Changing the Debate over Turkey
Soli Özel, interviewed by Giancarlo Bosetti 27 September 2011

What has changed in the Turkish political and public life after the resignation of the highest military authorities? What kind of change is on the way? Does it have to do with society, the political balance among parties or with something else?

The resignation of the Chief of Staff and of three of the Force Commanders is the culmination of a process in Turkey, which began at least a decade ago, whereby the military is increasingly asked to be less and less political. In a way, this was the culmination of a process of demilitarization of the Turkish polity.

The Chief of Staff’s main reason for resigning was his inability to protect the legal rights of his subordinates, some of whom are in jail. We don’t precisely know what the charges against them are, but there are also other retired or serving officers whose desire to meddle in politics is very strong. In any case, the fact that a Chief of Staff resigned because he could not protect the legal rights of his subordinates is, I think, quite an interesting phenomenon. Also, his resignation came – and that is critical I think – after the markets closed, so that there would be no economic disturbance. It was a Friday, and over the weekend the natural procedures took place; the commander of the gendarmerie who did not resign was immediately appointed deputy Chief of Staff; he had to serve only one day so that he could be promoted to the full position of chief of staff. And, in the end, the higher military council met and of course, at that meeting the final symbolic and political “coup de grace” happened: although until then the Prime Minister and the Chief of Staff used to sit next to each other at the head of the table, this time the Prime Minister sat by himself at the head of the table. Moreover, about twenty days later, when the President convened the National Security Council, where the military and the civilians used to sit across to one another, the President just made them sit according to seniority, so the military and the civilians were sitting together.

In my judgment, the era of military tutelage ended, in symbol and in substance, with this resignation, as well as with the other necessary symbolic steps that have taken place. That, of course, reflects on the one hand the fact that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) – the party that has been ruling Turkey for nearly nine years – gained the upper hand and managed to actually consolidate its power and turn the balance of power in favor of the elected civilians. I think this also reflects a societal development, whereby the society is now much firmer in telling the military that it would like to respect them, but as an institution doing its job without meddling in politics.

Do you think this is a stable situation or do you think we are experiencing a transition toward a completely new balance of power?

I think the transition is over. We are in a stable situation. As far as I can see – unless there will be a major, colossal, earthshaking political development – this is the new balance in Turkey. The period of military tutelage is over, and we are going to have a very strong civilian government. The military will now actually have to go back and reconfigure themselves institutionally. The protocol will change soon, so they will probably start taking the back seats.

The next agenda item for Turkey in terms of the consolidation of our democracy is going to be whether we are having too much centralization of power, too much monopolization of power, too much intolerance, too much repression, too much constriction of spaces for freedom of speech and information etc. This means that the debate about our democracy will no longer be concentrating on the role of the military but on whether or not the civilians are actually creating a bona fide democracy.

As I said earlier, I believe that the very nature of the debate over Turkish democracy will have to change. We will have to talk more about how well we are managing our democracy, instead of asking ourselves whether or not the military will or won’t do this or that etc. If I am correct, and the demilitarization process is finished, then the precondition for democratization – which is the civilianization of the polity – has already been achieved.

Now, how are the civilians going to run the place? 50% and nearly two thirds of the majority in parliament are a lot of power in the hands of one political party in its 9th year of governance. Therefore, what we have to look at now is: do we have an independent judiciary? Do we really have freedom of the press? Can all Turks speak their minds? Is there fair play in the way the country is run and in the way the government uses its power to put pressure on different segments of society? These are the issues we need to discuss now.

Some of the newspapers talking about Turkey’s prime minister’s trip to Egypt say that the two countries have in common the fact that the army has played or plays a role of balance and equilibrium. But in Turkey, as you said, this situation has changed now. Whilst in Egypt the situation is different…it seems that there the army has the role the Turkish military once played in Turkey.

As far as I know, Egypt was a military country. The Egyptian military took over in 1952 and to the best of my knowledge they have never given up their right to rule the country. At the end of the day, since 1952 Egypt has had four presidents, and all four had military backgrounds. The military is the backbone of the regime in Egypt, and unlike Turkey, Egypt never really had a free and pluralist political system. Turkey was never Egypt, not since 1952. We had our military coups, we had the – in my judgment unwanted – influence of the military on the political process (which has become much more visible and tangible after 1980), but we were and are still different from Egypt. In Egypt the military now is the most important institution to manage the transition, but a transition managed by the military is not going to give us the democratic political system we seek.

On many occasions, you have brilliantly explained the international role of Turkey, which is a changing role and an “increasing” role. Let’s now move to the Middle East. Erdoğan’s trip to Egypt has been presented in quite a bad light by some Italian newspapers, saying that Erdoğan will now ask Egypt to give up its “neutral” position toward Israel and that he would push for a radicalization of Egypt’s positions against Israel.

