Akın Özçer, former diplomat and member of the Foreign Ministry in Turkey, is part of the New Constitution Platform (YAP), which in May prepared the “Essential Report for Turkey’s New Constitution,” penned following 24 YAP meetings organized in various cities and involving close to 6,000 people. In this interview with Today’s Zaman, 30 October 2011, he discusses ETA’s decision to lay down their arms in Spain and compares developments there to the contemporary situation for the Kurds in Turkey:

A former diplomat who served in France and Madrid and has written about the Spanish system of fighting terrorism has said the situation in Turkey regarding finding a solution to the Kurdish problem has improved, but there are still more steps to be taken.

“Compared to two years ago, the situation is better because at that time when we talked about issues such as the need for Turkey to have democratic conditions allowing for the establishment of pro-separatist parties, we would be labeled ‘separatists.’ Now those are accepted more readily,” Akın Özçer said in reference to our first Monday Talk with him in September 2009.

He reiterated that Turkey needs to go on with its democratization process regardless of the terrorist methods employed by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

“What is important is that to allow freedom of space to Kurds. For example, education in mother tongue is an individual right that should be allowed,” he said.

As the Basque separatist group ETA has agreed to end its campaign of violence against the Spanish state — seen as a significant step toward resolving one of Europe’s last remaining armed conflicts — eyes are on the PKK, which has increased its campaign of violence in the face of efforts started to change the military coup-era constitution to allow more freedoms and rights to citizens.

Answering our questions, Özçer elaborated on the conditions that forced ETA to lay down arms and Turkey’s Kurdish issue.

Why do you think ETA has given up on its armed campaign?

First of all, it was militarily defeated both in Spain and France. Their well-known, old leaders have been captured. And the young leaders who replaced the old ones have been captured as well. According to intelligence sources, they are left with only about 50 young militants. Another important point is that they are no longer able to engage in politics. Batasuna, the political arm of ETA, was banned in Spain in accordance with the 2002 Political Parties Law. However, Batasuna argued at the European Court of Human Rights (HCtHR) that the decision was against freedom of expression and organization.

But the European Court of Human Rights did not agree with Batasuna.

Yes, it did not approve Batasuna’s argument on the grounds that Batasuna had organic ties to the ETA, an armed organization. Therefore, no other parties related to the ETA were able to participate in the 2009 parliamentary elections in the Basque country. Previously, ANV [Acción Nacionalista Vasca] and PCTV [Partido Comunista de las Tierras Vascas] were banned – ANV represented in the local elections and PCTV in the autonomous parliament. But shortly before the election, two parties tied to ETA [D3M (Democracia Tres Millones or Demokrazia Hiru Milioi) and Askatasuna, “Freedom”] were banned by a court ruling from standing in the election. This Basque election increased the number of parties in the Basque parliament to seven. And this election opened the door for a non-nationalist autonomous government. The Basque Nationalist Party (PNV)-led government [its government partners for the past decade were Eusko Alkartasuna and Ezker Batua] fared badly. Additionally, the socialists [Socialist Party of the Basque Country (PSE-EE)] gained 25 seats, while the PNV got 30. The ruling party became the socialists supported by the PP [People’s Party]. This was a first for the Basque country.

As a reason for ETA’s decision to give up its armed struggle, you stress in your articles that there had been a call from ETA’s own base to do it.

One of the old leaders of Batasuna, Arnaldo Otegi, had a call from prison two years ago for ETA to lay down arms. Besides, the Basque nationalists, who once went under the name of Batasuna, have been thwarted in their attempt to be registered as a legal party ahead of the May 22 local elections. For terror organizations, local elections are quite important — as it is also important for the PKK. For the May 22 municipal elections in which mayors are elected, two parties were established. One of them was Sortu, founded by former Batasuna members, which was banned by the Spanish Supreme Court, which said that members of Batasuna were known to have close ties to the terrorist group ETA. Sortu disputed the decision at the Constitutional Court, and at the same time they had a plan B, which was the Bildu. There was a Bildu list consisting of members of the Eusko Alkartasuna, which was found by dissenters from the PNV, Alternatiba — mostly communists — and Abertzale Basque nationalists who were not involved in violence. This was a mixed list. Still, the Spanish Supreme Court outlawed Bildu, but shortly before the elections the Constitutional Court approved the Bildu list, and Bildu’s mixed list entered the local elections garnering 25 percent of the votes. Batasuna never saw such a success in all its political life. Its most successful rate was 17.9 percent, and this was obtained in an environment of a ceasefire.

‘Turkey needs legislation to enable PKK to lay down its arms’
What was the influence of Bildu’s success on ETA?

First of all, it was about the ceasefire, which has been in effect for the last two years. Bildu said in a way, “If you lay down your arms, we can become successful in elections.” Secondly, Otegi knows that Basque nationalists cannot be organized because of the armed fight. It was obvious that an armed fight was losing — both militarily and politically — against the unarmed fight, which was gaining.

Political observers have been questioning ETA’s decision to lay down arms because ETA has declared permanent ceasefires before and subsequently broken them. The center-right newspaper El Mundo said in an editorial that there is no guarantee ETA will not revert to violence if its goals are not met. What is you opinion about the skepticism?

ETA now has two issues: When and where it is going to hand over its arms, and when it is going to dissolve. This is understandable. Because there are about 700 former ETA members who were convicted and who were not given the right to be engaged in politics as a reward for giving up arms. ETA is preparing to ask for their inclusion in politics. Those issues will be negotiated. It is important to note that for the first time ETA does not present conditions in order to lay down its arms. Its declaration does not include their two basic political demands: self-determination and unification of the Basque Country with some of Navarre autonomous community and with the Basque regions in France. In 2005, the autonomous parliament had a decision supported by all nationalists that they demand self-determination. However, according to the Spanish constitution this was taken up in parliament, which rejected it by 321 to 29 votes.

