A new beginning

A bit over a year from now, it will be Newroz again. As they have done for centuries, the Kurds will be celebrating the beginning of their new year with huge crowds of people. Women in brightly coloured glitter dresses, men in traditional Kurdish outfit, boys and girls dressed up. Newroz fires will burn, there’ll be music, dancing, singing. The big question is: will people celebrate peace, or protest ongoing suppression?

But that’s 2014. This year before Newroz, celebrated this Thursday, PKK-leader Öcalan will call for a cease fire by the PKK in its fight against the army. This means that he thinks the state, which is in direct talks with him, is serious in its bid to find a democratic solution to the Kurdish issue. Since that is exactly what Kurds have been demanding for decades, Newroz will be more full of hope than ever before.

Man on a soon to be Newroz fire, Diyarbakir, 2010 (I think). Pic by Constance van Dorp, click to enlarge.

But the expectations are fragile, and the hope is cautious. Because a cease fire is nothing more than that: a temporary laying down of arms, in this case to encourage the process towards a peaceful, democratic solution. It doesn’t mean the PKK will turn in its arms, it doesn’t mean the armed struggle has come to an indefinite end. Media both inside Turkey and abroad speak about the cease fire as if it means the end of the armed struggle. It doesn’t. It is no doubt a milestone, but it’s not an end, just a beginning. The beginning of a long and difficult process to get the democratic and justified demands of the Kurdish people implemented in a new Turkey, that can justly call itself a full democracy.

What if the government doesn’t live up to the little bit of trust they are starting to get from the Kurdish people? The first test will come very soon. The PKK cease fire is important, but a cease fire must be mutual before it leads to the provisional end of violence. The PKK has respected cease fires before, but the state never has. In my opinion, it will be bigger news if the state orders a cease fire too, and if the army respects it. I’m surprised nobody talks about this crucial step the government must take.

Parliament

After that, Öcalan will become less important. He is the one leading the armed group, he is the one who can order the PKK to stop the violence for now and maybe even retreat from Turkey. But he is not in parliament, and that is where the road to real peace – click here to read my earlier blog post about what peace really means – has to be found. That is where a new constitution has to be written, that is where the terrorism laws have to be radically changed, that is where some form of regional autonomy has to be negotiated, and that is where an amnesty law for future ex-PKKfighters will have to be discussed.

I wonder if Turks realize that all those steps need to be taken before lasting peace will be reached. Nobody is telling them. I wish Erdogan would make a speech envisioning Turkey’s fully democratic future. He can do it. He has a huge voter base, he has charisma, he has more power than anybody in this country. Some people say he doesn’t do it out of fear of losing the nationalist vote. One: a strong leader shouldn’t be afraid to do what he knows is necessary. Two: reaching a lasting peace in which no soldiers return from a war within Turkey’s borders in coffins anymore, will be the final blow to Turkish extreme nationalism. Erdogan will be a hero and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, together with Öcalan – but more about historic handshakes here.

Victory

Concrete steps in the process after both sides respect a cease fire have to be taken quickly. That’s crucial, because at the end of next year presidential elections are scheduled. Erdogan will no doubt be running (and it’s unclear who, if anybody, will compete against him). At some point this year, the election campaign will start. Erdogan of course wants a glorious victory, even if he is the only candidate. For that, he needs either lasting peace, or a fresh all- out war with the PKK. In the first scenario, he will win Kurdish votes and make nationalist rhetoric less influential. In the second scenario, he can play the still potentially very successful nationalist card.

Newroz celebrations in Gaziantep, 2011. Pic by me, click to enlarge.

And exactly there lies my suspicion of Erdogan. Can he pull this peace wagon fast enough? Or has it been his strategy all along to create momentum for peace, not take concrete steps, let the peace process blow up, blame Öcalan, Kandil or the BDP (or all three of them) and win the Presidential seat by dramatically claiming he wanted peace but ‘they’ didn’t? It’s possible: he controls the media, and the Turkish suspicion of the Kurdish political movement is deep. Yes, I know Erdogan claimed he would drink poison if it would help solving the Kurdish issue, but I don’t buy it. Ever since he became Prime Minister, he has only become more authoritarian. Power is his goal.

I hope my suspicion is not justified. The cease fire that Öcalan is about to call for gives me that hope. I can’t wait to celebrate the most intense and important Newroz ever in Diyarbakir in a couple of days, in a more massive crowd than ever of one million plus people. After that, a crucial year will start. What will Newroz 2014 be like? A crazy celebration of (almost) accomplished lasting peace? Or a protest against renewed violence and ongoing suppression of Kurdish identity?

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