The Öcalan Moment


No-one who walks through a major city in Europe can escape the movie posters these days. In huge letters they portray Nelson Mandela in three words: “Revolutionary, prisoner, president‟. Behind them we see Mandela with a fist raised into the air.

Hollywood condenses the history of revolutions into stories of 120 minutes. In real life, the struggles are much longer, too long, painstakingly long. Mandela was in prison for 27 years, the struggle against Apartheid for political equality took decades.

Kurds have also been struggling for freedom for decades, and their leader is still in prison. 15 years ago, on 15 February 1999, Abdullah Öcalan was illegally abducted from Kenya. He has been imprisoned under atrocious conditions on Imrali Island. He holds several ‟European records” for being the prisoner with the longest solitary confinement (over 10 years) and the longest ban on contact with lawyers (more than 2.5 years and counting).

But, just like in South Africa, the Turkish government could not help but to recognise that Öcalan is a true, respected leader of his people. Internal and external necessities forced the government into talks with him. These talks have been going on for a while now.

Öcalan’s courageous Newroz declaration in March 2013 changed the grounds for politics in Turkey, if not for the whole Middle East. Removing the focus on ‟terror” from the equation, Turkey suddenly had to focus on its own democratic deficits. The Gezi protests, corruption charges and the exposure of secret networks in police and judiciary that shook Turkey in the past 12 months are all the result of this new situation.

At the same time, the government is shying away from any serious commitment. No changes in the laws, no written agreement, no supervision of the dialogue by anyone. They want to keep the full control over every single aspect of what is happening.

This is obviously an illusion. Things have got out of hand for a long time now. Turkish foreign policy is in shatters. The Kurds can no longer be controlled, neither in Turkey nor abroad. The population in Turkey is fed up with authoritarianism. Even former allies turn against Erdoğan.

Amidst all the chaos in the Middle East, the Kurds in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) are demonstrating how a possible solution can work. In avoiding armed conflict and building up ‟democratic autonomy” with respect for all ethnic groups and religious minorities they present an alternative to nationalist and islamist state models.

This model is not coming out of nowhere. Öcalan has been advocating a multi-ethnic, decentralised democratic self-administration for many years now, thus belying all those voices still claiming he has a separatist agenda. Like Nelson Mandela did in South Africa, he is in reality building bridges of peace between the peoples of the Middle East.

The European states, however, tend to ignore these inspiring developments and instead continue their repression against Kurdish politicians. Instead of supporting the truly democratic parties and movements they pursue short-sighted agendas.

Europe should use the weight they have to support democracy in Turkey as well as in Rojava – but first and foremost in Europe itself. That means: Lift the bans on Kurdish politicians and organisations. Revert the blacklisting of the PKK. Give humanitarian and political support to Rojava.

As long as all this is not happening, all calls for ‟democracy in Turkey” are not only not credible, but extremely hypocritical.

Apartheid could not last forever, and also for the Kurds the tides are starting to turn. The days of the ludicrous denial of the sheer existence of Kurds are over. Kurds are advancing everywhere and have become a crucial political player in several countries. Luckily, with Öcalan they have a far-sighted, progressive and circumspect leader who will not let the Kurdish people fall prey to Islamists of the likes of Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda or Al-Nusra or to the powers of the status quo.

The talks between Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK and the Turkish government have been going on for several years now. Real negotiations, however, cannot happen while Öcalan is imprisoned. As Mandela famously said: “Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts.”

In 1990 the world saw the “Mandela moment” when Nelson Mandela was unconditionally released from prison.

Turkey and the world should start to get ready for their “Öcalan moment”.

Cologne, 14 February 2014
International Initiative “Freedom for Abdullah Öcalan–Peace in Kurdistan”