Demirel, the last of the three (In memoriam of Süleyman Demirel)

Demirel, the last of the three (In memoriam of Süleyman Demirel)

There was a time when visits to Ankara were frequent for anyone in the Georgian Foreign Ministry. At the time, Süleyman Demirel, Heydar Aliyev, and Eduard Shevardnadze were turning the Cold War borderline into a bridge. Economists used the dramatic term “the con-tract of the century.” Of course, there was something unfailingly dramatic in the early 1990s. For Turkey, this was a time of reckoning. Since time immemorial, each and every story of Ottoman decline started with a war against Russia, the first being in the Black Sea. Now, history gave Turkey a second chance, which happened to fall on the lap of Süleyman Demirel. There wouldn’t be a third. 

Today, many speak of Turkey in terms that resemble the way we spoke of the Black Sea at the time. Aliyev, Demirel and Shevardnadze spoke about bridging Asia and Europe and connecting mature markets with emerging ones, as well as energy and logistic hubs. They walked the talk at a time when all business was unusual. As a part of Shevardnadze’s entou-rage, I was introduced to both leaders. We brushed shoulders in official dinners and infor-mal meetings, perhaps less often with Demirel. But the contact was intense. Make no mis-take: if our triangular relationship today appears the unquestionable constant of an ever-turbulent Caucasus, it is because it was built in a Turkish kind of way, with small plates ra-ther than a single big feast.

To build something that lasts, you must have a certain kind of experience. Demirel died at the age of 90, outsmarting and mostly outliving his generation of political elites, partly be-cause he did not start out as “an elite.” In this sense, the three were alike. Their generation was solid, tangible, countable, predictable, sometimes reliable and chiefly foresighted. It took a lot a movement to appear stable in their lives. They were not survivors, they were survival. 

They had to be. Demirel described himself as a “peasant boy,” his father as “an Anatolian farmer,” and he was fond of his nickname, “the shepherd.” As Turkey convulsed from Cold War to regional power, from weak coalitions to military interventions, Süleyman – “Baba” – was the prime minister of choice in the 1960s and 1970s and the president from 1993 to 2000. If there was ever a “captain of transition,” it was Demirel.

Shevardnadze and Aliyev also lived through a lot, often less publicly, but equally dramatically. They were either “the last man standing” or the natural choice between compromising factions, or both. All three were solid men in an extremely liquid world. Their death was very much shocking, mostly because the man in the street realized that everything may come to an end, even Heydar Aliev, Eduard Shevarnadze and Süleyman Demirel. The main trait of grand leadership in their generation was that they made the desirable look inevitable. This talent accounted both for their political and, perhaps, their biological longevity. 

Later in my career, as the secretary-general of the BSEC international secretariat, I made a point of visiting Demirel at his residence in Ankara, for strategic conversations over tea or coffee, if he would have me. He always would. This was set up by Nezir Kırdar, a long-time associate of Demirel through the Eisenhower Fellowship, an ethnic Turkmen from Iraq and a wise man with his own brave life story who served the president and Turkey, his second motherland for a good many years, and honors me with his friendship to this day. 

There was not a single thing to remember from the conversations with Süleyman-Baba, but there is one distinct feeling. “Play it safe” never meant don’t be daring. Süleyman, Heydar and Eduard were part of a generation that made daring look easy, so that when the un-thinkable did happen, it looked familiar. The world is unfailingly changing, always, but it’s the management of change that makes all the difference. Süleyman was distinct in that he was not in the business of being “the magnificent” agent of change. He was the host of the banquet, the matchmaker, the man who brought the right people together and let things happen.

As Turkey enters a new era of compromise, some will miss Demirel and others will need him.

*Tedo Japaridze is ambassador and Chairman of Foreign Relations Committee of the Georgian Parliament