Interview with Ekim Alptekin (Part I): Political Dynamics of Turkish-American Relations and Critical Developments in Turkish Domestic and Foreign Policies

Interview with Ekim Alptekin (Part I):
Political Dynamics of Turkish-American Relations and Critical Developments in Turkish Domestic and Foreign Policies

Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey) has conducted an interview with Kamil Ekim Alptekin, the Head of Turkey-US Business Council (DEİK/TAİK) about recent Turkish-American relations and critical developments in Turkey’s domestic and foreign policies. Ekim Alptekin is a successful young businessman, specialised on transatlantic trade and the development and maintenance of commercial and political cooperation between Turkey and the US. He was born in Ankara in 1977. He completed his studies in law and economics in Utrecht University in 2001. He speaks Turkish, English, French, German, and Dutch. After completing his studies he moved to the USA and worked in the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) as well as other international organisations. Alptekin also carries important diplomatic missions. He is honorary consul of Turkey to Albania and member of the board of the USA Newroz Commission. In addition, he is member of European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and Turkish Industry and Business Association (TÜSİAD).

Ekim Alptekin also carries out important activities in trading sector. He is the founder and a principal partner of Eclipse Aerospace Inc., a New Mexico-based company manufacturing aircrafts. He founded EA Aerospace in Turkey to buy American Eclipse Aerospace, which was re-founded in 2008. EA Aerospace is significant as it is the very first Turkish company that made aircraft industry investment in the USA. In addition to EA Aerospace, Ekim Alptekin owns EA Construction, ATH Defence and One Colony companies active in real estate, construction, defence, security, entertainment, and tourism industries. Alptekin agglomerated his companies under the name of AE Group, where he acts as the Chair of the Executive Board. He also worked as the President of the Turkish-American Business Association (TABA/AmCham) between 2012 and 2014, and he was elected as the Young Leader by the American-Turkish Society in 2012. He won the Commercial Leadership Award of American-Turkish Council thanks to the Eclipse Aerospace initiative in 2011. Alptekin’s EA Construction has been active in Istanbul’s construction sector through Beykonak Houses and Kartal Kule projects and his ‘Kartal Kule’ project was awarded the ‘Best Architecture Single Office Europe” by ‘International Property Awards’.

Since October 2015, Ekim Alptekin is acting as the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Turkish-American Business Council (TAİK), an organisation under the Foreign Economic Relations Board of Turkey (DEİK). We conducted an interview with Kamil Ekim Alptekin about recent Turkish-American relations and critical developments in Turkey’s domestic and foreign policies. The interview will be published in two parts. In the first part, we talked about Turkish-American political relations, the alleged “crisis” between the parties,  the details of the American political system (such as the “effectiveness” of the US politics) the backdrop of President Erdoğan’s USA visit, Gülen Community’s relations with the US,  and their activities within the country,  the recent developments in Turkish foreign policy, the recent crisis between Turkey and Russia, debates on secularism, constitution and the presidential system in Turkey, the abolition of parliamentary immunity, and Brexit. We hereby present our readers the summary and the full text of the first part of the interview uncensored as per our publication policy.

Summary: First Part of the Interview

“Turkish-American relations have strong roots. They agree on basic political goals. Today, these goals are still the same; however the parties disagree on the means to these goals.”

 “I do not see a crisis stemming from PYD between Turkey and the US, they only have different opinions. It is not right to think that the US forged a strategic alliance with the PYD. This is a mistake made by Turkey as well as PYD.”“ The relation between the US and the PYD is a contextual ephemeral collaboration for a certain period of time. The US is just using the PYD for its own interests”

“The US political system is not a top-down one.  Thus, we have to engage with expert academics and think tanks as well as bureaucrats while engaging in lobbying activities to understand issues from a bottom-up perspective”

“Considering Turkey’s every disagreement with the US as “the shift of axis” is wrong. It should be considered quite normal for Turkey to act independently from the US after the collapse of the bipolar world order in 1991, which is also about Turkey’s own sociological development”

“We are still not able to comprehend American political system in Turkey sufficiently.  We cannot forge our relations with the US only through the White House. For example, we have recently understood the importance of the Congress”

“In the American political system, the Congress has the ultimate power to allow for arms sales. If you want to buy arms from the US, you have to know that it does not solely depend on the discretion of the President”

“Transfer of funds to the Congress is the most essential aspect of lobbying activity in American politics. We have to understand the system well”

“It is true that there is mis-perception problem regarding Turkey’s image abroad. We cannot ignore this, and it is true that we made many mistakes. However, Turkey is now capable of separating politics from relations between peoples. Turkey is the only democracy in the region mature enough, which quite rare in the region”.

“I find the debates on secularism in Turkey quite misleading. In my opinion, secularism despite the high percentage of Muslims in the population is the most important asset that Turkey has”.

“Turkey used to have strategic defect in the eyes of the West and the USA: it was not influential enough in the Muslim world. This has been overcome by Mr. Erdoğan and Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey’s strategic value and significance has increased”

“Turkish-American Business Council (DEİK/TAİK) and Invest in Turkey (İSPAT) have co-organised President Erdoğan’s visit to the US. Economic Monitoring and Coordination Department of the Presidency undertook the coordination”

“President Erdoğan’s America visit had been very successful. President Erdoğan had meetings with politicians and representatives from the business world in addition to the scheduled program in the Nuclear Summit”

“More than fifty heads of state attended the Nuclear Summit in Washington. All of them tried to organise meetings with CEOs, however, only President Erdoğan was able to have meetings with 22senior CEOs.”

“President Erdoğan’s speech at the Brookings Institute has not been cancelled. President Erdoğan delivered a speech that made positive influences. People thought there occurred a problem during the speech, but this was not true. It was only problematic at the entrance because of Emre Uslu”.

