It was a breakthrough moment: Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, shouting messages of peace to thousands of spectators.
It was an emotionally momentous day for Turkish Kurds for another reason as well. Iconic Kurdish poet and singer Sivan Perwer, who fled Turkey in 1976, accompanied Barzani on his trip and returned to his homeland after decades of exile.
Barzani’s visit came at a complicated time: Talks continue between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an outlawed armed Kurdish group, and the Turkish state. Meanwhile, Syria’s Kurds aim to seize autonomy in the north of the war-torn country. Turkey is set to hold local elections in early 2014. Finally, the KRG seeks to export oil through pipelines in Turkey.
Under the media spotlight, the visit focused on messages of regional peace and stability. Barzani and Perwer spoke of Turkish-Kurdish brotherhood, with Barzani openly supporting the unprecedented direct talks between Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the PKK, and Turkish intelligence.
The PKK has been active in Turkey for more than 30 years. Over the decades, its demands gradually transformed from Kurdish independence to autonomy and, now, to a fully democratised Turkey for all. The talks with Ocalan were revealed at the end of 2012 and have been slowly progressing since.
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Relations between the KRG and Ankara have rapidly developed in the past few years, driven by the growing energy needs of the Turkish economy, mutual benefits in trade and investment, the deterioration of Ankara’s ties with the central Iraqi government, the war in Syria and the growing sectarian rifts in Iraq.
In contrast, Turkey had in the past taken a leading role in efforts to curb Iraqi Kurdish autonomy, because it feared this would encourage its own Kurds – estimated to number 13.5 million – to have similar ambitions.
The Barzani visit was saved from becoming a snafu when pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which is tremendously influential among the Kurds in southeastern Turkey, came to a last-minute agreement to cancel a demonstration against Erdogan’s appearance and support the event instead, Turkish media reports say.
Various voices from the party, including MPs, had criticised Barzani’s decision until a few days before his visit, mainly on the basis that he was invited to Diyarbakir by Erdogan, not the BDP. Some MPs also asserted that Barzani’s visit was an “election move” by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Erdogan.
The AKP and BDP are electoral archrivals in the region, frequently blaming each other for the slow-moving PKK-Ankara talks.
Barzani and Erdogan both delivered passionate speeches calling for peace and reconciliation.
“It was impossible to speak in Kurdish [in Turkey] 15-20 years ago. However, I speak here in Kurdish and this is a result of the promotion of brotherhood in Turkey. I believe the process [between Ankara and the PKK] will end in success and we should put all our efforts into it,” Barzani said.
“We will witness a new Turkey where those in the mountains [PKK members] come down, the prisons empty and the 76 million [citizens of Turkey] become one,” Erdogan said on his part, asking Kurds to support the process. “What can cause more indignation than a mother unable to speak with her child in her own language?“ Erdogan asked, referring to issues on the use of the Kurdish language in Turkey.
As the problem of democracy continues with Kurds in Turkey, the grounds of any alliance with the Kurds abroad would be unstable, even if oil erupted from those grounds.
The ongoing peace talks have seen exceptional developments this year. Ocalan has delivered messages to the public through meetings with MPs, and sent letters to PKK wings in Iraq and Europe laying a framework for peace. In March, he called for a cease-fire and withdrawal of PKK forces to northern Iraq.
New laws have allowed public employees to wear headscarves, to use Kurdish letters in names, permitted privately funded Kurdish-language education, and proposed amending electoral law to make it easier for Kurdish parties to win seats in parliament.
However, both Kurdish politicians and the PKK have expressed their disappointment with the packages, and the sluggish peace talks have begun to upset Kurdish groups active in Turkey. As a result, the PKK has stopped its withdrawal from Turkey, but confirmed that the cease-fire is still in place.
Some critics of the government say that Ankara is trying to manage the process without making any concrete steps towards a resolution.
Kadri Gursel, a renowned Turkish political analyst, believes that Barzani’s visit will have no effect on the resolution of the Kurdish issue. He also argues that total democratisation is the key to a solution, and that verbally accepting the existence of Kurds is not enough to get a result.
