Turkish President Erdogan said he saw Russia and NATO as equal partners of Turkey. Photograph: (Reuters)
Turkey backs India's claim to NSG as much as it supports Pakistan's bid, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey told WION in an exclusive conversation with Ramesh Ramachandran. Erdogan also offered to be involved in a multilateral dialogue to solve the Kashmir issue with India and Pakistan, while brushing aside comparisons with the Kurdish issue in his country. Read edited excerpts of the interview here:
Q: Mr President, we are meeting a few days after your hard-fought win, the 16th April referendum. What is your state of mind? Are you satisfied? Relieved? Happy? Or, are you anxious?
A: I am happy with the outcome of the referendum. I am also grateful for the opportunity to talk to the people of India. The referendum was a success. It was important that we change a presidential form of government, an executive presidency. The changes to the constitution that we sought in the referendum will be implemented from November 2019. To my mind, the outcome of the 16th April referendum was the most important moment in the 94-year-old history of the Republic of Turkey.
Q: You are described as the strongest President ever in modern-day Turkey. But some say an all-powerful presidency is not be good for Turkey. Your comments?
A: I've been the mayor of Istanbul, I was the Prime Minister for 12 years and for the past two-and-a-half years I am the president of Turkey. We decided to change our system (into a presidential form of government) for the future of Turkey. The new system is compliant with our cultural values and I hope it is auspicious for our people and country.
Q: Your critics say you are a polarising figure, but you retain your popularity. What makes you so popular with the masses?
A: My party (Justice and Development Party) has empowered the people. Our parliamentary majority has never dropped below 60 per cent. So I don't think I polarise people. If I were that, my party would not be where it is today. Turnout in elections, including the recently concluded referendum, is more than 80 per cent.
Q: You last visited India in 2008. A number of agreements were signed at the time. What do you hope to achieve from your forthcoming visit to India?
A: I visited India in 2008 as the Prime Minister of Turkey. Since then, India has emerged even stronger. It is respected by all. For its part, Turkey's voice is easily heard all over the world. My visit will deepen Turkey-India relations. Trade volume is about US$ 6.5 billion, but it is not in the favour of Turkey. I want a win-win situation and a favourable trade balance. We opened a consulate in Mumbai in 2011 and another in Hyderabad in 2013, so it confirms the importance Turkey attaches to India. Turkey can take greater steps to export to India. A business delegation comprising 150 representatives will accompany me to India. Maybe Turkish and Indian companies can invest in third countries.
Q: Where do you stand on the issue of Jammu and Kashmir? Why does Turkey continue to support Pakistan?
A: India-Pakistan relations are improving, which makes me happy, buy it saddens me that the issue of Jammu and Kashmir has not been settled for 70 years. India and Pakistan are our friends. Faith has contributed to our ancient relations. We have followers of Islam in Pakistan. We are for strengthening dialogue between stakeholders. We should not allow more casualties to occur and by strengthening multilateral dialogue, we can be involved, and through multilateral dialogue I think we have to seek out ways to settle this question once and for all, which will benefit both countries.
I have been discussing these issues at length with my dear friend, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif. I know he is a good-intentioned man. I personally heard him speak about settling this issue once and for all.
So if we keep dialogue channels open, we can settle it once and for all. There is no better option than keeping dialogue channels open and contributing to global peace. I want this mentality to prevail among the leaders.
Q: When people say that Jammu and Kashmir is disputed, some in India might say that the demands of the Kurdish people might be legitimate, too. What would you say to that?
A: You are comparing apples and oranges. We're making a big mistake. We have no problem with the Kurdish people. We have a problem with a terrorist organisation. There is no similarity with the Jammu and Kashmir issue. The nature of the dispute is different. It is a territorial dispute. In Jammu and Kashmir, the situation is different. Let's not make the mistake of comparing them.
Q: Turkey is a member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) which routinely issues statements critical of India on the issue of Jammu and Kashmir. This, when more Muslims live in India than many other countries of the world. Why this prejudice against India?
A: A two-state solution is the basis of the OIC statements. Pakistan is 100 per cent Muslim country and there is a very serious Muslim population in India. As the OIC, we would never act against India. All we want is an open channel of dialogue to bring India and Pakistan closer and settle this dispute.