“It does not suffice to say that Emre Uslu is simply a journalist. He is one of the organisers of the plot that meant jail time for many people. He is one of the gunmen of the parallel state. He shares his photos in bruises on social media after the incident, which is incomprehensible”

“It was not right for the President’s guards to mess with people.  This is all wrong. We simply have to report people like Emre Uslu to the American Secret Service. Similarly, when we got the news about the death of soldiers, the agent provocateurs of the PKK were around. We should act rationally and not get provoked, which would overshadow our success” 

“It is not right to say the parallel structure has no connection with the CIA. If you have 1200 schools all around the world, if you have your own infrastructure in places where the CIA finds it hard to penetrate, the Agency would rightfully want to use that. However, I do not buy the claim that the CIA protects them”

“The recent agreement between the US and Iran seems not to effect Turkish-American relations significantly. This is something contextual. American-Iran relations need a long time to reach the strategic level of the Turkish-American relations.” “I see the end of the embargo against Iran as a positive development. It will affect Turkey positively, it will increase the intensity of the trade relations in the region”

“I second the the development of relations with Israel, which is very positive. I think what we need in the region is peace.”

“The military coup in Egypt was quite wrong. It was unfortunate that all the world powers endorsed the coup quickly. Turkey’s reaction was right. However, we have to ameliorate our relations with Egypt for the sake of Turkey’s interests”

“Russia had a big responsibility in the crisis of the downing of the plane. Although Turkey does not allow Russia to have planes in Syria, it might have planes there; however, it cannot violate our borders”

“I know personally that President Erdoğan warned Putin in G20 Antalya Summit regarding border violations just two weeks before the downing of the plane. They also made a signal system agreement, however, Russia continued not to respond warnings from the new speed signal channel and the plane was downed. Because of this, it had even been suspected that the plane might not have been a Russian one.

“Many people in the US criticised the NATO’s response to Russia. If it were the old White House, the response would have been graver. They would clearly say ‘Turkey is our ally, we are on Turkey’s side, it has done what is right, and Russia should behave and never repeat it”

 “I think what Turkey needs right now is a new constitution and the biggest mistake is not to have drafted one until now. However, the debates on constitution should not be sacrificed for the sake of politics. We have to carry out the process in a reconciliatory manner by maintaining the social peace.”

“The constitution issue should not be limited to presidential system debates. It is worrying to see that the discussions revolve around one single issue. If the presidential system is needed, it should be endowed with checks and balances”  

“It is not clear how right the parliamentary system is implemented in Turkey. I do not find the Parliament in Turkey powerful enough. There is a separation of powers in theory, however it is not put to action properly. We definitely need to discuss the current system in this sense”

 “Turkey can take the US as an example for the presidential system. It is not logical to invent the wheel once again.”

“The Parliament should be liberalised in Turkey. The constitution gives the Parliament the power to check the government, however, it does not provide an infrastructure for that. We have to empower the deputies”

“In no modern country, could a deputy attend the funeral of a terrorist who organised and attended terror attacks, killed many citizens of the country, committed a suicide attack. If so, the deputy would not be allowed to enter into the Parliament building again”

“Of course, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) members are right in some issues. Nevertheless, they cannot represent themselves as the most progressive party in Turkey before the election and ignore their electorate by openly supporting terrorism and relying on PKK at the same time.  It is incredible to support terrorism, however, there is a group of people in Turkey still disregarding all these and trying to find excuses”

“It would not be right for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. It should keep its privileged position as a member”

Full text of the Interview: Part I

“Turkey and the US agree on basic political goals. However, the parties disagree on the means for these goals”

Hello Mr. Alptekin, thank you very much for accepting us for interview. As a businessman having lived and invested in the US, and as the President of Türkiye ABD İş Konseyi (Turkey-US Business Council) (DEIK/TAIK), you are following closely the Turkish-American relations. We will talk about the political and economic dynamics of the Turkish-American relations.  Let’s start with the political aspect. Do you think that there is a crisis regarding the mutual relations?    There is a claim that there is a deepening crisis, especially due to the latest developments in Syria and the disagreement concerning the PYD-YPG[1]? How do you see the course of Turkish-EU relations from the past to the present?

It is impossible to think about the Turkish-American relations without taking the Cold War into consideration, when this relationship has been founded quite strongly.   We can say that there isn’t a second North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member, except the United Kingdom, that has contributed to the strategic goals of the US more than Turkey. In the context of the Cold War, the US was ruling the roost in the West. After the Cold War, the relation evolved into a more egalitarian manner. An egalitarian relationship brings differences in opinions. However when I look at Turkish-American relations today, even in terms of big political issues, they agree on basic political goals. For instance both countries want a successful, peaceful and democratic Syria where the citizens are not oppressed. We also want to stop the bloodshed. So our goals are the same, but we disagree on how to achieve these goals. Perhaps, Syria is one of those issues of the world politics.  But for Turkey, stopping the Syrian crisis is an urgent need. Being a neighbour to Syria, we know the region better; and we feel the bloodshed intensely. It is a more urgent, vital problem for us. This might be aggravating the disagreement.

The USA-PYD relation is not strategic, it’s tactical.
The US administration uses the PYD towards its own goals”

Having said that, do you see a serious disagreement and the launch of a crisis regarding the perspectives on PYD?  

I do not see a crisis stemming from PYD between Turkey and the US. They only have different opinions. It is not right to think that the US forged a strategic alliance with the PYD. This is a mistake made by Turkey as well as PYD. The relation between the US and the PYD is a contextual ephemeral collaboration for a certain period of time. The US is just using the PYD for its own interests. Turkey makes a mistake by assessing this as a strategic collaboration. The photos of the US soldiers wearing the PYD blazons circulated recently by the media of course worries us deeply but I think these photos reflect individual initiatives on the ground, not the official US perspective.  Our second mistake is assuming that we cannot convince the US administration in this case. But this is actually not the case. For instance the last visit of the President created a “what if?” sentiment at the senior level. We need to read the American political system better. We need to ensure the improvement of information sharing not only during senior level visits but at all ranks of the government with their correspondent officers.

How is the American system like? How do we build or develop our relations with the US?

