The Times

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The Times

Interview with President Abdullah Gül: ‘Turkey is part of the West'
Martin Fletcher

Many people in the West believe that Turkey has turned East because it has given up on European Union membership. Is that true?

Maybe it seems this way from the outside but this isn't true. I do not agree, because Turkey is politically and strategically a part of the West. It is engaged in full membership negotiations with the European Union. This is a country that is very insistent about European Union membership.

Maybe Turkey has new relationships to which people are unaccustomed. These may be causing concern.
Maybe there is a tendency that Turkey is seen as a country that has been implementing certain projects but now it is a country that creates its own projects, and this could be confusing. It has been taking the lead and opening into new areas more actively. [It seeks] regional ownership.

We used to implement other people's programmes…Maybe the confusion is because of this.
So membership of the European Union remains your top priority?

Definitely. Membership of the EU is our strategic orientation. It is an issue that is above politics.
Whatever the difficulties we insist on this [EU membership]. The difficulties are ... here today and maybe not here tomorrow. We will not be deterred by these difficulties.

It is also understandable that the negotiation process for a country with a big population and a big economy will always be difficult. Look at the UK - it was twice rejected.

Is your patience infinite? It has been 23 years since you first applied. Five years since you started talking.
Yes, but we also made mistakes in the past. We applied 23 years ago but we did not prepare ourselves before knocking on the door. I see our shortcomings. When we upgraded standards sufficiently then the negotiation process started in 2005.
Do you not get frustrated though that some countries clearly do not want you to become a member?

Some countries are creating artificial problems but I believe we will overcome them. As Turkey becomes economically and politically more strong it becomes more attractive and all those countries will change their attitudes, their behaviour. It is a win-win situation. There are still some countries ... they need to realise that Turkey is going to contribute a lot.
Yours is about the only economy in Europe that is growing.

I know some politicians who still have the Turkey of the 1970s in their mind.

Poor and backward?
Yes. In 1980 our total trade volume was $5 billion - total exports plus imports. Now it is $350 billion. We are the sixth largest economy in Europe. We are more dynamic. Our financial system is the best in Europe now.
Today it was released that in the first quarter Turkey's GDP grew by 11 per cent. According to the OECD Turkey is going to be the fastest-growing country in Europe.

Even during the financial crisis Turkish exports were over $100 billion. And most were industrialised goods, not food.
We need to remind people that perception and reality are different as far as Turkey is concerned.
They need to modernise their views?

Yes. Last year only Turkey increased its tourism - 3 per cent. In all countries in the world tourism decreased. There is no country in the world that increased the number of tourists visiting them apart from Turkey.
I know some politicians they say they know Turkey but I know they last came in the 1970s. Some of them visited in the early 1980s.

I will give you an example. Turkey is a member of the donor club in the OECD.

So it has stopped being a recipient?
Yes. Turkey used to receive. Now last year Turkey donated $1.5 billion without expecting anything, just for humanitarian reasons - in Africa, in the Balkans, in Asia. And $800 million of that is state and the rest NGOs.
This is a clear cut indication of what Turkey was and what it is now.
So Europe needs to wake up?

I think business circles have been following Turkey - they know very well the potential. You can go by car from Istanbul to Paris - then you will compare Turkey, Turkey's roads and highways.

I will give you another example: you cannot show me any European country that has as many modern airport terminals.
Do you think that some of the stories about how Turkey is giving up on the EU and turning to the East are exaggerated by countries that don't want Turkey entering the European Union?

No. There are some prejudices - still we have to remove them. Some of them are not consciously formed.
No one should judge Turkey because of Turkey's relations with other countries. Turkey has relationships in neighbourhood countries, in Russia, the Far East. The Indonesian President was here. We decided to remove visas for that country. We had very intense talks in different fields. We have also good relations with Arab Gulf countries, the Turkish-speaking countries in Central Asia.

This should not be the basis for justification that Turkey has moved West or East. It should not be the centre of the argument. Look at the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth. Within the Commonwealth you have relationships from Indonesia to Canada, from Cameroon to Pakistan. Or look at Spain - they have very good strong relationship with radical Latin American countries. Or France.

Turkey should be judged by its values and what standards are taking root in Turkey. If democratic standards, human rights standards, if gender equality standards, transparency, accountability or functioning free market economics - if the standards are moving in the negative then you can really question us. You can say that Turkey is moving to the East and you are right to question Turkey's future.

