DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (Reuters) - Kurds applauded last weekend’s call from their jailed rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan to end a 30-year armed struggle against Turkey but deep suspicions on both sides could shatter dreams of peace.
Ocalan began talks with Ankara in 2012 to end a conflict which has killed 40,000 people and stunted development in NATO-member Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast, and impatience is growing in a peace process complicated by Kurds’ involvement in fighting Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
President Tayyip Erdogan, his attention focused on a June general election he hopes will pave the way for an executive presidency, is exerting pressure on Ocalan’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to disarm, declaring there is no longer a ‘Kurdish problem’ thanks to reforms under his rule.
For Kurds listening to Ocalan’s message as they celebrated the ‘Newroz’ spring festival, dancing to Kurdish songs and calling for his release, such talk from Erdogan is infuriating and shakes their belief in a peace process they feel is yet to yield results.
“The people are losing patience and if nothing happens in a few months, hope will be completely uprooted,” said Habibe Altan, 59, whose village was one of thousands destroyed during the conflict. Her son later died fighting for the PKK.
“We are the ones who have been crushed. So many sacrificed their lives. Such struggle must not go to waste,” she said in the city of Diyarbakir, where supporters of the pro-Kurdish HDP opposition declare an utter lack of confidence in the president.
Such sentiment is frustrating for Erdogan, who has invested huge political capital in the process, pushing through cultural reforms aimed at improving the lot of Turkey’s long-suppressed Kurds, roughly 20 percent of its 78 million population.
The situation is complicated by division among Kurds themselves, many of whom appreciate Erdogan’s efforts in the face of fierce nationalist opposition, supporting the ruling AK Party he founded and distrusting the PKK.
“He has shown great courage in starting the process, putting his body and soul into it,” said doctor Sedat Ozkul, 44, hoping to be an AKP candidate in the June election and suspicious of the PKK commanders who live in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq.
“The problem is the sincerity of Qandil and the HDP. The ball is in their court. They must prove their sincerity.”
On the surface talks appear to be advancing rapidly. Ocalan called at the weekend for a PKK congress to end an insurgency which he described as “unsustainable”.
But the process’ vulnerability was illustrated on Wednesday by a clash between the military and the PKK near the Iraqi border, a rare violation of a two-year ceasefire.
The process has been complicated by the conflict in Iraq and Syria, where the PKK has carved out a role fighting Islamic State (IS) militants, despite being considered a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and EU.
Kurds believe the Turkish state aided IS fighters besieging the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani last autumn, triggering unrest which killed dozens of people in Turkey.
Against this backdrop, PKK commanders are in no hurry to put down their weapons despite their declared allegiance to Ocalan, jailed on the island of Imrali south of Istanbul since 1999.
Doubts about progress are heightened by the belief that Erdogan is courting right-wing voters ahead of the election, putting his goal of introducing a presidential system in the EU-candidate country ahead of the peace process.
“He has become paradoxically its biggest obstacle. This is because the needs of the peace process, greater democratization, conflict with his own ambitions,” said Henri Barkey, professor of international relations at Lehigh University in the United States.
The Kurdish demands include freedom for Ocalan, steps towards political autonomy, full Kurdish language education and the overhaul of security laws used to prosecute supporters of their movement.
What unites Kurds of all political stripes is the desire to put an end to the suffering which has crippled the southeast since around the time of a 1980 military coup, when the roots of the PKK insurgency were established.
In particular, Diyarbakir’s military prison is viewed as a breeding ground for the conflict, the scene of horrific torture where dozens died and many more were scarred for life in a brutal crackdown on political dissent.
“The seeds of the resistance were sown in that prison and spread across Kurdistan,” said Sukru Abay, 61, describing the physical abuse which he suffered and recounting how fellow prisoners went on to fight with the PKK.
“They changed the direction of the state and eventually it spoke of a settlement, it had no choice. They realized it could not be solved militarily,” he said, photos of those who died in the jail filling the walls of his office.
The suffering since that time is etched on the Kurdish collective memory, driving the determination of officials in the region today to cling on to what Diyarbakir Mayor Firat Anli says is the “positive foundation” created by the peace process.
Anli, who was jailed along with thousands of other Kurds charged with links to militants, warned the positive momentum could be undermined unless proposed reforms become law.
“We are in a better place than in the past but there is no guarantee. Laws have not changed ... We could all be detained, tried and punished over this tomorrow,” he said in his office.
Whether the HDP will exceed the 10 percent threshold of votes it needs to enter parliament in June will be critical.
Opposition politicians suggest the HDP and the AK Party are plotting a deal in which support for a presidential system would be rewarded with pro-Kurdish reforms. It is a claim fiercely rejected by the HDP.
“To do secret bargaining with someone there has to be trust. Even Erdogan’s party doesn’t trust him,” said Abdullah Demirbas, a former Diyarbakir district mayor whose son is fighting with forces linked to the PKK in Syria.
“What are we going to do? Sacrifice everything so that Erdogan can be president. The people would kill us.”
Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Anna Willard