COMMENT

Kerim Uras: ‘Show of solidarity came rather later than expected’

TOM ELLIS

TAGS: Interview, Diplomacy, Politics

Western skepticism over the wide-ranging crackdown by the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan after a failed military coup last month is “unfounded,” Turkey’s Ambassador to Greece Kerim Uras tells Kathimerini in an interview.

He adds, however, that “the Greek leadership was an exception to this general picture, as we were given strong support at all levels.”

In the same interview, Uras blames US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen for orchestrating the coup, complains about Washington’s belated show of solidarity, and argues that while Turkey has honored its own part of the refugee deal with the European Union, it is still waiting the Europeans to do the same.

The authoritarianism, abuse of power, and Islamic, nationalistic frenzy that some see in present-day Turkey is creating a rift with the West.

Turkey has strong and unshakable bonds with the West. Turkey is a founding member of the Council of Europe, an EU candidate country and a staunch NATO ally. There is no change whatsoever in our orientation and fundamental foreign policy principles.

On the other hand, it is worth taking a closer look at recent events. In order to properly analyze things, we must put them in context: In a nutshell, one beautiful summer night, Turkey went through a nightmare, a coup d’etat attempt on 15 July, organized by FETO (the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization). In the troubles, 246 citizens died and 2,185 were wounded. There was an attempt on the life of President Erdogan. The Turkish Parliament, with MPs inside, the Presidential Palace and other institutions were bombed by military aircraft, helicopters and tanks, by the putschists. The coup was averted mainly because the Turkish people took to the streets and stood up for their democracy and rule of law. All opposition parties, squabbling before the coup, gave unequivocal support to our president and government. A state of emergency was declared for three months and now we are picking up the pieces.

What are the implications of the coup attempt?

I would define [everything before] the failed coup on July 15 as BC (Before Coup) in recent Turkish politics. We must question previous cliches and wake up to the new democratic reality and unity in Turkey. Indeed, the Turkish people and all the opposition are united – unlike before – as we saw in the Democracy Rally in Istanbul on August 7, with the participation of 4 million in Yenikapi and around 10 million at the same time in other cities. This does not look like authoritarian rule to me. I also believe that all democracy-loving countries, including of course our important neighbor Greece, should be pleased with this positive development and give us support, as they indeed do.

I would say that the ones who were after “authoritarianism and abuse of power” are those who attempted the coup and committed serious crimes on July 15.

On the other hand, our president was quite vocal in reaching out and referring to some past decisions as mistakes, asking for forgiveness from the Turkish people – self-criticism you do not even find in countries that are generally accepted as advanced democracies, let alone authoritarian ones.

I also beg to differ with your comment on “Islamic, nationalistic frenzy.” The Turkish people are no doubt patriotic, as we saw recently when there was a sudden threat to their democracy and way of life. But I would not define this as “nationalistic frenzy.” Concerning religion, the Turkish Anatolian interpretation of Islam is a benign and tolerant one. Therefore, I find such generalizations not just off the mark, but dangerous in the sense that they lead to Islamophobia.

How do you assess the reaction of the West?

Although there was widespread support for our struggle against the coup attempt, we were disappointed that Western leaders have been quite slow in visiting Turkey and were not vocal enough. The same goes for the press coverage.

What about Greece’s stance?

As the ambassador in Athens, I must say that the Greek leadership was an exception to this general picture, as we were given strong support at all levels, even as events were unfolding.

There is widespread belief in the West that voices opposing the government, including many journalists, are being silenced, and that the rule of law is being violated.

These claims and concerns are unfounded. The emergency law powers are being used very carefully. A meticulous cleaning-up process is going on against FETO. This process naturally does include some journalists, newspapers and TV stations, but this cannot be defined as “silencing the opposition.” The journalists and institutions in question are those that were part of this terrorist organization.

In Turkey today, everyone is aware of the important role the press played on July 15 and we treasure our freedom of press very dearly. In fact, it is due to the strong freedom of press and its broadcasting President Erdogan’s call that the coup was averted in the first place.

Regarding FETO militants, all investigations and court cases are conducted transparently, based on solid evidence and fully respecting human rights, in accordance with international norms. Indeed, all developments are closely followed by opposition parties and democratic institutions. There have been no considerable complaints. It is also best to keep in mind that all proceedings are in any event subject to judicial review, both at the domestic and international level.

