At every turn there are winners and losers

Published: August 7, 2012 - 16:40

Face to Face: Dr Burak AkÇapar, Turkey’s Ambassador to India

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi 

“Turkey and India are on the right side of history,” remarks Dr Burak AkÇapar, Turkey’s Ambassador to India. Bringing in erudition and experience to this important assignment, Dr Akcapar believes that success can come to his country only if the neighbourhood is also on the winning side. Unhappily for him, Syria, with whom Turkey shares a long border and also has had good relations, is on a downward slide and living through a doomsday scenario. This career diplomat and author of books on foreign policy feels that urgent action is required to prevent Syria from turning into a major human tragedy. Associated with the ‘Istanbul Process’ to bring stability to Afghanistan, Dr Akcapar believes that the landlocked country has all the attributes to thrive in the future. As for Turkey-India ties, he expects a surge in the relationship. Excerpts from an interview with Hardnews. 


Turkey’s strategic location, its rich history and civilization, has been defining the happenings in Europe as well as in parts of West Asia. In recent years, its large economy and healthy growth rate has made it a major player in global politics. How does your country perceive the rapid changes that are taking place in your neighborhood and beyond?

The international system is, at any time, under evolution. In certain epochs change becomes more ubiquitous. This is one of those times. At every turn there are winners and losers. Turkey, like India, is among those who are on the right side of history. Future international orders will have to include more of India and Turkey in its decision-making and value systems. Turkey reflects the right values as a democratic, secular, and social State governed by the rule of law as well as a liberal free market economy. The nation has the right attributes, a strong economy with a solid financial base, a transformative foreign policy that is a force for good in the world, a youthful and educated population, a vibrant and progressive society, to name but a few. Turkey appears as a rare winning ticket at the heart of a vast geography. However, for us to fulfill our potential, we need our neighbourhood to be also on the winning side. This is possible even though currently we are hearing nothing but doom and gloom, both in Europe to our west and in West Asia to our east and south. There is an opportunity in every challenge and we must seize it and guide it towards win-win formulas, both for Turkey and its neighborhood.


 One of the outcomes of the Arab Spring is the stirring endorsement of what is called the ‘Turkish model’, where Islam coexists with democracy and indigenous interpretation of modernity. In the countries that are trying to shake off the past, the Turkish model is suggested by many in the West and elsewhere as a system of power sharing which can bring peace and prosperity to these countries. Is Turkey playing a role in helping countries like Egypt and Tunisia in their transition to a new order?

What is most important is not what Turkey or the West thinks but rather what the protagonists of the Arab Spring think. For them, Turkey is an inspiration if not a model. Turkey is an economic behemoth even without drilling a significant drop of oil or gas or nuclear energy, thanks to the hard work and skills of its people and the transparency and effectiveness of its governance model. People around us have been following Turkey’s journey towards a staunchly pluralistic democracy and have been asking themselves why they can’t enjoy the same. Turkey does not have democratization programmes to promote its model but the demonstrative effect is unavoidable for the nations surrounding Turkey. They are entitled to every benefit that we Turks have been enjoying -- in the political or economic sphere. We wish them well and would never shy away from supporting the aspirations of the people, whichever way they need it.


 Turkey still has unresolved issues about the practice and interpretation of Islam, especially when it comes to women’s rights. We hear strong opposition from women’s groups about the use of hijab and the growing Islamisation of what was an extremely progressive and secular society. Is the growing tide of Islamic fundamentalism worrisome for a
traditionally secular society
like Turkey?

Personally, I am proud of the fact that there is a constant debate on how Turkey governs itself. Turkey has become a debating society or, as Amartya Sen puts it for India, an argumentative nation. The participatory stance of our people is the very essence and guarantee of our democracy. But, ultimately, secularism is a permanent feature of our democracy. In terms of women’s rights, I can only hope that the strength and zeal of women to seek and protect their rights never dim, neither in Turkey nor anywhere else. The world will never be a just place until women secure complete equality and break through all glass ceilings. On the question of fundamentalism, I would be more concerned about relatively more stealthy but nonetheless steady rise of xenophobia and Islamophobia, than a marginalized idea and proponents of so-called Islamic fundamentalism. That said, education remains at the core of a balanced society and Turkish religious vocational schools allocate 60 per cent of their curriculum to natural sciences. That is not the case in many other countries, including some of those which face severe problems.


 It seems you are on the threshold of going to war with a neighbour with whom your country was very close. The bringing down of your jet and the aggressive finger-pointing that we have been witness to in the recent past suggests a serious rapture between two neighbours. Syria says that Turkey had no problems with their system of government all these years and never advised to change to participatory western style democracy. Is there merit in this accusation? If so, what has changed?