If democratic standards are going down, if human right standards are coming down, if gender equality is getting worse or if Turkey is becoming less transparent or we are becoming less accountable then you can argue that Turkey is going East.
But this is not happening?

Standards are being upgraded at all levels - they are approaching EU criteria. We say that a silent revolution has been taking place. But still we are saying that we have to do more. We still need to work hard.

From the outside, how can you question Turkey and say that Turkey is going East, that it is severing its ties with the West? This is unacceptable.

Critics would say that the West surely has reason to be concerned about some of the stands that Turkey has taken recently. Number one, Iran, where it vetoed the UN sanctions that were championed by the United States and Europe…
I think there is a misunderstanding here. One should know the background of this story.
First of all, we are a strong ally of the West. We proved this in the past and now. Two weeks ago I was in South Korea. I remember 1,000 people Turks were lost there. One thousand Turkish soldiers died for others.
Today we are in Afghanistan - almost 2,000 soldiers are there. We took command of Isaf twice. We are there. Look at the many other important issues. We are all together - fighting with terrorism, fighting radicalism, fighting al-Qaeda and others.
We are clearly against weapons of mass destruction in this region. Of course we don't want to see any - not with our neighbours or in the region. This is very clear.

We are telling Iran - look, you are part of the IAEA {theInternational Atomic Energy Agency] and part of the NPT [Non Proliferation Treaty]. You get help from them for nuclear energy. You need to be transparent to them. You have responsibilities. We tell them this very clearly.

Our position is this - since we are neighbours, we want to see this problem solved in a peaceful way. We don't want to see a hot issue in our neighbourhood. We don't want war.

It happened in Iraq and the consequences affected us very badly security-wise, economy-wise. So we suffered, not only Iraqis. So therefore this should be solved in a diplomatic way.

Of course as a neighbour country we have to work harder than the others. If the issue country was in Latin America or in the Pacific definitely we would be less concerned than the others. So this should be understood first of all.

The stakes are much higher for you?

Yes. But also, we didn't act alone. We received a letter from President Obama in April and he was mentioning that if certain conditions were accepted by Iran then it would be a good confidence-building step. So what we did in Iran we insisted, together with Brazil, that they accept what was mentioned in the letter.

We did not think up that Iran should give 1,200kg [of uranium] to Turkey. This was first mentioned by Mohammed ElBaradei [the former director-general of the IAEA]. And also the President of the United States mentioned it in the letter.
You think the agreement you reached with Iran fulfilled the conditions set out by President Obama?
Yes. Of course this is not solving the nuclear issue - it was a confidence-building step. After the sanctions there were two ways to go: to either leave Iran alone or - with the sanctions are there - to keep Iran in the process. We preferred to keep Iran in the process.

By talking to them?

Yes. By voting no [at the UN security council]. This is the reason we voted no.

So you could keep talking to Iran?

Iran was going to say that this agreement was not any more on the table after the sanctions. We told them no, after the sanctions this agreement should still be on the table.

And by voting no you kept it on the table?

That's why we will stand behind this agreement. They accepted and we used our vote. This is the background of that. When you look now still references made to that agreement - in the G20 the Prime Minister of Russia was making a speech referring to this agreement. President Obama, [Hillary] Clinton - she made a reference to this.
I want to make clear that we are not the lawyers of Iran. They can defend themselves. But we do not want this problem to be solved by war.

You don't think sanctions will work?

There have been many sanctions in different places - sanctions against Iraq and other countries. It was proved that it doesn't work very well. Doesn't bring results. But I'm not saying that you don't do anything.

Did you expect President Obama to welcome the agreement that you and Brazil reached with Iran?
We thought that it would be appreciated and that the hard work would continue. As I said, that was not solving the nuclear

So you were surprised?
Yes we were surprised.

Another issue that has come up recently is Turkey's support for Hamas, which is on the list of terrorist organisations for the US and the European Union.

We are not the defender or promoter of anyone. But what we want to see is peace and stability in the region. We are respecting the choice of the Palestinian people in Gaza, that's all. We work hard for peace there. We worked between them and Israel in the past.

It's very hard to mediate with Hamas when you have criticised Israel so harshly.
I am not defending any group. But the Palestinian people in Gaza, they have chosen these people as their representatives. We have to take this into consideration. It was a free election.

