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A Conversation with Abdullah Gul

Speaker: Abdullah Gul, Turkish President
Presider: Jonathan Tepperman, Managing Editor, Foreign Affairs
September 23, 2013
Council on Foreign Relations

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(UNKNOWN): We're on.

(UNKNOWN): OK.

TEPPERMAN: So we last talked a year ago. And so much has changed in the last year. I thought we would discuss a lot of those changes and get your take on how Turkey and the region is different today than it was 12 months ago.

So my first question is, let's -- let's review some of the changes that have happened in the last year. The summer -- they're (ph) talking about Turkey now. The summer was filled with protests, of course. Turkey lost its bid for the 2020 Olympics. The PKK recently announced it's halting its withdraw of -- withdraw of fighters, and the economy is slowing.

So my first question is, are you are as optimistic about Turkey's future today as you were a year ago?

ABDULLAH GUL (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): You published last year's interview. And looking back at that interview now, I'll start with the region first, not Turkey, but region, Syria. I see that many of the concerns which I enumerated a year ago have turned out to be true. And the points that I referred to in that previous conversation with you are points which are now appreciated by the international community.

I had said, for example, that Russia and Iran ought to be both included in an effort, in any effort, that we have to cooperate with them. And the most recent Russian-American deal on chemical weapons is a good example proving that point.

So things are pretty bad in Syria. There are 100,000 people who are dead now. The figures weren't near those numbers last year, you know, when you and I talked. And we've seen a strengthening of radical and extremist elements. And the climate that Syria finds itself in has been very conducive to more radicalism and more extremism.

The refugee numbers have also grown. Half of the population there is displaced now. We have -- we're hosting 500,000 people. Jordan is hosting 500,000 people. And it's very difficult. It's a small country. It's very difficult for Jordan to host these people. So you might say that the situation in terms of the refugees has grown worse, too.

And then chemical weapons, which are forbidden to be used even in times of war, were used. And in Iraq (inaudible) -- in Iraq, terrorist attacks are also ongoing even in the months of -- holy month of Ramadan, there were attacks which resulted in the deaths of 1,500 people.

And in Iran, with the new elections that have taken place, it seems as though we're seeing now a new understanding take hold, a new period in that sense, beginning in Iran. Now, this was about the region so far.

Now, about Turkey. We've had protests in Turkey. They were initiated around environmental issues. And in that sense, I think it's an indication of how far Turkey has come. Because those -- those are the kinds of concerns -- the concerns that gave rise to demonstrations -- were the kind -- are the kinds of concerns that you would see in New York, in London, in developed democracies, advanced democracies. So in that sense, it shows the success, the distance that Turkey has covered in these years.

Then the illegal, more radical organizations emerged to hijack those protests, and when they started disturbing public order, the police intervened. And there have, indeed, been cases of disproportionate use of force, but the legal processes with respect to that sort of behavior are also in place. And some have been punished. Other cases -- investigations are ongoing. And there is also effort in Turkey to work with their democratization packages (ph). There's another package (ph) for further democratization. So that work is also ongoing as we speak.

With respect to the economy, 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, doing well. Most recently, it was announced that in the last quarter, Turkey grew by 4.4 percent, which is not a growth rate that you would encounter in any European country.

The banks are also very strong. They have a capital adequacy ratio of 17 percent, which, again, is difficult to encounter in Europe. So that's why I don't foresee any problems with respect to the future, looking into the future. The government is moving -- or carrying on, you know, the sound and relevant economic policies with determination such as, you know, being focused on fiscal discipline and ensuring that the legal framework is further strengthened.

TEPPERMAN: So I'd like to ask you another question about the protests because these captured so much attention in the United States and around the world, and because they're still ongoing in Turkey today.

At the beginning of the protests, the prime minister, Erdogan, was very critical of the protesters, calling them extremists and foreign agents. You were much more moderate and even supportive in your comments. But despite the prime minister's remarks, the protests seem to be an honest expression of deep divisions in Turkish society and unhappiness with the current government on environmental issues, as you say, but also with the prime minister's increasing authoritarianism, his failure to consult, his decision -- the way he makes decisions without discussing them with society and with his -- the ways in which he's been consolidating power.

