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Tolerance ends when violence begins, Turkish President says of protests

Turkish President Abdullah Gul speaks to The Globe and Mail in the Presidential Palace in Ankara, June 11, 2013.

Abdurrahman Antakyali/The Globe and Mail

As a swath of protesters rail against a government they say is increasingly anti-democratic, Turkish President Abdullah Gul defended his government as a bastion of democracy, and his police and security forces as models of restraint.

In an exclusive interview with The Globe and Mail in Ankara Tuesday, Mr. Gul said that not only is his country a model for Arab states in the region, but added that if Syria had followed Turkey's way of handling protesters, it might never have slid into civil war. And despite the country's reputation for its fierce repression of journalists, he said that its people are free to issue the most extreme opinions.

The mild-mannered Mr. Gul is often described as the "good cop" to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's "bad cop" and, in the current crisis of protests gripping the country, this rings true.

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It was Mr. Gul, a veteran of repeated attempts at establishing an Islamic-leaning political party, who called for Istanbul police to withdraw from Taksim Square two weeks ago when it was clear they had overreacted to a peaceful protest, triggering the current crisis. And it was he who stated that popular protest is a legitimate form of free expression, as long as it remains peaceful.

It is this formula, distinguishing between good, peaceful protesters, and bad, violent ones, that the government now is trying to apply to end the crisis that has shaken the country's economy and made its allies question the abilities of Turkey's leadership.

Mr. Gul may differ from Mr. Erdogan on some things, but the one thing he is not is disloyal.

He and Mr. Erdogan have been a team for two decades and their winning formula brought the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in 2002.

Now in the government's biggest crisis since coming to office, Mr. Erdogan is looking to his President for help.

Mr. President, it's been 18 years since I last interviewed you, and you and your country have come a long way. You must be very proud.

You have brought me all the way back into the old times, restating my memories. When you take a glance at what has transpired since those days, we see that there have been many ups and downs. But, eventually, the cadres that were there have served tremendously in the development of Turkey, particularly over the last decade, and Turkey has advanced tremendously in democratic, economic, political and in every sense possible. And I'm proud to be one of the pioneers within that process.

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Mr. President, Everywhere I go in the Arab world, people look to Turkey as a model for a moderate government with Islamic instincts. What lesson have you learned in governing that you could pass on to these countries?

It's true, Turkey has a predominantly Muslim population, a country where, at the same time, we have democracy, rule of law, pluralism, all fully realized and we had a successful economic development in place and, quite naturally, the people in those countries question "why shouldn't we then be able to do the same thing?" So, Turkey is a source of inspiration for those people.

And, in recent weeks, there have been developments [protests] unfolding in Turkey and even those can serve as a lesson for the region because, as you know, such societal events can happen anywhere in the world – like the Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S., like the students protesting against expensive university fees in the UK, like the unemployed people protesting in Spain.

In Turkey, the societal events of the recent weeks have begun initially with people raising their concerns over environmental issues.

But there needs to be a clear distinction made between what is happening in Turkey and what is happening in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya or Syria. The Turkish people are not out in the street making demands for fundamental rights or freedoms. They're not raising their complaints about democracy. There is a clear distinction there.

There is another lesson to be drawn by other countries: When you observe the police and the security forces who are out in the streets, you see that none of them have ever resorted to armed weapons, they don't carry sticks, they don't carry weapons and there were no casualties caused by firearms. Moreover, the police forces who are trying to maintain the public order have their badge numbers on their hats and on their uniforms – it's all visible – so the way they are equipped and the way they are acting is just like the most developed countries. And this is an important lesson.

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If when the events had first started in Syria the police forces or the interventions were made in a similar fashion and if they pursued dialogue to comprehend the requests of the society then perhaps there wouldn't have been such casualties or the escalated events in that country.

Protesters do complain they're not being listened to. People have a sense that after 10 years in office, the government is listening only to the 50 per cent who voted for the AK Party.

People out on Wall Street in New York were also chanting for more democracy, the same for the people in London and Italy. They were all requesting more democracy, and the same is true for Istanbul as well. What they are after is a more perfect system, which is quite natural.

We have in Turkey a government that has been elected openly and transparently after an election in which 85 per cent of the society has participated, the ballots were transparent. If the government doesn't do a good job, then the people will vote for another party in the upcoming elections.

But if the government does a good job, then the people will vote for the continuation of the same political cadre currently in power. These are all entirely normal events in a functioning democracy.

And of course, just as was the case in Europe or London, you have on one side people with good intentions, but at the same time, there are some illegal groups, factions, who are willing to highjack the process, by way of acting illegally and do it in a manner harming the people.

And of course, the police forces take the necessary precautions and measures against such illegal groups.

You yourself said a week ago that democracy is more than just elections. It's about free speech, it's about opportunities to have civil discourse, civil society. Is that not applicable here?

On the contrary, those factors – freedom of speech, civil society – they are applicable in Turkey. Even the most extreme opinions can be freely pronounced and expressed, as long as there's no resort to violence. So everybody is freely expressing themselves in Turkey.

