Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has an incredible opportunity on his hands — if only he can seize it. Having secured a ceasefire agreement from the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) this week through Abdullah Ocalan (who though he has been a prisoner of the state for years continues to serve as national leader and cult hero of Turkey’s Kurdish minority), the prime minister is clearly dealing with a viable negotiating partner. But whether the politician can stand up to his own nationalist hardliners, for whom Ocalan is a terrorist, will set the tone for Ankara’s expected further attempts to join the European Union.
The Kurds come to this process emboldened, having earned regional autonomy in post-invasion Iraq and a certain measure of independence in Syria as the crumbling Assad regime dukes it out with a surging rebel coalition. Ocalan did not call for the PKK’s armed units to lay down their arms but rather to retreat to Iraq, a testament to his political acumen (and as expected, the group’s field commander Murat Karayilan followed the instructions). But the specter of this marginalized minority group has been holding Turkey back in its E.U. accession process and has claimed 40,000 lives and perhaps as much as $1 trillion in total costs (between the drain on state coffers and disruption of regional trade).
Thus it is on the mother country, so to speak, that the pressure to act falls. Making some minor concessions — like permitting Kurdish to be used as the official language in local government offices and schools — seems certain. But conservative commentators in Ankara have suggested Erdogan, who many believe aspires to the presidency (right now a largely ceremonial position, though that will change ahead of federal elections expected in 2014 if constitutional changes proposed by Erdogan’s AKP pass legislative muster), would pay dearly for any sort of symbolic retreat — especially for actually releasing Ocalan. It is in that context that Erdogan criticized Kurds in their stronghold of Diyarbakir for failing to fly Turkish flags as they celebrated the ceasefire; the move has no practical effect on negotiations but serves as a piece of red-meat to his base and helps neutralize him against criticism that he is breaking up the state.
But what is best for Turkey’s long-term stategic interest can fit Erdogan’s short-term political ambition, as the appetite among the Turkish majority for a peace deal has grown. Erdogan’s approval ratings, after all, remain at the healthy 50 percent mark in recent polls conducted to measure whether the movement on talks with the Kurds had impacted the major political parties. The challenge for the incumbent is to avoid stirring up a complete uproar from the right as he nudges the body politic toward the new constitution, which would replace a charter leftover from a long-defunct military junta. In the meantime, so long as Kurdish nationalists appear to be keeping up their end of the bargain, integrating themselves into federal political life while taking on some measure of regional autonomy, Erdogan is safe. And European leaders who have been hesitant to allow the large Muslim nation to join the E.U. — analysts also generally cite its ethnic struggles and pockets of militant Islamism as stumbling blocks — will be deprived of a central reason to deny Ankara in its bid.
Of course, taking on two massive political problems in such a short timespan is a major risk. And the perception that his personal ambition and desire to placate Western critics (whom some skeptics think will never actually countenance Turkey as a full member of the E.U., for fear of losing their own clout) serves as fodder for his far-right nationalist critics, like MHP party head Devlet Bahceli, who challenged him in 2011 but only pulled 13 percent of the popular vote. So if Erdogan has the chance to be remembered as the “Abraham Lincoln” who made modern Turkey, he must be careful not to overplay his hand and get swallowed in a mess of ethnic strife. That kind of display would dent not only his own legacy and empower a radicalized segment of Turkey’s body politic — it would also remind Europe why they’ve kept Ankara at arm’s length.