x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Turkish deal on Kurds is tough but necessary

Turkey has its own complexity, which has given rise to the question of its large Kurdish minority. But Mr Erdogan must solve this pressing issue in the service of his country.

Turkey shares its borders with seven complex countries. Two of them, Syria and Iraq, are rocked by violence. And none of them has anything like the stability, economic success or regional and international clout that Turkey has developed in the last decade.

But Turkey has its own complexity, which has given rise to one of its most pressing internal problems, the question of its large Kurdish minority. Turkey is home to the largest number of Kurds anywhere in the world: by some estimates they make up nearly 20 per cent of the population, a larger percentage than, for example, African-Americans in the United States. For decades, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), an insurgent group, fought a bloody but intermittent campaign against the Turkish state, trying to keep up the pressure for a separate state for Kurds, or at least greater autonomy within Turkey.

Under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister since 2003, a so-called "solution process" has sought to end the conflict and grant the large Kurdish minority wide-ranging cultural and language rights. The biggest breakthrough came in March this year, when the jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan announced a ceasefire leading to the disarmament of the PKK and eventually its final withdrawal from Turkish soil.

The expectation engendered by that statement has since dissipated, as the Erdogan government, aware that the deal is not popular with other Turks, has dragged its heels over moving from process to solution. Turkey had agreed to release political prisoners and make amendments to the constitution to grant Kurds greater rights, but that has not yet happened. Without that, the last stage, the return of Kurdish leaders to Turkey to participate in the country's political process, will not happen.

At the weekend, Mr Erdogan signalled some movement. Parliament, he said, may be recalled earlier than usual to make these changes, which he called a democratisation process.

But critics fear he is simply stalling: his immense popularity has dipped recently and critics charge that he is unwilling to push through unpopular measures ahead of next year's presidential election.

Actually making the changes will not be easy. Mr Erdogan is a canny political operator, but to bring a sceptical population with him, he will have to be a statesman as well. With a historic deal with the country's largest minority within reach, Mr Erdogan must now apply his political skills in the service of his country, not merely his party.