SETA General Coordinator Professor Duran: I don’t believe Meral Akşener is the Candidate who could replace Erdoğan

Despite the push to present Meral Akşener, the chairwoman of the newly established İYİ Party, as an alternative candidate against President Erdoğan in the run up to the 2019 presidential elections, Professor Duran thinks this will not translate into results, as a true candidate for the opposition parties is yet to be identified

Last week, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) dissident Meral Akşener announced the protracted formation of the İYİ Party (Good Party). Immediately after her announcement, the party began to receive support from Western media outlets.

Dr. Burhanettin Duran, the general coordinator of Turkey’s leading think tank, the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), acknowledged that there are some circles in Western countries and even some Gulf countries that do not want President Erdoğan to be elected president in 2019. Therefore they are supporting the new political establishment in Turkey.

Akşener was a prominent name among MHP dissidents who have heavily criticized the policies of the MHP’s 20-year chairman, Devlet Bahçeli, after the general elections on June 7 and Nov. 1, 2015. She signaled last week during the official launching of her party that she will be running for the presidential elections in 2019. Former MHP dissident candidates, Gaziantep deputy Ümit Özdağ and former Public Works and Housing Minister and Trabzon deputy Koray Aydın are also among the founders of the party.

However, the prominent academic said he believed that Meral Akşener is not the candidate who can “replace” Erdoğan, predicting that the true candidate will become apparent toward the election.

Regarding the recent visa spat between Turkey and the U.S., Duran said there are structural problems between the two countries such as the U.S.’s support of the PKK terrorist organization and the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ). Therefore, he said, strategic partnership is hollowed out between the U.S and Turkey. He also said we should expect new tensions in Turkey-U.S. relations as along as these structural problems continue.

Commenting on anti-Erdoğan rhetoric in some Western capitals, he dismissed the allegations that Turkey’s political will and the president is straying from EU values. He underlined that it is unrealistic to expect Turkey’s relations with the Western world to get back on track if the government changes with the 2019 elections as long as the next administration does not give up Turkey’s national interests.

Daily Sabah: Why do you think Meral Akşener’s newly formed political party is receiving significant support from Western media?

B.D.: They don’t want Erdoğan to be elected president in 2019. This isn’t limited to the West alone; such desire is also present in the Gulf. FETÖ and the July 15 coup attempt revealed that they want a fragile Turkey. They want to minimize Turkey’s regional activities. In short, they want a fragile Turkey, but not a broken one, as it would spread instability.

Erdoğan has become a target because he wants to strengthen Turkey; this process needs the redefinition of relations. Turkey is not in a position to impose this change; however, others aren’t willing to negotiate. For this reason, Erdoğan has become dangerous for them; he shouldn’t be elected president in 2019.

They want to form a coalition out of the opposition; they deem the simple majority as an opportunity. They will polish certain names for this purpose. We’ll have hectic domestic and foreign policies until the 2019 elections. Yes, Meral Akşener is being supported by the Western media; however, I don’t believe Meral Akşener is the candidate who could “replace” Erdoğan. They will look for another candidate besides her. Akşener is expected to steal the votes from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), while being on the same page with the anti-Erdoğan coalition. I believe the [party’s] true candidate will become apparent towards the election.

DS: How do you evaluate Turkey’s relations with the U.S.? Do you believe the two countries will be able to overcome the visa crisis and mend ties?

B.D.:I could say that this is the most critical period of the relations between the two countries. This crisis could’ve been far worse. Firstly, the U.S.’s approach was too harsh, considering Turkey and the U.S. are NATO allies. Meanwhile, Turkey sees that the U.S., a “strategic partner,” is not lending a helping hand in the fight against terrorist organizations like FETÖ and the PKK; in fact, it is protecting them.

There were past instances of crises between Turkey and the U.S.; however, this is the first time Turkey’s vital interests are being targeted and the public believes the U.S. is the perpetrator. The will to cooperate between President Trump and President Erdoğan isn’t yet extinguished. Initially, there were expectations about the formation of new fields of cooperation and resolution of existing crises. Therefore, the crises weren’t this deep.

However, the current status indicates that this is no longer the fact. It’s obvious that Trump doesn’t have sway over the U.S. institutions; meanwhile Turkey is in a position to no longer stay idle to policies targeting the country itself.