First of all, the American political system is not a top-down one. It is a system where advisors are very influential. Thus, for instance, concerning the national security issues, we have to engage with expert academics and think tanks as well as bureaucrats while engaging in lobbying activities to understand issues from a bottom-up perspective.  The PKK’s (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) relation with the PYD is not something we cannot prove. In Turkey, pessimistic opinions about relations with the US can be dominant: Such as “the US knows it that way” or as “the US finds excuses to hide the fact that it is actually linked to the PKK” These assumptions are partially true; as I said there is a collaboration motivated by tactical requirement, but the US would never want to support a Marxist terrorist organisation. It will recall how the support it gave to the Soviets against the Mujahideen to meet the tactical requirements in Afghanistan in the 1980s backfired by the establishment of the Taliban. We can prove that the PYD’s strategies and moves are managed by the same central administrative system as the PKK. But we should do this not only through senior level visits that occur once in three or four years, which are by the way very effective; we  should do this  continuously. Personally, I do not see a crisis in the Turkish-American relations when I look at it in this context. Turkish-American relations have never been so egalitarian, we are truly around the table as two equal parties. I think this is very important. I am not saying that it was the AK Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) (Justice and Development Party) who has achieved this for all; the timing and the process were maybe the main determinants. After the Berlin Wall came down in 1991, after the bipolar world came to an end, it took 10 years for Turkey to get used to the new world order.  When AK Party came to power in 2002 this new situation and the re-organised relationship were already settled. It is quite normal that Turkey is getting used to acting more independently from the US in all realms as a result of its own sociological development. For example in the defence industry area, everybody is alarmed when a tender is given to a Chinese company and there are comments such as “look, this means a shift of axis”. Actually it is only a move in order to foster competition; not necessarily a shift of axis.  Turkey is also an independent buyer in the new world order. And of course we need to make this understood. Sometimes I think that many analyses are failing to capture this reality.

We finally understood that we cannot forge our relations with the US only through the White House”

In the conjuncture following the breakdown of the Soviet Union and the new world order, you said that the relations between states became more egalitarian. Do you think that other opportunities have emerged thanks to these egalitarian relations? Can Turkey possibly be suffering from a lack of self-confidence as it fails to manage these new opportunities? Or else are we not seeing those opportunities?

Yes, there is a lack of confidence and a failure to know the system very well. We are still not able to comprehend American political system in Turkey sufficiently.  We cannot forge our relations with the US only through the White House. For example, we have recently understood the importance of the Congress.  As actors of the Turkish-American diaspora, the Turkish business circles and Turkish political life, we could finally understand that that the US Congress is indispensable in the US political system and that we cannot forge our relations with the US only through the White House. For instance, if you want to buy something from Turkey, for example if you want to export weaponry, the approval of the Turkish government is enough. This is not the case in the US. In fact if you want to buy weapons from the US, you also need the approval of the Congress. We recently started to understand this system and to shape our policies accordingly. Not only do the people we meet during the visits and the people we invite when we go there change, but we also we started changing our strategy and tactics.  And this shift is giving its fruits. . For instance, look at the Congress’ positive or negative decisions regarding Turkey over the last five years. You can even check the rulings from 1970s onwards. You could see that the rulings in favour of Turkey trumps those against. For instance, during 2015, you know the centennial of the so-called Armenian genocide, despite the fact that Armenia and the Armenian diaspora in the US spared enormous amount of resources, they could not succeed against Turkey.  We basically started getting organised only recently. Moreover if we can be fully prepared, they will not stand a chance. Donating to the Congress is the most essential aspect of lobbying activity in American politics. We have to understand the system well.

In this context how do you interpret President Erdoğan’s statement that we are not able to purchase weapons from the NATO countries although we have the enough resources” after the increased number of military operations lately? Is this an embargo that can be lifted?

Yes, it is important to know that in terms of the American system. Here you cannot see the weapon trade just in terms of the President’s positive or negative decision. This power rests wholly with the Congress; there, all members of different parties vote for or against by their own will. Here, we need to play the game by its rules. Here we are right, we are right in many other issues. We are right in the Armenian issue, the Cyprus issue but we cannot finish the game rightfully.

If we read the American system right,
we can deepen and develop our political relations even more”

This donation issue is delicate; it could lead to misinterpretations quite easily. How does this process of donation work?  Could you elaborate on this?

This is the way that the US system works. For instance, a certain interest group,  be it an ethnic group or  a drug lobby, it doesn’t have to be the state, needs to be organised in form of  what everyone calls the ‘political action committees’ and needs to make donations to the Congress through legal procedures. These donations are not some sort of bribery. Here the members of the House of Representatives carry out an election campaign every other year and the financial structure of these campaigns requires these donations. If you like the policies of a Congress member, you make donations to his campaign so that his chance of re-election gets increased.   In the US, there is a direct correlation between the chance of re-election and money. The more the candidate gets advertised, the more likely he/she is to be re-elected.  If you look at the donations from the Turkish diaspora to the Congress in this context, you will see an increase every year during the past 5 years. With this increase, we also checked the statistics, you will see a positive progress that translates into a statistical significance. If we proceed step by step by reading the functioning of the system right in this way, our relations will mature even more and in this way, our relations that already have strong foundations will deepen, diversify, and change even more. I see that.

Turkish people, including businessmen are now capable of separating politics from relations among peoples”

We will come to the American system and the lobbying activity later. Now, I would like to talk about the recent agenda in domestic and foreign politics. The positive public opinion about Turkey being seriously damaged in the last 3-4 years is a claim often aired lately. Especially following Gezi events, the so-called 17-25 December process, the foreign policy regarding Syria and the rise of ISIS, the government’s external image is seriously tainted. Lately with the imprisonment of journalists, the international public opinion’s increased interest and concern especially after the arrest of Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, the increasing terror attacks and military operations, and finally an alleged “crisis” regarding the domestic politics, Turkey started to be seen as an introvert country.   It was frequently said that these developments created a sense of insecurity outside, rendering Turkey’s image seriously damaged so that no investor would invest in Turkey.  On the other hand, some other critiques argued that these claims emerge as Turkey is becoming a bigger and stronger country. How do you interpret these opposing claims and arguments?

