Talking Turkey: A Conversation With Abdullah Gul

Foreign Affairs

September 24, 2013
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Last October, Turkish President Abdullah Gul met with Foreign Affairs Managing Editor Jonathan Tepperman in Ankara to discuss politics at home and throughout the region. This week, with Gul in New York to address the UN General Assembly, the two resumed the conversation.

We last talked almost exactly a year ago. Let’s start by reviewing some of what has happened to Turkey in the last 12 months. The summer was filled with protests, Turkey lost its bid for the 2020 Olympics, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) recently announced that it’s halting its withdrawal of fighters, and the economy is slowing. Are you are as optimistic today about Turkey’s future as you were a year ago?

Of course! We’ve had protests in Turkey, but they were initiated over environmental issues, and in that sense, they’re an indication of how far Turkey has come. Because those kinds of concerns are things you would see in advanced democracies. So they show the distance that Turkey has covered in recent years. When more radical organizations hijacked those protests and started disturbing public order, the police intervened, and there were cases of the disproportionate use of force. But the legal processes [covering] that sort of behavior are also in place, and some have been punished.

The economy is growing on a sound basis. Growth is lower than in previous years, but compared to other countries’, Turkey’s growth rates are still very good. In the last quarter, Turkey grew by 4.4 percent, which is not something that you would encounter in any European country. The banks are also very strong. So looking into the future, I don’t foresee any problems.

At the beginning of the protests, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, called the demonstrators “extremists” and “foreign agents.” But the protests seem to be an honest expression of deep divisions in Turkish society and unhappiness with the current government’s increasing authoritarianism. The Freedom and Justice Party (AKP) has pushed through a lot of important economic and social reforms over the years. So why is there so much popular unrest?

Remember that the events were sparked initially by an urbanization project. People were not happy with the project, and the government got the message; that project has been suspended.

With respect to Turkish society being divided into two, I don’t think that is the case. Because you don’t have demonstrations involving, you know, tens of thousands of people. You have maybe one night, 100 people appearing in a place like Beyoglu [a neighborhood in Istanbul] — somewhere like Fifth Avenue here –burning tires.

But protests are ongoing and have spread to other cities.

Radical organizations use these protests to make their point, and it happens in many cities, but not in masses. Of course, radical groups have a right to protest as well. But nobody should disturb public order.

A year ago, you told me that democracy was moving forward in Turkey “every day.” But given the violent treatment of the protesters, including the recent death of a young demonstrator in Antakya, and the ongoing harassment and detention of journalists, can you still make that case?

We have to look at whether democratic standards in Turkey are being raised or lowered. Important reforms have recently been introduced dealing with the judiciary, the justice system, and the constitution. There’s a lot that is being done that is visible and measurable. The benchmark for democracy is continually being raised.

Democracy is pluralism. In pluralism, by definition, you have people with different opinions. There will be people who are not happy with the policies of the government. What’s important is that they have the right and the freedom to express those grievances.

When illegal organizations resort to violence, however, the police take the necessary measures [to respond]. But we have to set a standard here too. Even though these groups may be radical, they should still be confronted with a proportionate use of force. If there have been cases of disproportionate force, and there have been, then those have to be investigated. That’s what’s happening, and those at fault are being punished.

But what about the detention of journalists? Free expression requires a free media.

I think there’s a lot of room for debate here. If you’re involved in a violent act, the fact that you have a press card doesn’t distinguish you.

But there have been cases of journalists who had nothing to do with violent actions who were detained, and I have criticized that.

Let’s turn to Turkey’s long quest to join the European Union. The last time we talked you said that Turkey was “forcing its way through each door” on the route to full EU membership. But this summer, the prime minister and a number of his ministers made very critical comments about Europe and about the “interest rate lobby.” Two questions: What are ministers in the world’s 16th largest economy doing talking like this? And have they done damage to the EU accession process?

Well, as president, I don’t follow all of the ministers’ statements and I’m not going to make any comments about what ministers say.

As for the European Union, is remains a strategic orientation for Turkey. Although the accession process seems to be frozen, on a technical level, things are actually moving along. And we have benefited greatly from the process, not just politically and democratically but also economically, because we’ve done a lot to make Turkey a functioning free-market economy.

What do you think of the Syria chemical weapons deal currently being negotiated between Russia and the United States? A lot of people, including Turkey’s prime minister, have said it’s nothing more than an attempt by the Russians and the Syrians to delay.

As a neighboring country, we would be very happy to see chemical weapons completely eliminated from Syria. But what’s important here is whether that will actually take place. To ensure that does, it’s important to have very strong mechanisms in the UN resolution so that we can tell whether this is a delay tactic or a sincere effort to eliminate chemical weapons.

But the chemical weapons issue should not distract us from the bigger concerns we all have about Syria. There has to be a very strong, decisive political strategy in order to stop what is going on there.

But do you still feel that negotiation will be sufficient? In the past you have opposed military intervention in Syria, but military intervention may be the only way to end the crisis.

Well, if a decisive and effective strategy does not end the current situation, that will legitimize any subsequent military action. As a last resort, military action may be necessary. And in such a case, we could not consider letting people who were involved in this bloodshed and destruction be part of the solution.

Turkey has the potential to be a leader in its region. Yet it seems to have grown more isolated in the last 12 months. Since the coup in Egypt, relations with Cairo have gotten very bad. Turkey has still not repaired relations with Israel. Meanwhile, things are obviously difficult not only with Syria, but with Iran and Iraq. And they’re not great with Saudi Arabia or Qatar either. You’re a former foreign minister; what is Turkey’s foreign policy at the moment, and what should it be?

Well, Turkey wants stability for the region, it wants to have economic cooperation, and it wants to see its people happy and satisfied. For people to be more happy and satisfied means that there should be more democracy, more human rights, and people should be able to exercise those rights. These are the pillars of our foreign policy. When events take place that are beyond our control, we always approach those events from those same pillars.

And what would you do to end Turkey’s current isolation?

Our fundamental priority has always been to develop our relations with the countries in the region. We’ve signed a number of bilateral agreements in many areas with many of these countries. We’ve exchanged high-level visits. But then regional events took their own course. It’s not in our hands to predict what’s going to happen. And we’re not the ones who have instigated those events.

Turkey plans to hold a presidential election next year. I’m curious what your plans are.

We have three elections coming up in Turkey in the next three years. First are the municipal elections, which are very important. And then presidential elections, and then parliamentary elections. The dates are set, and everything will run very smoothly.

But I’m curious what your plans are.

Well, it’s too early to say anything, and it would not be right to make any comment now. When the time comes, whatever decisions are made will be communicated. There are so many other important issues to deal with right now; we really have to really concentrate on those.

What do you think of the government’s plan to increase the powers of the presidency and create a more powerful French or Russian style executive presidency?

The party in government, of which I’m a founder, has had this idea, but there has not been any consensus. So it’s not really on the agenda now.

There’s a lot of speculation that Prime Minister Erdogan may run for the presidency next year because term limits will keep him from running again for prime minister. Is this something you two discuss? And if he does decide to run for president, will you step aside?

[Laughs.] As I said before, it’s too early for this.

From “Talking Turkey.” Interview by Jonathan D. Tepperman. Foreign Affairs. 24 September 2013