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Paris murders: Blow to Turkey-PKK peace talks?

The Turkish government’s historical attempt at peace negotiations with the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan may face a serious blow from a recent murky assassinations plot.

It is still unknown who killed the PKK leaders and two others in Paris on Wednesday (09.01.2013). But already politicians and experts are warning against new provocations with the aim of derailing the process and they stress that the path to peace will likely be long and difficult.

The assassination of a key leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and two other women executives of the organization in Paris on Wednesday raised concerns for the future of Turkey's fresh attempt to find a peaceful solution to the decades-long problem is has with the Kurdish population.

The apparent target of the assassination had been one of the victims, 56-year-old Sakine Cansiz. She was the co-founder of the PKK in 1978 together with four others, including the jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan.

Sakine Cansiz had been a key and moderate figure, and took part in secret talks between Turkey and PKK leaders in 2010, according to the Yeni Safak daily, a newspaper close to the Turkish government. She was again to assume a key role in a fresh attempt by both sides to reach a negotiated settlement, and Cansiz had met with Turkish officials in Cologne, Germany just last month, the daily reported.

Members of a pro-Kurdish party sit on the ground as they start on November 17, 2012 a two-day hunger strike in support of the several hundreds Kurdish inmates who have been on hunger strike for 67 days in Ankara. Around 700 hunger strikers are calling for the lifting of restrictions on the use of Kurdish language but their main demand is improved jail conditions for Abdullah Ocalan, the 62-year old leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). (c) ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

Hunger strikers in late 2012 demand a lift of the ban of the Kurdish language in Turkey

Cansiz was granted political asylum by France in 1998, and she had been politically active in France and Germany since then. She was arrested by police in Hamburg in 2007, but released after 40 days of detention by court order.

‘Attempt to sabotage peace talks'

Zubeyir Aydar, the European head of the PKK, told the Turkish press that they had been warned about possible assassinations two years ago when confidential talks with Ankara started.

“My personal view and also our general evaluation is that the assassinations in Paris are an attempt to sabotage peace talks. This is likely to be an act of a clandestine circle which is against peace and the dialogue process,” Aydar said.

Confidential talks between Turkish government and PKK officials were carried out behind closed doors two years ago. The failure of these talks prompted a new cycle of violence, which resulted in the death of dozens of civilians, security personnel and hundreds of PKK militants over the last two years.

The fresh push for a dialogue with PKK leader Öcalan had been initiated by the Erdogan government in December 2012, in the wake of pressing domestic and international developments, including the Syria crisis.

This time Erdogan's AKP government promised a transparent process, making public some basic elements of the negotiations. Apparently the Turkish government was planning to offer broader political and cultural rights for its Kurdish citizens, together with broader authority for local administrations and a general amnesty for PKK militants, in return for an end to the PKK's armed struggle and its demand for an independent or autonomous state.

The PKK's decades-long violence claimed more than 40,000 lives. The organization and associated groups are listed as terrorist organizations by the United States, the EU and much of the international community.

The fresh round of talks initiated by the Erdogan government is a milestone in the over thirty years of bloody struggle. But the assassinations in Paris constitute a major test for the future of these talks.

Members of the Kurdish community demonstrate in the streets of Marseille, southern France, 10 January 2013, over the murder of three Kurdish women activists. (c) EPA/GUILLAUME HORCAJUELO

Marseille: The triple murder in Paris is followed by mass protests throughout the country.

Assassinations, an intra-PKK conflict?

“The incident may be a result of an intra-PKK conflict or a provocation. We had better wait until light is shed on it,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in his initial comments on the issue.

The PKK has categorically rejected the possibility of an intra-organizational affair, an idea which implies a weakness of the organization. Certain groups affiliated with the PKK claimed that the “Turkish gladio,” or far rightist Turkish organizations, may have been behind the attacks.

Dr. Nihat Ali Özcan, a prominent expert on the PKK, working for the Ankara based think-tank TEPAV, warned that speculation on the assassinations in Paris would be misleading at this stage.