It is true that there is misperception problem regarding Turkey’s image abroad. We cannot ignore this, and it is true that we made many mistakes. What we are really talking about here is that there is a problem of misperception about Turkey from the outside but we also have a problem of perception about ourselves within the country. Obviously this is what perception is all about, it’s not reality. Those who work hard to the detriment of Turkey also promote this dual problem of perception of course. We need to tell this: right now Israel is one of the countries that we have the worst relations with. Turkish citizens were killed by Israel in international waters, there is nothing close to that. The ambassadors were called back and the relations were set to zero. Despite this, our free trade agreement with Israel was still active.  No action were taken. The moment you tell this, the Americans also get surprised. Furthermore, the trade increased between Turkey and Israel during this period. This means that Turkish people, including businessmen are now capable of separating politics from international relations Turkey is the only democracy in the region mature enough, which quite rare in the region. We need to tell this. We may have trouble with Israel; this is a political problem.  We can stop the diplomatic relations, we can withdraw the ambassadors but the commitments that were given beforehand, especially those that influence the business life, will continue. In this sense, of course the investors might get concerned. When we saw photos from the Gezi protests, we all got t got anxious, we were worried where this will lead to. That’s why we think that this is not the right way to protest. However, at the end of the day, I think Turkey proves the following: here, in a region of instability, it proves that it is a stable country where  the rule of law is applicable. For this reason we need to stay away from unnecessary debates such as leaving the principle of secularism out of the constitution.

“Turkey’s strategic importance over the region is based on the fact that the majority of its population is Muslim but dedicated to the principle of secularism. This value increased further with the Justice and Development Party and Erdoğan.

I guess you are referring to the words of İsmail Kahraman, the Speaker of the Turkish Parliament, that “secularism will not be included in the new constitution.” In this regard, how do you see the secularism debate in Turkey? We did not see this kind of a debate in Turkey for a long time. President Erdoğan’s speech in Egypt, where he endorsed secularism had attracted wide interest and support. Today, with the new constitutions debates, issues such as secularism became the focal point.  It seems that this being aired by a senior political figure led to a serious fissure in society.  What do you think?

I find these kind of statements quite misleading. In my opinion, what makes Turkey special in the eyes of the US or from a global point of view, If you ask me what makes Turkey special in the eyes of the US and even at a global scale, or want me to tell you something about Turkey’s strategic importance, I would say that secularism despite the high percentage of Muslims in the population is the most important asset that Turkey has. This importance increased mostly with the AK Party and Mr. Erdoğan. Turkey used to have a strategic importance for the West and other secular countries in the past anyway. However, this was not acknowledged in the Muslim world before Erdoğan came to power. The West thought that Turkey was a role model for the Muslim world, an idea which was not shared by them. This was simply because there was a big question mark about Turkey’s Muslim identity.  , Today, can you show me another leader convincingly praying together with the Muslim community in Tahrir Square and emphasising the principle of secularism at the same time? Not one in the entire world. I witnessed that this is used as an advantageous argument in the meetings that would otherwise turn against Turkey. On top of this, when they were lobbying against Turkey, be it in the White House National Security Council, in the US  Foreign Ministry or at any other important meeting, this is one of the most positive arguments providing people with common sense about Turkey. There is no single country that is endorsing Islam and secularism at the same time and yet taken seriously. That’s why I find this secularism debate in Turkey misleading. The President said that “we are aiming for a Turkey where everyone is free to exercise their belief”. We think we have managed that.  Christians, Jews, even Atheists need to have this freedom. As I said, we made mistakes which created problems of misperception. Thanks to the lobbies against Turkey, these problems still persist.

It is clear that Turkey’s external image has been a problematic issue for long years, isn’t it?

Exactly. Do you remember the Midnight Express movie? I lived in Europe in the 1990s. Before every tourism season, this movie had been running on every television channel. I mean, that was completely a misleading movie full of anachronism and clichés. Do you know that one of the leading actors from the movie apologised at some point? He was ashamed. He told that the movie did not reflect the reality. The then Foreign Minister Mümtaz Sosyal said that “the damage caused by the movie cannot be repaired by any amount of money”. The region where Turkey is in is problematic. Six countries to say the least in the region are not governed by central administrations. So, that is why we are located in one of the most unstable regions. Apart from North Korea, all problematic states are included in our region. In such an environment, when we look at the Turkey case, it should be giving confidence.

President Erdoğan’s official US visit for the Nuclear Summit has been successful. Many high profile meetings both at the political and business levels have been paid” 

President Erdoğan’s visit to the US was a popular topic. It was claimed that the visit was a failure as President Obama did not accept to meet with Erdoğan for a long time and that they managed to arrange a short one-to-one meeting at the last moment, and also that Erdoğan was humiliated by the US attitude, including a low-level welcoming ceremony.  Briefly, it was alleged that the US visit did not achieve its target. How do you see these claims?

These claims absolutely do not reflect the reality. As Turkey-USA Business Council (DEIK/TAIK), together with the Prime Ministry Investment Agency (ISPAT), we organised the economic aspect of the visit in particular. To start with, this was not a bilateral visit. It took place within the scope of the Nuclear Summit. On top of this, Mr. Erdoğan devoted considerable amount of time for business people to indicate his interest in the Turkish-US economic relations. Presidency’s Economic Monitoring and Coordination Department coordinated the programme. We constantly kept in touch with Hakan Yurdakul, the head of the Department, and President’s senior advisors during the visit. We planned neatly to make the programme more efficient. If we can keep up the good work as such, we can have successful meetings every time. Mr. Erdoğan also met with the representatives of the political and business world.  Apart from the coordination issue, the President’s international charisma played a role for the organisation to succeed for sure. If the President were not such a charming leader, the CEOs and heads of firms with a turnover around 50 billion dollars would not take a flight to to Washington just for a 2-hour meeting. Especially at the end of March, which is a time for the general stockholders meeting for big companies, this is really hard job. Here, it can be seen that Turkey’s attraction is still on and they have a confidence in Turkey’s leadership.

