From South Africa to Northern Ireland, the lesson about ending conflicts is the same: it starts with talking to your enemies. After more than a quarter of a century of armed conflict that has cost more than 40,000 lives, Turkey seems to have taken this lesson to heart. Two days before Christmas, Turkish intelligence officers held talks with PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in the island prison near Istanbul where he has been serving a life sentence for treason since 1999.
An adviser to prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the purpose of the talks was to negotiate the disarmament of the PKK, which conducted during 2012 its bloodiest year of operations in a decade. He also acknowledged, however, that Turkey cannot defeat the PKK by military means alone – even those as brutal as the Turkish state has deployed against the Kurds for a quarter of a century.
Founded in 1975, the PKK launched an armed campaign in 1984 and is designated as a terrorist group by the European Union and the United States, as well as Turkey. In recent years, the PKK has moderated its demands, calling for more autonomy and cultural rights rather than outright separatism. Doubts about Öcalan’s authority within the PKK receded in November when PKK prisoners in Turkish jails called off a 69-day hunger strike on his orders. Turkish newspapers report that the latest talks centre on a proposal for the PKK to start disarming within weeks and for high-ranking militants to be allowed to live in exile.
Erdogan’s government has overseen an easing of some restrictions on expressing Kurdish identity, allowing Kurdish television broadcasts and Kurdish language courses in state schools. The prime minister’s latest initiative may be influenced by his party’s electoral competition with pro-Kurdish parties and by Ankara’s wooing of the oil-rich, Kurdish-dominated north of Iraq. The failure of the last peace initiative in 2009 was followed by a ferocious return of violence. Both sides must work to ensure the latest talks succeed.