“When the demands of Kurds in Turkey are not negotiated, the desired [regional] ‘Turkish-Kurdish alliance’ becomes deficient and erroneous. As the problem of democracy continues with Kurds in Turkey, the grounds of any alliance with the Kurds abroad would be unstable, even if oil erupted from those grounds,” he wrote in his column in Turkish daily Milliyet.
Parallel views on Syrian Kurds
Barzani’s trip came amid concern over the Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) declaration of a self-ruling interim government in the Kurdish areas of Syria.
The PKK-affiliated group, which controls much of northern Syria, fought against forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the earlier days of the uprising and more recently against al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels.
Turkey preemptively stated that it would not accept any autonomous entity in the north of Syria. Both Ankara and the KRG rejected the declaration, accusing the PYD of allying with Assad forces and repressing the other Kurdish groups in the region.
A few days before Barzani’s visit to Diyarbakir, Nusrel Aydogan, a Kurdish member of the Turkish parliament, charged Barzani with asking for Erdogan’s help against the Syrian Kurds. She also slammed the KRG for keeping the border crossing between Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan closed.
“Barzani probably wants to delay the development of the [Kurdish] entity in Rojava and will ask for the help of Erdogan for this… All this shows that Barzani does not see the developments in line with [his] interests and is trying to delay or maybe stop Kurdish gains [in Rojava]. Syrian Kurds are not on the same page with Barzani. Ocalan’s line dominates 80-90 percent [of the Syrian Kurds],” she said.
Soli Ozel, a lecturer of international relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, believes that neither the PYD nor the AKP/KRG front will back down over their ambitions on northern Syria.
“This is not a matter of dialogue, it is a struggle for authority [in Rojava]. The AKP government and the KRG are doing whatever they can to keep the PYD away from power,” he told Al Jazeera.
Ozel also thinks that the row between Ankara and the PYD might affect a resolution to Turkey’s Kurdish question in the long-run.
“If Turkey will come to an agreement with the PKK and linked organisations, it cannot leave the PYD out forever. The [peace] process is not showing much progress these days and seems it will stay that way until after the local elections [in March 2014],” he said.
Meanwhile, oil pipeline talks between Turkey and the KRG continue. Many analysts believe that pipeline projects topped the agenda of the meeting between Barzani and Erdogan.
A pipeline built by the KRG and able to carry 300,000 barrels a day is already complete, and is being tested to be ready for running in early 2014. And Kurdish Energy Minister Ashti Hawrami recently revealed another one million-barrel pipeline project, which Ankara and Erbil have reportedly agreed upon.
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The pipelines will bypass Baghdad, which has sharply clashed with the KRG over oil export revenues, and will require Turkey’s approval.
However, icy relations between Ankara and Baghdad – ignited by sectarian tensions in Iraq and Ankara’s sheltering of Tariq al-Hashimi, the former Iraqi vice president convicted of murder – have recently been warming. Erdogan invited Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to Turkey and the two administrations have lately been exchanging friendly remarks.
Against this backdrop, Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said last month that Ankara would respect the “sensitivities” of Baghdad.
“The central Iraqi government has two fundamental sensitivities, and these are justified sensitivities. One is to determine the amount of crude oil that is exported, and the other one is to monetise these exports and implement that. Turkey will be mindful of these sensitivities,” he said.
However, the Iraqi government recently rejected a proposal by Ankara to act as an independent intermediary by having oil revenues deposited into an escrow account at a Turkish state bank and distributed between Erbil and Baghdad from there.
The KRG has already been shipping crude oil to Turkey overland using trucks since 2012.
“The pipelines are expected to bring in revenue, increase interdependence, and so serve peace and stability between Turkey and Iraq, and also serve unity within Iraq, since both Kurds and Shiites would benefit from the agreement,” Murat Yetkin, a Turkish political commentator with close ties to Ankara, wrote in his column in Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News. He said the only problem left is a way to record the amount of exports for the sharing of revenues between Baghdad and Erbil.
Turkey is currently the KRG’s main economic partner, with the number of Turkish firms active in northern Iraq increasing to more than 1,200 from 730 in 2010 and 1,023 in 2012. The two economies are closely linked and increasingly interdependent.
Follow Umut Uras on Twitter: @Um_Uras