The quality of Turkish democracy matters to us, says US official

The quality of Turkish democracy matters to us, says US official

Murat Yetkin
The quality of Turkish democracy matters to us, says US official The United States gives importance to the “quality of Turkish democracy” not just in political and economic terms, but also as a security issue, said Victoria Nuland, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, following high level contacts in Turkey on April 16, ahead of a NATO meeting in May and Turkish elections in June. “It matters to us as allies, but also as a security issue,” she said in an exclusive interview with the Hürriyet Daily News. “In the sense that our NATO alliance is based and built on democratic values, we are all societies where the government serves the people, not the other way around. So that dialogue between citizens and their government, whether it is in the United States, whether it is in Turkey, needs to be vibrant, needs to be strong, needs to be free,” she said.

The focus of Nuland’s contacts in Turkey was actually on regional security matters as well as Turkey-U.S. relations. Before her stop in Istanbul where she met with Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu and other ranking officials, Nuland was in Warsaw. Poland hosts the missile sites and Turkey hosts the early warning radar sites of the NATO-run U.S. missile shield program which made Russia uncomfortable. “With Warsaw we talked a lot about the challenges to the East [the crisis in Ukraine], and in Turkey we talk a lot about the challenges to the South [Iraq, Syria and now Yemen].

Both are important NATO allies,” Nuland said. “And it’s important for all allies to be contributing to restoring stability in both directions. So, you know, whether if you’re in Istanbul you’re going talk about both, or if you’re in Warsaw you’re going talk about both.”

Pointing out that one of the main topics of the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in the Turkish Mediterranean resort of Antalya on May 13-14 would be Ukraine, Nuland said the U.S. had expectations from Turkey to counter the “pressure” of Russia on Ukraine. “Turkey is already making a good contribution. We would like Turkey to continue to help us send the message to Moscow that it doesn’t have to be this way, that if they implement the commitments they made at Minsk, normalize the situation, get their troops, get their support out of eastern Ukraine, that that will enhance the security of the whole region,” she said. Mentioning the report of Turkish trade people showing a 35 percent decrease in Russian trade because of the U.S. and EU sanctions, Nuland said, “All of us are sacrificing to make the firm point to Russia that there are certain rules of the road, global rules of the road, you can’t just bite off a piece of another country and there not be consequences.”

Ukraine and Russia are just two topics on the busy agenda of Turkey-U.S. relations, as Nuland puts it. Other issues range from energy security to the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), from Iran’s nuclear deal to Yemen and Libya. One of her aims in Turkey was to have “some sense of the concerns” in Turkey before Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s visit to Washington D.C. next week. That would be a critical week since it coincides with the 100th year of the 1915 events and Turkey is under pressure to acknowledge the mass killings of Armenians as “genocide.” All eyes will be on whether U.S. President Barack Obama says the word “genocide” or sticks with its Armenian “Meds Yeghern” with no legal consequences. Nuland did not make any comment on neither what Obama will say nor the extended use of Turkey’s İncirlik base for operations in Iraq and Syria.

But she said she “did not see” Turkey drift from NATO and the Western alliance, as she listed the areas of cooperation, which gives the impression that the U.S. would not like to deter Turkey further from cooperation under the circumstances. “Look, Turkey continues to lead in Afghanistan very strongly; we have just had a conversation today about the onward role that Turkey will continue to play and the resolute support mission. Turkey is also playing a strong role in reassuring the allies on NATO’s eastern edge, including playing a patrolling role in the Black Sea. From where we sit, the contribution that Turkey’s making in training in Iraq, helping to support and arm the Peshmerga, is an absolutely essential security contribution. Turkey’s perspective on the region, particularly as we have so much tension from Libya, to Yemen, to Iraq, to Syria, the role of Iran – it’s absolutely key that the U.S. and Turkey stay in close touch on all of those issues,” she said.

Regarding the discrepancy between Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan and Obama on the fate of Syria and its president, Bashar al-Assad, Nuland did not agree there was a huge difference in opinion. “We’ve been clear that we think he’s a failed leader, that he needs to go,” she said. “We continue to talk about the right mix of pressure on al-Assad to get back to negotiations. I would say that I think the U.S. and Turkey have done more together in recent months on Syria than we’ve done in some time, in the sense that we have worked together on Kobane. We’ve gotten quite bit of appropriate support from Turkey for the strikes and things that we’ve been doing in Syria. Turkey also participates actively in all of the coalition working groups. You’ve strengthened your approach to foreign fighters. Your legislative base is going after them; that kind of intelligence cooperation is really, really important. And also, strengthening Turkey’s intelligence cooperation has been a priority of ours.  So I think we are doing better on that as well,” she said.

Then comes the issue of the “quality of Turkish democracy.” “I was privileged to sit just now with a broad group of civil society representatives,” Nuland said. “We always take the opportunity when we are in Turkey to talk to folks who are working to strengthen democratic institutions, strengthen the right of expression, strengthen free media. I’ll be doing a conversation on Internet freedom later today which we think is also really important, not just in political terms but in economic terms. The quality of Turkey’s democracy matters to us. It matters to us as allies, but it’s also a security issue.”

Nuland concluded, “I think that the essential element between Turkey and the U.S. is always almost constant conversation, and particularly now that we’re working together, when we have shared interests and concerns in so many hot spots. We have to maintain almost constant dialogue.”