As the tear gas wafts over Taksim Square, there is no question that Erdogan still holds the reins of power. For one, it is hard to see how Turkey's moribund opposition can capitalize on his missteps. Further, although AKP supporters are watching the protests with consternation, they are not ditching their membership cards.
Those who assert that the protests in Turkey will not bring the liberals to power are right. But that does not mean that the demonstrations have not seriously hurt Erdogan. His handling of the crisis has significantly strengthened the position of his rival, Abdullah Gul.
(Osman Orsal / Courtesy Reuters)
Abdullah Gul has been president of Turkey since 2007. Somewhat overshadowed, at least abroad, by his longtime political partner Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- Turkey's prime minister and leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) -- Gul has recently started to carve out a more independent political identity. While Erdogan has become increasingly strident and authoritarian since taking office in 2003, especially as the AKP's parliamentary majorities have grown, Gul -- although personally pious and traditional (he married his wife when she was 15 and he was 30) -- has quietly pursued a more moderate and progressive path. A former foreign minister and prime minister himself, Turkey's head of state and commander in chief has raised his stature (and popularity) by embracing seemingly contradictory principles: defending both Turkey's Muslim identity and its pluralistic values, challenging his own government's antidemocratic excesses, championing the rule of law, and helping reorient his country's foreign policy eastward while remaining a forceful advocate of integration with Europe. We spoke in his Ankara office in October.
How do you think Americans and the West are getting Turkey wrong?
Turkey is a bridge between Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and the Caucasus. Each of our neighboring countries has a different government and administrative style. In Turkey, we have a vast majority-Muslim population along with democracy, human rights, and a free-market economy, and this makes us unique in the region. From a geographic and geopolitical point of view, Turkey belongs to this region, and we have historical relations with all our neighbors. But from a values point of view, we are with the West.
If we look at the future, it's almost a mathematical fact that the world's economic and power balance will shift toward Asia. So politics must shift, too. The United States and Europe must start recognizing Turkey and its importance. And Turkey must become more important for them.
Many outsiders fear that Turkey's recent reorientation toward its own region means that Turkey is turning away from the West. Do you still see your future in Europe?
That is an unfair criticism. On the one hand, we have an ongoing negotiation process for full accession to the European Union. We are forcing our way through each door en route to full membership. Turkey has a role, a place, in all European institutions and bodies. So the fact that we have become more active in our region, dealing with regional matters, should not be interpreted as Turkey's reorientation or distancing itself from Europe. We are constantly adopting EU standards. I consider such remarks shallow and not well grounded, and I wonder if our friends from the EU might actually be using them as a pretext to escape from their responsibilities regarding Turkey's membership.
With its not-so-warm welcome and its economic and political crisis, is Europe still a club that you want to join?
I believe that the current circumstances for Europe are temporary; if you go back through history, no depression is endless. After each such depression in the past, countries and continents have come back even stronger. This goes for Europe as well. The Europeans made huge mistakes, but they will draw lessons from those mistakes and enter a new era. But if Europe wants to prevent long-term stagnation, the Europeans have to come up with a broad strategic vision, and they must not attempt to limit their territory, their borders.
Of course, the enlargement process can continue within a different structure. Currently, the existing EU composition is being questioned, so perhaps a new composition might be envisaged. The United Kingdom, for example, is not a member of the monetary union, and it doesn't fall within certain other processes. Now there are talks about different forms of Europe for the future.
Did the downing by Turkey in mid-October of a plane suspected of carrying arms from Russia to Syria represent an escalation in tensions?
The problem in Syria is not a bilateral issue between Turkey and Syria. There is no conflict of interest or settling of accounts between Turkey and Syria. The problem in Syria is the grave human rights violations being committed by the regime against the people, who have legitimate demands. This makes the matter something that relates to the whole international community.
Of course, with Turkey being a neighboring country and sharing a land border with Syria of 900 kilometers [about 560 miles], the repercussions for Turkey are different. For instance, we have 150,000 Syrians who have come to Turkey as a result of the problems [in Syria]. This has led to some security issues and border clashes -- or clashes on the border between the regime forces and the opposition, which also affect us. From the very onset of the crisis, we've always opted for a controlled and orderly change in Syria. As a result of the escalation of events, we made it clear to everyone that Turkey, in unity with the free world, will support the Syrian people in their demands. But from the very beginning, I have argued that both Russia and Iran should be invited to engage with the transition in Syria to prevent further bloodshed. I believe that Russia in particular should be treated properly.
But how do you engage the Russians when they're doing everything possible to keep Bashar al-Assad in power?
Russia supported [the West] in Libya, but then the Russians were excluded from the transition process. So in Syria, Russia should be engaged, given a guarantee it will be made a part of the process and that its concerns will be taken into account.
- Page 1of 3