The leader of the Future Party, Ahmet Davutoglu, strongly criticizes the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan because, as he claims, the Turkish president’s partners are aiming to mold the Turkish Constitution into something resembling the Chinese model.
He also believes that Turkey has been isolated in the region of the Eastern Mediterranean as Erdogan’s personal relations have affected the way foreign policy is implemented.
We met Davutoglu in the offices of his party in the Halkali suburb of Istanbul. We have met before, both during his visit to Athens and former prime minister Alexis Tsipras’ visit to Izmir.
Our meeting was arranged after several requests. He welcomed us warmly. Hospitable, he won us over with his first positive remarks. He talked to us about the high regard he has for the Greek minority of Istanbul, their importance for Turkey, and his Greek academic friends.
We were very interested in meeting Davutoglu, and not just because he is the leader of an opposition party. His views and vision are taken very seriously as he shaped the basic tenets of Turkish foreign policy from 2002 to 2016. Firstly, as a national adviser on foreign policy before becoming foreign minister from 2009 to 2014, and finally as prime minister until 2016.
This is why we began our conversation discussing why he left and founded a new party. How did one of Erdogan’s most important collaborators, who defined the country’s foreign policy, depart and cross over to the opposing camp.
“For the same reasons and principles I served as an adviser to Mr Erdogan, and later as his foreign minister and prime minister. I left for the same reasons and causes,” he says, claiming that “the AKP (Justice and Development Party) of 2002, when I was an adviser, supported efforts to create a political climate of freedom against various bans. In the past I was part of the party as I could express the rationale of freedom and departed when I discovered I did not have that opportunity. But the time came when the AKP abandoned this stance that applied to everyone. Turkey has now adopted an approach of criticizing anyone who has a dissenting opinion, even accusing them of being terrorists and traitors.”
Davutoglu reveals that all minorities are represented in the founding membership of his new party. People from the Greek, Jewish and Armenian minorities. There are also Kurds and Alawites. He complains that “the AKP has now left the path of moral politics. There is nepotism, a lack of transparency in public bidding, and many more.”
Our conversation with Davutoglu also touched on issues of foreign policy and the theory of “zero problems with neighbors,” which he claims he will achieve. When we surmised if the theory was utopic, he stressed that “zero problems with neighbors was not a utopia, it was a shift in mentality. The image of Turkey today is one in conflict with everyone and closing in on itself.”
Davutoglu considers the deal between Turkey and the European Union on migration as particularly important because it led to the liberalization of EU visas for Turkish citizens. “This deal bothered some circles in Turkey who do not want the country on a European path, in the same way it bothered those in Europe who also do not want this path,” he claimed.
At the same time, he reminds us that “we lived through a terrible event, where a gang opposing democracy attempted to stage a coup in Turkey. Our country and our people responded in an appropriate way to this attempt as did I that night when I took a clear stand and addressed the people in support of democracy.”
Davutoglu claims that the period immediately following the coup attempt was critical. “Turkey had two choices. Either it would build a true democracy and look out towards the world, or succumb to the prevalent mood following the coup, would be led into absolutism. Unfortunately, despite our warnings, the president and the party leadership decided to change the political system governing Turkey. They chose a presidential system. This intrinsically changed the nature of politics in Turkey.”
The president of the Future Party also decried the way foreign policy is implemented in Turkey. He stresses that “this is how foreign policy changed. Instead of institutional contacts and strategic horizons, there were now personal relations. Meaning that if Mr Erdogan and Mr Putin have good relations, then our relations with Russia are also good. The same thing happened with Mr Trump and relations between Turkey and the United States. This completely removes strategy from the board, replacing it with a psychological factor.”
Greece is not making the right moves in the Eastern Mediterranean
Davutoglu expresses his concern about the situation in Turkey and speaks negatively of the Turkish president’s partners. “There are now new partners of Mr Erdogan, Mr [Devlet] Bahceli and mainly Mr [Dogu] Perincek. We might also have maintained good relations with China in our time, but we had never talked about following a Chinese model. We held up the European model as the democratic ideal. The approach used by Turkey today is constantly moving it away from the European model of democracy and government,” he says.
The former prime minister claims that Turkey is facing a return to its grim past. “This is like a return to the 90s. The AKP took power bolstered by a wind of freedom against the ‘February 28 coup.’ Important figures of that coup are now fellow travelers with Erdogan. We are at a critical junction,” he stresses.
Davutoglu is pessimistic not just about the political governance of Turkey, but also the country’s economy. “Unfortunately, our country is struggling both with its democratization and its economy. When I left the prime minister’s office the GDP per capita was 11,000 dollars. The total value of the GDP had reached 876 billion dollars. Today, the per capita income has fallen to 8,000 dollars and the total GDP of Turkey is about 700 billion dollars. This means that every Turkish citizen is now 3,000 dollars poorer. There is also a significant regression in democratic values.”
We asked Davutoglu about the tensions in Greek-Turkish affairs. We wondered how these two countries, despite their differences, had not recently faced an escalation like that seen following the events of 2020, like the Evros border crisis, the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, and the crisis in the summer over the Oruc Reis research vessel.
