Monday, December 13, 2010

Öcalan’s olive branch

His surprise move is Abdullah Öcalan’s latest attempt to approach the Gülen movement. In a recent meeting with his lawyers on the island of İmralı, where he is imprisoned, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader said the following: “I have never denied their [the Gülen movement’s] existence, and expect them to do the same.

Both we [i.e., the PKK] and they are important actors in the Middle East. If these two dynamic powers build a mutual understanding of each other and stand in solidarity, many of Turkey’s problems can be resolved.”

This is an unusual extension of an olive branch and became visible with Öcalan’s three lawyers meeting with Hüseyin Gülerce, a columnist with the Zaman and Today’s Zaman dailies, in the town of Yalova after these remarks.

In his column yesterday in the Zaman daily, Gülerce confirmed the event and gave further details. It is well known that our colleague is a highly respected opinion maker who is close to Fethullah Gülen, though he is keen to remind us that he has never been a spokesperson of the Gülen movement of volunteers. But it is also well known that his views weigh heavily in that domain.

Gülerce wrote that he had put forth two conditions to the lawyers for a lasting solution of the Kurdish problem, which he calls the greatest challenge before Turkey: sincerity and (rhetorical) style. He explained it in the following words:

“There are representatives and spokespersons of the PKK on the mountains, in İmralı, in Europe… There are countries that do not wish to see a stabilizing, strengthening Turkey. Inside [Turkey] there are those who make huge profits through human, weapon and drug smuggling. The situation is truly complicated. That is why sincerity is a must. Unless the conscience of Turks and Kurds plays an active role, a solution becomes even more remote. Style is also of vital importance. Bullying and pushiness are known to be obstructive elements. Just as some wise men enter into the process, a spokesperson of, say, the Peace and Democracy Party [BDP], can mess a lot of things up with words.”

Gülerce wrote that he had told the lawyers a solution must be built on democratic ground -- based on the rule of law, equality, freedom of expression, conscience and belief, and through Parliament. Gestures should suggest opening doors to peace.

In a surprise response, one of Öcalan’s lawyers asked Gülerce: “What if a BDP delegation visits the cemeteries in Çanakkale [Gallipoli]?” To which he responded, “That is what I mean by gestures.” When Gülerce complained to them that the BDP is unable to be a “party of all of Turkey,” they responded that “that is exactly what our ‘client’ says all the time.”

The meeting was, as reported by the Taraf daily yesterday, followed by the same group of lawyers meeting with some “officials,” again in Yalova. The contacts were also reported by the pro-Kurdish Fırat news agency.

What does it all mean? First, it has become clear that Öcalan has engaged in some serious rethinking after the critical Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) meeting and the referendum in mid-September. Until lately, he seemed convinced that the real counterpart would be the state (and the military). No longer. He realizes that the AK Party government is an increasingly powerful player whose basic instincts are constantly pro-solution and whose investment in infrastructure in the region has a strong impact on the “locals.” The new olive branch extended to Gülen’s movement of volunteers is also a reflection of the realization that a solution can be sped up and consolidated by this pious, widespread and benevolent civil society formation.

At this critical stage, where Turkey is pacing towards a critical election in June, after which a full-scale debate and a “conclusion” on a brand new constitution seems inevitable, the involvement of the Gülen movement is crucial, as much as Kurdish political figures’ cautiousness to keep guns and mines silent. In this context, Öcalan’s recent remarks on extending the “cease-fire” until June, and not March as previously reported, are positive signs. At the moment, the primary duty is to avoid any provocation, big or small.

Outside, looking in

Foreign ministers of the European Union meet today in Brussels at the General Affairs Council to discuss, among other issues, enlargement.

To claim that the meeting will be marked by a jolly mood would be an exaggeration. The EU is being dragged into one of its worst financial crises ever, and the unease among its populations regarding “the other” is becoming very vocal. Xenophobia and anti-Islamic sentiments are on the rise and extreme right wing parties gain more ground as a result of growing irrationality fuelled by self-centeredness.

It becomes difficult, but even more necessary, to discuss the future under such circumstances. The more social and economic problems are visible, the louder they tell us that there is something seriously wrong with the policies. Some leaders feel it is time to dig deeper, while the others seem lost in the vortex of thought.

With the Greek and Irish crises developing, and with the ones in Portugal and Spain looming on the horizon, it is inevitable that eyes will now be more focused on the successful parts of the story called Turkey. As some predicted, the discussions on the future of the EU will have to be linked to Turkey, since the current state of affairs within the union shows that the seemingly desperate attempts by some cynical members to isolate Turkey where it is, or to divert it away, have been foolish and unsuccessful.

Jack Straw, a former British foreign secretary, complained in blunt terms that “some centers in the EU” had no idea why they were acting like that. “When I met them I always asked what was their strategy behind keeping Turkey away, and they just looked at me with no clear answer,” he said in a recent TV interview with a Turkish colleague. “They have absolutely no strategy on Turkey other than obstruction.”

There is growing worry among some others. There are no more chapters in the accession negotiations with Turkey that can be opened at the moment, as Greek Cyprus blocks some and France seems rather determined to obstruct certain chapters that pave the way to full membership.

“EU integration is about strengthening the rule of law and common European values and standards all over the Continent. This is apparent not least in Turkey, where EU-inspired liberal reforms have turned the country into one of Europe’s principal growth engines,” wrote four foreign ministers in a joint article published by The New York Times some days ago.

Carl Bildt of Sweden, Franco Frattini of Italy, William Hague of Great Britain and Alexander Stubb of Finland have reason to powerfully argue in these confusing times that Turkey may actually be a driving force in making the EU as extroverted as it was envisioned by its founding fathers in the ‘50s. Their article is a devastating critique of the neocon-generated “axis shift” thesis which found some ground in the US capital.

“The crucial question,” they write, “is not whether Turkey is turning its back on Europe, but rather if Europe is turning its back on the fundamental values and principles that have guided European integration over the last 50 years.”

Although they admit that there are concerns that admitting a large nation would upset some balances within the union, they say: “New members can help Europe return to economic dynamism and take on its proper weight in world affairs. By pushing prospective candidates toward liberal reforms and full respect for human rights, the European space of stability and growth can expand further. In the back of our minds we should also remember that Turkey, like no other country, has the ability to advance European interests in security, trade and energy networks from the Far East to the Mediterranean. …

“Turkey is in a class of its own. It is an influential actor on the world stage with considerable soft power. Its economy is expected to expand by more than 5 percent this year, compared with a eurozone average of 1 percent. The [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] OECD predicts that Turkey will be the second-largest economy in Europe by 2050.

“Turkish entrepreneurs in Europe already run 40 billion euros worth of businesses and employ 500,000 people. A Turkish economy in the EU would create new opportunities for exporters and investors, and link us to markets and energy sources in central Asia and the near east. So the security and economic case for Turkish membership is strong. …

“Let us be clear: The Union’s exacting standards of democracy and rule of law require a welcome but time-consuming reform process. However, the magnetism and the transformational capacity of enlargement works only if commitments are kept on both sides.”

The authors are keen on reminding their colleagues that the more the credibility of the enlargement process is damaged, the weaker the European Union will be. To be a powerful actor, in particular where Turkey is concerned, it is high time that a strategy is debated on the specific case of this country, including a “deadline” for a full accession -- however remote in time it may be. The issue can no longer be kept adrift.