Turkish democracy not under threat, says president

 

President Abdullah Gul tells MARY FITZGERALD, Foreign Affairs Correspondent, that Turkey’s engagement with the Middle East is good for Europe in that it fosters new relations and imparts positive influence

IN 2007, the prospect of Abdullah Gul becoming president laid Turkey’s fissures bare, triggering street protests and veiled warnings from the generals who jealously guard Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secularist vision.

Gul, then foreign minister, shared the same Islamist roots as many of his colleagues in the ruling AK Party (AKP). His wife wore the headscarf. Three years on, Gul is circumspect about the furore prompted by his election as Turkey’s first head of state with an Islamist background.

“In Turkey, sometimes political struggles can be very harsh – that was a very harsh moment as well but it is way behind now,” he told The Irish Timesthrough an interpreter. “The important thing is that I am fulfilling my duties and obligations in the position I am serving.”

Last week, some 20 people, including serving military officers, were arrested as part of an investigation into the shadowy Ergenekon network which is alleged to have plotted the bombing of mosques and downing of fighter jets as a pretext for ousting the AKP government. More than 200 people are on trial accused of belonging to the group. The saga has gripped Turkey, with critics claiming that the AKP is using it to harass opponents who have long suspected the party of harbouring an Islamist agenda.

Amid rising tensions, speculation is rife there may be a fresh attempt to ban the AKP in the constitutional court. Some analysts have warned that Turkey’s political stability should not be taken for granted.

Gul rejects this. “There must be no concern over these matters whatsoever . . . At the moment, it is not in any way possible that democracy will be interrupted.

“When the day comes, elections will take place and the people of Turkey will decide. For that reason, in terms of political stability, I do not have the least doubt . . . There are important political developments, court cases are going on, but these are all happening within the justice system of our country which does not leave any place for loopholes.”

Gul argues that when it comes to the debate about Turkey’s future, there is confusion over the definition of secularism. “It is not about being against faith and religion but just a separation of state and religious matters . . . If secularism is to be interpreted as a way to limit the freedom of faith and religion, this would be a misinterpretation. For that reason, we advocate that Turkey needs to have a real secular system but it is also very important that there will be full freedom of faith as well.”

He insists the changes introduced by the AKP government match Ataturk’s vision. “[Ataturk] always wished to see Turkey at the same standard or even above that of the most modernised countries. When we say modern countries today, we see the countries of the EU . . . All the reforms that have been made [in recent years] and all the efforts invested have been major steps to reach that objective. For that reason, I believe that none of the things that have been realised are in contradiction with [Ataturk’s] thoughts or aspirations. But there may be [others] who interpret Mustafa Kemal’s thoughts and ideals in a different way and they may have different perspectives.”

Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu has said he expects Turkey to be a member of the EU by 2023. Gul, who steered Turkey’s accession talks when he was foreign minister, does not want to commit to a specific timeframe. “I would prefer not to give a specific date but I can say that we are not in a hurry for that,” he says. “At the same time, we expect the technical process to run smoothly and at a normal pace. We are also very much aware that in many areas we have to upgrade ourselves and we are working very hard to achieve these objectives.”

Strong rhetoric from EU states opposed to Turkey joining creates difficulties domestically, Gul says. “It creates a challenge because there are still many reforms to be carried out and many difficult tasks to be achieved by the government which necessitate the support and sympathy of the Turkish people.” He decries as “very biased” those who have raised concerns that Turkey’s focus is moving away from Europe and tilting eastward. “The most important strategic objective of Turkey at the moment is to become a full member of the EU, her direction is towards this target, and we are investing our efforts in this direction.”

Gul argues Turkey’s increasing engagement with its neighbours in the Middle East and elsewhere will serve only to benefit the EU. “Turkey is a country that disseminates ideas . . . such as democratic values, human rights and free-market economy to the region,” he adds.

Relations with Washington have become strained in recent weeks following a US congressional committee vote that described the killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during the first World War as genocide. Ankara recalled its ambassador in protest. Gul questions the motives of those who voted in favour of the resolution: “More than anything else this is being disrespectful to history. This decision was not taken by historians but rather by a group of people who have been under the influence of a group of lobbyists and decided on the matter with these motivations.

“What we are saying is that if there are any claims of a genocide for those events . . . let the historians come together and decide, with all the historical documents . . . Let them judge this and we will accept that judgment.” The controversy continued last week after prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke to the BBC, threatening to deport Armenian migrants.

Gul insists Erdogan’s comments were “wrongly interpreted” by the media. “He did not want to say that we will be expelling those people but he wanted to underline the fact that we do not have any hostility or grudge. He tried to draw attention to the fact that, even though there are so many illegal workers in Turkey, if there had been a policy of expelling them we would have done it many years ago.”