The bitter dispute between Italy and Turkey over Rome’s refusal to extradite Abdullah Öcalan, the founder and leader of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), to Ankara to stand trial on charges of terrorism has dealt a serious blow to Turkey’s relations with the European Union (EU). It has also given the PKK, hitherto virtually on the run, a chance to pull off a major propaganda coup.
Öcalan first gave himself up to police at Rome Airport on October 12, after fleeing Syria and being refused entry by Russia. His arrival presented Italy’s new prime minister, Massimo D’Alema, with an almost insoluble dilemma. On the one hand, the Italian constitution prohibits extradition to countries which retain the death penalty; on the other, Turkey is not only a fellow NATO member, but also a major trading partner, with which Italy has an annual US$3 billion trade surplus. Moreover, Italian companies are currently bidding for more than $9 billion worth of Turkish State contracts.
Influenced perhaps by massive Kurdish demonstrations in Öcalan’s support, D’Alema decided to honour the constitution and even intimated that his country would grant Öcalan political asylum, adding that the issue would be finalised by the judicial authorities according to the law. A court in Rome ruled that the PKK leader could indeed not be extradited to Turkey because of that country’s death penalty. It also ordered that Öcalan be released from prison and kept under house arrest pending a decision on his application for asylum.
It was not surprising that the decision infuriated Ankara, which must have thought that it had dealt the PKK leader a severe blow when it forced his expulsion from Syria at the beginning of October. The fact that he then ended up in the custody of a friendly NATO ally must have seemed a bonus. A BBC reporter who claims to have been with prime minister Mesut Yilmaz when the news of Öcalan’s arrest in Italy came through reported that the Turkish leader kept exclaiming ‘Unbelievable! Unbelievable!’
Yilmaz had good reason to be personally delighted. Faced with corruption charges, and with his shaky coalition on the rocks (it faces a no-confidence vote in Parliament on November 25, after Crescent International press time), the triumph of Öcalan’s arrest and pending extradition could not have come at a better time for him. The Turkish military, which has fought the PKK and other Kurdish groups for
decades, must also have thought that its major enemy was on the verge of a crushing defeat.
The PKK guerrillas, who have been waging war on Turkey in the east of the country for 14 years, have been contained in recent months, and the closure of the PKK’s offices in Syria in October after massive Turkish pressure on Damascus came as an added blow. Ankara, which holds the PKK responsible for the 30,000 lives the war has cost so far (most of them actually killed by Turkish troops) spends $1 billion a year on the conflict.
A decision by the Italian government to extradite Öcalan to Turkey would have delighted the beleaguered Yilmaz, the generals, and Turkish nationalists. But Rome is now adamant that Öcalan cannot be extradited, and is determined not to be intimidated by Turkish protests and the threat of a trade boycott. Ankara has angrily accused Rome of sheltering terrorists and murderers, and ordered trade links with Italy to be cut.
But the move to sever Italian commercial links brought the EU, which had hitherto kept out of the dispute, in on the side of Rome. Prime minister D’Alema went to Brussels on November 23 and briefed EU commission chief Jacques Santer, who warned Ankara of EU retaliatory action if it carried out its threat to boycott Italian imports.
Italy also threatened to oppose Turkey’s application for EU membership. Rome was one of the few supporters of Turkish entry, but now is firmly on the side of Greece, Turkey’s arch-enemy and traditional opponent of EU ties with Turkey. Athens might also have found a new ally in its disputes with Turkey over the Aegean Sea and Cyprus.
The US, alarmed by the growing confrontation between two NATO allies has intervened in the stand-off, first to try and persuade Italy to extradite Öcalan to Turkey (the PKK is on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations), but is now focusing on having him deported to Germany, where he is also wanted by the authorities on terrorism charges.
Ocalan, on the other hand, has played his cards skillfully, offering to cease military operations and asking Italy to arrange talks between Ankara and the PKK, thus raising the political profile of an organization which Ankara insists is purely terrorist, with no political legitimacy or program. Öcalan’s arrest also brought thousands of Kurds to Rome to demonstrate against his possible deportation. Thousands more came into the streets in other European countries, as in Turkey itself, thus demonstrating the popular support Öcalan has among Kurds everywhere.
Many Europeans see the conflict between Turkey and the PKK in terms of the Kurds’ right to self-determination and of human rights abuses by the Turkish security forces. Ankara’s violent reaction to Öcalan’s asylum application and threats to boycott a member of the EU has tended to confirm the Europeans in these views.
Ankara’s problem with Öcalan is that, although he is a Muslim, he is a Marxist opposed to Islamic activism. Were he an Islamic activist, he would probably have been in Ankara’s hands long ago. Islamic activists are being extradited from all over the place, with the CIA playing a leading role in their capture. For example, many Islamic activists who travelled to central Europe to fight for Kosova liberation are being secretly returned to their own countries, Egypt for example, with the help of Bulgarian and Albanian authorities.
But if Öcalan wants to help his cause, his best option may be to stay in prison. He seems to have achieved more in a few short weeks in an Italian jail than during years of Kurdish fighting in the hills of eastern Turkey.
Muslimedia: December 1-15, 1998