“We Need Turkey:” An Interview with Rainer Hermann

 /  March 1, 2015, 2:39 p.m.


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On February 2nd, the Niagara Foundation hosted German journalist Rainer Hermann at the University of Chicago. Dr. Hermann has covered Turkey for the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung for several decades. His new book, Where is Turkey Headed?, discusses the country’s current situation. With Turkey facing the Islamic State on its southern border, a complicated relationship with Europe to its west, and an increasingly autocratic government at home, Dr. Hermann believes that this country will prove crucial to the futures of both Europe and the Middle East.

Before his main event, Gate editors Patrick Reilly and Apratim Gautam sat down with Dr. Hermann. 

The Gate: You’ve lived in and covered Turkey for a long time. How have you seen it change in the twenty years you’ve been there? What are the big things you took away from that experience?

Rainer Hermann: Well, I lived seventeen years in Turkey, from 1991 to 2008, but I’ve been travelling to Turkey on a regular basis since 1982, when I had an internship during the summer...And I’ve seen tremendous change: a change from “old” Kemalist Turkey [organized] along the principles of the founder of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and on an ideology that was proved to be outdated. I’ve seen the transformation into a “new” Turkey, beginning with a complete reset in 2002, when economic reforms produced a middle class, and political reforms produced a civil society that was very vibrant, very creative. The beginning of this century was a golden decade for Turkey. Then, starting from 2007, we saw the first indications of turning more authoritarian. That intensified after 2011. So I have witnessed three phases: stagnation in the 1990s, then a golden decade, then turning to a Putin-type authoritarianism.

Gate: Could you please take us back to the Gezi Park protests in 2013? What was covering that like as a journalist?

Hermann: Well, the Gezi protests in May 2013 originated because [then prime minister] Erdogan had become more authoritarian and curbed personal freedoms, and the young urban society was hungry for more freedom. Erdogan also tried to impose [a] more Islamic lifestyle on these secular youth in the big cities. So they were protesting against those tendencies. The Gezi protests never had a critical mass to threaten the government of Erdogan, but they were an indication of the frustration in the young population. However, it was not seen in election results in Spring 2014. There were local elections that the AK Party won in a landslide, and Erdogan was also elected [president]. So there is a growing frustration in the urban youth. But still..during the “golden decade,” per capita income tripled. So most people identify their economic well-being with the face of Tayyip Erdogan. [They say,] “Better the devil we do know than the devil we don’t, so let’s get him re-elected.” 

Gate: You mentioned that Erdogan’s become a “Putin-esque” leader. What do you think’s prompted this shift from Erdogan’s early days as prime minister to his time as president now? Why has that changed?

Hermann: Well, of course it has changed. Erdogan’s changed very often in his political career and Erdogan is not associated with [any] ideology. There is no Erdoganism, like there is a Kemalism. Erdogan is a man of power, and he’s a shrewd politician, exploiting all possibilities in the political process. The first phase was when he was a young Islamist advocating Sharia. Then, in 1994, at the age of forty, he was elected—that was a big mayor of Istanbul. Suddenly, he became very pragmatic. He wasn’t interested in any theological questions, but in solving traffic jams, creating green areas, and solving water problems. And then, phase three [began] when he became a reformer in early 2003. He made Turkey more democratic than it ever was. And then, after a couple of years of being so successful, he didn’t adhere to any advice. He became power-corrupt [and] disconnected from the needs of the people. So he became more authoritarian. This is, I think, [an example of], “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”...But I think there might be an “Erdogan five.” He’s changing every five to ten years, according to circumstances. Therefore, I’m quite optimistic that he might change.

Gate: Has his relationship with the press changed very much in the time you’ve been covering Turkey? 

Hermann: The press is under threat. Again, in the 90s, people were detained for writing political stories. Today, people are intimidated. Many people are detained, but not for as long as [they were] in the 90s. There are a series of topics which you are not allowed to write on—for example, corruption investigations. Presently, there are more than seventy journalists on trial for their writings. For example, one journalist, Sedef Kabas, is on trial for just one tweet criticizing that corruption investigations [into Erdogan’s administration] had been dropped.

Gate: And yet despite this changing relationship with the press and protests in Gezi Park, do you still expect the elections to go in Erdogan’s favor later this year?