President Erdoğan met with the most senior politicians such as President Obama, Joe Biden and John Kerry. Meetings with business representatives were not sufficiently covered in the media. Could you tell us a bit more about the content of these meetings and their significance? Sure, there were many statesmen ready to attend the summit. Executives of international companies can come together with statesmen of a wide range of countries. Did Turkey manage to stand out in this respect? What are the reasons for this?

Yes, as you said, many meetings took place apart from the political ones. Because of the summit, more than 50 presidents were in Washington at that time. What’s most remarkable here is that although all these presidents tried to arrange meetings with some CEOs, not one could manage to meet with 22 CEOs. We organised these meetings thanks to the coordination between the public and private sectors, the extensive market power of Turkey and its potential that hasn’t been realised yet. Otherwise, the director of a company with a weekly turnover of $1 billion dollars wouldn’t bother to spare time just for a marginal added value. These are decision-makers who make millions of dollars. You need to stand for a significant added value in order to attract people of this sort. Of course, we know the potential and the attraction of Turkey. Seeing that these people share the same view gave us self-confidence.

2

“President Erdoğan’s speech at the Brookings Institute was convincing and accurate. However, the chaos and fight at the entrance have been more popular. One of the gunmen of the parallel structure created and provoked this chaos”

How do you interpret the crisis that occurred during, before and after President Erdoğan’s speech at the Brookings Institute? Some people claimed that the speech was cancelled but then could take place thanks to the intervention of high-profile institutions and figures.

There was no such thing as the cancellation of the speech. Just the venue of the speech was not announced until very late.  There is always a competition going on between think-tanks.  As far as I know, the Brookings was picked up and they accepted it. The terms of agreement were negotiated.   Every time a world leader visits the US, the venue of the talk is negotiated. The speech had a positive effect. I have not seen anybody saying anything negative about the talk. The negative attitude was solely directed at the chaos at the entrance. The issue of press freedom came up only after the tension between the cops and journalists there. Emre Uslu, allegedly a journalist, one of the gunmen of the parallel structure in reality, created and provoked this chaos. It does not suffice to say that Emre Uslu is simply a journalist. He is one of the organisers of the plot that meant jail time for many people. He is one of the gunmen of the parallel state. Sorry, but of course, the judiciary will decide on this. As far as I know, he is wanted in Turkey. . Of course he had no opportunity to listen to the President Erdoğan but there is certain method of asking people to leave.  The American Secret Service is assigned to protect the President anyway, let them take him out. It was not right for the security guards to intervene. We are fooled so easily. The reaction of the guards does not serve for our own interests at all.

What should have been done exactly?

For example, after identifying Emre Uslu, the information should have been reported to the American Secret Service on the grounds that he is a security risk and he should be taken out. We should have stayed low-profile.  Let him deal with the American police. Similarly, when we got the news about the death of Turkish soldiers back home, the agent provocateurs of the PKK were around. We should act rationally and not get provoked, which would overshadow our success”. When we act emotionally and get into a personal discussion with them, we get nothing. Other mistakes have been made as well. The guards also yelled at other journalists. There is no need to do this. This is of no use for Turkey, neither of President Erdoğan. There is no benefit of this other than being captured by our emotions and having a momentary satisfaction, however, it has various negative effects such as overshadowing the positive things we have done.

Unfortunately, during President Erdoğan’s visit to other countries and speeches such incidents occur frequently. It is hard to determine whether this has to do with the training of the President’s guards or a general attitude framed beforehand by political and administrative officials but such chaos situations have been happening frequently. As you said, we could say that this is a frequently repeated mistake?

Yes, the enemies of Turkey know this very well and abuse this. For instance, this guy I mentioned above shares his photos in bruises that had been caused by the fight at the entrance on social media after the incident, which is incomprehensible. This is no good for us.

In this regard, do you think that both the government and the opposition can reflect on such incidents taking place both abroad and at home adequately?  This happens and the government portrays a rosy picture while the opposition tends to discredit the whole visit. At the end of the day, we only hear about chaos and fight about the US visit.

Yes, I totally agree with you. In my opinion, the US visit was very successful. We should not let the chaos at the Brookings overshadow this. The President’s speech was very convincing and accurate. Instead of analysing this, we are talking about what happened outside the venue. The government, based on the feeling of unfairness, is getting aggressive. They should act in line with the experience they had acquired within the state for years now. The right does not always win in this life. There is no need to be aggressive for everything.

It wouldn’t be correct to say that the parallel structure does not have a relationship with the CIA. The US might have used this organisation for its own interests. However, this doesn’t mean that the US has been protecting them” 

The most critical and frequently issue regarding the Turkish-American relationship is the relationship between the US government and Gülen movement, in the words of the government “the parallel structure”. How does the struggle against the parallel structure affect our relationship with the US?? In Turkey, there is a widely accepted view that the US has protected the parallel structure, that they are very powerful in the country. The message sent by the President Obama to a meeting organized by an institution believed to be affiliated to the Gülen community heated up this debate again. What do you think about this?

Regardless of all, if we think about the pre-17 December period, I do not trust any structure that is not transparent in terms of its membership structure, membership list and goals. The parallel structure is an organization as such. Since it is not clear why it had been founded in the first place, how the members are selected and who are the central decision committee members, this organisation is problematic for me. After 17 December, it became clear what they did and why, so Turkey turned its back on them. Of course, this structure is somewhat experienced in the US but this does not necessarily mean that the US protects them. They did all these things that I have listed above. Most important of all, they analysed the American system quite well and they created a certain impression by playing the game by its rules. This leverage has been created in the Congress, in government, within various think-tanks and in media. Some of them may have supported the structure with bad intentions based on individual will motivated by personal interests, whatever. However, in general, these people convince some American decision makers against Turkey just as they convinced the courts and the public in Turkey with manipulated documents. They acted in their own organisational interests; they used incorrect information, they sometimes told the truth since there is always some truth in every mistake, but they always used lots of lies and manipulation and fabricated information.  If we are truly determined to struggle against the parallel structure, we have to invest in similar resources equally, to ponder as much as them, regarding developing trade relations with the biggest economy of the world, and getting what we deserve in issues like Syria and Cyprus.

