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Talking to the prisoner

abdullahocalanNever before has Turkey been so far down the road towards peace with its Kurdish minority.

In themselves, negotiations are nothing new. They have been held on-and-off and in secret for years – most recently brokered by the Norwegians. The preliminary objective is, as it has always been, to stop the fighting between the Turkish army and members of the PKK. Of course, these talks have produced ceasefires before; all eventually fell through.

This time might just be different. The Turkish government is talking not only to the PKK leadership in the Iraqi-Turkish mountains, but to the organisation’s number one himself, Abdullah Öcalan. And, for the first time, it is openly admitting doing so. This is the so-called “İmralı process”, named after the prison island on which the PKK leader is kept.

Let’s be plain about what it involves: Turkey is in peace talks with the man it sentenced to death thirteen years ago.

At present, these are indirect talks. The first batch of visitors included Mehmet Öcalan, the PKK leader’s brother. A second wave last week included members of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the pro-Kurdish bloc in parliament.

Speaking after the second visit, BDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş said that Abdullah Öcalan was working on a document – one that would allow “all people to live equally and in freedom” – and that he expected it to be released by prison officials in the next few days.

The coming two to three weeks are particularly critical, Mr Demirtaş said, to formulating a plan for peace.

It is appears quite clear that the assassination last month of three PKK members in Paris has not derailed the peace process in Turkey’s southeast – in fact, it has given it fresh impetus.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government is openly admitting it is talking to the leader of what it considers a terrorist organisation, but the transparency ends there. All that matters is what comes out of İmralı prison in the Sea of Marmara and the prime minister’s residence in Ankara, but despite the prolific commentary from television pundits and newspaper columnists, we know scant else.

The point is not lost on Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), who is grumpy about not being consulted:

“It is perfectly natural in a healthy democracy for the opposition to be kept informed during a process such as this,” he told last Thursday’s Siyaset Meydanı political talk show. “What does this mean? It means that ours is not a healthy democracy.”

Mr Kılıçdaroğlu argues that parliament, not the closed doors of the prime minister’s office, is where a deal with Turkey’s Kurds should be thrashed out. Nonetheless, he has said he would support any initiative that secures a ceasefire. Parliament’s nationalist opposition, the MHP, has been far less constructive.

Turkey’s government may not be in the room talking to Abdullah Öcalan, but it is deciding who gets to be there and it will decide what to do with any proposals that emerge. There is plenty to be cautious but optimistic about – and talk of giving Mr Erdoğan a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts might be just the encouragement his ego needs to get the job done.