Peace dividends in Turkey

The ceasefire declared last week on behalf of Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers party (PKK), is a moment that – if its promise is brought to fruition – will mark the beginning of benefits reaching well beyond the Turkish state’s battle with Kurdish separatists.

In surprisingly little time, Mr Öcalan has gone from demonised terrorist to de facto interlocutor for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister. In a deal both sides seem genuinely interested in making stick, the PKK would give up armed struggle in return for cultural, language and political rights in an amended constitution. Kurdish politicians would also support Mr Erdogan’s ardently held goal of a more powerful Turkish presidency, a position he is universally seen to be preparing him for.

Burying a conflict that has raged for decades and taken tens of thousands of lives alone would be a big enough prize. But if reconciliation really takes place, it will buy rewards far beyond the peace itself. The most obvious ones are material. Turkey’s economy has had a good ride during Mr Erdogan’s time in power – no small cause of his party’s enduring popularity. Peace with the Kurdish minority should facilitate the penetration of Turkish investment and trade to other Kurdish-influenced parts of the region. This includes, not least, the oil and gas industry in the largely autonomous Kurdish provinces of northern Iraq.

Ankara’s diplomatic heft could benefit in parallel. With Kurdish power strong in northern Iraq and strengthening in collapsing Syria, a good relationship with Kurds in Turkey would reverberate across borders. In the rest of the region, Ankara’s ability to make its voice count will be bolstered if the country is no longer a house divided.

The most revolutionary implications of the envisaged settlement will be domestic. It would contribute to the modernisation of Turkey’s political life by weakening the centralist and ethnic-nationalist nature of the Turkish state – in its institutions and the majority’s psyche. The plan to redefine citizenship in civic rather than ethnic terms would open the polity up to minorities and lighten the grip on national life of a misconceived subservience to “Turkishness”. Such a step towards European values can only help EU accession talks.

A big question hangs over the public’s readiness for this change in mindset. Mr Erdogan should not be distracted by ambitions of personal aggrandisement. He must now apply himself fully to bringing his supporters on board.



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