Turkish President Abdullah Gul portrayed his country as a benign force for peace and prosperity in the region earlier this week when he spoke to visiting American journalists in Ankara about his country’s growing role in the geopolitics of its near abroad.
Discussing Turkey’s domestic unrest with its oppressed Kurdish minority and its developing role in Iraq, and the Caucasus, President Gul made the case for his country’s ambitions to become a major power broker, in a region still vexed by the brutal memory of Ottoman rule.
Following the press briefing Gul and United Press International Editor Ben Lando discussed Turkey’s plans in the region, with the Turkish President brushing aside any substantive talk of Turkey’s genocide against the Armenia’s in 1915, and its ongoing repression of Kurdish self-determination. Instead, Gul described his country, where talk of history is outlawed, as a developing democracy and a benign mediator, seeking to export peace, prosperity to a region marred with conflict.
In the interview, Gul discussed Turkey’s ongoing role in Iraq’s developing democracy, as well as the ongoing developmen’s in Azeri-Turkish-Armenian relations.
Describing Turkey’s role in the Caucasus as that of an honest peace broker, Gul made tacit referrence to the Nagorno-Karabakh, linking the unresolved conflict to a normalization of relations in the regions that will open up new economic oportunities to Armenian, which has been isolated from regional projects by a dual Turkish-Azeri blockade maintained since the early 90s.
“You will notice there are important energy pipelines between Azerbaijan and Turkey,” Gul said, adding that his country was keen on mending relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan. “Once the problems between us are solved, these projects are open to Armenia as well.”
The Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which Gul was referring to, along with a new Baku-Tblisi-Kars Railway currently in the works, currently bypass embargoed Armenia, which is the more economic and straightforward route for both projects.
Gul also used the interview as an opportunity to shore up the damaged image of Turkey as a vital ally to the United States, extending a message to the next US President that he should “understand the value and the importance of Turkey objectively” and “without the interference and objection of certain lobbies.”
“I would also tell him that Turkey and the United States and the work we do is very important for the region, for stability in the region but also stability in the world. I would say that we’ve done good things together so far, and I would say let’s continue to work together, let’s continue to bring about peace and stability, let’s do so in a spirit of trust, in a spirit of mutual respect. Again I’d tell him to get good briefings on the importance of Turkey,” Gul said.
Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this interview and its introduction belong to its author and President Gul and are not those of Asbarez.
BY BEN LANDO
United Press International Editor
ANKARA (United Press International)–Turkey is playing a major role in geopolitics side by side with the United States, President Abdullah Gul insisted as he took questions from visiting American journalists, bloggers and think-tankers.
Gul painted Turkey as a mediator of sorts. It’s creating a space to end the territorial dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia — at the same time Turkey and Armenia attempt to move past historical allegations of genocide. Gul recently became the first Turkish leader to visit Armenia.
Caucasian calm amid a resurgent Russia is a boon for the United States. Gul reaffirmed U.S. ties but urged the next president to get "objective" briefings on Turkey–referring to pressure that Washington takes a stand on the genocide claim.
With the small group of Americans in a conference room in the Turkish president’s administrative offices, Gul tried to calm reports of domestic unrest as well. Turkey has been militantly secular since throwing back the Ottoman Empire. But a recent move to allow women to wear religious headscarves in the university prompted sharp discussion in the streets on the future of the separation of religion and the Turkish state.
Gul also played down the history of Turkey’s isolation of its Kurdish population from economic progress and liberty, and played up the recent attempts at integrating Turkish Kurds into society and politics. He was quick to separate the "Kurdish question" from the "PKK question." The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, is labeled a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States, Europe and others. It attacked a southeast Turkey command post earlier this month, killing or wounding dozens.
As Turkey responded again by bombing the mountains of northern Iraq, where the PKK has camps, Gul said Turkey doesn’t want to suppress its southern neighbor.
He said Kurdish leaders such as Jalal Talabani, now Iraq’s president, and Massoud and Nechirvan Barzani, president and prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, respectively, have been welcomed into Turkey since the times of Saddam Hussein.