Frankly, I would be very surprised if he did that. It is true that our prime minister has used very strong words about Israel, particularly in the wake of the UN Palmer Report, which the Turks did not find to their satisfaction. The prime minister also wanted to go to Gaza to challenge the Israelis there, but the Egyptians did not let him. I would be very surprised if the prime minister would do anything that the Egyptians could possibly see as offensive or as an infringement on their sovereignty.

What is Turkey’s real position concerning the Middle East crisis, and particularly the Israel-Palestine situation?

Well, Turkey – just like every other country – was caught unaware about what started in Tunisia and continued in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and particularly in Syria. On Tunisia the Turkish government was by and large silent in the beginning, then they supported it; on Egypt, the Turkish prime minister – with his incredible sense of political timing – called on Mubarak to leave in a very bold speech, using Islamic imagery as well.

Then, on Libya, Turkey totally messed it up. At first they were silent, and I think it was perfectly appropriate for Turkey to remain silent in the beginning, as it had 25,000 workers in Libya. The first priority for the Turkish government was that these people could leave Libya without being harmed. So, I think they did the right thing. But once the evacuation, which was logistically perfectly managed, was over, Turkey found itself on the wrong side of things. Our prime minister first said, “What the hell is NATO going to do in Libya?”Then he gradually moved in the direction of joining the NATO force for the quarantine, not participating in the bombardment but nonetheless being part of the NATO engagement. Now, the leadership are ingratiating themselves to the opposition, and the day Tripoli was taken by the rebel forces our foreign minister went to Benghazi to hand out 100 million dollars in cash as a donation and another 100 million dollars as grants to the opposition. So, if you will, they made their maneuver rather nimbly.

And Syria?

The real issue is actually Syria, because Turkey claimed it had much influence over the Syrian regime, and now it turns out that this was not true. The Syrian regime believes it is facing a conspiratorial challenge to its very being, so it is an existential matter for them; therefore, they are not about to listen to anyone’s advice, and that includes Turkey. Of course, this situation frustrates the Turkish government. The Turkish government keeps on telling the Bashar al Assad government to change and to start reforms, but, so far, it hasn’t helped.

Of course, when you claim to be very influential and suddenly you cannot achieve any result, this generates a lot of suspicions about your real power in the international system. But, be that as it may, nobody can actually influence what goes on in Syria, not immediately anyway. But Turkey is going to be part of the solution, no matter what. Moreover, one should pay attention to the fact that even if Turkey could not get the Syrian regime to do what it would want it to do, the Syrian opposition is meeting in Turkey anyway. It has met in Turkey four times already, and the Turkish government is trying to facilitate, through the NGOs, a way of finding some common ground between the disparate opposition groups. If they manage to succeed in this, and if the regime in Syria falls, Turkey will have good relations with the opposition as well. Turkey has been in pretty close contact with the United States also – on the phone with Obama and American Foreign Ministers. Therefore, Turkey will be part of the game no matter what.

What about Israel?

With Israel the relations are deteriorating very rapidly, perhaps beyond repair, even if I wouldn’t go so far for the moment. Basically we are currently at the freezing level of the diplomatic relations, but economic relations still continue. Even after the Mavi Marmara incident, trade between Turkey and Israel has increased by about 25%! I think the record shows that Turkey has actually approached the Palmer Report with a lot of good will, trying to negotiate with Israel and, as the record shows, twice Bibi Netanyahu accepted the agreement the Turkish and Israeli authorities have come up with. But twice he did not go along with it, because he thought it was going to be very costly for him domestically. This means he is not being a responsible statesman, as I don’t think it was in the best interest of the Israeli State, or of its public either. And, because the Turkish government believes it really worked to get out of that mêlée in good will, the Turkish reaction has been very strong, with five items of sanctions and one warning among those saying that Turkey is “capable of protecting navigation in the Eastern Mediterranean.” Moreover, with the rhetoric that followed, Turkey meant that it is not going let the Eastern Mediterranean be an Israeli lake. That, of course, escalates the rhetoric. By and large the Israelis did not return it at that level, except for Foreign Minister Lieberman. But I don’t know how we are going to stop this free-fall. We will see what happens.