But of course, no one would ever tolerate violence because violence and terrorism are the two main attacks on democracy.

In 1995 you told me that if a party with Islamic leanings wanted to achieve power in this country, it had to be a moderate party; so extremists had to be made more moderate. At the time, the mayor of Istanbul was a member of your party and was known to say extreme things, such as wanting to tear the old city walls simply because they were built before the Prophet Mohammed's time. That mayor was Tayyip Erdogan. Do you think he has changed?

I do not recall making that response, but of course, Mr. Erdogan, when he was the mayor of Istanbul was a figure whom we supported a lot and we were very proud of his services to the city of Istanbul. Yes, there were some critics out there claiming that he was willing to break down the old walls, but it was never the case. He never made such statements, and he has served the city of Istanbul very well. And then as the prime minister of Turkey, he has served our country tremendously well over the last decade, so there never were such question marks.

Has he changed or not changed?

He is the same.

In terms of the quality of pluralism in the country, do you see the necessity for improvement there?

Of course, speaking of the rules, laws and regulations in Turkey, we have no shortcomings with regard to pluralism, but of course [pluralism] relates to the overall level of educational attainment within society. Therefore, when Turkey moves up from the level of a middle income country to that of an upper income country, of course, the quality of the pluralism will further be improved. Having said that, I should add that, in Turkey right now, we have pluralism in place, fully functional.

It has been a tremendous decade for Turkey, economically, in dealing with nationalists in the country; Turkey's reputation has grown internationally. But there have been a couple of things that have arisen of late that affected Turkey. One of them is the civil war in Syria. How has that affected Turkey?

We have more than 300,000 Syrian citizens currently living in Turkey, of which 200,000 have found shelter in the tents and camps that we provided for them. Of course this brings security issues and economic issues as well. Turkey has so far spent $1.5-billion (U.S.) for the needs of the Syrian citizens in Turkey and we have covered their needs through our own resources and of course we will continue to do so because we consider this to be a humanitarian responsibility and a duty to those people. But of course it does create economic issues and it does also sometimes lead to security issues. But after all, what is happening in Syria is a major event that distorted the stability in the region even affecting the international economic activities.

In the past decade, Turkey has taken a different approach with the Kurds in the region: You have a truce with militant Kurds in Turkey; you've brought into Turkey many Kurdish refugees from Syria, and you have extensive trade with the Kurdish authority in northern Iraq. How would you describe the principle by which you're operating?

First of all, I want it to be well known that Turks and Kurds have always lived together in the same nation as brothers and sisters for many years. This goes all the way back to 1,000 years ago.

Of course there have been certain terrorist incidents and attacks, and Turkey has quite naturally countered terrorism while, at the same time, always underlining that we are always open to those who are ready to peacefully express their opinions. What we wanted was for them to give up on terrorism and start expressing themselves in peaceful dialogue, and that is the current process happening in Turkey.

And of course our neighbours like Iraq, Syria, Iran, they have their own Kurdish populations as well. We consider this to be a bridge of friendship between Turkey and our neighbours.

But of course, having said that, what we all desire is to ensure that everyone is happy and prosperous in his or her respective country.

So there is no longer a concern that Kurds in the region might want to establish an independent state of their own?

Turkey attaches a lot of importance to the territorial integrity of the countries in the region. If there was this rule according to which only people from the same ethnic background can form a country, then it would have meant the distortion of all existing states and the structures around the world.

So what you just asked in your question [about an independent Kurdish state] is not feasible.

What matters here is they have to feel that they are the owners of their own country, without any discrimination. That is the case for all the countries.

Do you think that Kurds in Turkey feel they own their country?

Without any doubt, yes. The Kurds in Turkey have ownership. Moreover, in Turkey, as per the constitution, all citizens are equal and without discrimination, they all can enjoy the right to vote and to hold office, without any discrimination. When you check the republican history, you'll see we've had people with Kurdish ethnic connections who fulfilled the post of president, prime minister, speaker of the Parliament without any discrimination at all. And moreover, it's not within the morality of the Turkish people and society to question the ethnic background of individuals. I have my friends here in the hall and I don't know about their backgrounds because it's not in our morality.

But there was a change in policy here in the past 10 years.

Of course, as the democratic and legal standards in the country keep improving, the shortcomings fade away. The standards are upgraded. And it's not only with regard to the Kurdish issue, but with regard to every other shortcoming that the country once had because we have upgraded our standards, now those shortcomings are being overcome.

What do you see are the challenges of the future?

Speaking of the region, we still have ongoing political instability: We have Syria, Iraq is not yet fully stable, and then there's the issue of Iran nuclear efforts. Therefore, these are all important factors that affect the future.

As for domestic matters, of course, Turkey aims to sustain a robust economic growth so that we can further upgrade and improve ourselves, particularly on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Republic [in 2013].

Right now Turkey has attained the level of a middle-income country and in the 10 years to come, out objective is to become an upper-income country. So the real challenge for Turkey is whether we can achieve this or not.

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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