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“Europe should have less fears and prejudices about Turkey now”

Interview - May 13, 2013
Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister World Report, Beşir Atalay speaks with World Report about the huge strides Turkey has made in economic and social development over the past decade, as well as its role as peacekeeper and model for other Muslim countries
Turkey is going through a very exciting time at the moment. It is the 16th largest economy in the world, and Prime Minister Erdoğan is promising to make Turkey one of the ten most developed countries by 2023 for the Centenary of the Republic. What do you think are the biggest challenges to this?
Thank you very much for your visit and for taking on this project to promote Turkey. The secret of our economic success is the political stability we have had. Our government is now in its 11th year in power, and political stability has been the basis of our economic success. When we took over power, we started with an inflation rate of about 30% and we had to deal with the IMF. We had to sign a protocol with them to restore economic stability. Secondly, we started negotiations with the EU, and that has given confidence to investors.
Following that, we also took steps to democratise and normalise the country and we took very serious reforms on. We have now finished with the IMF programme, but we have never slackened our discipline and consistency with regard to the economy. The main factor in our success was political stability. Before our government, there were short-lived coalition governments, which did not provide any political stability. For us, democratisation and democratic reforms also increased the confidence of foreign investors. We are not an oil producing nation and therefore foreign trade and foreign investment is vital for our economy. Before our party came to power, Turkey could not attract much foreign investment. It could attract at most one billion dollars’ worth of foreign investment annually. After we restored confidence amongst foreign investors, we had an average of $20 billion per annum of foreign investment in Turkey. Of course our production and export figures increased as well.
So stability and foreign investors trusting in the economy have been the main sources of success, and if we continue with this, I believe that we will achieve our targets. I believe that Turkey should continue to push for EU accession. I believe that our links with the Western world should be maintained and continue in a healthy manner. 
Britain has always been a supporter of Turkey’s accession to the EU. You have always been very passionate about this. You said recently that “Turkey is not the Turkey of 2002, and the EU is not the EU of 2002 either.” Could you elaborate briefly on this quote?
I made this statement to indicate that Turkey has made a lot of progress since 2002 in terms of the Copenhagen Criteria for political reforms and the Maastricht Criteria for economic reforms. I wanted to say that while Europe is in a worse economic situation compared to 2002, trying to cope with a deep crisis, Turkey is now in a more advantageous situation and Europe should have less fears and prejudices about Turkey now. 
The recent peace process involving the PKK is indeed historic, after 30 years of armed conflict. It will undoubtedly foster a new era of prosperity and peace in Turkey. You were intimately involved in this process – can you briefly share with us your thoughts on the significance of these events?
In fact the United Kingdom has also gone through a similar process and that is a case we have closely studied. Here in Turkey we lived with terrorism for 30 years. It has been the main shackles chained to our ankles that prevented development and progress. Terror had an adverse effect on investments in certain parts of Turkey and it also caused psychological problems for certain members of society. Over the past ten years, the Government has taken serious steps to stamp out terrorism by removing the ground that breeds it. Most of it has involved granting democratic rights to the people and a large part of it also had to do with economic and social development. We have placed particular importance on the development of those areas in Turkey where terrorists have been abusing people’s grievances and poverty. 
People had some problems in the past and there were unfair practices like banning them from speaking their native languages, denying them to publish and broadcast in their mother tongue. We have taken steps giving them more cultural freedom to use their own languages, set up TV and radio channels in their mother tongues. After taking these democratic, social and economic steps, we are now making further moves and trying to create a freer society.  
The security institutions of the State have been in touch with leading members of the terrorist organisation. We are conducting this process in a positive way, in a bid to put an end to terrorism for good. If you look at the situation from the terrorists’ point of view and their supporters, they have not got much more to achieve through terrorism. The process is going well and with further democratic steps, we hope that this issue will be resolved forever. 
