The Hon. Yasar Yakis (Former Foreign Minister of Turkey)

12.05.2011 - Interview conducted by Freja Thies & Simon Rajbar

Q1. Modern media has the power to connect different ideas and different people in an unprecedented short amount of time. While they are evading the institutions of the state or religion, as has been seen in the Arab countries, how big is the actual shift of power from these institutions to the people? Will this platform become a battle field between them?

Actually, the impact of the press and media has become more important but the one who handles these tools that you call media have also some preconceived ideas and perceptions regarding the country or the problem or the incident that they cover. So without the influence, the restrictions imposed by the state media have also its own perception and misperception about the incidents that they cover. This has to be taken into consideration. But of course with the uprisings in the Middle Eastern countries now both the people of the country know better where they stand when they compare themselves with the international community and also what their leaders where doing. They didn’t have access to the information of the wrongdoings regarding the leaders.  With the latest development in communication means they had the access to that type of information as well so the uprising among many reasons of the uprising also this is to have access to the information.

Q2. We hear a lot of voices that there is a sort of a radical Islam or a rising of other despotic rule under the pretext of democracy in the revolting countries. So although if we look at the news it looks like it is the young people who are demanding a secular democracy. So how are these fears justified? Are they exaggerated and more importantly is there a desire to implement western style of institutionalized democracy not letting the people to maybe evolve their own?

Actually in such uprising and popular movements there is one risk which is inherent there. Such demonstrations could easily be hijacked, and the hijacking is carried out by demagogues. Demagogues who have their own agenda may hijack the revolution and direct in one direction that they want. But the fact that the people in the Middle Eastern countries and North Africa were able to up rise today against their rulers give also a hope that in case tomorrow another type of despot this time based on fundamentalism come to power and try to govern the country.

Q3. But is this a realistic fear?

We have to take each country one by one and decide accordingly. In Libya I don’t think that fundamentalism was the main reason. It is more tribal, conflicts that lead to it. In Egypt, Egyptian society is a huge society, 82 million inhabitants they have very well educated intellectuals but there is also a very strong Muslim brothers movement and this movement was banned by the authorities despite it had something like 80-85 members of parliament as sympathizers or supporters of Muslim brothers within the parliament in the society when it is banned they could not establish a party they got the control of the professional organization, the union of chemists, the union of medical doctors, the union of lawyers are all controlled by the Muslim Brothers.  Now after the uprising the most organized circles are again the Muslim brothers. If they transform themselves into a political party then they will face with a dilemma like the party I am founder of, the ruling party in Turkey justice and development party there is a tradition that has come through that the party or the core team leaders who organize this party were members of an Islamic party in the past which was dissolved by the constitution because of its anti secular activities. Then they organized themselves under another name, this new party was also dissolved because it was a continuation of the first one. Then the president of the republic Abdullah Gul took the leadership and said the following “we cannot continue like this without being reconciled with society, with the establishment” and he decided to lead a group which called themselves the reformist movement within that party. This reformist movement later on became the ruling party today. How did we do it, I am one of the founding member of the party and a member of the drafting group that drafted the program of the party, we avoided any reference to the religion in our program. We said that we are equidistant to Christians, Muslims, Jews and also to atheists because we have a secular tradition in Turkey, so we transformed it into our program. If in Egypt the Muslim brothers when they are transforming themselves into a political party, if they can embrace espouse these secular values then they may become something like how the Justice and development party has become in Turkey. As a party which was 15 months old we entered the elections and we won two thirds of the seats in the parliament as a very young party 15 months old. How did we achieve this? Because we responded to the expectations of big masses of the population in Turkey. If in Egypt the Muslim brothers achieve this they could also do that. When sometimes there’s talk with Turkey, could turkey be a role model (I don’t like this word role model).  In various specific fields Turkeys practice with mistakes or merits could be a source of inspiration for transition from Islamic rule to a secular party as we did in Turkey. If Muslim brothers could do it, so good for Egypt. So I don’t want Turkey as a whole to set an example for Egypt because in certain areas Egypt is better than Turkey, but in certain specific areas Turkeys examples with mistakes committed and with merits could be a source of inspiration.