Now, the -- the AKP (ph) party has pushed through a lot of important reforms over the years, economic, social reforms. So why is there so much popular unrest and unhappiness today?

ABDULLAH GUL (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I think we have to remember that the events were sparked initially by an urbanization (ph) project. People were not happy with the project that was contemplated. And the government got the message afterwards with the protests. And that project, in fact, has been suspended.

But with respect the -- 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, you know, 100 people appearing in a place like Bayodu (ph), say something like Fifth Avenue here, burning tires and whatnot, and then the police coming and intervening to remove them.

TEPPERMAN: But you have protests in other cities now as well. It's not just confining to Istanbul.

ABDULLAH GUL (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): These are radical organizations, and they do use these protests to make their point but -- it happens in many cities -- but it is not, you know, in masses. You know, you don't see people going out in the hundreds of thousands demonstrating in different parts of the country.

Of course, you know radical groups do have a right to protest as well. But the issue is that they should not, and nobody should, disturb public order. That should not be the way through which protests are carried out. Because opposition parties (inaudible) Turkey also organize their meetings, and they, in those meetings, express opinions differing from others. And they, if they have criticisms, they direct those criticisms, and those are also discussed and also expressed in public.

And all kinds of protests, which is not violent, is obviously a part of any democracy. And governments, if they benefit from those messages, they also win. Because it would be something, you know, good for them.

TEPPERMAN: Sure. A year ago in our last interview, 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 man in Antakya and the ongoing harassment and detention of journalists, according the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey now has more journalists in prison than any other country in the world. Can you still make that argument?

ABDULLAH GUL (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Yes, because we have to look at whether democratic standards in Turkey are being raised or whether they're being more narrow or narrowed down.

But if you look at the recent developments, there have been important packages (ph) about the judiciary, about the justice system, in general about the courage (ph). So there's a lot that is being done that is visible, that is measurable. So when you look at all those developments, you can see that the benchmark or the reference point for democracy is continually raised in Turkey.

Democracy is pluralism. So in pluralism by nature and by definition, you have people having different points of view or opinions. And there will be people who will not be happy with the policies of the government. What's important is that they have the right and the freedom to express those grievances.

We know when illegal organizations, when they want to make use of these peaceful demonstrations on the part of the people who oppose various ideas, you know, if they're not satisfied with the level of that protest, then they want to resort to violence and, you know, express their protest in that way. And these are not, however, major, large events. You know, they happen sporadically in smaller instances. And the police takes necessary measures within that framework.

TEPPERMAN: But what about the...

(CROSSTALK)

ABDULLAH GUL (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): But, you know, again, 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 in any case. So that's also something that's important. And if there have been cases of use of disproportionate force, and there have been, then those, too, have to be followed up and investigated. And this is, indeed, what's happening. And those who are at fault are punished for it.

TEPPERMAN: But what about the detention of journalists? Because as you said, free expression is very important, but that involves having a free media that can function without restraint from the government.

ABDULLAH GUL (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): This issue of, you know, journalists, detained journalists, I think there's a lot of room for debate there. Because if you're involved in a violent act, the fact that you have a press card doesn't distinguish you from those others involved in a violent act.

But there have been cases of journalists who had nothing to do with violent actions who were detained with suspicion of being involved in violent acts. And I had criticized that myself. And when in their cases, the first hearings, court hearings, came up, they were released in those hearings. And I had criticized the fact that they were being detained.

Then there are a couple of examples of specific situations since the last time you and I talked.

TEPPERMAN: OK, OK.

Let me now turn to talking about the European Union and Turkey's long quest to join Europe. The last time we talked you said that Turkey was forcing its way through each door on the route to full E.U. membership. But this summer, the prime minister criticized the lack of progress and called it a tragic, comical situation. And he and a number of his ministers made very critical comments about Europe, especially during the summer and talked about things like the interest rate lobby during the summer's unrest.

First, I wonder whether ministers in the world's 16th largest economy doing -- making comments like this. And second, have they done damage to the E.U. accession process?