Turkey is strongly advising them also to contribute to peace.

When they were first elected our first advice to them was this - declare to the world that you are ready to live together with Israel side by side on your own territory.

In 2008 when there was huge suffering in Gaza not only Turkey criticised Israel - all countries and all organisations - the UN, they all criticised.

Do you believe that Hamas is a terrorist organisation or not?

That's not my issue. That's not our main issue. But Hamas is representing the people there. Is that true or not? If they are doing something wrong you have to advise them. You have to bring them into line.
In the 1990s Israel was Turkey's strongest ally in the region. And now relations seem to be in a deep freeze. What has happened?

Just two weeks ago what happened? A Turkish ship in high seas - all civilians, not one single weapon, in international waters - what did they do while the whole world watched? They killed nine people. One of them is a Turkish American citizen, the others are Turkish citizens. How can we tolerate this?

I understand that if a terrorist organisation kills people or there is a crime organisation involved - if they kill the mafia then you understand this. You fight with them.

But if the army of a state killed your people in international waters how would you react?

In some Western media they are writing that during this Government relations with Israel got worse. But it's not true. It's this Government, this Prime Minister, myself, the President, the Foreign Minister, many times we have been in Israel. Many times they have been here.

President Peres, I invited him, he was here, together with [Mahmoud] Abbas [the Palestinina President]. We went in the same car, we went to the Turkish Parliament.

They addressed the Turkish parliamentarians. We all appreciated this. We worked hard to solve some problems. We work hard for peace between Syria and Israel…

Very recently before this ship incident we did not veto them joining the OECD.We could have stopped them joining. We did not have any hostile feelings. We helped them.

We helped other countries get in touch with Israel. But unfortunately they do not appreciate all these things.

So where to relations go from here?

It depends on them. Throughout history Turks always helped Jews. When they were under oppression in Spain they broke into two parts - one group went to the heart of Europe and the others came here. You all know what happened to those who went to the heart of Europe, but nothing happened to those who came to Turkish lands.
After the Second World War Turkey became a safe haven for them. There is never any hostility between Turks, Muslims and the Jews.

When you say it depends on them, do you mean they have to apologise?

Everything depends on their [Israel's] policies. They are very irrational. Their policies and their Government is very irrational.
So they need to understand who their friends are?

They don't [seem to] need any friends - they [seem to want to] get rid of Turks. Otherwise, how come in the high seas they shoot nine people dead - civilians - and they will not apologise and they will not compensate and they will not say we did a mistake. So it's not because of Turkey it's because of them.

One other issue is Sudan. There is a sense in the West that you were ready to welcome the President of Sudan even though he was indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

Turkey has always respected international organisations' decisions to which it has bound itself. Turkey has not done anything against international accords or the UN Securty council's decisions. Turkey has always respected and has not violated any rules of international organisations.

But there are also some regional organisations. Whether the UN likes it or not all the leaders - the presidents - they go there. So within that our relation continues.

On the other side we are helping more than many countries in Darfur. We have a hospital there. We are helping a lot.
So we don't have any special ties there. I don't understand what the issue is.

So you had to accept the President because he is a member of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference?

Yes he was an OIC member.

Your Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, suggested that there was no genocide in Sudan. Is that correct?
It is of course not our decision - there are international bodies, courts, these are all legal issues. They have to decide.
What the critics of your country would say is that it is all very well engaging with these countries but where is the condemnation of their human rights record, where is the condemnation of their lack of democracy? Because in one sense you are criticiszing Israel for its lack of human rights…


Killing is going on in Iran. President Ahmedinejad stole the election and brutally put down people who opposed him...
I am not defending any country and any actions. What I said was that the values ... of democracy, human rights and accountability and gender equality ... should be flourishing in our neighbourhood.

I think our friends in the West should appreciate that Turkey is indirectly spreading all these values in our neighbourhood. This should be appreciated - that Turkey has become the source of inspiration in many countries. A country with a big Muslim population fulfilling all these values - democratic standards, secular standards and the others.

So you are setting an example?

I think so. I cannot ignore all the many wrong things in many countries in our neighbourhood.

But how are you spreading your values to other countries in your neighbourhood?
First of all it is very clear that the democratic standards and economic development of Turkey are being monitored very closely in the neighbourhood. Politicians, intellections and youth - they are following. They are all asking themselves how Turkey is achieving these standards.

