Hannes Swoboda interview: Erdoğan may still be strong, but he weakened Turkey

The leader of the second largest political group in the European Parliament (EP) said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s “parallel state” theory, which he has been using to explain away corruption charges, is not convincing.
Hannes Swoboda, the leader of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, said Erdoğan has lost his vision for Turkey and is instead perhaps focusing on his own personal fate. Speaking on “Avrupa Masası” (European Desk), which aired Monday evening on STV Haber TV, Swoboda told host and the Zaman daily’s Brussels Bureau Chief Selçuk Gültaşlı that they were really concerned about the unfolding events in the wake of the corruption scandal of Dec. 17.Stressing that Turkey has lost its status as a model to Arab Spring countries, the socialist leader argued that Erdoğan, who had successfully pursued a policy of reforms since 2002, has now started to weaken the country.

The following are excerpts from Swoboda’s remarks during his interview on STV:

First of all, I want to mention that if I speak about Turkey, I speak about a candidate country and therefore I [have] the right, or even the obligation, to comment. A decision has to be [made] about Turkey. It is not against one or the other side. But we are concerned. We are concerned that developments are not going in the direction of a future membership but away from future membership. Of course it is up to Turkey, the government, Parliament and the people to decide what way they want to go, but I think you cannot say we want to be a modern country, we want to be a European country respecting European values and then in fact go the other way by restricting some freedoms and values. This is the contradiction we find in [the] Turkey of today.

This is your personal assessment, and now the EP is in the process of [having] Dutch Christian Democrat Ria Oomen-Ruijten draft the Turkey progress report. What is the perception in general in Brussels? How do people see what’s unfolding in Turkey?

I think this is not only my personal impression; in general we see the developments very critically. Turkey for us is an important partner. It is a candidate country but also a partner in the region. And we deplore the developments that [are] weakening Turkey [because it didn’t] follow the line in the past. The first years of Prime Minister Erdoğan’s government were years of reform, pushing back the role of the military, [and so on].

And then you personally, strongly supported it.

Yes, yes, absolutely. Because we said, ok, it’s about Turkey, it is not about party affiliation. But when we [saw] the turnaround, we didn’t change our opinion. It’s just, in Turkey, the prime minister and the government changed. It’s his direction [that has changed].

You think so? Do you think he has changed his direction?

I think the vision he had for Turkey, of modern Turkey opening up, was a good vision. But he lost that vision and maybe he is thinking about his personal fate. Anyway, I remember discussions where people would say, “But Mr. Erdoğan has a hidden agenda.” I didn’t see the hidden agenda in the beginning, maybe it was there already. But now we have a different agenda. That’s our problem.

So what is this different agenda?

I think it’s an agenda of closing; it’s an agenda of personal aspirations, becoming president or whatever. But of transforming the society, now it’s up, of course, to all political forces who want to transform the society. [When] he is more respectful of religion, or when we discussed the question of [the] headscarf, I was very open to changes there because it was too strict. … [When he said], “Everybody who is against me is part of a conspiracy,” [as] it was with the Gezi Park, it is now [the same] with the judiciary and the police. Conspiracy from the outside. I mean, that’s not a modern approach to these issues.

Erdoğan is explaining the unfolding events [through] a theory of international conspiracy almost exactly the same as [how] he explained [the] Gezi Park incidents. Even [the] EU is mentioned as one part of the conspiracy in pro-government media.

But why should we have a conspiracy? We want Turkey as an ally. In that fragile situation with Syria and others, maybe we have different opinions on, for example, Syria and the question of intervention in Syria, but why should we have conspiracy against [Turkey].

Because you do not want a rising Turkey in [its] region.

Why not? It would be important. Because it was always the idea to see a Muslim country which is a democratic country to prove to Egypt and all the others in the region that it is compatible [to have] democracy and strong Islam[ic] faith. That is the big issue for the whole region, and therefore we were interested in having a strong Turkey.

Erdoğan is talking about a parallel state within the state and argues that he is struggling against this parallel organization. Is this argument convincing [to] you?

No, we [have seen] these claims all along. It is like the “hidden agenda” [argument] once used against the government. We see parallel states everywhere, in Gezi Park, in [the] corruption scandal. Then the question is, how come the prime minister could not realize that there was such an organization?

The AK Party [Justice and Development Party] has been in power for the last 12 years.

If there is a parallel state, it is impossible that Erdoğan did not know it. Perhaps he was in a coalition and that coalition fell apart; I do not know. But it is important that Erdoğan should start to see the realities. The reality is not the existence of parallel states but the existence of problems. … Erdoğan should use every opportunity to sort out these problems.

Many experts argued that Turkey could have been a source of inspiration for the Arab countries in the wake of [the] Arab Spring.