However social change takes time and requires careful management. There are various ethnic and religious groups living side by side in Turkey, and to keep them together and living in harmony, you need a very careful policy. We have been trying to foster a concept of an open and pluralistic society in Turkey where differences are seen as elements enriching our culture, where everyone can enjoy their way of life. We have succeeded to a great extent and this attitude has been adopted by the wider public. We have been conducting research across the country about the recent peace process, and the results show that there is spectacular support. 
It looks like we have reached as a nation a level of mature and rational thinking. We have reached a point where there is more harmony and people embrace the process more. But social change takes time. We could not have achieved the same level of public support if we had taken these steps ten years ago. 
It is not just economic growth that is putting Turkey on the map – you are continuing to play a vital stabilising role in the region during the Arab Spring by being a true model to your Muslim neighbours, who aspire to democracy, while also being a key ally to NATO and the EU. How important is this newfound role of being a peacekeeper and role model to Turkey’s continued growth and international image?
That is an important question, to locate Turkey’s position in the international arena. Turkey has developed a lot in terms of democratisation and raising standards of living in the country, so it has increased its standing in the global world. It is a Muslim country, and population-wise, more than 98% of the population is Muslim. At the same time, the ruling power is a conservative government, and there are two concepts that define our party – conservatism and democracy. We have shown that it is perfectly possible to lead an Islamic life and at the same time defend democracy and freedoms to the full. We espoused that everyone should be free and live side by side in harmony and peace with all the diverse colours in a pluralistic society. 
We do not want to say we have become a model for others, but we have been projecting a different and positive image for other Muslim countries around us. We have shown a different story. In most Muslim countries, unfortunately there are repressive and authoritarian systems in power. People in other Muslim nations have been observing Turkey closely. They have seen that devout Muslims or people with other lifestyles are free to practice their way of life here without any restrictions and with raised standards of living. What we have done was to make the will of the people paramount, getting rid of the authoritarian face of the state, moving from a guided to a full democracy and civilianisation in politics. 
Our objections and opposition to unfair and unjust practices in our region, the resolute stand of Prime Minister Erdoğan on the plight of Palestinians and other international issues also invoked sympathy of the masses in the Arab and Islamic world. So much so that when Mr Erdoğan visited some Arab and African countries, the people gathered in huge numbers to cheer him, creating scenes reminiscent of huge rallies in Turkey. He has become a household name in the Arab and Islamic world.
Also from the beginning of the Arab spring we took a clear stand on the side of the people and always supported their demands for more freedom. Many regional countries were trying to manage the situation without taking a clear position, but we took an unambiguous stance and said that we were taking the side of the people and supported their demands and rights. That also increased our positive image during the Arab Spring. 
What would your final message be to our readers?
I want to give this message to the citizens of the UK. Tony Blair vigorously supported Turkey’s drive for EU accession in the past. On 17th December 2004, we were involved in negotiations inside the EU building in Brussels about Turkey becoming a candidate for full membership. All the EU leaders were in the room and at one point the demands were a little too high for us to accept, and our prime minister decided to leave the building. They had allocated a separate room for the Turkish delegation, and we told the prime minister not to leave the building but to go to the room to assess the situation. 
Myself and Mr Abdullah Gul, the president who was the minister of foreign affairs at the time, were two ministers accompanying our Prime Minister. As soon as we arrived in the room that was allocated to us, Tony Blair came in. He said that they had tried very hard to get to that point. He said that if there were a few more obstacles, we should discuss them and resolve them, and we should never break this process. Blair was followed by European leaders like Gerhard Schröder of Germany and others. But Mr Blair played a major role at that time in resolving the deadlock. 
Today the British Government is providing the same level of support to us. Although the British Government may have its own misgivings about the EU and where it is heading, they are still supporting us. My message to all your readers is that Turkey will continue on its way to becoming a country where freedom is experienced and enjoyed to the full by everyone and there will be more democratic reforms and more steps towards democratization. I would also tell more people from the UK to visit Turkey, and I would invite those who have never been here to visit Turkey so that they can compare our tourism facilities with other countries.