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Erdogan As A Go-To Political Power Broker

Aired September 5, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour. It's good to be back after spending a bit of time away and on assignment. And I've just come back from Istanbul, Turkey. And tonight, my exclusive interview with Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

We met at Istanbul's grand Dolmabahce Palace on the Bosphorus, the waterway that enables Turkey to straddle Europe and Asia.

Today, Erdogan is the world's go-to power broker in the region, whether he's trying to bring an end to the raging storm in neighboring Syria or bridging the divide between the West and Iran's nuclear ambitions, with a turbocharging Turkey economy or perhaps even planning to extend his own run in power from a three-term prime minister to the presidency.

He embodies the hopes of so many in the region who want to see the Arab Spring emulate Turkey's democracy and not Iran's fundamentalist theocracy. Erdogan has stamped his seal on his country, his region and on history.

There is also a darker side, and we explore that as well. But first, a reminder of how the Erdogan story began.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): Erdogan's populist politics are rooted firmly in Istanbul's working class Kasimpasa neighborhood, where he built a loyal following among conservative religious voters in this Muslim land.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): But Turkey's adamant secular military establishment feared his growing influence. When Erdogan was Istanbul's mayor, he was jailed for reading a poem that celebrated Turkey's Islamic culture.

Although it was written by one of the country's leading secular writers. Erdogan was promptly charged with incitement of religious hatred and served four months in prison. Afterwards, he formed the Justice and Development Party, and was elected prime minister 10 years ago.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking Turkish).

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Since then, he has forged Turkey on a path not towards fundamentalism but to a stronger and secular democracy, whose economy has been outperforming crisis in Europe and much of the rest of the world, too.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): Now in his third term, there are complaints that Erdogan is growing increasingly authorization as journalists are jailed and political oppositions suppressed.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Prime Minister?

ERDOGAN: (Inaudible).

AMANPOUR: How are you? Thank you. (Speaking Turkish).

ERDOGAN: Thank you.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): And, he tells me, he is not ruling out the growing speculation that he does want to run for president when his term as prime minister ends, looking to give that office more executive power by making changes to the constitution.



AMANPOUR: And when we sat down to talk, we discussed all of this and also the most pressing global crisis that he's dealing with.


AMANPOUR: Prime Minister, thank you very much for joining me.

ERDOGAN: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you about Syria. Is it too late to stop the slaughter in Syria? Is anything going to stop it?

ERDOGAN (through translator): I don't believe we're late yet. We made the concerns heard at the time. But despite all of those concerns, Bashar al-Assad is following the footsteps of his father. And unfortunately, it's threatening the future of Syria.

AMANPOUR: What does Turkey want to see now? A buffer zone, a safe zone? And do you think it's possible that that will happen?

ERDOGAN (through translator): If you cannot come up with a no-fly zone, any buffer zone that you might create on the ground will give way to as manslaughter like Srebrenica because you have a regime that is completely tyrant right now, attacking its people with aircrafts and mercilessly slaughtering its own people. That's exactly what that regime is doing.

So, first, we have to declare a no-fly zone. As of then, maybe we could come up with a buffer zone or intermediary security zones. We have more than 100,000 refugees coming to Turkey, and we don't know to what extent we can absorb that number.

AMANPOUR: France has said that it would be willing to patrol a partial no-fly zone. Do you think it's at all possible that there will be a no-fly zone?

ERDOGAN (through translator): This is exactly what we wanted. Right now in Russia, in China and in Iran, these developments are very clearly visible. And they see the end of Bashar al-Assad quite clearly. I'm speaking very frankly. Politically, he's actually a deceased person.

AMANPOUR: You and others have been saying the end is near for the last 18 months, and Assad still hangs on.

ERDOGAN (through translator): I don't know when that is going to be possible. I don't know if it's going to be possible this week or the next week. But sooner or later, the will of the people will reign, will become victorious. And the developments are pointing out that direction.

AMANPOUR: Would Turkey have taken action if the U.S. had been on board? Would you have taken some kind of military action, like there was action in Kosovo, for instance? If the U.S. was leading, would Turkey have done that?

ERDOGAN (through translator): Of course, under these circumstances we would do whatever the international law would require. Kosovo's situation was quite similar, was quite identical.