Though Turkey criticizes the national and regional governmen’s in Iraq for not doing enough to prevent PKK attacks, Gul said diplomatic talks continue. The following day Turkey sent a delegation to Baghdad to meet with national and regional leadership in Iraq.
Ben Lando: I would like to follow up on a couple of the points you made. Turkey as a mediator: Can you talk a little bit more about mediating with Armenia? Do you expect that Turkey will help mediate Armenian pullback from Azeri territory outside of Nagorno-Karabakh? Can Turkey help resolve this whole problem in the Caucasus? And just one other question about mediation: Iraq. You didn’t speak too much about Iraq. Can Turkey help the United States in finding a formula by which the United States can pull back without Iraq collapsing again?
Abdullah Gul: Of course, we want to see a solution come about the problems between Armenia and Azerbaijan. We sincerely want this, and we are ready to contribute to bring about a solution. This issue, when I was in Yerevan, it was not introduced by me. ; It was introduced by President (Serzh) Sargsyan himself when we were talking. I said at the outset that any problems in the Caucasus does not just affect the two countries directly involved, I said to him it affects everyone in the Caucasus, and I gave him the recent example of conflict between Russia and Georgia and I said it’s affecting us all. And I said to him I believe that as an eruption of a problem affects us negatively, I believe that solving any problem in the Caucasus affects us positively. I should say that after my visit there things have progressed quite significantly. Important work has been done.
After visiting Armenia I then went on to Azerbaijan a couple days later and had important contacts there with my ; counterpart, and after that the three foreign ministers actually recently met in New York, so there’s significant progress being made. … You will notice there are important energy pipelines between Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Pipelines that transfer oil but also pipelines that transport gas, and now we are building a very important railway linking us. In all of the ceremonies I’ve always made it clear, gave the message, if you will, in my addresses that once the problems between us are solved, these projects are open to Armenia as well.
Now turning to Iraq: I may not have mentioned Iraq to a significant extent in my introductory remarks, but you should know that we did a great deal of work on Iraq. We did a great deal of work before the war, during the war and after the war. ; One of the most important things that we did do, we contributed greatly to the political process in Iraq after the war.
As you know, the Sunnis had initially decided to not take part in the political process in Iraq. I personally had them come to Istanbul, all the Sunni groups, even the most radical Sunni groups, I had them come to Istanbul on numerous occasions, we had a great number of meetings, we worked very hard to convince them to take part in the political process in Iraq after the war, and we succeeded in this. In fact, (U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay) Khalilzad, (Iraqi Sunni leader Tariq al-) Hashimi and myself, we declared together in Istanbul that the Sunnis had decided to take part in the political process. I told the Sunnis while trying to convince them ; that if they did not take part in the political process in Iraq that is evolving now after the war, I told them the rich Sunnis will leave the country and the remaining Sunnis will be declared as terrorists. I told them this very clearly. I’m very happy to say that we did succeed to convince them, they have joined the political process and they are one of the most important groups in Iraq today. President Bush, Ms. (Secretary of State Condoleezza) Rice and the entire State Department knows what we’ve done for various groups.
We invited all the Iraqi politicians, be they Kurdish, be they Arab, be they Shia, be they Sunni, we invited them all to Turkey, we hosted them here, ; we hosted them all and had them undergo political training, exercises and education, if you will, they saw how our democracy works, how political parties are formed, how political parties and democracy function. I personally must have spent hours and hours talking to all of the Iraqi leaders individually.
Also economically, we continuously aid Iraq. We never interrupted this aid at any point. Approximately 4,000 trailers of larger rigs of aid and materials are transported into Iraq from Turkey every day today. These go to address the most important needs of the Iraqi people but also the coalition forces in Iraq. Our embassy in Baghdad, this embassy was never closed, not at any point, not before, not during, not after the war. This embassy always remained open. Our embassy was bombed — I should say here that our embassy was one of the very few that remained open in Baghdad — our embassy was bombed, our ambassador was almost killed on a number of occasions, and it was only the armored car that saved his life from this assassination attempt, and at no point did we close our embassy, our embassy remained open, our flag remains hoisted and certainly during the worst time, when very few embassies are open in Baghdad and our embassy was open, there was no Arab embassies open, our embassy was open. And there is something that most people do not know, and that is that after the United States, Turkey is the country that has sacrificed most of its lives in Iraq. Over 150 of our truck drivers were (inaudible, but he said they were killed), and not at any point did we consider interrupting the flow of the humanitarian needs that the Iraqi people have.
