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Turkey’s Kurdish opening

A meeting between the Turkish prime minister and the president of the autonomous Kurdish region in Northern Iraq is being seen as historic. For the first time, Prime Minister Erdogan referred to Kurdistan by name.

The meeting on Saturday (16.11.2013) between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the president of the autonomous Kurdish region in Northern Iraq, Massoud Barzani, in Diyarbakir has opened a new era in Turkey's relations with the Kurds. According to veteran Turkish Kurdish politician Hasim Hasimi, it would be hard to overestimate the historic nature of the event.

"The Diyarbakir meeting of two of the region's symbolic figures is the beginning of a new era," he told Deutsche Welle. "For the first time, in Diyarbakir, Prime Minister Erdogan used the term Kurdistan. We have seen the flags of Turkey and Kurdistan together. All the taboos have been broken."

For years, Turkey's Kurds have been deprived of their basic political and cultural rights. The Turkish government was always concerned about the country's territorial integrity and looked at any Kurdish political movements with suspicion.

A main street in Sulaymania Copyright\ Photographer: Munaf Al.saidy

Northern Iraqi towns like Sulaymania are prosperous and peaceful

Turkish officials refrained from using the term "Kurdistan," even when referring to the semi-autonomous administration just across the border in Northern Iraq, the official name of which is the Kurdistan Regional Government, and even though its president has become an important political ally for Turkey.

'Self-confident Turkish state'

The Turkish state has in recent times been slowly moving towards greater recognition of Kurdish interests, but this meeting, according to Sedat Bozkurt, a journalist specializing in Kurdish policy, brings that process to a new level.

"Diyarbakir is a pro-Kurdish stronghold. If the Turkish state can host a Kurdish leader here with Kurdish flags, this is significant," says Bozkurt. "First, it shows the recently developed self-confidence of the Turkish state. And secondly, it shows the confidence of the Turkish state in its Kurds, and that the state is now far from worrying about separation or division."

There are Kurdish-majority areas in four countries in the region - Iran, Syria, Iraq and Turkey - but Turkey has by far the largest Kurdish population, estimated at around 15 million. Turkey has only recently expanded political and cultural rights for its Kurdish citizens in the course of its EU membership process.

Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighters arrive in the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk on May 14, 2013 SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

PKK forces have withdrawn from Turkey to Northern Iraq

But for 29 years, the banned Kurdish organization PKK carried out an armed campaign for self-rule which claimed more than 45,000 lives. In March this year, Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the PKK, called for a ceasefire and urged his armed followers to withdraw from Turkish soil. The Turkish government has been holding talks with Öcalan, which are continuing despite setbacks.

Erdogan's political calculation

Bozkurt argues that while Erdogan's meeting with Barzani is significant for Turkey's reconciliation efforts with the Kurds; Erdogan had his own good political reasons to make the move.

He argues that the majority of Turkey's Kurds had long identified with Barzani's political movement, the conservative-traditional Kurdistan Democratic Party KDP. But the armed conflict had led Kurds to support the leftist PKK, and Erdogan's opening towards Barzani is intended to make Kurdish politics more manageable for him.

"Erdogan has made a significant political move aimed at bring together conservative Kurds in Turkey, and he has introduced Barzani as a symbol," says Bozkurt. "It's an attempt by Erdogan to diversify Kurdish politics."

Barzani's growing influence is likely to tempt Kurdish voters away from the PKK.

The Turkish pro-Kurdish BDP party, which shares the same grassroots support as the PKK, has offered mixed reactions to Barzani's visit, with some deputies publicly criticizing him for his cooperation with Erdogan.

Party rivalry

The PKK and the KDP have long been competitors, and they clashed fiercely in Northern Iraq in the 1990s. Recent developments in Syria have further intensified their rivalry. The PKK-affiliated Syrian Kurdish group PYD is moving towards autonomy in Kurdish parts of Syria, and that has led Barzani's KDP to view the leftist grouping as a rival for transnational leadership of the Kurds.

But Hasimi sees differences and competition between the Kurdish groups as normal. For him, what is significant is that both Erdogan and Barzani in Diyarbakir were calling for Kurdish unity and not confrontation.

"In Diyarbakir, the Turkish prime minister promised that the reconciliation process will continue to snowball," says Hasimi. "With his speech he strengthened trust in this process."

For Hasimi, the process of continued reform and negotiations with PKK leader Öcalan is likely to face several provocations, but he sees it as the only way ahead.

'The peace process is irreversible'

Bozkurt also views the reconciliation process with Kurds as irreversible. "From now on, if the PKK moves towards the armed struggle again, then it would lose support at the grassroots," he says. "And if it's the government which breaks the process, it would face new attacks. From now on this process is irreversible. There may be some tensions and setbacks, but the reconciliation process will continue."

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