Prague, 9 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Early last month (Oct. 9), the Syrian government asked the leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) to leave Syria, from where he had coordinated the PKK's 14-year fight against Turkish authorities.
The move came only after Turkey threatened military action against PKK bases in northern Syria if Abdullah Ocalan remained on Syrian territory. Since then, Ocalan has effectively vanished, generating widespread speculation as to his whereabouts.
Turkish government officials and the Turkish press have claimed he has found refuge either in Russia or Armenia. Ankara's relations with both countries are less than cordial, and it has long suspected them of giving covert support to the PKK.
Turkey and Russia have been rivals for influence in the Caucuses for centuries, and are currently engaged in a competition over an export route for Caspian oil that Turkey, with U.S. backing, is virtually certain to win. And Turkey has pegged both the establishment of formal diplomatic relations and the reopening of a frontier crossing with Armenia to a settlement of the Karabakh conflict. In Ankara's view, that would require the withdrawal of what it claims are Armenian government forces from six occupied districts in Azerbaijan.
Both Moscow and Yerevan have denied the Turkish accusations of harboring the PKK leader.
Late last month (Oct. 27), Russia's Foreign Ministry and its Federal Security Service issued statements saying there was no evidence to substantiate claims that Ocalan was in Russia. Two days later, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary celebrations of the Turkish Republic, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov handed Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz a letter. It was from Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and assured Ankara that Ocalan would not be permitted on Russian territory.
But the fact that Russian authorities have for four years tolerated the presence in Moscow of the Kurdistan National Liberation Front, which is closely aligned with the PKK, does not lend credibility to such disclaimers. Neither does the undisguised sympathy that many deputies of the Russian State Duma, particularly communists, show toward the PKK in general and Ocalan personally. Ocalan told Russian journalists early this year that he had discussed with a visiting State Duma delegation the prospects for what he called "strategic partnership" between Russia and the PKK.
The most recent demonstration of the Duma's sympathy for the PKK and its struggle for autonomy in southeastern Turkey came earlier this month when Duma deputies voted to request that President Boris Yeltsin agree to an asylum request from Ocalan. A day later, Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin said that Ocalan's request would be denied, adding that Russia does not aid and abet terrorist organizations. Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir Rakhmanin was less categorical, saying that Ocalan's asylum request would be assessed, in his words, "in accordance with established procedures."
Armenian officials have likewise rejected suggestions Ocalan is in their country. They have also repeatedly denied Turkish government claims over several years that the PKK has established training camps in Armenia and that it has an information office in Yerevan. A month ago, Foreign Ministry spokesman Arsen Gasparian said Ocalan was not in Armenia, adding that the Turkish allegations only serve to increase tensions between the two countries.
Last week, presidential press spokesman Vahe Gabrielian said Ocalan had never visited Armenia, and that the country's leadership had no intention of inviting him. Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian also denied Ocalan was in Armenia and that the PKK had training camps there. Other governments accused by Turkey in the past of having provided support to the PKK include those of Iran, Greece, the Greek Cypriots and Serbia. All are perceived in Turkey as Russia's allies.
Last week, 109 deputies from the Greek parliament, most of them from the ruling Socialist Party, issued an open invitation to Ocalan to visit Greece. The Turkish Foreign Ministry protested, saying that the invitation encouraged terrorism.