Many tend to think that Turkey has some sort of aim of suppressing northern Iraq. That is not the case. If we desired to do so, we could do so easily. Just halting supplies that are carried by those 4,000 trucks daily will be enough, just closing our borders to Iraq ; that would work. But that is not what we intend to do, that is not what we want to do. Quite the contrary, we aid them in many ways. Just one example would be that we actually supply northern Iraq with 25 percent of its electricity. And beyond that, when you go there, if you see a vibrant economy, you have to understand that this is in great part to Turkish companies that are there, and to the Turkish ; businessmen that are doing business and are helping there.
B.L.: You’ve pointed out the extraordinary growth in the American-Turkish agenda. There’s so much more to talk about than there’s ever been, certainly in my experience of over 20 years. First question: If you were meeting the next (U.S.) president tomorrow, what would you say had to be done in Turkish-American relations, what would you focus on, what would you tell him is most necessary? My second question relates to Turkey internally, because what happens to Turkey internally is very important in terms of Turkey’s role in the world, its effectiveness. You have the only non-political position in Turkey, as president. Everybody else has a political affiliation, who they work for. And Turkey has, at least I think everybody will agree, a heavily polarized political situation, in which the heavy polarization makes it difficult to solve critical problems. I don’t mean to say you will not solve them, but it makes it difficult. How can you reduce this polarity, how can it be changed, so instead of arguing at the end of the day about what appears in newspapers, that this gulf in Turkish life is reduced?
A.G.: If I were to meet the (U.S.) president, I would tell him to understand the value and the importance of Turkey objectively. Understand it without the interference and objection of certain lobbies, get good briefings on this issue, I would tell him that. I would also tell him that Turkey and the United States and the work we do is very important for the region, for stability in the region but also stability in the world. I would say that we’ve done good things together so far, and I would say let’s continue to work together, let’s continue to bring about peace and stability, let’s do so in a spirit of trust, in a spirit of mutual respect. Again I’d tell him to get good briefings on the importance of Turkey.
You will notice, as well, that Turkey is a country that is going after its transformation. And this is a transformation that is breaking very well-established goals in our country. This transformation is primarily about more democracy; it’s about keeping it and strengthening our democracy in our country. In this context there is a very vibrant discussion that is ongoing in Turkey, and some, perhaps because they fear the loss of their prior status, are engaged in this vibrant discussion. And some are engaged in this vibrant discussion because they are genuinely concerned for the future. ; Looked at from abroad, I understand it might be the case where the perception is there is a far divide within the country, I understand that. But I also think that this is not so. I do disagree.
Let’s look at some examples. For example, one of the points that was brought up as the divide in Turkey is the Kurdish question. If you look at Turkish history and see how things really are and see our positions, this sharp divide never existed between Turks and Kurds and doesn’t exist today, keeping the PKK out, they’re terrorists.
Turning to another one, the discussion that surrounds secularism in the country. In the official circles, this is, of course, a very heated and long-debated issue. But if you turn to look at what’s transpiring on the streets, between family and between friends, all coexist with the issue of the headscarf. Those that wear a headscarf, those that don’t, are in the same families, they walk hand in hand, are friends, so there is no real sharp divide or polarization, if you will, on this issue in society, but on the cultural front there is, because this is made to be material for politics. Certain professors who are in the position of being administrators in universities, they might have an issue with the headscarf on one side or the other side. But the students that are in the classes in those universities, be it the ones wearing a headscarf or wish to wear a headscarf or ones that are wearing a miniskirt, these female students have no issue, they don’t have any issues with the positions on this topic nor do they have an issue with each other, and you’ll see them hand in hand outside of the school cafeteria or hamburger store, sharing their food and giving each other their sandwiches. So for these students there’s nothing polarizing.