When it comes to the issue of the Eastern Mediterranean, Davutoglu seems to agree with Erdogan, stressing that “I do not think that the steps taken by Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean are right at all. There can be no scenario in which Turkey is confined to the Gulf of Antalya, it can never work and will ruin the essence of Greco-Turkish relations. Turkey has the longest coastline in the Mediterranean. Anyone who thinks that the island of Kastellorizo and Cyprus is enough to trap Turkey in the Gulf of Antalya must know that Turkey will strongly react to this as it is a vital issue to the existence of the state. This holds true for the Aegean as well,” he made clear.
When we asked him how the irreconcilable positions of Greece and Turkey can be resolved or moved past, Davutoglu characteristically replied that “Turkey and Greece must compartmentalize their differences and try to work together and make progress in other endeavors, like creating a region of economic and political strength in the Eastern Mediterranean.”
He admits that the policies of Ankara have left the country isolated in the region and remarks that “Turkey did not manage to sustain a consistent policy, and this is something I must criticize. If our foreign policy towards the European Union, a policy I turned over to my successor following my departure, had been sustained we would not have experienced the recent Greco-Turkish crisis. This tension would have been minimized as part of a wider framework of Turkish European prospects. But Turkey’s drift from the European Union was firmly cemented after the 2017 elections and the plebiscite.”
We asked Davutoglu what he had discussed with the Greek governments during his term and if he had managed to resolve any issues when he was in office.
“A good atmosphere is essential in maintaining relations. We had a good relationship with Mr [George] Papandreou, he had even joined a meeting of our ambassadors in the city of Erzurum. I do not believe that differences can be resolved by any single move, but we must change the atmosphere. When there is a feeling of trust in talks, then the severity of our problems is reduced. If there is no trust however, any spark can lead to war. This applies in general, not just in Greco-Turkish affairs,” he makes clear.
Exploratory talks must continue
Davutoglu does not seem optimistic that an easy solution will be reached as regards the fundamental differences between Greece and Turkey, referring to the “problems in the Aegean, like the issue of continental shelf or the Flight Information Region (FIR), will continue to exist. We cannot wait for a solution. We just have to find common ground and interests to forge a working relationship.”
He notes that “the mutual trust between Greece and Turkey has unfortunately been broken. In Greece they must not make the mistake of thinking that ‘with the help of the European Union we will make Turkey kneel,’ because that will only show that they do not know Turkey well enough. Ankara has a lot of bilateral relations with many EU members.”
We ask what kind of policies he would pursue with Greece if he took over the governance of Turkey.
“I would activate the conventional prime minister meetings. I would say, ‘Come and let us talk.’ I would bring all available mechanisms to bear. Exploratory talks, I would reinforce confidence building measures in the Aegean. I would reassess relations with countries outside the Mediterranean region who act against the interests of another country. For example, forming relations with the United Arab Emirates, who have no relation to the Mediterranean, makes no sense. I would ask for the creation of common committees to examine various issues such as Libya, where instead of a field of competition there could be peace. Everyone will come out a winner.”
We remind him of something he had said about Kastellorizo when he was a minister, when he had claimed that it is in the Mediterranean and had attempted to separate it from negotiations on the continental shelf in the Aegean. He replies that he has not changed his mind.
“Of course, everyone can share their views and opinions on geography. But if you consider Kastellorizo a continuation of the Aegean, we must make it clear that an island cannot affect the continental shelf. Geographically it is not part of the Aegean. If you draw the line of the Aegean all the way to Kastellorizo, then the next step will be drawing it to Cyprus! And it is not part of the Aegean geographically, and it is a special case in international law. But if you choose to include Kastellorizo in a triangle with Crete and Cyprus, you are effectively trapping Turkey. There is no logic to this,” he insists.
Davutoglu, like most officials in Turkey, refers to the matter of so-called “gray zones” in the Aegean and sets out his own policy, by declaring that “exploratory talks must be continued. Both sides must refrain from any action over the disputed islands and islets to avoid a dangerous escalation. The issue of Kastellorizo must be examined separately.”
We ask if he keeps up contact with any Greek politicians and he replies that he often exchanges messages with former conservative minister Dimitris Avramopoulos, who even sent him birthday wishes. “It is the same with Mr Papandreou, he sent me best wishes for the New Year.”
What he remembers from his contacts with Greek politicians is that “Mr [Alexis] Tsipras is very human, natural. Mr Papandreou has lineage from his family, he has that culture and self-confidence. You can talk with him and it can be a conversation between two intellectuals. There were no dividers between us. Mr Tsipras is more unostentatious, a man who was part of the people, he was easy to talk to, but it needed some time. I had no quarrel with them.”
When asked whether he had met Kyriakos Mitsotakis, he replies: “I have not met the Greek prime minister. What I wanted to say to him is that even if there are differences between us, he should remember about personal diplomacy. The human factor. It can hurdle many obstacles. But if you stay wedded to hate, prejudice and threats, then you are poisoning these human relations. We must not forget that we are people from the same geography. We have a different religion and language, we can respect one another and overcome our issues. We should talk without using third countries. Anyone who steps into the Greek-Turkish crisis is doing so for his own interest. We must unite the two sides of the Aegean,” he insists.
On our way out of Davutoglu’s office we tell him we hope to meet him again soon, if not in Istanbul, perhaps in Athens. “I hope so too, I like Athens,” he says.