And in Kosovo, you will find NATO to be present. It's really crucial whether NATO will take up initiative here or not.

AMANPOUR: So again, the question is, your foreign minister has been to Washington. He's spoken at length with Secretary Clinton. You've spoken with Secretary Clinton and President Obama.

And what we understand from Turkish officials is that everything that Turkey proposed -- a buffer zone, a safe zone, humanitarian corridors, supporting the Free Syrian Army -- all of those were turned down by the United States.

Do you think it's because there's an election coming? Why do you think that's happening? Does it surprise that they don't want to arm the rebels, for instance, or talk about a no-fly zone or buffer zones or safe zones?

ERDOGAN (through translator): Right now, there are certain things being expected from the United States. The United States had not yet catered to those expectations.

Maybe it's because of the elections; maybe it's because of the pre- election situation in the States. Might be the root cause of this lacking of initiative. Nobody has spoken to us about their reasons, and they are not obliged to state anything. We are very thankful and pleased that they have stated that they're against this regime.

And that's exactly what we expect from Russia and China. We want them to state at least they are opposing this regime. Bashar al-Assad could be dispatched to another country, and peace could be prevailing. Peace could be established.

AMANPOUR: Your own foreign minister spoke very passionately to the Security Council just a few days ago, and basically said nobody is willing to do anything.

Why do you think that is?

ERDOGAN (through translator): I need to be very clear and frank in my remarks -- that is to say that the Security Council of the United Nations and its structure. The Security Council, with its current structure is impossible for us to serve the world peace in this day and age under these circumstances. I'm being very frank.

If one of the permanent seat holders veto against the resolutions within the Security Council, you cannot reach to a resolution at all.

I've requested so humbly from Putin and from the Chinese president to stand up and do something. Although they said they were never backing up this -- these incidents in Syria, and they were not supporting these developments, but unfortunately, they didn't provide any support to my foreign minister of the Security Council.

AMANPOUR: Let's turn to Iran, where you have tried to be a bridge between the Iranians and the West. Now it seems to be a crisis in Iran over the nuclear program. Do you believe that Israel will attack Iran over its nuclear facilities, over its nuclear program?

ERDOGAN (through translator): OK. About this issue, I need to be very clear in my remarks. Until so far, about Iran, there are no clear indicators as to Iran's nuclear capability being used for weaponry capability.

I have spoken with the religious leader of Iran, Mr. Khomeini, and Mr. Khomeini states that Arab religion will never allow us to develop weapons of mass destruction that will enable thousands of people getting killed.

AMANPOUR: Do you believe him?

ERDOGAN (through translator): I need to believe whatever is being said. They say that it's just a nuclear energy investment that they're conducting. Brazil and Turkey became mediators some time ago, and we had come up with very interesting initiatives.

We have spoken to the United States. We have spoken to other friends in the western countries. We have drawn a framework within which we could negotiate and we have developed a protocol that could be signed in Tehran, and that's exactly what we did.

But unfortunately, if that protocol had been respected to back then, right now Iran was not going to be able to produce those rods. But those rods would have been imported (ph) from the United States. They would be bartered in Turkey and the process would flow very smoothly. But those provisions were not accepted back then.

Iran worked, worked, worked tirelessly and became capable of producing the rods that were going to be given to them by the States previously. And that's the very clear picture.

Back then, if that protocol would have been respected, the entire process would be under control. The International Atomic Energy Agency's declarations are the things that I'm very curious about, I really would like to hear what they're going to say next.

AMANPOUR: And what do you think will happen next?

ERDOGAN (through translator): Frankly speaking, as you suggested in your question, I do not believe Israel will attack Iran in the fashion that you described in your question. It's a very null probability. Otherwise, would have caused an apocalypse in the entire region. It would be very tormenting for Israel as well. The picture would change overnight in an unprecedented pace.

What is being done until so far, in my opinion, is all about wrong statements addressed to Israel by Iran. And similarly, Israel came up with certain statements against Iran, which are not very befitting or becoming. Both parties are using very harsh terms vis-a-vis one another.