ABDULLAH GUL (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Well, about ministers' statements, you know, as president, I don't follow all of the ministers' statements. And as president, again, I'm not going to make any comments about what ministers say. So let's set aside in answering your question now.

With respect to the European Union and Turkey's relations with the European Union, the European Union is a strategic orientation for us, for Turkey. And although the accession process itself seems to be frozen, on a technical level, things are actually, you know, moving along.

And we have benefited greatly from -- except (ph) the accession process for Turkey to the European Union, not just politically and democratically, but also economically because we've done a lot to make Turkey a free-functioning -- a functioning and free-market economy. And that has given Turkey a lot of advantage in Turkey becoming such a robust, resilient economy.

And there's also the fact that the E.U. itself will probably look very different in five to 10 years from now. There's a lot of debate ongoing in the E.U. We in Turkey follow that debate very closely. But that has not, you know, changed our strategic goal of becoming part of the European Union.

TEPPERMAN: OK, so we're here at the United Nations, and, of course, all everybody is talking about right now is Syria. What do you think of the deal currently being negotiated between Russia and the United States over Syria's chemical weapons? A lot of people in this country, a lot of people in Turkey, including the prime minister, have criticized it and said it's nothing more than an attempt by the Russians and the Syrians to delay and not actually make any changes.

What do you think of the deal? And what do you think of Obama's strategy of threatening violence, threatening air strikes, coming very close but then agreeing to the Russian plan and changing direction?

ABDULLAH GUL (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Now, I'll talk about Syria on two levels, chemical weapons and then other issues.

On chemical weapons, we would only be happy to see chemical weapons fully, completely eliminated in Syria, as a neighboring country, and so would the prime minister. Because this is something that will only make us happy. We'd be very satisfied with that.

What's important here is whether or not it will really actually take place. And for to ensure that it will actually take place, it's important to have some very strong, tight mechanisms in place within the framework of a U.N. resolution so that, you know, we can tell whether or not this is a delay tactic or whether it is a sincere effort to eliminate chemical weapons. If it is -- if it, indeed, eliminates all chemical weapons, we'd only appreciate that action.

The second point I'd -- I will make on this is, this chemical weapons issue should not detract us from the overall concerns that we all have about Syria. In other words, it should not substitute, you know, the real, the bigger problem. Because that would be very unfortunate.

And for this to happen, there has to be a very strong, decisive political strategy with respect to Syria in general in order to stop the events, the incidents that are ongoing there. That has been lacking from the very beginning.

So because a military operation on its own will not yield, you know, the kinds of results that we would all like to see unless it's a part of an overall political strategy. That is what needs to be the case. We have to have an overall political strategy in place. And we have to put it in line, make it work in a decisive and effective manner. That's how it needs to be taken into consideration.

Because otherwise, the situation on the ground will continue to deteriorate. There's already radicalism, extremism that is filling the gap, the vacuum in Syria. Because radicalism and extremism did not come out -- about on its own. There was a vacuum there. A vacuum was created, and radicalism and extremism is filling that vacuum, and people who are moderate are becoming more extreme, more radical. And that is a danger, not just for the region, but also for the whole world.

These, you know -- blaming the people there as being radical, as being extremist is also a very simplistic way of approaching events, too. It would be to easy to, you know, just put a description on those people Because they have become that way because of the situation that has emerged in Syria. The situation is creating those extremist and radical elements. This has, in fact, been our fear from the very beginning.

We always attracted attention to this fact when the civil war first erupted. So -- and we also are very cognizant of the fact that the immediate effect and ramifications emanating from this situation would first be felt in Turkey as a neighboring country.

That is why i believe that the P-5 plus the neighboring countries have to work in a very decisive way through diplomacy to find an exit strategy from the situation in Syria.

TEPPERMAN: But do you still feel that -- that negotiation is sufficient and will work? After all, the Russians seem like they have no intention of pushing Assad from power. You in the -- in the past have opposed military intervention, but it often seems, and it seems to me like military intervention from abroad may be the only way to end the crisis.