“When we look back at the history of the PKK, we can see incidents of executions within the organization,” he told Deutsche Welle. “However reaching such a conclusion for what happened in Paris would be strictly premature at this time,” he said.

Even if the killings have nothing to do with the PKK, observers point to the existence of tensions and different views within the organization on a number of issues, including the continuation of the armed struggle. These differences are likely to have an impact on the future of any talks.

There is not one PKK

Dr. Özcan, who has also written several books on the PKK, emphasized the differences within the PKK, among its structures in Europe and in northern Iraq.

“Of course, the conditions of the European group are different. Those members staying there for a long time lose their radicalism over time. Strict control over the European members of the PKK by the headquarters in Kandil is not always successful, contrary to the surveillance on those members carrying out armed campaigns in the mountains, or in northern Iraq,” he said.

In this Sunday, Sept. 2, 2012 photo, protesters stage a rally as thousands of Turks demonstrate to condemn terrorism in Ankara, Turkey. A Turkish official said Kurdish rebels have attacked security posts in the town of Beytussebap, Turkey, near the border with Iraq late Sunday, Sept. 2, killing nine security personnel. There has been a surge in rebel attacks in recent months. The banner reads: We don't want The PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) at the parliament. (c) AP/dapd

Late 2012: Turkish anti terrorism protests focus on the PKK

According to Dr. Özcan, while the members and leaders in Europe are more open to new ideas and more moderate, the PKK's armed and strong structures based in northern Iraq view the European wing as more susceptible. The headquarters in Kandil, as a result,often rotates executives in Europe and tries to increase pressure on members in Europe with frequent inspections.

PKK's activities in Europe

The PKK has massive groups of followers in Europe, primarily in Germany, France, the Netherlands and Belgium among the members of Kurdish diaspora. According to the latest report of Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the PKK, which is forbidden in the country, has about 13,000 members in the country and tens of thousands of sympathizers.

Some groups associated with the PKK are also allegedly active in illegal activities, such as extortion, drug trafficking and money laundering, according to the Turkish press. The PKK and related groups supposedly raise around one billion euros in Europe through these illegal activities, Turkish media reports claim.

A long and difficult process ahead

PKK expert Özcan warns against possible provocations in the near future with the aim of derailing the peace process and stresses that the path to peace will likely be long and difficult.

“During this process, if PKK leaders perceive a risk of losing control of the organization, or if the Turkish government's recent initiative is perceived as an attempt to divide the organization, the PKK may put an end to the negotiations and again turn to violence,” he warned.

One of the key points of the new process is Turkey's plans for adoption of a new democratic constitution. The new constitution and accompanying regulations will address the demands of Kurds for broader political and cultural rights.

“Apparently in the end, the Turkish government will come up with a kind of a power sharing deal,” Dr. Özcan said, adding that the PKK wants to keep its power and entity during this process and wants to remain as the decisive representative of the Kurds.

200 Kurds march in sorrow and anger in Paris on 10 January 2013 © Benjamin Girette / IP3

After the murder: In Paris, 200 Kurds march in sorrow and anger

How and with what conditions the PKK will lay down arms - the essence of its power - is still far from certain. Many questions remain about the divisions within the PKK structures, as well as difficulties of transformation from an armed organization to a legitimate political force. Some analysts have also raised concerns about the possible negative role of Turkey's rivals and neighbors, like Iran and Syria, which have their own Kurdish minorites.

But the Turkish government, for the first time in public, has defended its dialogue with Öcalan.

Careful statements by both Turkish government and PKK leaders after the assasinations in Paris, avoided any kind of direct accusations against each other. Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc on Friday strongly condemned the assassinations in Paris, expressing his deep sorrow, describing the act as a “savage murder.”

"Surely, we have to be sad for those who were killed on Wednesday. We share the concerns that there can be many acts of sabotage, or provocations, to derail this important process. We have to act with patience and understanding,” he said.

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