'Öcalan factor' in the Italian debate

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Italy and the Vatican this week was marked by protests highlighting the paradox of support in Europe for the armed separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), despite the European Union’s designation of the group as a terrorist organisation.

The PKK has been fighting for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey for more than 30 years and tens of thousands of people, most of them Kurds, have been killed in the conflict.

Pro-Kurdish activists in the southern city of Naples waved portraits of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, jailed on an island prison in Turkey since 1999, calling him “our fellow citizen Apo”. Naples granted Öcalan honorary citizenship in 2016, as have several other Italian cities including Palermo and Reggio Emilia, following a campaign by pro-Kurdish associations that do not hide their sympathies for the PKK.

Italy, like the EU, the United States and Turkey, lists the PKK as a terrorist organization and the government is not happy with cities honouring its leader, who is frequently called a “baby-killer” in the Turkish press.


The mayor of Naples, Luigi De Magistris, said he had resisted pressure from Rome trying to dissuade him from honouring Öcalan, but said he had received the proposal to honour the PKK leader when a ceasefire between the militants and Turkey was still in force.

Turkey has publicly ignored what indeed are local initiatives with no legal validity. But the issue was raised behind closed doors with Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni during a visit to Turkey when he was foreign minister in 2016. Gentiloni strongly reaffirmed that Italian policy towards PKK had not changed.

Italy is Turkey’s third most important trading partner of and one of the few EU countries still supporting  Turkish accession to the union. Though Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Gentiloni have urged Erdoğan to respect human rights, relations remain focused on the economy.

Erdoğan has also vowed to improve trade. More than 1,400 Italian businesses are active in Turkey and the immigration deal with the EU is seen as a model that could work with North African countries too.

Still, to have a convicted terrorist as honorary citizen of a growing number of Italian cities (the latest was Pinerolo, in September 2017) is a thorn in bilateral ties.

De Magistris stressed that he did not mean the initiative to be against Turkey; on the contrary, he hoped to stir a debate to revive the peace process between Turkey and the PKK that collapsed in 2015. “I think that if Öcalan has been recognised as the undisputed leader of a whole people, then he should not be in jail.”

Nate Schenkkan, project director for Nations in Transit at Freedom House, underscores a crucial misunderstanding in this perception: “Öcalan is the representative of one faction within the Kurds, namely the PKK and its affiliated groups in Turkey and northern Syria. But there are multiple other Kurdish leaders that also have strong constituencies in other parts of the region, and even in Turkey. It is a huge mistake to say he is the leader of all the Kurds.”

If the PKK has grassroots support among many Kurds, it is also true that many other Kurds support Erdoğan’s party. The conflict with the PKK has claimed more than 30,000 lives, most of them Kurds.

Turkey launched an offensive against the Syrian enclave of Afrin, controlled by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish force that Ankara says is part of the PKK. Though it counts Öcalan as its symbolic leader and it is part of the same umbrella organisation, the YPG denies it is part of the PKK. Turkish forces bombed a monument to Öcalan during their assault on Afrin.

Amberin Zaman, a Turkish journalist and analyst, wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times that Öcalan could still have a decisive role if the peace process were renewed with the PKK in Turkey and YPG in Syria.


Schenkkan agreed. “Öcalan still has critical symbolic resonance. There is a genuine cult of personality around him in the PKK and YPG areas, and there is a reason why his messages about the peace process have been such critical milestones during the negotiations,” he said.

The mayor of Naples concurred: “I cannot imagine such a process without involving Öcalan or keeping Öcalan in solitary confinement on an island in those conditions.”

But the reality is more complicated.

Zaman said in an email to Ahval that she does not believe granting Öcalan honorary citizenship helped at all. “Quite the contrary, it reinforces the conspiracy about the West trying to dismember Turkey,” she said, recalling the public fury in Turkey when in 1999 Öcalan escaped from Syria and requested asylum in Italy,  triggering an international crisis. He was later captured in Kenya and brought back to Turkey. 

In any case, the window for an unlikely return to the negotiating table is narrow. Öcalan is now 70 years-old. “Öcalan still has the authority to pull this off. When he dies its unclear who will take charge. There is no single figure in the movement who could fill his shoes … The men with the guns make the big decisions,” Zaman said.

Sympathy in Europe for an organisation fighting a NATO ally baffles and infuriates Turkey almost as much as U.S. support for the YPG in Syria. Making Öcalan an honorary Italian is not helping.