What do you think about the claim that it was the CIA who ensured and contributed to the development of this organisation? 

I do not believe that the CIA has been protecting them. The CIA follows all developments in these regions, this is true. It is not right to say the parallel structure has no connection with the CIA. If you have 1200 schools all around the world, if you have your own infrastructure in places where the CIA finds it hard to penetrate like Kenya, Russia and Pakistan, the Agency would rightfully want to use that. However, And at some point, individual relations might have been forged but this does not mean that this relationship is motivated by the US state. These are There might be a contextual synergy and co-existence,  just like the one with the PYD, based on recognition and cooperation in line with daily exigencies. However, here the real mistake is ours. What do we do about this except for the statements on his potential extradition from top level political figures?  What kind of tasks are carried out to influence authors and experts close to FBI and US Ministry of Justice? I do not buy the claim that the CIA protects them.

“I see the end of the embargo against Iran as a positive development. I believe that it is very hard to establish a friendship between the US and Iran”

How do you think the recent rapprochement between Iran and the US and the lift of embargo against Iran would affect Turkey? There are some claims that the US-Iran relationship would decrease the US’s dependency on Turkey, thereby diminishing Turkey’s role in the region. What do you think?  

After the Cold War, we heard similar comments, which did not prove true.  The US agreement with Iran will not affect the Turkish-American relationship negatively; it will not change it considerably. Turkey had trade relations with Iran in the past. The US president will change soon and the new president, whoever he/she is, will not be as moderate as Obama. Currently, it is not only the neo-Cons or Republicans who have concerns about Iran, but also the Democrats who are not convinced about Iran’s sincerity. Iran and the US need some time together to have a strategic relationship similar to the one between Turkey and the US.  I believe that it is very hard to establish a friendship between the US and Iran.

Do you find the lift of the embargo on Iran on a positive note? Would this be beneficial to Turkey?

I see the end of the embargo against Iran as a positive development which will affect Turkey positively as it will develop the trade in the region. I also personally support the nuclear agreement. Of course, it could have been better but let’s say it is the lesser evil. If Iran has an intention to have access to nuclear weapons, this agreement would at least postpone this. Therefore, I think, Turkey, we should support this agreement.

Turkey should preserve its stance on foreign policy but may develop tactical moves for the interests of the country.”

Recently, President Erdoğan has attempted to restore relations with Israel, a state which he previously defined a “terrorist state”.  Turkey also lifted its veto for the opening of a NATO Representative in Israel around early May. Do you find these attempts positive?

I second the development of relations with Israel, which is very positive. I think what we need in the region is peace.

The relationship between Turkey and Egypt has gone quite bad after the coup in Egypt. Do you think the relations should be improved again?

I believe in realpolitik but having a principled stance is also important. An election took place in Egypt after the Arab Spring and the winner of the election was obvious. There might have been some mistakes made by the elected party but the military coup in Egypt was quite wrong.  It was unfortunate that all the world powers endorsed the coup quickly. Turkey’s reaction was right. We have to ameliorate our relations with Egypt for the sake of Turkey’s interests”

Russia had a big responsibility in the crisis of the downing of the plane. Erdoğan had warned Putin regarding border violations at Antalya Summit. If it were for the former White House, NATO would have responded to Russia more heavily.”

Though the relations between Turkey and Russia had been quite good for a long time, after the downing of Russian warplane, it deteriorated drastically.  How has this crisis been received in the US? How do you see this crisis? What should be done from now on?

I believe that Russia had a big responsibility regarding this crisis. Russia has been violating not only the Turkish border but all NATO borders for a long time. I mean, Russia takes her chance, trying too hard. Russia has regressed recently, and has been trying to adopt a political stance imitating the Soviet Union. Within the framework of this political stance, its relations with the NATO countries have been getting worse. It has been doing the same thing at the Finnish border. Turkey has not experienced this border violation at the border of Russia, but at the border of Syria. What was the Russian warplane doing at Turkey’s border to a country in war? Although Turkey does not allow Russia to have planes in Syria, it could have had planes there; however, it cannot violate our borders. Do world peace or alliances mean anything? Of course! That is why we had warned them, recurrently! Look, this is not a political comment, everybody agrees on this. I know personally that President Erdoğan warned Putin in G20 Antalya Summit regarding border violations just two weeks before the downing of the plane. They also made a signal system agreement, however, Russia continued not to respond warnings from the new speed signal channel and the plane was downed. Because of this, it had even been suspected that the plane might not have been a Russian one. Then Putin, as if this meeting never took place, said “We have been stabbed in the back”. The US is aware of Turkey’s warnings and those conversations going on.  No one related to At that point, what would a country do except for protecting its borders?

After the downing of the Russian plane, Turkey informed the NATO. It has been claimed this was why Putin said “we’ve been stabbed in the back”. What do you think about the NATO response to this crisis? In the end, as Turkey is a NATO member, the violated border was NATO’s border as well.

Many people in the US criticised the NATO’s response to Russia. If it were the old White House, the response would have been graver. They would clearly say “Turkey is our ally, we are on Turkey’s side, it has done what is right, Russia should behave and never repeat it”. This is the reaction that needs to be shown. Here, Turkey has sent this message to Russia also in the name of NATO. Turkey cannot abstain by stating that “you are a powerful country, and we depend on you in certain sectors, in the energy sector to say the least”. These should not mean that we cannot protect our borders. In this regard, regardless of the person in power, this is inappropriate. Of course, one should try to avoid crisis but while doing this, the borders and security also have to be protected. This is not a red line; this is a border; what will we protect if not our borders?

“What Turkey needs right now is a new constitution and the biggest mistake is not to have drafted one until now. We have to carry out the process in a reconciliatory manner by maintaining the social peace.” 

If we go back to domestic politics once again, I want to talk about the new constitution on the agenda. Does Turkey need a new constitution? Have the debates on the constitution been held correctly?