Actually, there is now abundant evidence that our legal system and country have suffered for some time from the manipulations and infiltration of the FETO prosecutors and judges. It is very clear to anyone following Turkey closely that the measures taken today will result in a much healthier and transparent legal system, solidly based on the rule of law.

Will Turkey continue to implement the agreement with the EU on migrants and refugees?

Turkey is determined to continue implementing the refugee agreement with the EU. We have fulfilled our part of the deal since day one. We are now expecting the EU to fulfill its side of the deal, namely visa liberalization, financial support and controlled repatriation... It would also be helpful if returns from Greece were speeded up, in order to prove that the system is working. We are cooperating and coordinating effectively with our Greek colleagues on its implementation.

What is the state of relations with Greece in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt?

Our relations are very good and stable, as always. I believe we mutually have a very good understanding of each other’s positions on various issues. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu expressly thanked the Greek government for their support after the failed coup, in an interview on Turkish TV, on August 5.

Independent of potential developments on the EU-Turkey front, would Ankara be willing to work on a bilateral agreement with Greece concerning the refugees?

We already have a well-functioning bilateral protocol between Turkey and Greece, signed in 2001, long before the finalization of a readmission agreement between Turkey and the EU. Maybe it is not so visible in the shadow of the current emphasis on the islands, but according to this bilateral protocol of 2001, since the beginning of 2016, 1,098 irregular migrants have already been readmitted to Turkey via the Ipsala-Kipoi border. This means that the bilateral protocol is actually working better than the Turkey-EU one. We are of course in close contact with Greek authorities at all levels and the bilateral implementation protocol of the Turkey-EU Readmission Agreement is also under way between our two countries.

President Erdogan has been critical of the US. Some in Ankara are suggesting Washington might have supported the coup attempt.

I would describe President Erdogan’s comments as realistic rather than critical. As for the speculation of “some in Ankara,” I do not want to comment on conspiracy theories.

In various statements, President Erdogan has emphasized that Turkey, which is a strategic ally of the US, faced an attempt to overthrow the freely elected government, yet the show of solidarity came rather later than expected. He stated that the US secretary of state, for example, planned to visit Turkey on August 24, in other words, 45 days after the coup attempt. President Erdogan also expressed his desire for US officials to come up with stronger words. It does not help much that the leader of FETO is residing in Pennsylvania… This being the case, the US is Turkey’s most important ally and will remain so.

In your opinion, what part did Fethullah Gulen play in the coup attempt?

There is no doubt Mr Gulen is behind the failed coup d’etat in Turkey. However, what did come as a surprise to many was how far Gulen and FETO were able to get in their criminal activities. I understand abundant evidence is being given to US authorities. It is our strong expectation that he must be extradited to Turkey, to face justice.

Officials and analysts from the US, European countries and Russia have criticized Turkey for supporting ISIS on different occasions.

The assumption that Turkey supports DAESH is completely false. Turkey is an active and crucial player in the fight against this terrorist organization. We have been a member of the International Coalition to Counter DAESH since its inception. We have mobilized our resources for its success. Turkey has opened up its bases to Coalition aircraft. We have also been conducting comprehensive operations against this terrorist organization through our own means. Turkey is not immune from DAESH terror either. This organization is responsible for grave terrorist acts that led to loss of life in Turkey.

Is Turkey prepared to accept the termination of the anachronistic security guarantees in Cyprus, a move that would facilitate a solution?

Turkey strongly supports a solution in Cyprus. However, I would not define security guarantees as anachronistic. In the last few decades we have witnessed a series of security problems in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. It is obvious that human nature has not yet evolved to a point where we can afford to not take security measures. On the other hand, I would not define the 1960 Treaties that established the Republic of Cyprus as sacred texts either. We can and should revisit all aspects of the Cyprus question in a fresh light and with an open vision. As in every negotiation process, there is bound to be give and take.

With this in mind, I must emphasize that the Turkish Cypriots being numerically fewer on the island feel insecure and that there is near-consensus on the importance of Turkey’s continued provision of security. We also understand that the Greek Cypriots have their own concerns. Both communities have bitter experiences for different reasons. We must find ways to satisfy both these sets of concerns.

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