Last week, Turkey reached a turning point in its bid to resolve its problem with Kurdish separatists when Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), released a public statement setting out conditions for a deal with the Turkish government. After months of negotiations with Ankara, Öcalan called for an end to the rebels’ armed struggle, advising Kurds to seek their rights in the political arena and asking PKK fighters to eventually leave Turkey.

Sinan Ülgen examines what this development means for regional and internal dynamics, including Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s bid for increased power. He says any future agreement will depend on the ability of the new Turkish constitution, which is currently being drafted, to address Kurdish demands and accommodate Erdoğan’s ambitions.

Have Turkish and Kurdish leaders reached a critical stage in their negotiations?


Sinan Ülgen
Sinan Ülgen is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where his research focuses on Turkish foreign policy, nuclear policy, cyberpolicy, and transatlantic relations.
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Yes, the Öcalan letter is certainly an important step that bolsters the likelihood of settling Turkey’s Kurdish problem. At the same time, Öcalan’s message should be seen essentially as a letter of intent. The details of the settlement are still being negotiated, and many obstacles will need to be overcome before a deal emerges.

In addition to being an important milestone, Öcalan’s announcement very possibly marks a tipping point. One way or another, Turkey’s future will be greatly affected. If a settlement can be successfully negotiated and implemented, Turkey will finally solve the biggest challenge to its internal cohesion.

But the failure of the negotiations will have serious ramifications for Turkey’s stability and may lead to an even more acrimonious conflict.

What are the Kurds’ demands?

The Kurds have articulated a range of demands, some easier to fulfill than others. They expect changes in the current constitution, with a view to redefining the concept of citizenship. Today’s definition uses the term “Turk,” which the Kurds find unacceptable.

They want increased cultural freedoms, advocating in particular for the Kurdish language to be used in public schools and some state institutions, such as tribunals.

Kurds expect the threshold for legislative elections to be reduced. Currently, parties must gain 10 percent of the national vote to be directly represented in parliament, a threshold that effectively excludes Kurdish parties. The Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party has been able to overcome this barrier by fielding independent candidates in elections. Kurds are also demanding more devolution of powers to local authorities so that they can enjoy greater freedoms in several policy areas, including education, health, and social policies.

In addition, Kurds are seeking to have Öcalan’s prison conditions improved, with the expectation that he would be freed following a settlement.

Why might the Turkish government be amenable to compromise at this point?

At the domestic level, Erdoğan is intent on changing the constitution to introduce a stronger presidency, an office that he would presumably seek in next year’s elections. But he currently lacks sufficient parliamentary support to enact such a constitutional reform.

Erdoğan wants to link his presidential ambitions to the settlement plan. He will therefore aim for the new constitution to sanction the shift to a stronger presidential regime. By making a deal with Öcalan, he hopes to win the backing of Kurdish parliamentarians that would allow him to change the constitution and realize his presidential ambitions (should he be elected). And if the negotiations succeed, Erdoğan will secure his place in history as the leader who brought peace to Turkey.

The changing regional context has also built a sense of urgency around reaching a settlement. Having adopted a hawkish stance on Syria, Ankara has seen ties with its neighbors worsen. This has made Turkey keenly aware of its own vulnerability stemming from its three-decade-long conflict with the PKK.

In the past, the PKK has been used by Turkey’s regional foes to undermine Turkey’s power. Some foes, for instance, have harbored PKK members and affiliates. The fear is that Turkey’s neighbors could once again lead the PKK to challenge Turkey’s internal stability.

What are the next steps for the Kurds and the Turkish government?

A day after reading Öcalan’s letter, the PKK leadership declared a ceasefire. Now the burden of delivery has shifted to the side of the Turkish government. Ankara will need to work on some of Öcalan’s demands for the process to continue. For instance, amendments to the Anti-Terror Law could allow many Kurdish activists to be freed.

But the real challenge will be crafting the new constitution. The Kurds will want the new constitution to specifically address their core concerns.

What factors could spoil the deal?

The risk of failure certainly cannot be ruled out. Reaching an agreement on the new constitution will be an arduous process. The risk of a backlash from the potent Turkish nationalist constituency should not be discounted. In particular, attempts to eliminate the reference to being a “Turk” in the current definition of citizenship will be met with strong resistance. Additionally, the devolution of power to local governments will raise fears of territorial disintegration and will be viewed by the nationalists as having cleared the path to eventual Kurdish secessionism.

Moreover, if Erdoğan gets his way, a vote in favor of the more liberal constitution would also mean a vote for the presidential system. This linkage will make the adoption of the constitution by referendum more difficult in a country that remains unconvinced about the necessity of doing away with the current parliamentary democracy.

It is also unclear at this stage whether the Kurds can remain united. Despite the backing of Öcalan, the PKK may end up being divided about whether to support the settlement plan. A splinter group could then decide to continue the armed struggle.

Finally, there are also likely to be attempts to derail this process, either from within the PKK or at the instigation of external foes that are unlikely to welcome the prospect of a Turkey that has finally achieved internal peace.

What will be the regional implications of the proposed agreement between the Turkish government and the Kurds?

The first structural impact of such a deal would be to cement the rapprochement between Turkey and the Kurdish constituencies outside Turkey’s borders.

Ankara has already greatly improved its relations with the Kurds of Iraq. Economic cooperation between Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government is at its peak, with a slated energy deal granting significant concessions to Turkey on northern Iraq’s oil and gas reserves. So the settlement plan would not only strengthen the ties between Ankara and Erbil but also transform Turkey into the Kurds’ most trusted regional ally.

In the longer term, a Turkey that has been able to settle its own Kurdish problem would become a more formidable foreign policy actor. Ankara could then act more assertively in the region without being handicapped by threats to its internal stability.