I don't know to what extent those statements will be reflected into some kind of a military intervention. But I'm sure that I don't want to see anything like that happening in the region because in this day and age, that region needs peace and prosperity and stability.


AMANPOUR: And after that, I came back again to the pressing Syria crisis, a very revealing moment, when, again, I asked the prime minister what keeps him up at night when he thinks about what President Assad is doing in Syria.


ERDOGAN (through translator): Well, the biggest thing, not only for Turkey but for the entire region and the world is that peace is not a slip to this information is the employment of weapons of mass destruction and chemical ones, of course.

If the slightest suggestion of such an attempt should emerge, not only in Turkey, but the attitude of the entire globe is going to change forever. And that's my biggest concern.

AMANPOUR: Do you have an idea that they're safe with WMD?

ERDOGAN (through translator): In the light of the intelligence that we have received so far, they are being still possessed by the regime.

They are secure within the regime's possession right now. But if you were to ask me if those weapons of mass destruction could be used against the people of Syria, in the light of everything that we have seen so far, I can say, yes, those weapons can be used against the people of Syria.

And this is something that slipped out of the tongue of Bashar al- Assad.


AMANPOUR: A very chilling prognosis about what might happen with weapons, and of course, you can hear the prime minister drawing a red line under that issue as, indeed, the United States has done, saying that that would cause a fundamental change in the way the international community responds.

And when we come back, the paradox of power. After three terms in office, Erdogan's Turkey is the democratic model the rest of the region looks to. But there is a darker side on Erdogan's watch, Turkey has jailed more journalists than even China or Iran.


AMANPOUR: And, really, the question has to be, Turkey is a beacon of hope and democracy in this part of the world.

But how do you maintain that if you're the biggest jailer of journalists?



AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program and continuing my exclusive interview with Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan, I asked him about the direction of the democracy that's coming to the region for the first time after years of authorization rule. And I also asked him why there's an increasing clampdown on political dissent and even on journalists in Turkey.


AMANPOUR: Let's talk about the great Arab Spring. We've seen what's happened in Tunisia and in Egypt and in Libya. And we've talking about Syria.

What do you think is the future of those governments, of those systems? Is it democracy? Is it Islam? How do you think Islam and democracy will work itself out in Egypt, for instance?

ERDOGAN (through translator): Mohammed Morsi, for example, in Egypt, there are Coptic Christians within his advisers. There are Muslims from his party and from other parties. He has got female representatives, using headscarves and not using headscarves.

So he's communicating a beautiful message. He's telling all the stakeholders not to be concerned about the future of Egypt. Everybody can breathe and live through their beliefs and faiths in the most comfortable fashion possible. And we need to support Egypt no matter what happens right now.

AMANPOUR: You talk about everybody being able to breathe and you talk about headscarves or no headscarves. You yourself, even as prime minister, had that issue here in Turkey, where there was a ban on headscarves in universities. And you had to send your own daughters to university in England and in the United States to be able to freely wear their headscarf.

How did that make you feel and what does it say about democracy and Islam?

ERDOGAN (through translator): Thank you so much. You have brightened my horizons. At parity, when we came into the power -- or let's say before then, ladies wearing headscarves were not allowed to attend universities. And just as you suggested, I had to send my daughters abroad to the United States to attend colleges. That's exactly right.

America allowed them to attend college wearing their headscarves and America does still do that. My country was not doing that. And we are just recently solving that problem in Turkey. Although we took over the office about 10 years ago, we were not capable of solving that problem overnight.

We want people to be free. If a person cannot attend college wearing a headscarf, and another one who does not can, this is a very clear discrimination. We want all the children of a country to be given full liberty to decide what they want to do with their lives.

AMANPOUR: Let's talk a little bit about power. You have been in power for now 11 years. You're in your third term. So much has improved in Turkey since you've taken over. There's been an explosion in GDP. You've undertaken certain reforms in the judiciary, minorities, et cetera.

But people are now beginning to ask, does Prime Minister Erdogan want to stay in power forever?

Does he?

ERDOGAN (through translator): On the contrary, on the exact contrary, in our country, within the provisions of my political party, a member of the parliament can be elected for three consecutive terms, and then he has to give a break for an entire term. And then he can get into the elections again.

