that the two sides had agreed to focus future negotiations around ten issues. These include Kurdish demands that Ankara allow PKK members and Ocalan to participate in politics in the future and that Kurdish rights be expanded by drafting a new Constitution that would grant autonomy to the largely Kurdish South-East, allow schooling in the Kurdish language and formally recognise the Kurdish ethnic identity.
We believe that this press conference was intended to signal that both Ocalan and the Government are committed to addressing one another’s fundamental demands. Kurdish anger has been mounting in recent months, particularly among more radical PKK supporters, over Ankara’s failure to deliver major concessions. Meanwhile, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was concerned that its support could be damaged if there was renewed Kurdish violence ahead of the Parliamentary elections in June. The conference consequently represents a major step forward for the peace process and reduces the risk of an escalation in violence in the coming months in the South-East.
Nonetheless, significant obstacles to peace remain, not least the deep-seated mistrust between Ankara and the Kurds. Kurdish hardliners widely suspect that Erdogan’s engagement is self-serving and intended to help him introduce an executive Presidency. They fear that he will simply terminate the dialogue if he feels he no longer needs Kurdish support to achieve this goal after the polls. This explains why the PKK’s military leadership in the Qandil mountains in northern Iraq said it would disarm only after Ankara had fulfilled its own promises, although it described Ocalan’s statement as a “historical step”. Meanwhile, many in Ankara question whether the PKK is really committed to disarming.
Progress towards a final resolution of the Kurdish conflict is therefore likely to remain gradual, not least since Erdogan is unlikely to offer any concrete concessions before he has assessed the results of the June polls. There is consequently a continuing risk that Kurdish hardliners will continue to engage in low-level violence, particularly in the South-East but potentially also in urban areas in the coming months. However, the positive statements from both sides and Ocalan’s continued influence within the Kurdish community mean that wide-scale violence is now even less likely ahead of the polls.