Millions of people are visiting us. They are coming and then going back and comparing standards in Turkey with their own countries.

So I don't justify any wrong things in any countries in the neighbourhood. If there is something in my own country I am the man who says no you have to correct this.

But after the election in Iran Turkey congratulated Mr Ahmedinejad…
Only Turkey? Some of them did, some of them did not. But after an election in your neighbourhood if you are not involved whether you like it or not it is their domestic issue. We are not the supporter of any political leader or any movement - that is for them. If there are official results it is your duty to congratulate and express your good will and neighbourhood relationship.

Do you feel that you should be congratulated instead of criticised for the work you are doing in the region? You have come in for a lot of harsh words for dealing with Iran, Hamas and Syria.

Isn't it good to engage Syria on our side? Is it bad or good?

We have lived through some very difficult periods with Syria, but if we do not engage Syria, if we did not keep our relations with Syria strong then where are you going to push it?

At first we were criticised about Syria but now the US is sending an ambassador there.
Our policies are clearly based on a system of values but at the same time we tried to have a constructive dialogue with everyone.

If there is stability in Lebanon, good Turkish-Syrian relations have played an important role in that.
When Turkey is engaged in its neighborhood you should see in this a constructive and active country that is trying to make a contribution to solving problems in that area.

We are not approaching the issue with a negative agenda or any desire to show off or score points.
Do you think your policy of engagement in the region makes Turkey a more valuable potential member of the EU?
We should see what Turkey has accomplished in the region through the prism of of the EU's neighbourhood policy.
All our foreign relations with these countires you mention are also examples of work that could be acceptable within the framework of EU policies.

So to that extent it makes Turkey a more valuable asset if it became a member...
When the EU first agreed to negotiate with Turkey it knew that Turkey could be such an asset in the region.
If you look at the strategic report that preceded the negotiations you would see that.

So do you think the EU and the US are being very unfair to you?

Not necessarily. I think the reason for this would be not knowing the background of these issues. But we are sure of ourselves.

So could you sum up your message to the West?

There is no reason to have any doubts about Turkey. We are a country that strongly shares common values with Europe. I repeat that we are a country that considers it important that democracy, human rights and market economics are embraced by regional countries.

And Turkey's direction is towards full membership of the European Union. I consider it very wrong to interpret Turkey's interests with other geographic regions as it breaking from the West, turning its back on the West or seeking alternatives to the West.

Turkey is a part of Europe.


‘There is no reason to have any doubts about Turkey. We are part of Europe'

President Gül assures Martin Fletcher and Suna Erdem that the West can trust its powerful Islamic ally

Turkey has hit back at claims that it is turning its back on the West in favour of closer ties with the Islamic world, insisting that EU membership is its key foreign policy goal. "There is no reason to have any doubts about Turkey," Abdullah Gül, the President, declared in an interview designed to allay alarm about its increasingly close relations with radical Middle East regimes

Turkey has rejected accusations that it is turning its back on the West in favour of closer ties with the Islamic world, insisting that membership of the EU is its key foreign policy goal.

"There is no reason to have any doubts about Turkey," Abdullah Gül, the President, declared in a forceful interview with The Times designed to allay alarm in Europe and America about its increasingly close relations with radical Middle East regimes.
Turkey was not "lost", he said, denouncing such claims as "unacceptable" and stressing that Turkey was also forging ties far beyond the Arab world. "I consider it very wrong to interpret Turkey's interests with other geographic regions as it breaking from the West, turning its back on the West or seeking alternatives to the West. Turkey is part of Europe."

Mr Gül argued that the US and Europe should welcome its growing engagement in the Middle East because it was promoting Western values in a region largely governed by authoritarian regimes. Rebuking some Western politicians for their outdated views of Turkey, he insisted that the country had undergone a "silent revolution". It was now a big economic power that had embraced democracy, human rights and the free market. It had become a "source of inspiration" in the region. "If this is not acknowledged, it's a pity," Mr Gül lamented.

Turkey is a strategically vital country of 72 million people that straddles the border of Europe and Asia, has Nato's second-largest army and is a supply hub for US war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has also caused consternation in Western capitals in recent months. Not only has it welcomed President Ahmadinejad of Iran and congratulated him on his stolen election victory, it also voted against UN sanctions to try to halt the Iranian nuclear programme.