B.L.: A couple of questions getting back to northern Iraq and the PKK issue: What specifically do you want from the Iraqi government, from the northern regional government, from the United States, in this area? What is it that Turkey is asking for specifically? And also can you confirm that there have been talks between Turkey and the northern regional government and that a representative from the northern regional government will be coming to Turkey for talks?
A.G.: Here’s something I would like to stress: Today in Turkey there is no justification for terror. If you look just into this room, the Turkish citizens who are sitting here with you, there might be some that are of Kurdish origin here, this is not known, this is not something that we dwell on, there is no division, there’s no labeling of who is of what ethnic origin in Turkey, be it Kurdish or other. That is the way it is in Turkey, that’s the way it’s always been. Nobody defines themselves or is excluded according to their ethnic origin. And also, no matter what ethnic origin — specifically from the president to the speaker of the Parliament to the prime minister, indeed all these high posts were held by people and are still held by people who define themselves to be of Kurdish origin.
Today in our Parliament, we have about 150 parliamentarians who are known and label themselves to be of Kurdish origin. And also there are many persons who are of Kurdish origin who also head ministries in this government today. Now getting back to your initial statement, the real problem that we had on this issue, as well as other issues, is one where we had a serious lack of democracy, and this reflected on this issue and other issues in our country. And that is something that we have addressed. Certainly the Kurdish issue is not ; because of a more racist outlook on the issue, but one where there wasn’t enough democracy.
Today, you can have books printed in Kurdish, you can have televisions that broadcast in Kurdish, you can have billboards posted in Kurdish, you can have newspapers that are published in Kurdish, and if you wish you can have a school that educates in Kurdish. Now all of this was forbidden. Of course, the Kurdish issue and terror, we divide and separate these when we’re talking.
Now on Iraq: Of course, there’s a significant Kurdish population there. But there is something I wish to ask if you knew this or not: During the time of Saddam and also during the war, Mr. (Jalal) Talabani, (Massoud) Barzani, Nechirvan (Barzani), they all traveled on Turkish diplomatic passports. They used these passports that we gave them to go anywhere in the world, to attend conferences in Washington, D.C. ; And even today as we speak, both political parties of Talabani and Barzani have permanent offices and representation in Turkey and representatives who work in their offices in Turkey. And these political parties that are in Turkey are not new; they were here before the war and were here after the war.
Also after the war, before Talabani was elected president, Mr. Talabani, Mr. Barzani, Nechirvan, they all traveled to Turkey and we had intensive meetings with them here, and our foreign minister had meetings with them here, and also our prime minister had meetings with them.
There is something that I should stress is our people are angry and they are angry because PKK terrorists, just because they’re ethnically Kurdish, are given camps and the opportunity to be harbored in northern Iraq, simply because they’re Kurdish. These terrorists then from these camps and all the opportunities afforded to them in northern Iraq, stage attacks against another country, in this case Turkey. This sort of behavior is angering us. When I talked to President Bush in our meetings, I asked him how would you feel if there were terrorist camps that were allowed to exist on the Mexican side of your border with Mexico, how would you feel if these camps were allowed to exist there and then the terrorists in those camps were allowed to stage attacks inside United States territory from these camps. Now we take these concerns to the Iraqis and the government in northern Iraq.
We gave them our concerns, and we see now that they’re trying to understand our concerns and we’re pleased to see that they understand our concerns. It’s important that we communicate to them that there are problems, there are problems that are arising from their region and there’s no problem in doing this, there’s no problem telling them that if they don’t have the necessary force, necessary organization to deal with these problems in their territories, we are ready to help them, to provide the necessary assistance, there’s no problem discussing it here. Frankly, what is transpiring now with these attacks is something that poisons the potential for so much good that Turkey can do in northern Iraq. ; And I do believe that the PKK stepping up their attacks now on Turkish territory is something that is directly poisoning relations between us so we can’t take these relations any further."