By Zoi Stambolliou. Originally published on 2013/05/10

With civil war in Syria, turmoil in Gaza, Arab Spring aftershocks, and the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program, it’s easy for outsiders to overlook one of the region’s most intractable ethnic conflicts – Turkey’s internal battles with Kurdish separatists. Yet, the Kurdish issue deserves attention as it remains a major inner security threat for the most politically modern and economically dynamic country of the region.

During the last decade, the Turkish foreign policy has undergone profound changes. By the end of the Cold War and in search for a new role in the emerging world order, the foreign policy of Turkey has redefined certain policies and especially relations with its neighbors. Turkey, as heir of the Ottoman Empire, is seeking to establish itself not only as a regional power in the Middle East, the Balkans and the Mediterranean region but also as a model of democracy.

The Turkish foreign policy under the AKP administration has been associated with the name of the current Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Davutoglu, an academic himself, before his ministerial appointment in 2009, had published several writings, most important of which the book “Strategic Depth”, in which he outlines his strategic vision concerning the Turkish foreign policy. A basic principle of the so called Davutoglu Doctrine is the balance between the security and democracy inside the country. For this reason, Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is trying to transform Turkey from a regional power into a model of prosperity and democracy, a kind of good paradigm for the Middle East countries. Recent events, however, show that Turkey is still in the search of its new role and historical narrative, while there is an almost permanent internal crisis.

The Kurdish issue: Key to government’s stabilization?

The goal of achieving domestic security and strengthening of democratic institutions is in question mainly due to the media censorship and the mass persecutions of military officers after the elections of 2011. Apart from this, more than 70 journalists in Turkey have been prosecuted and kept in jail all over the country due to state reasons according to reports.

The most important problem for the Turkish government though, remains the Kurdish issue.

The historic call that the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan, made about a month ago to armed militants asking them to ceasefire seems,  nonetheless, to be giving  a new impetus to negotiation efforts after almost three decades of conflict between the party and the Turkish government.

Ocalan’s announcement came at the right time. Developments in Syria have taken an unpredictable way, the pressure on nuclear Iran and the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine complicate the situation even more for Ankara. A political solution to the conflict with the Kurds could considerably facilitate the position of Turkey.

The prospects for an end to the insurgency have improved significantly since the Turkish government has realized the ineffectiveness of using military forces, which are strongly disapproved by the people. At the same time, the Kurdish issue is closely linked to the political ambitions of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is going through his second term as Prime Minister. According to the statutes of the Party of Justice and Development Party (AKP), Erdogan is not able to claim premiership again, after the end of the second term in 2014. For this reason, he aims to run in the next elections for President.

Considering that the office of the President is largely ceremonial, Erdogan intends to change the law so as to give stronger enforcement powers to the President. As the AKP does not have enough votes in the parliament to promote these constitutional changes, the support of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), with 33 seats in parliament seems rather needy. Erdogan believes that a peaceful attitude of the government and the efforts to resolve the Kurdish issue will secure the consent of the BDP.

Burdens on the way

However, many issues could make things difficult, if not derail the agreement. A significant amount of Turkish people consider the members of the PKK terrorists and does not want them to be released from jails. But the Kurds have clarified that the amnesty issue is of high importance and insist that the PKK militants should be granted amnesty as part of any agreement.

At the same time, the agreement is not for granted since the PKK during the last years has turned into a transnational movement network and some hardliner nationalist groups may still be reluctant to lay down their arms. One thing is for sure: even if the agreement is reached, the way towards solving the problem will be long, and the achievement of peace a time consuming process.

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