Beside FETÖ and the PKK, the Reza Zarrab trial and arrest warrants issued for Erdoğan’s certain bodyguards signifies that the crisis has evolved; the U.S. is aggressive and testy while implementing a foreign policy that redefines the country’s global role. This has negative consequences for Turkey.

In this respect, the Zarrab trial limits Turkey as well as Iran. The names of Turkish banks and politicians are being discussed; a Halkbank chief operating officer (COO) is imprisoned. It seems like the U.S. is trying to pull of an operation that targets Iran, Turkey and President Erdoğan through judicial excuses, right before the 2019 elections. It is obvious that such an attempt won’t mend Turkish-American relations. Moreover, the U.S. doesn’t have comprehensive policies on Iraq and Syria; indeed, President Trump’s new Iran strategy doesn’t seem like a comprehensive policy.

In such an environment, the U.S. has to revise its policies towards countries like Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which are at the core of the Middle East. Considering that the Trump administration is all over the place, this will be a challenge. All in all, we should expect new tensions in the relation between Turkey and the U.S.

DS: Could you elaborate on what you meant when you said “under these circumstances, the alliance between Turkey and the U.S. is meaningless?”

B.D.: Alliances rely on common interests; conflicting interests are discussed on the side. However, the alliance between Turkey and the U.S., which was once deemed as a model alliance, came to such a point that there is more crisis than consensus.

This was caused especially by the U.S.’s Syrian policy; policies aiming to force Bashar Assad to step down transformed into ones that directly support the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Moreover, the FETÖ ringleader’s residency in the U.S. and the U.S. administration’s reluctance in revealing FETÖ’s organization in the country is another cause of the tense relations.

In addition, Turkey is being targeted over sanctions on Iran. I’m not even going to talk about all the insults toward President Erdoğan that is published in the U.S. press.

Therefore, strategic partnership is hollowed out; the two countries only share intelligence and are members of the NATO. If new fields of cooperation aren’t created, crises are exacerbated and if the U.S.’s policies contradict with Turkey’s vital interests and survivability, these tensions will become structural. It may alienate the two countries in a manner that surpasses administrations and figures.

Calling the support of YPG terrorists “tactical relations” has undermined the strategic partnership between the U.S. and Turkey. Turkish-American relations should be revised. It doesn’t have to be a strategic partnership; however, interests of both parties shouldn’t contradict to this extent. Tactical targets for the U.S. are vital for Turkey. This indicates an asymmetry in the relations. The U.S. being a superpower doesn’t ensure healthy bilateral relations, or it doesn’t mean that Turkey will relinquish its vital interests just for the sake of the U.S.

President Erdoğan has started to question this strategic partnership and stated that it is discussable. Now, we see it’s completely hollow. If these relations are to be mended, an overhaul is needed. Issues should be discussed and new partnerships should be established.

DS: Do you believe that a change in the Turkish administration will renew relations between the U.S. and Turkey?

B.D.: Including Europe in the matter, Turkey’s issues with the Western allies are structural. Firstly, the international system is going through a period of uncertainty. We’re at a point where the U.S. is preparing to relinquish its role as the global leader while maintaining its presence in various matters. Trump’s wish to withdraw from multilateral agreements indicates that the U.S. no longer wants to provide security and stability to the international community; instead, the U.S. wants countries to achieve these on their own. The U.S. desires that European powers, especially Germany, participate in the redistribution of this burden.

The emergent instability in the Middle East following the Arab Spring has spread to Europe. Despite not having constant terrorist attacks and economic crises, uncertainty is ruling Europe today. Several terrorist attacks and a million refugees were enough to push the EU to extreme right movements, racism and Islamophobia. Extremist parties have increased their votes and some even become coalition partners.

These developments indicate a long-term political-ideological crisis for Europe. The EU’s future after Brexit is being discussed. Moreover, we know regions like Catalonia along with certain countries are trying to break away. In this sense, we’re currently in an age of uncertainties. Yet, we can definitely say that this dissolves the traditional alliance relations; countries might cooperate in certain fields while competing against each other in remaining field. This is a new political situation; this isn’t only true for Turkey, but also for the American-Russian relations. The relations between the U.S. and China also have the same potential in terms of tension, so does the relations with Europe. In this respect, the primary reason of tense relations between the West and Turkey is due to these uncertainties.

