Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 221

The fate of Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan appeared to get equal billing with both Russia’s economic woes and Russian-Italian relations yesterday as Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini wound up a two-day visit to the Russian capital. Although both sides downplayed the issue, Ocalan was believed to have dominated talks yesterday between Dini and both Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. Ocalan, who heads the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), and whose extradition had been demanded by Turkey, was arrested last month by Italian authorities upon his arrival in Rome–reportedly on a flight from Moscow. The Russian news agency Itar-Tass yesterday quoted Italian diplomats as saying that Ocalan could be sent back to Russia if the Kurdish leader’s request for asylum in Italy is rejected (AP, November 30).

The issue is an explosive one. Ankara, which has branded the Kurdish leader a terrorist, has looked with exasperation and bitterness on Italy’s unwillingness to extradite him to Turkey. The case has also mobilized Kurds throughout Europe, who have demonstrated in favor of granting Ocalan his freedom.

Moscow’s role in Ocalan’s trek to Italy, meanwhile, has remained murky. Amid reports that the Kurdish leader was hiding in Russia, the Russian parliament on November 4 officially asked President Boris Yeltsin to offer the Kurdish leader political asylum. That request was refused. Russian authorities said that Ocalan was not in the country. Less than two weeks later, however, Ocalan was arrested in Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci Airport on a flight which originated in Moscow. According to Italian news sources, Russian authorities had alerted the Italian police to Ocalan’s arrival (Washington Post, November 15).

A Russian newspaper, meanwhile, reported that Moscow’s decision to refuse Ocalan political asylum was part of a deal made by Moscow and Ankara. In return, the report said, Turkey agreed to tone down the activities of its secret services in Chechnya (Kommersant daily, November 17). That report remains unsubstantiated. But Moscow–which sees Turkey as a threat to Russia’s domination of the north Caucasus–has accused Ankara of fomenting unrest in Chechnya. Russia has also been sympathetic to the aspirations of Turkey’s Kurdish minority, and some Russian political figures have publicly called for Moscow to support the Kurdish independence movement in Turkey.

Dini and his Russian interlocutors were unwilling yesterday to reveal the substance of their talks on Ocalan, preferring instead to address more conventional issues. The two sides welcomed the fact that bilateral relations have continued to improve since Russian President Boris Yeltsin visited Italy in February of this year. In addition, Dini praised what he said was Primakov’s continued adherence to democratic and market reforms. The two sides reportedly also discussed a number of international issues. An intergovernmental agreement was signed on the creation and operation of a Russian cultural center in Rome–and of an analogous Italian center in Moscow. The two sides also reached agreement on a protocol dealing with the avoidance of double taxation and the prevention of tax evasion. Dini and Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Vadim Gustov agreed that the next session of a Russian-Italian economic cooperation council will be convened in Moscow next spring (Russian agencies, November 30).

[Note: See the Monitor, November 30 for background coverage of the November 25 meeting of CIS prime ministers in Moscow.]