I only have one concern. I want to serve the people of my country. And that doesn't necessarily -- has to be done under the auspices of a political party or the parliament. You can get involved within the foundations and you can get involved in think tanks and you can serve your people exactly the same way.

AMANPOUR: But there are lots of people saying that, actually, what you would like to do, is be president, maybe change some of these regulations or do whatever it takes to be president and maybe do sort of a Putin-Medvedev situation with you and President Gul swapping jobs.

Would you want to be president?

ERDOGAN (through translator): Until so far, the president of Turkey would be elected by the parliament. But only now the people of Turkey will be able to elect their own president. Whoever that shall be, Ahmet or Mehmet or whatever.

AMANPOUR: Would you like to run for the presidency?

Do you think you would?

ERDOGAN (through translator): We have two years ahead of us. And whoever shall die, whoever shall prevail in the next two years to come, nobody can be sure. Many things can change.

AMANPOUR: You're not ruling it out, though.

ERDOGAN (through translator): No, of course not. It can be possible.

AMANPOUR: Again, you said, democracy, people should always be free. People should be able to breathe free. Well, there's a big sense here in Turkey that that's becoming more and more difficult for those who want to criticize, for those who want to be in the opposition, for journalists who write critically.

I happen to be a member of the Committee to Protect Journalists, and in October, there's going to be a report, saying that there are some 60 or more Turkish journalists in prison for their work. That's more than China. It's more than in Iran. And, really, the question has to be, Turkey is a beacon of hope and democracy in this part of the world.

But how do you maintain that if you're the biggest jailer of journalists?

ERDOGAN (through translator): Let me be very clear in my statements. I don't know about the very source of the news that you have been let in on. But I am a person who was incarcerated because of having recited a poem. I know what it means to be in prison. And I know what freedom of speech is all about.

And whatever is being said to you, whatever is being conveyed to you are just mere attempts to obscure our party and obscure our government. There are 80 people who are in prison right now. Only nine of them have yellow press identification cards. And the rest have been charged with carrying unlicensed weapons or getting involved in terrorist acts and organizations.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Prime Minister, I've, you know, heard many, many leaders say that, you know, if you're a journalist and you're in prison, you must be a terrorist. I want to just keep pressing this point with you, because I am a journalist and freedom of expression is one of the beacons of democracy.

Is the prime minister off limits when it comes to criticism? Can the prime minister of Turkey be criticized without a journalist or a commentator or economist fearing for his job, fearing for his freedom?

ERDOGAN (through translator): I'm being criticized on a very harsh basis.

I wish I could put all those criticisms together and submit them to you. It's not criticism. My family and myself, they're all being insulted. Would you say yes to insult? I am always saying yes to criticism. I'm always paying attention to criticism.

And I am the prime minister, I'm the sole prime minister who has to put up with highest and harshest level of criticisms. For the last 10 years, I have been fighting against criticism in very harsh terms. I've been very patient, but I was not patient from time to time, and I had to actually file a lawsuit against those critics.

But after a while, I withdrew my applications and I gave up on my rights, let's say. But insult is one thing; criticism is another thing. I will never put up with insult. But I will always say yes and put up with criticism.

And I will always be grateful to criticism, because I will always find some sort of benefit to be derived out of criticisms, and I try to forge my future and forge my path ahead of me in the light of the criticisms that I receive. This has always been my attitude. But I will never put up with insult towards me or towards a member or the members of my family.

AMANPOUR: Prime Minister Erdogan, thank you very much for joining me.

ERDOGAN: Thank you very much.

AMANPOUR: Thank you.

ERDOGAN: Thank you.


AMANPOUR: And to see what the prime minister told me about Turkey still sitting on the sidelines at the E.U., tune in Friday when we'll have more of my exclusive interview.

And we'll be right back with a final thought.



AMANPOUR: And a final thought tonight, imagine a world where the past is still present. These are Turkey's vanishing nomads, captured in the 1970s and '80s by the late American photographer, Josephine Powell. Far from the modern bustling city of Istanbul, dwindling tribes of nomads still tend their flocks, weave their kilim rugs and help keep a mighty civilization alive.

That's it for our program. Thank you for watching and good night from New York. You can always follow us on Facebook and Twitter and of course always at