I was in Egypt then in Tunisia in December. Nobody speaks about Turkey as a model anymore. That is also lost. Turkey lost its position to mediate between Palestinians and Israel[is]; Turkey lost its position as a model for the region. And that’s bad. Because this would be [to] our help.

You had believed in that?

Of course it could be, it should be. But it is not the case anymore.

The AK Party has hastily prepared a draft law on the [Supreme] Council of Judges and Prosecutors [HSYK], which was already amended in 2010. Experts criticize the draft as it endangers the principle of separation of powers.

Well, as you said it, is a European principle to have [the] separation of powers. There are always links, but you have a separation with [the] legislative sector, the administrative sector and the judiciary sector. And especially the judiciary should be independent. Because this is what also Erdoğan counted [on in] the beginning, to say, “Look, if we have some problem with the military…” Now, he wants to reopen the whole case against the military. Then let’s have an independent, a really independent judiciary, who can judge on it. This is one of the basic principles of a modern democratic society.

When you called on the CHP [Republican People’s Party] in 2010 to support the constitutional amendments, you were almost lynched by your sister party. Now it is the same. [It is] Erdoğan who wants to change the amendments of Sept. 12, 2010.

I think, unfortunately, it is a personal issue. People who start good, who start well and develop well, they see too much protest because they have long been in government. Then they think everything is turning against them and that they have to react, sometimes by changing laws and regulations that are good. I th
ink he should … think about it. The president of the country plays a positive role, and he [Erdoğan] should listen more also to President [Abdullah] Gül and other people, not only to his small entourage. He should start a real dialogue with the opposition and also with society.

It is very interesting that you refer to a “small entourage.” One of the confidants of Erdoğan, the former minister of interior, İdris Naim Şahin, also highlighted a small group of people around the prime minister when he resigned.

Very often leaders, if they are in a certain position for too long, then like to listen only to people who confirm their position and their opinion. But really strong leaders need an entourage [that] can also say critical words. In the end, of course, the leaders decide. But the leaders can only make a good decision if they have a broad circle of people around [them] and dialogue with the society, with all parts of the society.

Almost 2,000 police chiefs and officers have been removed [since the graft probe started].

It’s strange. Because maybe if a chief did something wrong, then you have to change [his position]. That can happen. But to change so many police … there must be real proof that there is an organization [that] is trying to disrupt society and the state and the rule of law. But if there is nothing on the question of corruption, for example, why did the ministers resign? If this is fake, if this is only an image created by some policemen, then the ministers would not have [had] to resign. It’s difficult from [the] outside to see through. But again, I think we should ask, and we will have the opportunity to have Mr. Erdoğan [at] the European Parliament and also [to talk] with him. And we will ask him to return to the beginning of his premiership, which was one of progression we were looking [forward to].

Erdoğan will be visiting Brussels on Jan. 21 and you will have the chance to speak to him. What message will you convey?

I will tell him: Look, you started well. I supported you, irrespective of not having this political alliance, because we want to have a modern, strong Turkey. But you weakened Turkey. Maybe you are still strong. You know perfectly well that [there] always comes a turning point; very strong people can be all of a sudden very weak. Go back to the principles and the values we share in Europe with Turkey. For example, the separation of powers, respect for the opposition — not only the political opposition, but also the people — [the] Kurdish issue. You started well [in bringing forth] a solution; it would be very important for the whole region to have this kind of dialogue with the Kurdish people in Turkey going on. There have been some good steps. But the whole calls for reform have been interrupted.

If the draft law on HSYK passes through Parliament, do you think it will have any effect on EU-Turkey relations?

I think it will, but again, I can only repeat my demand to the European Union: Start Chapters 23 and 24, which are the chapters dealing with the rule of law. ***But you should be criticized here. Not you personally, but the EU. It is the EU [that] did not open these chapters.

Absolutely. It’s crazy to talk about regional policy with Turkey. This is not the issue. The issue is fundamental freedoms and human rights. The best possibility [is] to discuss these with Turkey and to say, “Look, if you want to join the European Union, let’s open the dialogue on that.” And, again, I will repeat that demand to the ministers. Unfortunately, they are not courageous enough.


Hannes Swoboda Profile

Hannes Swoboda is a member of the European Parliament and the leader of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats group. Within the Parliament he represents the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ). Having studied law and economics at the University of Vienna, Swoboda worked at the Vienna Chamber of Labor and held a number of different functions within the SPÖ.

In 1988, he became a municipal councilor in Vienna. Swoboda signed the manifesto of the Spinelli Group, an initiative founded with a view to reinvigorate efforts for the federalization of the European Union.

In the European Parliament he is also a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs as the rapporteur for Russia.

Since 1997, Swoboda has been the vice president of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with Southeast Europe. Much of his parliamentary work is focused on the Balkans — he is chairman of the Parliamentarian Working Group on Western Balkans — the Middle East, Turkey and the Maghreb. He was also rapporteur for the accession of Croatia to the EU.