Turkey may be involved in a peace process with its Kurds, but there's no denying things have gotten bogged down. Last month, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) announced it was halting the withdrawal of its fighters from Turkey because Ankara has failed to reciprocate with positive steps of its own. Meanwhile, a new "democratization" package of reforms unveiled last week by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was widely panned as not offering enough in terms of Kurdish reforms, stopping short of making some crucial changes -- such as lowering the 10 percent national election threshold or introducing Kurdish-language education in public schools -- that Kurds have long asked for.
In a new report, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group suggests the reason the Turkish government's Kurdish reform effort might be stalling is the fear of a nationalist backlash and its impact on the ruling Justice and Development Party's domestic fortunes. The report, though, argues those fears may be overblown. From its executive summary:
It is true there are deep-rooted fears among some Turks that the negotiations have emboldened the PKK and that concessions would only pave the road to a separate Kurdish state. Others worry that the country would lose its Turkish identity. There is also considerable public resentment at offering concessions to the insurgency: for decades militants have been officially described as terrorists and traitors, and they have indeed used terrorist tactics; but the public has not been informed that Kurds themselves have suffered the bulk of casualties, destruction of property and violation of rights.
However, most of the Kurdish community still wants a settlement within Turkey. PKK leaders and the Kurdish movement, including the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), need to stop issuing threats that fuel the Turkish public’s concerns about secession or a resurgence of violence. They should also denounce parallel state formations inside Turkey, including local militias, and signal the Kurds’ desire to live in Turkey alongside Turks, with whom they share a common history. Given the unique opportunities of the current process, the PKK should maintain its commitment to the ceasefire and restart withdrawals.
Turkish leaders, at the same time, must recommit to democratic reform, including a new constitution and laws that eliminate any ethnic bias. A new constitution could balance natural references to the Turkish nation with clear emphasis on equal citizenship for all in the Republic of Turkey and guarantee the full right to use mother languages in education and public life. Other reforms need to include a more decentralised government structure, changes to anti-terror laws, and a lower election threshold. The leaders should also explain to public opinion the advantages of this road to an enduring peace and refrain from populist, accusatory statements towards the Kurdish movement simply for the sake of chasing the marginal Turkish nationalist vote.
Above all, Turkey does not have to – and should not – link Kurdish reform steps to the negotiations with the PKK. Such democratisation would improve access to rights, education and political life for all in the country. And it would help build the trust vital to ending a conflict that over three decades has killed 30,000 and inflicted enormous long-term damage on the economy, society and political culture.