ABDULLAH GUL (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Well, if a decisive and effective exit strategy does not end the current situation in Syria, that would legitimize any military -- subsequent military action that could be contemplated.

Well, in that case, in such a case, we cannot -- we cannot really consider having people who have been involved in this bloodshed and this destruction as being part of a solution. And what's important would be to have free elections where the will of the people in Syria is reflected in a new state of affairs, in a new environment. And, obviously, that process -- throughout that process, those who were involved from the beginning in the bloodshed will not, themselves, be powerless. They will also want to -- some power will be needed to counter that.

TEPPERMAN: Some military power?

ABDULLAH GUL (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Well, if people were to -- if people were trying to prevent, you know, this new state of affairs from taking root, then as a last resort, military action might be necessary. But -- and the greater the delay, the greater this, you know, unplanned way of doing things, the more challenging and difficult things will become on the ground.

TEPPERMAN: Sure.

Turkey has the potential to be one of, or the, leader of the region. We've talked about this before. Because of its history, because of its success as a Muslim democracy, Turkey could be both a model and -- and the leader for the entire region.

And 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 really 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. So can you describe for me what Turkey's foreign policy is at the moment and what it should be? How can Turkey assume its role as a leader of the leader?

ABDULLAH GUL (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Well, Turkey would want to see stability in the region, would want to have economic cooperation with the region, and would, of course, want to see its people happy and satisfied. Making -- or people being happy and satisfied would mean that there should be more democracy, more human rights for the people, and that the people are able to exercise those rights and, you know, make use of those values.

So these are the pillars of our foreign policy. And if -- when there are other developments, you know, that are taking place beyond our control, of course in the region, we always approach those issues from those same pillars of our foreign policy.

TEPPERMAN: And what would you propose to do to improve or end Turkey's current isolation and improve its relations with -- with the countries in its neighborhood again?

ABDULLAH GUL (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Our fundamental priority with respect to the countries in the region has always been to develop our relations with them. And we have enacted a number of -- 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 take on their own, you know, course. It's not in our hands to, you know, see or to predict what's going to happen in the region.

But then again, we're not the ones who have instigated those events either. You know, those are things that develop and have their own dynamics. For example, in Syria, you know, we're proposing very close relations with Syria. We lifted visas with Syria.

And -- but then, events took on a different course. Our desire has always been to have constructive relationships with the countries in the region. And we have not pursued any, you know, hidden desires in that respect. We've always been very constructive in our work with the countries in the region.

TEPPERMAN: Do we have time for a few more quickly?

(UNKNOWN): Just five minutes.

TEPPERMAN: OK.

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

ABDULLAH GUL (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): We have three elections coming up in Turkey in the next three years. The first one is the municipal elections, which is very important. And then presidential elections, and afterwards the parliamentary elections.

The dates are set for this, and it's, you know -- it's a well-known tradition. We have a very well-established tradition of elections, so everything will run very smoothly.

TEPPERMAN: I'm curious what your plans are for the election.

ABDULLAH GUL (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Well, it's too early to say anything. And I guess, you know, it would not be right to make any comment now. When the time comes, you know, whatever decisions are made, they will be communicated. And you have to consider the fact that there are so many important issues to deal with now. We have to really concentrate on those. Because if we concentrate on such things in the future, then we lose our, you know, our focus on the more important things that await our attention at this point.

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

ABDULLAH GUL (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): The party in government, the party which I'm a founder of, has had this idea of presenting such mandate, but there has not been any consensus, which has been achieved on that. So they're not really very insistent on this, so it's not really on the agenda now.

TEPPERMAN: OK.

One last...

(UNKNOWN): One last, briefly.

TEPPERMAN: And you can answer this however you want. There's a lot of speculation that Prime Minister Erdogan may run for the presidency himself next year because of the party's terminal mix (ph) which keep him from running for prime minister again. Is this something you two discuss? And if he does decide, will you step aside?

ABDULLAH GUL (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): As I said before, it's too early for this.

TEPPERMAN: OK. Fair enough.

Thank you so much for you time.

(CROSSTALK)

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