The nation has lent support to Hamas, which is on the US and EU lists of terrorist organisations. "We are respecting the choice of the Palestinian people in Gaza," Mr Gül said. It was preparing to host President al-Bashir of Sudan, who is wanted for crimes against humanity, at an Islamic conference until the EU objected. It has assiduously courted Syria, with whom it nearly went to war in 1998.

At the same time, Turkey has condemned Israel, formerly its closest regional ally and supplier of much of its military hardware, over its invasion of Gaza and the recent killing of nine Turkish civilians on a Gaza-bound flotilla by Israeli commandos. Apart from one secret ministerial meeting this week, relations are frozen, with Turkey demanding an apology and compensation. Mr Gül insisted that Turkey had always been Israel's friend but asked: "If an army of a state kills your people in international waters, how would you react?"

From America, particularly, there have been clear signs of displeasure and mutterings about how the ruling AK Party is returning to its Islamic roots. President Obama had a frosty meeting with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister, at last weekend's G20 summit. "We think Turkey remains committed to Nato, Europe and the US, but that needs to be demonstrated," Philip Gordon, the Administration's top European diplomat, said.

Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, expressed shock at finding "Turkey's Islamic Government seemingly focused not on joining the EU, but the Arab League — no, scratch that, on joining the Hamas-HezbollahIran resistance front against Israel."

Mr Gül admitted that there was "a gap between perception and reality and it needs some clarification". Speaking in his summer residence overlooking the Bosphorus, he described a country that has Europe's fastest — and almost only — expanding economy, with 11 per cent growth in the first quarter of this year alone and the continent's most stable financial system. Turkey's growing economic strength was matched by an increasingly ambitious and independent foreign policy — one driven by trade and based on engagement, not confrontation. "We used to implement other people's programmes," he noted.

Iran, with whom Turkey enjoys blossoming trade and from whom it imports a third of its gas, was a case in point, he said. Mr Gül said Turkey did not believe that sanctions would stop Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons and feared that they would lead to another disastrous war like that in Iraq. As a neighbour it stood to lose most, so it had combined with Brazil to broker a confidence-building agreement with Iran on exchanging uranium.

"We thought it would be appreciated," Mr Gül said. When the US and its European allies pressed ahead with UN sanctions anyway, "we were surprised". In the end Turkey voted against the sanctions to keep its own deal on the table. Mr Gül refused to comment on last year's stolen election in Iran, saying it was a domestic issue.

In many ways Turkey's growing activism in its own backyard has served it Swell. Its trade with the Middle East has jumped from $1.9 billion in 1991 to more than $23 billion last year. Trade with Iran alone has risen more than 500 per cent since 2002, with about 75,000 lorries a year crossing their mutual border.

Turkey's standing in the region has soared, with Mr Erdogan lauded in the proverbial Arab street for standing up to Israel. Turkish TV is now watched across the Middle East, and relaxed visa restrictions mean that Arabs are flocking to Turkey. Mr Gül argued that the West should welcome this engagement, saying that millions of Arabs were comparing Turkey's success with their own countries. "Our friends in the West should appreciate that Turkey is indirectly spreading all these values in our neighbourhood," he said.

The President's colleagues also argue that Turkey's engagement allows it to act as mediator and messenger in an area generally hostile to the West, and counters Iranian influence. Mr Gül said that Turkey's relationship with Syria helped to achieve stability in Lebanon. Other officials cited Turkey's efforts to mediate between Israel and Syria, and reconcile Iraq's Sunnis and Shias. Turkey also intervened when Iranians working for the British Embassy in Tehran were arrested last year.
"The trust and confidence we have built up in Iran is an asset not only for Turkey but also for the international community," Egemen Bagis, Turkey's chief EU negotiator, said.

For Mehmet Altan, economics professor at Istanbul University, the problem is that the engagement policy — dubbed "zero problems with neighbours" — promotes free trade but ignores the human rights violations of Turkey's new partners. "At the very least, dealing with these countries without insisting on human rights and democracy doesn't increase Turkey's chances of joining the EU," he said.

That is Turkey's gamble: that its relations with unsavoury Middle Eastern regimes will ultimately attract, not repel, those in the West by whom it is so anxious to be accepted.

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