UNLESS radical elements on the two sides sabotage it, the call for a ceasefire between Turkish security forces and Kurdish militants has the potential to resolve a 30-year conflict which has claimed nearly 40,000 lives. Reacting to Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan’s call to Iraq-based Kurdish guerrillas on Thursday to end violence and vacate Turkish territory, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised his security forces would not undertake any military operations in the insurgency-infested southeast. Mr Ocalan, who heads the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), said it was time weapons fell silent and “ideas and politics” spoke out. The massive size of the cheering Diyarbakir crowd, on Nauroz, listening to Mr Ocalan’s speech, read out by a pro-Kurdish MP, testified to his hold over the Kurdish people despite 14 years in a Turkish prison. The leader of the PKK’s armed wing, Murat Karayilan, said he “strongly supported” Mr Ocalan’s ceasefire call. The telecast of the speech over Turkish TV channels itself constituted a major shift in Ankara’s policy.
Both Mr Erdogan and Mr Ocalan have staked their political future on the peace moves, which began several years ago when Turkish intelligence officials met the PKK leader at the Imrali prison. The two face threats from certain elements, with Turkish ultra-nationalists accusing Mr Erdogan of “treason”. For Turks raised in the old Kemalist tradition, the very word “Kurd” is anathema. In fact, until Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party effected reforms under pressure from the European Union, the Kurds had no cultural rights. The reforms allowed Kurdish radio and TV channels to function. Three decades of violence have drained Turkish resources. Mr Erdogan once asked his party men to consider where Turkey would be if there were no Kurdish insurgency. He faces stiff opposition, because he plans changes in the constitution and intends to incorporate Kurdish rights in it. It would be a historic achievement, indeed, if Mr Erdogan manages to push through the reforms and achieve a durable peace agreement with the marginalised Kurds.