Hermann: Well there is no alternative. He’s a lucky man; there is no political opposition. Erdogan is very charismatic, and there’s no credible alternative in the opposition. [There are] tiny interest parties. One is representing the 15 percent, maximum 20 percent, Kemalism. Others are representing the Kurdish nationalists, a third party, the Turkish nationalists. So they are not representing the mass of the Turkish society. And the AK party is the only party which is being elected in all 81 provinces, and by people in all classes. You need to have a popular, mass-appealing party in order to challenge this one. Also, the economy is being saved by the drop of the oil price. So there is, let’s say, a relief for Erdogan on that front. However, there is an election for a new parliament this summer. So the question is whether he can gain a two-thirds majority to change the constitution. The tipping point for that is the Kurds. He wants to bring in the Kurds on his side, and he offers them a peace process with some concessions for autonomy, and he expects their support for constitutional change. Therefore, the Kurds are the tipping point, and we will see whether that works or not. At the same time, there is a political calculation. Erdogan is sincere—his wife is of Kurdish origin—in his wish to solve the Kurdish question. On the other hand, he’s a politician, and he’s calculating, “Do I win more Kurdish votes by giving Kurdish concessions than I lose Turkish nationalist votes?” That will be the game we have to watch out for in the upcoming election.

Gate: You mentioned that the drop in the oil price and the improvement in the economy saved Erdogan. Do you think that the oil price or state of the Turkish economy could be the deciding factor for Erdogan’s political future? 

Hermann: Well, there’s always that question: What or who could stop Erdogan? The economy could be one point to stop Erdogan, because the main reason he’s elected is the improvement of the Turkish economy over the last ten to fifteen years. On the other hand, Turkey’s now approaching what economists call the “middle-income trap.” It’s relatively easy to improve your economy from being a low-income country to being a middle-income country of ten to fifteen thousand dollars per capita. But then to improve from middle-income to high-income, like the US or Europe, you need many things Turkey doesn’t have...things like R&D and [strong] economic institutions. These reforms are not developed as far as necessary. Therefore, there will be a flattening in the economy, automatically. The question will be whether the economy will shrink, whether there will be a recession or not. Presently, [Erdogan’s] saved by the fact that the oil price is down by more than half. On the other hand, the current account deficit is still relatively high, and this deficit is mostly financed by short-term “hot” money. Whenever there’s a crisis in the emerging markets, this money flows out.

But I think the economy is not the biggest single threat to the rule of Erdogan. The biggest single threat is spillover from Syria. It’s an illusion to think that ISIS will be over by the end of the year; ISIS is here to stay. And they consider the Turkish Republic to be an infidel. So there is a threat that sleeper cells, which we expect to be in Turkey, will start to commit terror attacks. That would bring Erdogan into a very difficult situation, because he would no longer be viewed as the one who guarantees Turkey’s security. I think the spillover from Syria is a bigger threat to Turkey than the economy. 

Gate: It’s well known that young jihadi fighters wanting to join ISIS travel through Turkey. How is this seen by the government? Are they doing anything to stop it?

Hermann: The Turkish government has not prevented it because ISIS is a useful instrument for Turkey. ISIS fights the Syrian Kurds, [and] ISIS more or less fights the regime of Bashar al-Assad...ISIS is useful if it stays beyond the borders, [but] it becomes a threat if it spills over the borders into Turkey. There have been new reports that police have discovered cells planning on attacking Western embassies, consulates, [and] diplomatic missions in Turkey.

On the one hand, you can argue the border is very long. Turkey is a free country, it is easy to enter and leave Turkey...To reduce the flow of jihadi fighters you would need to curb that freedom to enter and exit. On the other hand, we in central Europe knew about this flow and have wondered why the Turkish security apparatus does not intervene, and it is getting dangerous. Before the January 7 attack in Paris, the wife of one of the three attackers, named Hayat Boumedienne, left Paris and flew to Istanbul, where she met a Chechen woman fighter, who committed suicide on January 6 before the attack. Haiya continued to travel towards Syria. There is a link between the cells in Istanbul, Syria, and what is happening in Europe.

Gate: If the Turkish government doesn’t take decisive action to stop flow of fighters through Turkey, into Syria, could that draw Turkey’s NATO membership into question?

Hermann: No, because we need Turkey. Turkey is a part of the problem but also part of the solution. Without Turkey it will not be possible to deal with these questions. We need to draw Turkey back into our orbit. [Currently], Turkey is drifting towards the Russian orbit for example. We need to bring them back by offering them a membership into the TTIP [Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership], and upgrading the customs union with the EU. Presently, Turkey is conducting a multifaceted foreign policy and we have to bring Turkey back, coordinating Turkey’s policy with ours.

