One of the most pressing lessons Turkey must learn from the failed July 15 coup attempt is the need and importance of transparency for a democracy, former Turkish President Abdullah Gül told the Hürriyet Daily News in a written interview on Aug. 21.
As the former president of Turkey, who also served as prime minister and foreign minister in Justice and Development Party governments, how would you describe what happened in Turkey on July 15?
It has been now more than a month since July 15, when 240 people, the majority of them civilians, were martyred, more than 2,000 wounded were by a group of army personnel, parliament was bombed and cities across the country were terrorized by low-flying jets. The Turkish people immediately took to the streets, squares and highways and thwarted the coup attempt. In spite of the high polarization and deep political divisions we had witnessed previous to the coup attempt, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the government, the social democrat main opposition party, the nationalist movement and the pro-Kurdish opposition, supported by the trade unions, NGOs, business associations and media are now in full solidarity for democracy. Their multimillion rally on Aug. 7, where I was also present, was not only the grand finale of nightly rallies in 81 provinces, but was also a milestone of Turkish democracy, raising my optimism.
When you served as president of Turkey, did you ever see a risk of a coup d’état in your country?
When I was in office until two years ago, I had been asked several times if there was any possibility for a coup d’état in Turkey. My simple and sincere answer was always the same: “It was out of the question.”
I had never thought that, in today’s world, a group of military personnel out of command and control would dare to stage a coup in Turkey. I would have seen such a possibility as an anomaly. Yet, the coup attempt on July 15 proved me wrong to some extent. However, the immediate and spectacular failure of this assault on our democracy justified my confidence in my people’s wisdom in their protection of democracy. The failure of the plot also justified my trust in the maturity and strength of our democratic institutions: the parliament, political parties, media and civil society, which heroically resisted the coup attempt.
What was the reason for your confidence, or was this over-confidence?
The main reason for my confidence is the resilience of Turkish democracy; our democratic legacy that is more than a century old. This legacy had culminated in the popular success of the comprehensive political and economic reforms implemented since 2002 and during the accession negotiations with the EU with the purpose of upgrading and consolidating our democracy. Those responsible for last month’s assault on democracy failed to see this fact.
How would you portray and analyze those who were behind the coup attempt and their intentions?
The statements of the culprits and the documentation clearly signal that most of these criminals belong to the Fethullah Gülen movement. This group is a byproduct of post-Cold War traumas and vacuums. Although it [prevented] to be a civil society movement for decades, it is now apparent that it was originally devised to be a clandestine political organization and ended up spilling the blood of innocent people. This secretive organization exploited the atmosphere of freedom in Turkey. It abused democratic institutions, seduced and wasted thousands of innocent young people and took advantage of the naivety of some philanthropists, fuelled careerist ambitions and infiltrated state organs from the army to the judiciary and civilian life for Machiavellian purposes. They deliberately disguised all their wrongdoings under their so-called divine, superior, final goals.
What is the main lesson one should learn from this episode?
Out of the many lessons we should draw from this episode, one is the importance of transparency for a democracy. Traditional definitions of democracy need to be complemented and enhanced with an element of “transparency.” The democratic credentials of those who pursue hidden agendas in a non-transparent manner should be questioned. On the other hand, it is a vital duty for democratic forces all over the world to safeguard their credibility and solidarity against sly assaults on democracy. Democratic forces should be keen on not creating any political and ideological vacuums to be filled, or pretexts to be used by non-transparent structures poised for violence, be they religious-ethnic extremists, xenophobic demagogues or terrorists and criminals like the plotters in Turkey.
Any other lessons?
The experience of July 15 should also be a lesson to Kurdish political movements in Turkey to get rid of the yoke of the PKK [outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party], another non-transparent terrorist organization, and establish themselves as fully transparent and democratic forces.
How do you consider EU-Turkey relations after the failed coup attempt?
The coup attempt is yet another signal that Turkey and the EU should have continued the accession process sincerely. Therefore, we should point our fingers at those who blocked the membership negotiations between Turkey and the EU on the basis of trivial matters as well. If only they had ceased their short-sighted approach and let the process go on smoothly, this would have further upgraded Turkey’s social, political and judicial standards, including civilian-military relations.
Do you think that the disappointment expressed by the Turkish leadership at the positions of the United States and the Europeans vis-à-vis the coup attempt was justified or was it somewhat out of proportion?
Indeed, it is regretful that many of our allies and friends in the U.S. and Europe made a strategic mistake by failing to understand the situation properly. Many of them succumbed to subjective or secondary, if not irrelevant, elements rather than taking a long-term-oriented and strategic approach toward Turkey. Like many fellow citizens, I was also expecting our allies and friends to take stronger and more principled positions on the side of democracy and the elected government, in tune with the sentiments of the Turkish people in the streets resisting the plotters. Whether they are in favor or not of certain policies and practices of the current government, they had to reject the coup attempt without any hesitation.
This would have provided Western democracies with the necessary credibility and leverage to make their opinions, concerns or suggestions heard and responded to better in Turkey.
Is there a better understanding now?
I am now relieved to see that that many, except some populists or misguided politicians, are gradually rectifying their rhetoric, positions and actions responding to Turkey’s calls.
Of course, more is expected. U.S. Vice President [Joe] Biden’s visit to Ankara this week will be essential in this regard.
How will Turkey recover from the traumatic effects of the coup attempt?
An unprecedented atmosphere of national unity and reconciliation now reigns in Turkey as a reaction to the coup attempt. This should be followed by a righteous application of the measures required by the extraordinary circumstances in a lawful and proportionate manner. Such a new atmosphere could be an opportunity to conceive a refreshed vision of a more predictable democracy based on our universal common values and ideals. Doing so would place Turkey in the new orbit in the 21st century that it deserves. Once, and hopefully very soon, the measures required by the extraordinary circumstances fulfill their mission and normality is restored, a forward-looking approach should be adopted. A new vision envisaging a further upgrading of our democracy and freedoms, the rule of law, inserting more transparency and streamlining civil-military relations could be reflected in a long-awaited modern constitution with all the check and balances in place. A refocus on serious reforms in the economy and education and environmental, scientific and cultural policies at a national level should accompany a political recovery.
As a former foreign minister, do you think the post-July 15 circumstances will have any effects on Turkish diplomacy?
I am very pleased to see that Turkey is already benefiting from the new atmosphere to retake and energize her traditional problem-solving role in the region. This was actually the characteristics of AK Party governments with regard to regional issues, which are now more burning and urgent.