Another reason is peculiar to Turkey. The political will represented by Erdoğan trying to take Turkey to the next level is discomforting the West. Redefinition of relations and dissolution of the asymmetry in relations agitates them. This is the main reason why Europe and the U.S. are against Erdoğan; Turkey wants to redefine its relations according to its new role. This is not a luxury for Turkey, but an obligation.

Why does Turkey have to be more active and daring? Turkey could’ve been less daring and maintained its relations with the Western allies as it is. However, the uncertainties of the international system along with the civil wars occurring in the region forces Turkey to take action. It requires Turkey to be more active and resolve its issues with precautions.

Otherwise, countries like Turkey and Iran might have to face larger issues in a decade or two. I believe Saudi Arabia is more fragile in this respect. This crisis might lead to the dissolution of nation-states, mass influx of refugees and terrorist incursions. Therefore, according to the realities of the region, Turkey has to implement proactive policies in its bilateral relations. This proactivity is sometimes deemed as inconsistency; however, as Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stated, “One cannot walk straight in a minefield.”

The issue is that Western allies remember the old Turkey and they want Turkey to cause fewer problems to them. President Erdoğan is currently the only leader who criticizes the injustice of the current global system. It is Erdoğan who constantly speaks about the tragedy of Syrian refugees and threats posed by terrorist organizations.

DS: Turkey and Iran are getting closer. In your opinion, will it be temporary or permanent? What are the limitations?

B.D.: It depends on the actors. We’re currently at a position that both are possible. There are certain limitations, of course. Even though Turkey and Iran haven’t been in active conflict for several centuries, they’re always rivals. If Turkey and Iran were able to agree on terms, this region which became unstable with the Arab Spring would be in a completely different condition now. Iran has been expanding aggressively since the revolution; this was enabled by the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve seen Iran creating an area of influence stretching from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Lebanon through Shiism.

We’ve seen the apparent cooperation between Turkey and Iran during Barzani’s referendum in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). This referendum would’ve created a threat that could tear the region apart. Continuation of this cooperation depends on Iran’s strategic interests and whether Turkey desires to continue to cooperate with Iran.

The U.S. is trying to limit Iran; it was declared recently. For instance, the U.S. is currently trying to get Iraq and Saudi Arabia together; it is attempting to create a new identity based on Arab identity against Iran. Israel, with the support of Gulf countries and Egypt, is trying to implement a policy that could limit Iran in the midterm.

In this respect, we could assert that the Zarrab trial is about Turkey’s policies towards Iran. Meanwhile, Iran knows that Russia doesn’t want it to be too powerful in Syria. Most recently, Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu agreed on not having any Iran-backed militia on the southern parts of Syria.

All of this indicates that Iran is being limited to a certain geography. Even though the country continues to expand today, it will be constrained in the future. Nevertheless, Iran’s diplomacy is multidimensional and not dependable. Therefore, I believe this cooperation will be handled through a case-by-case basis. Even though the cooperation over Barzani’s referendum continues, we will see whether Turkey and Iran agree on Syria or the PKK.

Meanwhile, Europe is in a completely different position. Trump has implied that the U.S. would not pressure European firms too much about these sanctions on Iran; however, it’s not sustainable. If Europe is to continue to work with Iran, the U.S. won’t be able to constrain Iran. In such a situation, Turkey may be forced to cooperate with Iran, despite the challenges.

DS: Some argue that Turkey getting closer with Russia and Iran means that the country is focusing on Eurasia and that Turkey might leave NATO in the following years. What is your take on this subject?

B.D.: I don’t believe Turkey is intent on leaving NATO; these kinds of statements are an attempt to put pressure on Turkey. In a way, it is similar to the “authoritarianism” of Erdoğan alleged by the Western media. The most problematic part of the relations with the West is that they’re trying to bring Turkey to heel. However, they don’t understand that these structural relations have adverse effects on Turkey and harms Turkey in its relations with the Western countries. The PKK and FETÖ being supported by the West minimize Turkey’s benefits from these relations. For this reason, despite its historical rivalry with Russia and Iran, Turkey is cooperating with these countries.