What Turkey needs right now is a new constitution and the biggest mistake is not to have drafted one until now. Maybe before, as a country where the governments last for 18 months at most, we had an excuse. However, for the last 14 years, we have not had any excuse not to make a new constitution, we should have already made it. The debates on constitution should not be sacrificed for the sake of politics. We need a constitution centring not on the state but the individual. We do not need to protect the state against the individual, we need to evolve into a constitutional approach that protects the individual against the state. Almost everybody agrees on that. However, we have to carry out the process in a reconciliatory manner by maintaining the social peace. Without peace, neither do the constitution nor individual rights and freedoms matter.  Regarding this, our political leaders should take the initiative.

In Turkey, the constitutional debates have turned into debates on regime change. The discussions are centred on the presidential system rather than individual rights and freedoms or societal reconciliation and peace. What do you think about that?

Of course, all these discussions should not focus on the presidential system. It is worrying that the discussions are only along this line.

It feels like the presidential system discussions are not carried out right either. In line with Erdoğan statements,  different types of presidential systems have been mentioned, and in the end notions such as called the “Turkish-type presidential system” or “party-affiliated president” have been coined, , however no one knows what they mean. It seems like we spread around concepts in line with the reactions of public opinion but we do not really discuss the real content.  As a businessman who has lived in countries ruled by the presidential system, how do you evaluate these developments?  Has the debate gone all wrong?

The debate has gone all wrong for sure because we equate presidency with Tayyip Erdoğan. But it is not possible that Erdoğan will rule the country forever. If this suggested system will prevent inefficient coalition governments, let’s discuss this. There has never been a coalition culture in Turkey and we have seen after the last two elections that no trace is left.  Including the business sector, we got used to single-party government in every area. Everyone agrees that the political will ensured by the single party rule in Turkey is beneficial for all. However, this political will has to protect the existing system and take into attention the diversities at the same time no matter what the election result is, as it is the case in the US. If the presidential system is needed, it should be endowed with checks and balances.

“It is not clear how right the parliamentary system is implemented in Turkey. I do not find the Parliament in Turkey powerful enough. There is a separation of powers in theory, however it is not put to action properly.”

Do you think that the parliamentary system is not working in Turkey?

It is doubtful how truly parliamentary system works in Turkey today. I think our parliament is not powerful. There may be a so-called separation of powers in Turkey but it does not exist in reality. If the prime minister as the president of a political party has the majority in the parliament there is nothing he cannot do, he can pass any law he wants. The reason is that all decisions are taken with party discipline and MPs from all parties are mostly determined by party leaders not only in AK Party but in all political parties. That means that the intra-party organisation is weak. Of course we should criticise the existing system. We should debate these all, including the presidential system, without focusing on individual actors.  Think about a Ferrari driven on spare tires. There is a great potential in terms of speed and motor power but can the Ferrari be driven efficiently on spare tires? It cannot.  Ferrari requires suitable tires. I use the Ferrari example on purpose; Turkey is not a Volkswagen, not a Mercedes, Germany is indeed a Mercedes; as a Mediterranean country, we have the potential to be a Ferrari. We are in an exciting region, an exciting country. We are in a region where things happen quickly but a right infrastructure is needed to turn this potential into reality. A new constitution has to be our priority. It is a great mistake that this has not been made so far.

“Turkey can take the US as an example for the presidential system. It is not logical to invent the wheel once again.”

Based on your statements, how should the presidential system in Turkey be? Should we take a country as a model? Or should we try to create our own model in line with domestic dynamics and values?

There is no logic in re-discovering something that has been already discovered. No one has time for this. We do not do this if we are starting up a business or writing a book. Why should we do that when we are ruling a country?   We have to do this by taking some good models around the world as examples. Even the Western European countries are discussing their systems today. They have been discussing whether the EU should continue or not. In the last elections in France, anti-EU parties came second and third by a narrow margin, which means that an anti-EU party may soon win the elections.  This means that France may leave the EU; what would happen if France leaves? EU would disintegrate. Brexit is also on the agenda now. The 2008 economic crisis in the EU led to a political crisis. This has happened before in Europe. Economic crisis causes political crises, which results in extreme political parties winning elections. We have seen in the past that radical right and left gained power. This process brought Nazis to power in Germany.  But which country does not have such problems? I think it is the USA. Have you ever seen a systemic debate in the US? Have you seen anyone willing to run the presidency for three consecutive terms? That is out of question. Or have you seen any MPs asking for amendments in law on political parties or constitution in the US?  Because the Founding Fathers created the best system by looking at the best practice in Europe or elsewhere, taking the best out of it and moulding it with developments. They made the first constitution in this way. The most important development which inspired the French Revolution was the constitution signed by the Founding Fathers. I believe Turkey should take the US as a model for making the new constitution.

However, within the presidential system debates, the real focus seems to be on the president individually and his/her powers. Other mechanisms are not discussed. Isn’t this a serious problem? For example, nobody realizes that there is an elected President and an elected Congress in the US. . During our chat, you have mentioned the importance of the Congress a couple of times. Can you please tell us about the details of the American system?

You are right. The issue is not over with the president here; we have to free the Parliament.  To increase the legitimacy of MPs, they may be elected from their own constituencies, for example. You’ve asked about the structure in the US. Let me give you an example. A member of the House of Representatives has the right to have approximately 9 staff in his/her state. They may hire 18 people in total and these people would not work for the wage of a driver for sure. There are positions for a driver, an assistant, a principle clerk, and different specialists with different wages.  In the US, an MP has a real power in his/her own state. Think about our MPs? The constitution gives the Parliament the right to audit the government but has not provided the substructure for that. What opportunities does an MP have in Turkey?

MPs are not really active in Turkey unfortunately. That is why their high wages and retirement conditions are discussed in public instead. .

