Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ahmet Turk, prime minister erdogan
Umit Bektas/AP
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ahmet Turk, head of the pro-Kurdish
Democratic Society Party, meet in Ankara, Turkey, Aug. 5, 2009.

Turkey Reaches Out to Kurds, Hoping to End 25-Year Conflict

August 06, 2009 03:30 PM
by Denis Cummings
Turkey’s prime minister met with the leader of the main Kurdish party in an attempt to move toward a peaceful solution to the 25-year conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurdish minority in southwestern Turkey.

Erdogan Meets With Kurdish Leader

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Wednesday with Ahmet Turk, head of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP)—believed to be the political wing on the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)—in hopes on moving toward a resolution in the 25-year-old violent conflict between the government and the country’s Kurdish minority.

“Our people want unity … and an end to blood and killing,” declared Erdogan.

More than 40,000 people have died in the conflict, which began when the PKK launched a guerilla war for an independent Kurdish state in southwestern Turkey. It has cost the government an estimated $300 billion and hurt its bid to be admitted into the European Union, writes The Wall Street Journal.

The Turkish government has “expanded cultural and minority rights” for Kurds in recent years and is planning to unveil further reforms this month, according to Reuters. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who has been in prison since 1999, is planning to release his own “road map” to peace on Aug. 15, the 25th anniversary of the PKK’s first attack.

Background: Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)

The PKK is a paramilitary group seeking to create an independent socialist Kurdish state in southeastern Turkey and parts of neighboring countries. It is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union and the United States.

Founded in the early 1970s as a Marxist-Leninist organization by Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK took up arms in 1984. It has since waged a guerilla war against the Turkish government, “that included kidnappings of foreign tourists in Turkey, suicide bombings, and attacks on Turkish diplomatic offices in Europe,” according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

Historical Context: Kurdistan

The region of Turkistan, home to between 25 and 30 million Kurds, includes parts of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Armenia and Azerbaijan. It was nearly granted autonomous status in 1920, when the World War I Allied Powers and the soon-to-be defunct Ottoman government signed the Treaty of Sevres. However, Ataturk led Turkish nationalists in a quest to reclaim territory in Turkish War of Independence, culminating in 1923 with the Treaty of Lausanne, which abandoned the plan for a separate Kurdish state.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdish population was subject to “what amounted to a genocidal campaign” at the hands of Saddam Hussein in the late 1980s, writes PBS. In 1992, under international pressure, Iraqi troops pulled out of the region, allowing the Kurds to establish it as an autonomous region.

Key Players: Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Ocalan

Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Erdogan was convicted of “inciting religious hatred” in 1998 due to his recitation of an Islamist poem, reports the BBC. He was then jailed for a brief period.

His new political party, the moderate but Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP), has ruled Turkey since 2002. The country has since seen enormous economic expansion, though secularists criticize his party’s social reform policies, which include a failed attempt to illegalize adultery, a move to re-draft the constitution to allow female students to wear Islamic-style headscarves at universities, and stiff taxation on alcohol.

Erdogan and the AKP draw support from the conservative and working class communities in the interior. The AKP had a strong showing in the March 2009 elections that allowed to maintain control of the government.

Abdullah Ocalan

Ocalan became involved in politics while studying political science at Ankara University, founding the PKK in 1978 with fellow students. He fled Turkey before the military coup in 1980, and commanded the PKK from bases in Syria.

Ocalan remained in exile in Syria until he was expelled in 1998. He was arrested in Kenya in February 1999 and taken to Turkey, where he was convicted of treason and sentenced to death in June 1999, later commuted to life in prison. In 2005, the European Court of Human Rights declared that Ocalan did not receive a fair trial, but his case has not been re-opened.

Ocalan is currently serving a life sentence as the sole inmate in a prison within Istanbul city limits on the island of Yassiada in the Sea of Marmara. In recent years he has come out for a democratic solution to the conflict.

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