x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Turkey's Kurds have a window for reconciliation

News that the Turkish government is talking with the PKK is welcome. But real progress will begin with the government living up to previous promises.

Ask anyone who hails from Turkey's Anatolian heartland to self-identify, and more often than not, the answer will be a proud "I am Turkish." Ask the same question of a man from Turkey's south-east, and you will probably get a very different answer. "I," he will say, "am Kurdish."

Identity politics have challenged Turkey's leaders ever since the secular state was assembled from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. The nation Mustafa Kemal Ataturk inspired was welcomed by many, but not by all. Kurds in particular have resisted the Turkish state, often violently - over territory loss, economic and political inequality, and cultural discrimination. Since the early 1980s, thousands have been killed in the low-intensity civil war.

Both sides have tired of the bloodshed. On Monday, Turkish media reported that intelligence officials had been holding secret meetings with Abdullah Ocalan, the head of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Ocalan is serving a life sentence for separatist violence, but he still wields significant influence over PKK ideology.

"The government supports any dialogue to this end that could result in a halt to violence," Prime Minister Recip Tayyep Erdogan said on state television. Ocalan, for his part, reportedly asked for direct lines of communication with his supporters and improved prison conditions.

Meaningful talks are, of course, long overdue. But as legitimate as Kurdish grievances are - such as the ban on the Kurdish language and unequal economic policies - the PKK's violence was never going to resolve these concerns.

Sadly, neither will simply talking. During his decade in power, Mr Erdogan has frequently promised Kurds political equality and economic growth - only to fall short on both fronts when push comes to shove. Mr Erdogan clearly wants to defuse the Kurdish nationalist threat that is growing in Syria - where the PKK's allies and other groups have gained ground during the civil war - by addressing Turkey's decades-old domestic conflict. But the only way to do that is to make good on past promises.

Ocalan has been in prison since he was captured in Nairobi in 1999. The PKK has been fighting for over three decades; it is stretched thin and tired, but newly emboldened by regional events. Leaders on both sides should recognise an opportunity to address mutual grievances. The neighbourhood has grown too poisonous to let these wounds fester any longer.