Q4. Turkey has a policy of having no problems with its neighbors. Regarding this Arab uprising, how does Turkey utilize these policies in order to have good relations and peace and cooperation in the region?

Actually we have to distinguish perhaps this troubled period and the aftermath and also the period before that. Before there was these uprisings, Turkey maintained excellent relations with these countries of the region and certain attitudes that Turkey has taken on the Flotilla incident and the Gaza incident etc even brought Turkey to the forefront of many countries in the region. During this transition period it depended the Turkey’s or the perception regarding Turkey’s attitude changed from one country to another. In Tunisia it was welcomed, Turkey is regarded as a model country. In Egypt now the Muslim Brothers want to transform themselves into a political party and there were rumors when I left Turkey that Muslim Brothers are going to adopt our name, the Justice and Development party and the program of our party. If they do it Turkey will set an example to them. In Syria our relations are excellent and Turkey doesn’t want this regime to collapse in Syria and it uses all its means to invite the friendship between Turkish leaders and Bashar Al-Assad in order to introduce reforms in Syria so there is no need to go as far as the international community went in the case of Libya.

Q5. It seems that the EU uses different rhetoric with different countries. In ones there is rhetoric lead by sanctions and Libya we got military intervention. So on what basis does the EU make distinctions and it cannot only be violence as we witnessed from the cases of Syria and Bahrain.

On what basis? Turkey assess its... Turkey of course we feel that we understand better the mentality of the people this regions because we lived as citizens as the same Ottoman state for centuries. So our mentality, our cultural background have a lot of similar things and we believe that we understand there mentality better. The advice we can give to them will perhaps we more concrete things and more to the ground. For instance when Turkey said in the very beginning about Libya, what does NATO have to do in Libya. This was our genuine reaction. But when we opposed  the intervention of NATO and intervention in Libya we thought that NATO could run into trouble there, but when the decision is taken in spite of Turkeys opposition you cannot say that you take a decision take I’m opposed to so I do not go along with NATO, you cannot say this. You make your point, but if your point is in minority then you have to abide by the majority and Turkey has done it. If Turkey’s position advice was taken more serious into consideration by NATO then perhaps there wouldn’t be the present situation where we are getting stuck perhaps in an impasse, deadlock that will take us nowhere.

Q6. Are you trying to make parallels here to Iraq or Afghanistan?

Yes. In Iraq we tried to persuade the Americans not to invade Iraq. I was sent by my government to go to the US to try to persuade people there. I met with President Bush, Condoleezza Rice was national security advisor, Dick Cheney was vice president, and Colin Powell was Foreign minister. I tried to explain to them that it was wrong to invade Iraq and it was also wrong to force us to take a decision on the question whether to allow American forces to cross Turkish territory to open a new front in the North.  We said that we do not believe it is wise to insist on this, but they insisted and we have seen the outcome. We don’t think that now Iraq is safer than it was before Saddam’s time and the Middle East as a whole is safer than it was for the United States for before Saddam’s time, especially with the threat and with the risks that Iraq could be dismantled and dismembered into three countries, that is to say the South is Shia state, in the middle Sunni and in the north the Kurdish state. If this happens then the Iranian influence will spread to southern Iraq if the Alawites who are Shia stay in power in Syria and through Hezbollah the Iranian influence will stretch to the Mediterranean with all incalculable consequences of it.

Q7. This is exactly a question between Turkey and the European Union because Turkey borders three countries in the Middle East that are basically at the attention of the international community for the past ten years. So with Turkey in the EU, the EU would gain a geostrategic point and having a policy in the Middle East making it a global actor so why was such a strategically important gain rejected by the EU if we omit the usual historical and religious arguments?