Gate: Is an independent Kurdistan something Erdogan would support, or is Kurdistan a tool in a similar way?

Hermann: First of all, despite all the criticism against Erdogan, we have to praise him for being sincere about solving the Kurdish question. That has a lot to do with the legacy of the old Kemalist state, which had a history of excluding large segments of society. Erdogan is married to a Kurd, and as early as 1993 he wrote, while chairman of the [AKP’s] Istanbul branch, an article entitled “How to Solve the Kurdish Question Politically.” He was one of the first politicians outside the Kurdish mainstream to raise this question. He has a history of looking at the question differently from other politicians. Today, it is about his political calculation, but [it has also been] about decentralizing turkey. Turkey is highly centralized, [with] a top-down approach of the state administering the country. Erdogan had been advocating decentralization. In the 1990s, when I travelled to a remote province, the highest ranking [official] was the military commander of the area, then a governor appointed by the minister of the interior and, third, the [elected] mayor.

This is something out of date. You need some decentralization, [and] the local government [needs] more authority. I think this is part of [Erdogan’s] agenda. What is out of the question is a Kurdish state. Even the Iraqi Kurds do not follow that line presently, because as long as there is ISIS there is no question of a Kurdish state. However, looking at the Middle East you see that statehood is under threat. States are eroding, states are failing, states’ borders are disappearing, especially around the Levant. They will look completely differently in twenty years. What is happening today in the Levant is a battle for new identifies and new entities. Eventually new states will emerge from that... [After] this process, which I don’t expect to start within the next ten years, you will then have a chance for a Kurdish state.

Gate: This year we also have the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Do you see this being an issue for Turkey?

Hermann: That will again be a major issue. However, Turkey has started to deal with it in a different way than before. The reading before was, “Yes, there were massacres, but the Armenians [also] committed massacres towards the Turks. Of course we have to admit that it was a time of war and everyone killed everyone.”

However, the Turks will not admit that it was a systematic attempt to eliminate the Armenians. Why were the Armenians chosen? They were the last big segment of society that had advocated for reform of the Ottoman Empire. The Young Turks that were in power during World War I argued that they wanted a Turkish nation state. Of course, the Armenians in the Caucuses were coordinating with the Russians, which made them an enemy and added to the problem.

[Now,] there is a new understanding. Since the ’90s, identities have grown beyond that of a homogenous Turkish nation. The Kurds have become more active, the political Islamists became more active... In that respect, the Armenian question was dealt with differently. I remember a famous human rights lawyer who wrote a book named “My Grandmother,” [written when] her grandmother was close to death.  She wanted to have a lengthy talk with her granddaughter and, she started by telling her that she was Armenian. And she was there in 1915 when the family was killed. [She explained to her granddaughter that] “I was given to someone else but I was there.” 

This [book] created a debate in Turkey: What happened in 1915? [Until recently], there [had been] indoctrination that the Armenians had massacred the Turks. The debate of what really happened only started in the last ten or fifteen years. For example, recently there was a big conference at one of the private universities in Turkey, where they debated what had happened to the Armenians that were saved by [their?]Turkish Muslim neighbours. There were hundreds of thousands, if not millions, and the stories of them are [being] told. I remember being in Eastern Anatolia, meeting people celebrating Easter despite being Armenian Muslims.

These things are being talked about [now], and if you force Turkey to accept that there was a genocide, every Turk will say “no.” I want to create empathy. Turks have to understand the pain [Armenians] went through. Let’s take it step by step. The official position of many Armenians in exile, or diaspora, is that Turkey has to accept genocide and then come with reparations, both monetary and territorial.

Gate:How has Turkey’s relationship with the EU been developing? Do you think the election this year, ISIS, or the Armenian Genocide will complicate it?

Hermann: The relationship with the EU is in a very difficult phase. Turkey got negotiations for membership in 2005; within ten years, [the Turks] have to accept the chapters for membership. Eleven out of thirty-five are closed, fourteen are still open. A lot of it comes down to obstruction by countries like France and especially Cyprus. I personally think it was a mistake to admit Cyprus; every time you talk about something [related to Turkey], like an energy pipeline, Cyprus pops up. You can’t deal with any issue without solving Cyprus. This Cypriot government is not encouraging the EU to continue negotiations and it is not showing signs that they have worked hard to become members. There is no lost love on both sides.

The situation needs Erdogan to change; it needs change on both sides. The knowledge [is there] on both sides: the EU needs Turkey to deal with the Middle East, and Turkey needs the EU to become more democratic.


Patrick Reilly and Apratim Gautam


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