In this respect, cooperation with Russia and Iran doesn’t mean that Turkey has good relations with them; it means Turkey’s relations with the West are becoming meaningless. A new definition that supports Turkey’s needs and interests is needed. This is not about shift of axis; it’s a preference between bilateral relations with neighboring countries and a crumbling alliance.

DS: What is your opinion on allegations that Turkey is moving away from Europe?

B.D.: If this is about Turkey not being allowed to become an EU member, Erdoğan’s call for the EU to decide is justified. Turkey has been waiting on EU’s door for years; this is unprecedented. Nevertheless, Turkey leaves this decision up to the EU. This decision has consequences regarding the economy, trade and stability. Turkey’s relations with the EU facilitate stability in the Balkans and Eastern Europe.

Similarly, Turkey’s prosperity is crucial for the EU; they haven’t resorted to direr initiatives against Turkey as they know the country’s importance for Europe. Turkey buffered the Syrian crisis. When a million refugees started to walk into Europe, they were in a panic. First Brexit took place, and then many countries in Europe submitted to populism and the extreme right. It is clear that a crisis between Turkey and the EU will lead to instability in the Balkans and Eastern Europe.

Moreover, Russia will put more pressure on the EU, forcing Europe into a state of uncertainty and crisis. Therefore, Turkey only wants a symmetrical relation with EU. Turkey has been going through turbulence since 2013. It’s facing terror, refugees and instability that could collapse any European country. Turkey didn’t receive any support from the U.S. or Europe; on the contrary, they have attempted to undermine Turkey.

Domestic issues, harsh opposition and the July 15 coup attempt didn’t cause any change in Turkey’s alliances. The arrests of certain journalists and European citizens are being criticized; however, if similar events had taken place in Europe, they would’ve been a lot harsher than Turkey. Even the rise of extreme right parties in Europe gives us that hint.

DS: In the West, it is alleged that Turkey’s political will and president are straying from EU’s values. How do you evaluate this?

B.D.: This is a structural issue. If Erdoğan was against it, he wouldn’t have started the accession progress with the EU. Erdoğan negotiated Turkey’s integration with sincerity. Turkey can’t wait until forever; for this reason, it’s asking EU to make a decision. They’re claiming that Turkey’s anti-terror legislations isn’t compatible with the EU; yet, it’s unjust to criticize Turkey over this legislation while they don’t provide the necessary support to the country in its fight against terrorist organizations.

European values shouldn’t be remembered only when criticizing someone. Turkey’s issues have evolved into a matter of survival. Can you imagine what would France, Austria or Germany do if they neighbored Syria? Turkey is open to criticism; however, it’s only meaningful when Turkey is supported in this matter. No European country did this; the PKK and FETÖ lobbies gained ground in Europe.

DS: Some assert that if the government changes with the 2019 elections, Turkey-EU relations will get back on track. What is your take on this subject?

B.D.: I believe it has two dimensions. Firstly, negotiations with EU are at a deadlock and there are structural issues about refugees and fighting against terrorism. These issues cannot be resolved unless the EU takes action. As long as the U.S. and European powers fail to reach a consensus in Iraq and Syria, these issues will continue to be present.

On the other hand, if they are to get closer to Turkey, disband the PKK and FETÖ lobbies, and support Turkey’s fight against terrorism, with the condition of getting rid of Erdoğan, this is a blatant issue. It means that they have the capacity to do all this now, but they aren’t just because Erdoğan is the leader of Turkey.

We have to discuss what Erdoğan represents. In this respect, Erdoğan is a leader that protects Turkey’s interests, that is against the asymmetry in relations with the West and acts to correct this asymmetry. This means that if Turkey is to be at better terms with the West if a new leader holds the power, what this leader is to do would be against Turkey’s interests.

Erdoğan is a pragmatic leader and has taken the risk to improve the relations with Europe. Support for the EU increased even in the rural areas because of him. If the EU is unable to work with this leader, it signifies that the EU has issues with its policies toward Turkey. If the new leader bows to their will, this might relieve the tensions with the EU, but it will not solve any other issues, including terrorist organizations.

[Ali Ünal, Daily Sabah, 29 October 2017]

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