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.