The Gezi Park protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, which shook Turkey at the end of May, represent a turning point in Turkey’s contemporary political history. Although their main target was Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his style of government, the protests, in combination with developments in Syria’s civil war, will have significant consequences for the ongoing peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). At the same time, the need to effectively address the Kurdish issue could accelerate recent shifts in Turkey’s stance on the Syrian crisis.
Though the Turkish-PKK peace process currently appears deadlocked due to natural mistrust between the two sides, Erdogan’s political weakness as a result of the protests will make him more likely to continue pursuing the negotiations, even as Turkey’s new domestic political situation may improve the chances of reaching a deal with the Kurds. As for Turkish engagement in Syria, the direct impact of the Gezi protests per se is limited, as Ankara had already started to revise its Syria policy before the protests started. But the complex regional dynamics of Kurdish nationalism are likely to drive further shifts in Ankara’s approach to the crisis, which will in turn have important implications for the Turkey-PKK peace process.
When the Gezi protests started, and even after they became nationwide protests against the Erdogan government, Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, was cautious and strategic in defining the group’s official position: Kurds supported protesters’ calls for more liberty and justice but would not actually participate in the demonstrations. The reason for this was simple. An experienced politician, Ocalan did not want to jeopardize the nascent peace process, which if successful would result in the Turkish government’s granting political and cultural rights to Kurds in exchange for the withdrawal of the PKK’s guerilla forces from Turkey.