If the ambition of Turkish politics – as far as we can understand it – is to become a relevant power and a factor of peace in the entire region, part of this framework should be the role of Turkey as a force of guarantee on both sides, against the arrogance of Lieberman and the Israeli government on the one side, but also against the dangers represented by those who threaten the very existence of Israel…

You are right, and the balance is no longer there. But I think the Turkish government banks on the fact that only a few days before it reacted to the Palmer Report and to the consequent Israeli refusal to apologize publicly, Turkey announced – at around 2 a.m.! – that it was going to be the host of the new radar system for the missile defense system that NATO is going to deploy. This was a message saying “yes, we have bad relations with Israel, but that does not mean that we are opting out of the Atlantic Alliance or turning our back to our Western Allies.” Turkey is critical in a way on Syria, as I told you, and part of what Turkey had been trying to do over the last six or seven years was to make sure that it could drift Syria away from Iran: that was part of the “dual game” it played. Obviously, if that missile shield is going to be installed in Turkey, the Iranians will get the message that Turkey is not as protective of them as appeared to be the case earlier. But I do agree with you that by allowing relations with Israel to deteriorate that much, and by using that kind of incendiary rhetoric to a certain extent, Turkey disqualifies itself for any future engagement in the Middle East peace process, if there is ever going to be one, as an impartial interlocutor that can keep its distance from all sides. It has overcommitted itself to Gaza and to Hamas.

Remember the Turkish statement, by the foreign minister, specifically said that the measures taken by Turkey were against the Israeli government, and not against the Israeli State or the Israeli public. Of course this is sort of an “exit strategy,” in case the current Israeli government changes, although I don’t think it will. But the real problem between Israel and Turkey is not just about the governments: in the constellation of things, there is a serious conflict of interests between Israel and Turkey. Our government wishes to make Turkey the main American ally in the Middle East, and therefore the real regional power. And the Israelis, who have had a very privileged status in American foreign policy and strategic thinking, would not like to allow this to happen. So, if you will, there is a structural tension between Turkey and Israel, which is getting out of hand.

Let’s come back to the internal situation of Turkey. Is the readjustment of the balance of power going to somehow affect the Kurdish question?

The rhetoric of the prime minister on the Kurdish issue has changed dramatically over the last two years. There may be a number of reasons for this, but as we speak, we are actually at war with the PKK. We have been bombarding the PKK strongholds in the Kandil Mountains for three weeks now, and there is increasingly talk of a ground operation. This is obviously antithetical to the kind of image that Turkey has tried to build; there is belligerent language internationally vis-à-vis Israel and Greek Cypriots and actually belligerence vis-à-vis the PKK, as well as basically denying the political representatives of the Kurdish nationalists, those who aren’t indeed affiliated with the PKK, any opening at all and basically trying to keep them repressed and out of the game. So there is a hardening of the government’s position on the Kurdish issue and a return to the tested and failed policies of the 1990s.

Moreover, the Americans and the Europeans virtually said nothing about Turkey bombarding the PKK. As far as I am concerned, the PKK is an organization that has well outlived its usefulness to anyone who had used it. I don’t believe it has a future, but I still don’t think that beating up on the PKK is the way to solve the Kurdish issue. Fighting the PKK is only one element of the Kurdish issue.

The real issue is: what do you do with the Kurdish problem itself? The prime minister’s new line is “we don’t have a Kurdish problem, we have problems of our Kurdish brethren.” Well, this is truly a big step backwards, and we do have Kurdish nationalists – and not all of them like the PKK and probably they don’t. The PKK hurts itself by resorting to violence, that is true, but by denying Kurdish nationalists recognition that they do indeed represent something and without engaging them in conversation, we are not going to be able to solve this. At the end of the day it is an issue about how we define citizenship, and this is going to be the task of the new constitution drafters. Not allowing the Kurdish nationalists to be part of this process is going to cripple the process itself.

We could say that Turkey has an agenda that will have to deal with cultural and religious pluralism, and this agenda affects the role of Turkey internationally and in the Middle East, because everywhere there is the danger of discovering, even in Syria, how important the minorities-issues are…

It is a question on how you define the issue of minorities. Are you going to define the issue of minorities only as a matter of cultural pluralism or as a political issue? The Kurdish issue is not just a matter of individual cultural attributes and whether or not they would enjoy speaking their language, having their literature and singing songs! It is a political issue as well. And, at least in Turkey, the same goes with Alevites too. And all over the Middle East, of course you have the fear that sectarian conflicts or ethnic conflicts – between Kurds and Arabs, or Berbers and Arabs in North Africa, etc. – may explode. And Turkey’s difference was supposed to be that by democratizing, by respecting individual rights even further, Turkey could actually overcome this and really become a multicultural society, socially, culturally and politically and could manage this. This is actually not the way things are looking currently I must say.

Well, we are no longer in denial of the existence of the Kurds, as it used to be. But, as I said, we still don’t accept that there is a Kurdish problem, defining it as “problems of the Kurds.” What I am concerned about is that, when the PKK escalates the violence and Turkey responds, the mood in the country between Turks and Kurds becomes more and more poisonous, and that I find to be a major issue for the future.



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