The unfolding tragedy in Syria will go down as another dark chapter in human history and international systemic failure. The recurring sights of tanks firing indiscriminately against cities, and, indeed, against their own cities, leave no room for moral ambivalence. Turkey will continue to side with the Syrian people who are running in masses towards Turkey. The current Syrian government’s disinformation machinery is part of the regime’s survival kit. It’s like they are using the muddy false propaganda booklet that some long forgotten tyrant has lost somewhere. Obviously, Turkey has been acting with responsible restraint throughout this tragedy with good reason.


 What is the way out in Syria? Do you fear that Al-Qaida and the salafists could cause a sectarian war in this region? Is there a way out from this doomsday scenario?

Syrian people are currently living the doomsday scenario. People are being killed en masse every day. Protraction of this war would only invite further misery and complications. All this could have been avoidable in the beginning if the government had chosen to listen and respond to its people. Relinquishing power immediately is now the only option. The idea of an interim government has already entered the international agenda. For the rest, one has to trust the great Syrian nation which is a gem in the Middle East. We must put aside other theoretical concerns and focus on the current challenge. Not doing enough and worrying about what is next would only help worst nightmares turn into self-fulfilling prophesies. 


 The US will draw down its troops from Afghanistan in 2014. How does Turkey, which held a conference in Istanbul on Afghanistan, look at the war-torn country and how does it hope peace will return to this region?

Afghanistan belongs to the Afghans. We admire their courage, resolve and culture. History has been unkind to this country. But, history has also been unkind to those who presumed they can subjugate Afghan people. Afghanistan has every asset to thrive in the modern day. In the end, the solution in Afghanistan has to be political. It has to be inclusive of all segments of its rich social tapestry. And it must be an Afghan solution. Turkey has appealed to the common interest of all regional countries in the stability of Afghanistan. I was very satisfied with the cooperation of my Indian colleagues. Turkey has led the Istanbul Process to help turn Afghanistan from a theater of war and competition into crossroads of cooperation at the heart of Asia. After the Istanbul Conference last year, a number of meetings were held in this context including at the ministerial level in Kabul last month. We will continue our efforts in cooperation with other related major initiatives.  There are no short-cuts or quick fixes. But a positive scenario does exist.


 India has historical ties with Turkey, but they have not reached their full potential. What is
the reason?

Turkey and India are among the most significant success stories of our day. We look at India’s rise with admiration and joy. Similar feelings exist in India towards Turkey. I am made aware of this as I travel around the country. There is strong interest in visiting Turkey and developing robust business ties. Everyone I meet have the most positive words to say about Turkey and the Turks. This is no coincidence. Turks and Indians have historical and strong cultural links and affinities which have been forgotten for several years but are now being rediscovered. I believe we are in the process of redefining our relationship to accommodate the opportunities that exist for both countries. Both nations expect a surge in their relationship. Much of it is already happening without ado. I am truly encouraged by the growing momentum which is driven bottom up by our businessmen and people. From trade to tourism, our relations have broken every record in recent years. However, what lies ahead can be more exciting than anyone has yet realised.


 What do you propose to do to deepen ties between the
two countries?

First and foremost, we must continue with that plentiful which is already underway ranging from political contacts and consultations to investment relations. Turkey and India are expanding the scope of their regional consultations and that is good news. One revealing observation as Ambassador has been the number of low hanging fruits that have never been collected to date. Our relations would receive an unprecedented boost if some basic strides can be achieved. On several of those I am hoping to convince Indian counterparts to take a step. These include increasing the frequency and destinations of Turkish Airlines/Air India flights. The application has been made on unusually lucrative terms to the Indian aviation sector and is awaiting official approval.

A similar priority should be on facilitating trade exchanges. The 2011 statistics have demonstrated record numbers of bilateral trade at around $7.3 billion, $6.5 billion of which are India’s exports. That points to more than 80 per cent increase over the preceding year. Turkey imports $240 billion and India imports $370 billion annually and our bilateral figures are rudimentary for two G-20 economies. Turkey ranks merely 36th in India’s list of suppliers. A comprehensive economic cooperation agreement would unlock the true potential and the ball is again on the Indian side as we await India to sign the Joint Study and Start negotiations.

The two countries must do a better job in increasing awareness among their peoples, politicians, bureaucrats, businesspersons, journalists, artists, actors and others. Turkey will inaugurate the Yunus Emre Turkish Cultural Center in Delhi in 2013. Overall, I am also counting on the visionary leadership of His Excellency Pranab Mukherjee by holding within one year the first ever presidential visit to Turkey from India since 1998. I believe President Abdullah Gül was the first world leader to congratulate President Mukherjee on the day of his election and invite him to Turkey. Presidential and prime ministerial visits are unique drivers of bilateral relations and we haven’t had that from India since President KR Narayanan, 14 years ago, and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, nine years ago.  

Face to Face: Dr Burak AkÇapar, Turkey’s Ambassador to India
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi 

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