The world’s longest-running ethnic conflict took a new turn on May 8, when about 2,000 guerrillas belonging to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) started to cross the south-eastern Turkish border into Qandil in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region. The move, which could take two months to complete, results from a ceasefire negotiated by the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, who has been held for alleged treason on the prison island of Imrali since 1999. The declaration was read out to a million Kurds in Diyarbakir on March 21; some 14 million Kurds, nearly 20 per cent of Turkey’s 75 million people, form the country’s largest single minority. The PKK, which Mr. Öcalan founded in November 1978, has fought an armed struggle for autonomy within Turkey since August 1984 and has survived repression including torture, executions, and collective punishment such as a ban on the Kurdish language. Over 40,000 people have died, and in the 1990s some 3,000 villages were destroyed. The ceasefire could end at any moment, but once the Kurdish fighters are across the border it will be very difficult for Turkish forces to attack them, though Turkish air-launched rockets have killed civilians there in the past decade.
The hopes of Turkish Kurds will be tempered by the memory of October 1999, when a deal was followed by the arrest and imprisonment of several PKK fighters. The guerrillas’ withdrawal and the conduct of Turkish troops are being monitored by the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), a largely Kurdish party with seats in the national parliament but without the PKK’s mass base. Furthermore, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan needs to end military influence on Turkish politics; a new constitution which will aid that process is in draft, and BDP votes will help pass it. Yet Mr. Erdogan may be unable to fulfil all the promises he needs to make to the Kurds. The language ban breached the European Convention on Human Rights and has been lifted, but regional autonomy and a reduction in the 10 per cent parliamentary electoral threshold, which limits Kurdish representation in Ankara, will be thornier. Among Turkey’s neighbours, Iraq has least to fear, as the elected regional government runs a stable and increasingly prosperous area populated by most of the country’s six million Kurds. But it is not clear how Iran, whose 7.8 million Kurds form 10 per cent of the population, or Syria, with two million and a similar percentage, would react to revived Kurdish nationalism. The Kurds are often called the world’s largest nation without a state, but Mr. Erdoðan must settle Turkey’s Kurdish question lawfully, peacefully, and decisively, or the whole region could erupt — again.