Water cannons trained directly at people, demonstrators forced to seek asylum at Amnesty International offices in Istanbul and Ankara, a tragic death toll and the seat of Premier Erdogan’s government party in blazes: Are we facing a new crisis of democracy in Turkey? Minister for Foreign Affairs Emma Bonino seems to be ruling out the prospect of another uncontainable revolution on the opposite banks of the Bosporus: “I believe”, she observes, “that the Turkish police’s over-reaction to the peaceful demonstrations in Istanbul has revealed some contradictions in the so-called Turkish model. It is not that Turkey is in the hands of a tyrant, but rather what Alexis de Tocqueville called a “tyranny of the majority”. No one is calling into question the democratic legitimacy of Premier Erdogan, who won in fair democratic elections, but many cannot accept a political agenda devoid of the checks and balances typical of the rule of law”.
And yet, the simplistic way that public opinion is assessing major international events seems to associate the Turkish riots with the Arab spring. Is there an anti-Islamic revolt under way or is it something different?
«The Turks are not Arabs. Taksim is not Tahrir. That said, this could be a turning point in the relationship between Erdogan and the Turkish society. What’s at stake is Turkey’s ability to truly become a full-fledged democracy where open elections are only a part of a larger body of rights and responsibilities. There has to be an open attitude toward pluralism of all kinds and transparency in decision-making. If Erdogan continues to ignore all of this, democratic consensus will increasingly be called into question».
Deputy Minister Bulent Arinc has defended the police and praised the ecological movements in an effort to locate the protest within a narrow context with limited political connotations, despite the fact that demonstrations are now going on not only in the country’s major cities but also in the Turkish “republic” in northern Cyprus. Erdogan, however, has spoken of “external enemies”. What is your take on the government’s reaction to the demonstrations?
«Citing external enemies is not a sign of strength but of weakness. Freedom of expression and the right to demonstrate in a non-violent manner are among the irreplaceable pillars of democracy. Repression through the excessive use of force does not belong to a democracy that wants to be considered mature».
Do you think that the situation’s deterioration could lead the Turkish generals to revert to tradition and claim a deeper political role?
«These are very different times from those of the past. It would be absurd to imagine that the Turkish generals could be planning anything of the sort today».
Turkey has repeatedly come knocking at the doors of a skeptical Europe concerned about low democracy ratings. These new factors of instability could impact even more negatively on Turkey’s EU integration process.
«I continue to believe firmly in Turkey’s European prospects and its role in regional stability and security. What’s more, I think that a credible accession process can still have a beneficial effect on the country’s political dynamics. A stronger commitment could help set the democratic standards that Turkey is still lacking and establish a common ceiling under which those political forces so in conflict now can converge. It needs to be clarified, however, that in order for this to happen, there has to be very strong leadership in both Turkey and Europe ».
In what measure can Italy contribute?
«Italy must steadily maintain an open political approach to Turkey and try to convince our other more recalcitrant European partners, while nevertheless remaining outspoken on specific points that we consider unacceptable in Turkish politics».
How do you connect what is going on in Turkey with the tensions in Syria and in the Arab world in general?
«Erdogan’s foreign policy, which has gone from its traditional pro-Atlantic and Israel position to a geo-strategy aimed at making Turkey the region’s main actor, is a change in route not to be underestimated. Turkey, after its involvement in Syria, is suffering the backlash of a lot of critical situations».
From one scenario to another, Minister Bonino. Europe seems to be shifting the languor and weakness of the eurozone to foreign policy, but has also had some individual surges. Just a few days ago France and the UK managed to end the embargo on weapons to the Syrian rebels, prompting Russia to immediately resupply Damascus with S300 ground to air missiles – all in stark contrast to the spirit of the Geneva 2 Convention. You recently attended the meeting of the Friends of Syria, where Italy emerged the loser on the weapons embargo, but you also promised to ask the Italian parliament to take a clear stand. Will the government stand strong?
«It was really Europe that came out the loser in Brussels, where everyone seemed to be scattered. The embargo, inclusive of financial, visa and weapons sales limitations, was decided within a legal Community framework. Some restrictive measures were confirmed at a recent European foreign ministers meeting, but the “arms-yes, arms-no” question was “re-nationalised” – something I consider less than heroic, to say the least. For me the decision to be taken was not “embargo-yes, embargo-no” but to concentrate on diplomatic efforts. Europe should have allowed negotiators a few more weeks to close on Geneva 2».
The UN seems to be limping along. What role can Obama play in this situation?
«Secretary of State Kerry is working hard on this dossier and on the Middle East peace talks. But the UN is the guide in the process, and must be its guarantor and facilitator».
The Mediterranean is starting to look like a tinderbox again. There are even comparisons with the Mediterranean scenario of the 70s. To what extend must Italy’s role be strengthened?
«The processes under way are complex and full of obstacles. I remember when at the start of the 1990s the Balkans were in an ethnic cleansing frenzy. The countries that arose from the ashes however have now either joined or are preparing to join the EU. It took 20 years. The countries of the Arab spring will probably go through advances and regressions. But the Mediterranean must be the Union’s – and not only Italy’s – strategic priority, because we must never forget that it is the key to a substantial portion of our prosperity and security».