Q: The OIC also talks about self-determination as a means to resolve the Jammu and Kashmir issue. Is self-determination a sustainable solution of crises? Is it practical? Also, if it is, should it not be universally applied, be it Tibet, Taiwan, Balochistan, or even the Kurdish issue?
A: I have to explain it meticulously. The OIC represents a certain population. It has its area of influence. It has economic and political strengths, it has a say in global matters, and it can contribute to world peace. If something has been approved by all member-states, it should not be criticised, or questioned. The OIC members also have weight in the United Nations (UN.) Turkey supports India to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC.) The world is greater than five (the current number of permanent members, namely the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China). I support a plan where there will not be permanent or non-permanent members. Instead, I propose 20 UNSC members, 10 of whom can become members by rotation for a period of two years. That way all the UN members would be rightfully represented. All religions will be represented. The UN was established after the Second World War and it has never been reformed since. It has not been updated. Let us update it. The problem is the five countries don't want to give up their seats.
Q: Why is Turkey reluctant to support India as a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group?
A: We are supportive of both India and Pakistan.
Q: Why link the two?
A: We are not linking them. Both India and Pakistan have the right to aspire for NSG membership. I think India should not assume such an attitude. If Turkey was fair enough to support Pakistan, it was fair enough to support India. We are very objective and positive to the NSG process.
Q: Unlike say France, secularism is interpreted differently by Turkey. What has Turkey's experience been like?
A: My definition of secularism can never be observed in Anglo-Saxon or continental Europe. We say that all groups are at full liberty to exercise their faith...Jews, atheists, etcetera. The state is equidistant.
Q: Islamophobia is spreading in Europe and North America. France banned the Hijab, but you had a divergent view. Was it about choice and freedoms or asserting one's religious identity?
A: The Hijab is necessitated by faith, that is, Islam. The West has been aggressive towards Muslims. You can see it in the burning down of mosques, vandalising the walls of a mosque with the Swastika sign, banning Hijab, etcetera. We are not against any faith. We protect synagogues or churches from possible terror attacks. The West needs to reciprocate, but it is not doing it.
Q: Are you still interested in becoming a member of the European Union (EU)?
A: The EU was never sincere or honest. Turkey is working in vain. It's been lingering for 54 years. We fully fulfilled the Copenhagen criteria, our economy is doing much better than some EU members, we are a member of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), but we are made to wait patiently... after some time, Turkey will choose the next path of a Brexit-like referendum.
Q: When do you plan to hold it?
A: We have not decided yet. We will discuss it in Parliament, and if need be, turn to the people.
Q: Your critics say there are no media freedoms in Turkey, that journalists are threatened and jailed, that political opponents are targeted... to some around the world, your actions are indefensible.
A: Those claims are political. It is all propaganda.
Q: You have particularly been critical of exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. You accused him of plotting the failed July 2016 coup in Turkey. He was your one-time ally. Is there evidence against him or are these just allegations?
A: I don't talk without proof. He is a traitor and his involvement in the failed coup is obvious. His group has infiltrated the army, judiciary, police, schools and other State institutions. We want to cleanse the institutions of them. The Gulenists have a great network in India. They might infiltrate into the government. Please don't take them so lightly. The Indian Government should take their presence in India very seriously.
Q: What is the way forward in Syria?
A: The US and its allies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, must join forces with Russia, Iran and Turkey. Let's work together to eradicate the Islamic State.
Q: But who is your enemy number one: Islamic State or Gulen?
A: Right now, our primary enemy is the Fethullah Terrorist Organisation or FETO. The Gulenists have to be eradicated as soon as possible. The Islamic State is a remotely located terrorist organisation. Of course, we are fighting the Islamic State, but the coalition forces are not fighting the Islamic State with as much commitment as us.
Q: Can Turkey be a NATO member and hope for better ties with Russia at the same time?
A: Russia is our neighbour and we trade with it. We have positive relations with NATO, too. One cannot be favoured at the expense of the other.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talks exclusively to WION about the attempted coup, his stand on the European Union and his view on the Kashmir issue (WION)