When we come to the differences and similarities between ETA and the PKK, there are lots of comparisons made. One is the number of people killed in the conflict.

ETA killed 829 people. Stressing the fewer number of people killed in the armed fight of ETA is not important because ETA used guerillas in cities to make selective killings. The PKK uses guerillas in the countryside, so Turkey sends its troops to fight it, and there are a greater numbers of losses. The Basque Country is a very small area. It is not possible to conduct a guerilla fight there, so there is no military involved, there are fewer people involved in the armed conflict. There is one stark difference between Spain and Turkey, and it is democracy.

Would you elaborate on that? First of all, the Spanish constitution recognizes the autonomy of the Basque Country, right?

The Spanish constitution refers to it as an autonomous community of Spain — Comunidad Autónoma. Indeed, ETA wants independence. Ahmet Türk [former leader of now-defunct pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP)] had said that they are all for democratic autonomy. But ETA wants independence. When we talk about democracy, we should talk about democratic conditions. For example, Turkey tells the PKK that it should lay down its arms, and in return it can participate in politics. For Turkey to be able to do that, Turkey needs legislation enabling such action. You know what happened at the Habur entry for Kurds coming from the mountains; since there were no laws allowing such an entry, they were put on trial. Secondly, the PKK does not seem to support independence, but it needs a political environment of freedom of expression so even independence can be debated. Turkey lacks that space when it comes to freedom of expression. Thirdly, there needs to be an agreement on what is going to be negotiated with the terror organization. Spain had many talks with its terror organization ETA, but it did not talk about political issues with ETA. With the 1988 Pact of Ajuria Enea, armed groups laid down arms in Spain for the right to enter politics.

‘Education in mother tongue is a basic right’
What did the pact say in that regard?

The pact said that political issues could be negotiated only with the elected representatives of the people. As you know, the prime minister [Recep Tayyip Erdoğan] said in regards to solving the Kurdish problem that there should be negotiations with political parties and a fight with terrorism. What is going to be negotiated? It is of course possible to talk with the BDP [Peace and Democracy Party] about what needs to be in the constitution, but this should not be in relation to laying down arms. What is important is to allow freedom of space to Kurds. For example, education in mother tongue is an individual right that should be allowed. This is easy to solve; it is a basic right. But the issue of decentralization is more complex; there are many models that could be suitable for Turkey.

Do you think the conditions are ripe to discuss all of those issues in Turkey to solve the Kurdish problem?

Compared to two years ago, the situation is better because at that time when we talked about such issues such as should Turkey have democratic conditions allowing for the establishment of pro-separatist parties, we would be labeled ‘separatists.’ Now those are accepted more easily.

ETA has been supporting independence for a long time, but what would you say about the Basque people’s support for independence?

They are extremely nationalist. There are three regions in the autonomous community of Spain: Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa and Araba. In the first two, support for independence would exceed 50 percent. The Basque nationalists also demand land from an autonomous community, Navarre, in northern Spain, bordering the Basque Country. The Basque Country also includes some northern provinces of France. Still, support for independence would not exceed 50 percent.

When we go back to what the Kurdish people of Turkey want…

Their mutual demand is the right to education in their mother tongue; this is the basic demand. The BDP supports autonomy, while HAK-PAR [pro-Kurdish Rights and Freedoms Party] and KADEP [Participatory Democracy Party] support a federal system. Of course, Turkey should adopt a form of decentralization. Most people [in Turkey] liken the Turkish system to the French system and desire decentralization as France practices it, but what we lack is that we don’t take democratic steps as France did.
‘State should not have an ideology’
You’re active in civil society working on the constitutional change. Now there is the Constitution Compromise Commission in Parliament. Are you hopeful about it?

I would like to be hopeful. The new constitution should make the 1982 constitution of the military null. If not then that would mean another military coup in Turkey. The unchangeable articles of the constitution should be changed to ensure that the country isn’t taken into a new coup era. A state should not have an ideology. Right now, the state has an ideology that is Atatürkist nationalism. This is not in line with Article 10 of the constitution that considers all citizens equal without differentiating their political views. These are contradictory.

What do you think about the CHP [Republican People’s Party] support for a new constitution?

I am not hopeful about the CHP. Ergenekon [shadowy crime network with alleged links within the state suspected of plotting to topple the government] seems to have taken the CHP prisoner. My family supported the CHP for generations, but now the CHP is lagging behind when it comes to democracy and human rights.
‘Parties take timeout with ETA until general elections’
Neither Spain’s conservative Popular Party – which is expected to win the Nov. 20 general election – nor the ruling Socialist party [PSOE] seem to be taking action in regards to the demands of ETA. What is your opinion about the issue?

The Basque nationalists increased pressure on PSOE officials. PNV General-Secretary Iñigo Urkullu recently had a tête à tête meeting with Prime Minister [José Luis Rodríguez] Zapatero and had some demands concerning prison conditions of ETA members, etc. But Zapatero did not do anything related to the issue, and the socialist candidate, Alfred Pérez Rubalcaba, said there is nothing to do until Nov. 20. On the PP front, candidate Mariano Rajoy said that they did not have a roadmap yet regarding the issue. So it seems like the parties have taken a timeout until the elections. They avoid polemics. On the other hand, politicians under Bildu were allowed to run in local elections in May and did very well. There is a similar, new party called Amaiur running for seats in the national parliament in Madrid in the Nov. 20 general elections and could also do reasonably well and voice more of their demands.