They say that in social sciences when a leader emerges and becomes a top level leader he is surrounded by people who exclude anyone else and block their way to have access to the leader so that they can manipulate the leader as they want. If the leaders are wise enough they will select people who in general think in contrary to what the leader himself believes in. If the leaders can have that type of advisors around him, it is less likely to make mistakes. So the EU if we take the leadership, not to see anyone that contradicts him is more likely to make mistakes, whereas a country like Turkey who may disagree with the European leaders but could a present a different a different attitude, look from a different angle at the incidents something that they cannot easily remember and think of because they do not know the mentality of the people. If there is no one to advise the EU countries against their initial position, then this type of mistakes are more likely. This is what is happening in the rejection of Turkey.

Q8. Do you see the recognition of the conflict between Turkey and Armenia in the 19th century to recognize it as genocide, as a possible condition to enter the EU? How do you tackle this matter in Turkey?

I think that this is only an excuse because if we talk about the Copenhagen criteria there is nothing about the recognition of Armenian Genocide. The political criteria as they are fundamental rights and freedom, democracy functioning, market economy and if you have this you should not turn the attention of the public opinion to unrelated issues such as Armenian Genocide or Cyprus problem which has nothing to do with the EU accession process of Turkey.  These are excuses behind which certain countries hide themselves not to say loudly that they are opposed to Turkey’s accession. They use questions are a pretext; it is not a real cause or a real source. The recognition of the Armenian genocide is a subject that is settled in the 1948 convention on genocide. This convention says that for an event to be described as genocide there are three authorities, instances that could do so. One is the international court of justice in The Hague, secondly an international court established for the purpose of looking into these called genocide event and the third are the tribunals of the countries where genocide is claimed to have taken place. So these are the three authorities, if we look at the past the Holocaust was judged by a court established in Nuremburg in Germany and the Srebrenica massacres was looked into by a tribunal established for this purpose and Rwandan genocide was looked into and judged by a court established for this purpose. So there are court decisions that are established according to the methods which are provided for in the genocide convention of 1948 who said that these three incidents Holocaust, Srebrenica and Rwanda are genocides. in what happened in 1915 in Turkey there are no court decisions like this, it is the Armenian Diaspora through publishing books, created an impression that yes in 1915 Turkey Ottoman authorities had acted with the intention of erase the Armenian race from the earth. Turkey did not have such an intention. Turkey wanted to relocate the Armenian terrorists and Armenian people who sided with Turkey’s enemy Russia at the time. The Armenian’s were cutting the communication lines of their own country, their own army by helping the enemy army, the Russian army and upon which the Turkish authorities decided that the only solution that you could use of that time was to relocate these Armenians from the battle front in Russia to a place where there is no war, the Syrian province of the Ottoman empire. During this relocation hundreds of thousands of people perished, because of the lack of food, lack of medicine, heart conditions, winter conditions, there is no car no train and also because of the attack of the Kurdish succession and Turkish villagers who lost their own relatives because of the Armenian attacks when they were in their village. So hundreds of thousand people perished, but there is no intention in the Ottoman authorities mind to eradicate from the earth the Armenian race. If it was so, why the Armenians in the capital of the Ottoman state Istanbul survived, they are still there. The hospitals, schools, newspapers and very wealthy communities are still living in Istanbul. They were not relocated because they did not help the enemy army by cutting the communication lines, so the intension of killing person because he is an Armenian did not exist within the Ottoman mind so why should we characterize this as genocide because it did not fit the definition made by the 1948 convention of genocide. This is the reason why we don’t want to admit it, what we agreed to form a committee of Turkish, Armenian and historians of thirds countries to go archives, look at the authentic documents and see what exactly happened in 1915. Because you cannot transform an incident into genocide by asking the politicians in the parliament to take a decision if what happened in 1915 was genocide. If you and I around the dinner table sit and say that what is taking place in Romania is genocide it doesn’t become genocide if you and I agree. It is the authorized institution who has to decide not you and me.

Thank you for your time.