Turkish public opinion is sometimes hard to understand. When the wages of MPs increase, everyone gets crazy. We want both qualified MPs and low wages for them, which is not the right way to contemplate.  If you want a qualified person in the Parliament, you have to provide him/her with a competitive wage that he would earn in another job. An Italian MP earns 15 thousand Euros per month, which is four times higher than our MP salary. Is his job four times more important? Not at all. Then, we have to empower our MPs. It is absurd to think that an MP with a budget for a driver and an assistant, in those small offices in the Parliament has the power to control the government.

You’ve suggested that Turkey should take the American system as a model. How should Turkey adopt this model? How could this be implemented?

In Turkey, the Parliament should be freed and the powers of it should be increased. It has power in theory but we need to create the opportunities for the use of this power.  I recommend the MPs be selected from their constituencies directly. For example, in the US when you want to be an MP candidate from Democrats, you cannot achieve this so easily. The Party needs to endorse you.    In Turkey, when people want to be candidates from a certain political party, they should compete in a pre-election for candidacy; they should not immediately be candidates as if they are being appointed centrally.

In Turkey, political parties claim to hold pre-elections or to conduct tendency surveys for the selection of candidates?

Yes, in Turkey some sort of public opinion survey is conducted to determine candidates but the elected candidate for a particular constituency is still unknown since you cannot vote for a specific person; it is enough to vote for the political party. The total vote of the party corresponds to a certain list and a certain number of candidates from that list get into the parliament. This means that the MPs are elected due to the power of their political parties. But this should not be the case. I think it should be the candidate we are voting for. . To increase legitimacy, candidates and the opportunities they would have after the election should be empowered. , If you are a committee chair in the US, you have around 300 staff. For example, the Chair of Committee for Foreign Relations has around 230 staff. Can you imagine the power and opportunities this might potentially create? In this system, that MP or that committee chair may audit and research a draft bill way before it is presented by the White House.

“In no modern country, could an MP attend the funeral of a terrorist who killed many citizens of the country. If so, he/she would not be able to have access to the Parliament building again.”

What do you think regarding the lifting of parliamentary immunities of MPs in Turkey? This has been mostly debated in public in terms of stripping those MPs of immunity from prosecution, who helped or supported terrorist organisations.  The wave of violence in Turkey’s south-east and certain statements and attitudes of some HDP (People’s Democratic Party) MPs have shaped the debate.  

Regarding this issue, I support personal rights and freedoms. . However, the PKK-related activities and statements of HDP MPs are unacceptable. Let me put this bluntly: I am by no means an extreme nationalist as a world citizen who has lived in many countries all around the world. Nevertheless, in no civilised country could an MP could attend the funeral of a terrorist who killed many. But, he/she does, he/she would not be able to get into the Parliament again. If this happened in the US, that MP would not even be able to enter the Parliament building. He would not be allowed by his/her colleagues. This would be the case in the Netherlands or in France. We should fool ourselves in this regard. The HDP MPs are right in some aspects. Some serious mistakes were made in the past. Racism had been the case in Turkey. In this respect, I would support any project or proposal within the Parliament framed by them. But it is not correct or acceptable to ignore that the wider HDP electorate who voted for the Party along libertarian lines would have a problem with the Party supporting a terrorist organization and saying “we are backed by the PKK” This is a mistake made by the HDP. They should have reacted in the first place when one of their party members attended a funeral of this sort, which is a shame.  There are people living in Turkey who support terrorism and find justifications for that support. This is the mistake of the HDP; if an MP went to such a funeral, the first reaction should have come from the party organisation itself. I am not sure if this is an offence under Turkish criminal law, and I am not claiming that this is a crime in the US, but that MP would not have been able to stay in the US Parliament for sure.

It would not be correct for the UK to leave the EU. She should continue its privileged position.”

How do you see the Brexit[2] process?  The Conservative government has promised a referendum before elections, now they will now hold that referendum. However, lots of MPs in the Conservative Party are against leaving the EU. How is this process seen in the US?

I personally think that it would not be a right decision on the part of Britain to leave the EU. I think the biggest mistake of the EU was to form a monetary union, which increased such economic crises. The UK did not adopt the common currency but the crises within the EU affect Britain as well. Still, I don’t think that the disintegration of the EU would be good neither for Britain nor the world. I believe that the common sense would dominate this issue. The US also wants the UK to stay in the EU, which had been officially stated by Obama recently. Whoever becomes the next president of the US, I think, he/she would retain this view and I believe common sense will dominate the British politics.  Thatcher once said that “God did not create that channel to no avail”. She means that the UK is different from Europe. There is no doubt about that: Germany, France, Netherlands are all different countries but the UK has a much more different culture. It is the dominant power of the old world, has a very old political history, it played very critical roles in the history of Europe. This is why they did not join the monetary union, so there is no possibility of leaving the Euro. The UK may maintain this privileged position and remain in the EU. I do not think they would leave the EU.

The Brexit scenario also has to do with the fact that the UK was not able to have a leading position within the EU.  The ex-prime minister Gordon Brown recently started a campaign with the slogan, “Next is not to leave but to lead”; do you think that the UK has the potential to lead within the EU?

The UK has been trying to do this for a long time, but the Franco-German axis has been the driving force within the EU. The UK might be more active after developing new strategies and scenarios after this process.

We end the first part of our interview here. In the second part, we will be talking about the economic dimensions of Turkey-USA relations, dynamics of the US system and how one should work to have an impact on the US politics, Turkey’s advantages and disadvantages regarding all these issues, the effect of economic developments on politics, the effective Turkish trading companies in the USA, mainly TAIK, and about your personal commercial relations and activities. Thank you.

My pleasure. Thank you.

Please cite this interview as follows:

Research Turkey (July, 2016), “Interview with Ekim Alptekin (Part I): Political Dynamics of Turkish-American Relations and Critical Developments in Turkish Domestic and Foreign Policies”, Vol. V, Issue 7, pp.25 – 45, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=12456)

Endnotes

[1] PYD: ‘Democratic Union Party’

YPG: ‘People’s Protection Units’

[2] At the time of interview, the British referendum was still on the way. The EU referendum took place on Thursday 23 June 2016 in the UK, which resulted in an overall vote to leave the EU by 51.9% and to remain in the EU by 48.11%.

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