Turkey’s former Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay, who resigned recently from the Justice and Development Party (AKP) [in protest of the government’s response to a massive corruption probe], said, “That imperious style, which rejected dialogue during the Gezi Park protests, abandoned democracy and drifted toward an authoritarian rule. Now Turkey is at a very grave threshold. We are drifting away from the rule of law toward an arbitrary rule.”
The policeman at parliament’s gate asked me who I was going to see this time. When I told him Ertugrul Gunay, he said, “First Idris Bal, now Ertugrul Gunay. Whoever you interview, they resign.” I’d rather describe this not as a jinx but journalistic luck. Here is the sincere conversation I had with Gunay, whose resignation greatly reverberated.
Taraf: The party you joined with so much hope sent you to the disciplinary board and then you resigned. What happened? What was the breaking point?
Gunay: You know I joined the AKP at a very critical juncture. The army had issued the April 27 memorandum [in 2007]. There were rumors of a looming coup. As someone who had suffered a lot from similar turmoil in the past, I thought I should stand by the will of the people and accepted the invitation that was extended to me. While joining the AKP, I said I would continue to resolutely believe in and advocate anything I had believed in and advocated until then — democracy, transparency, participation, pluralism, human rights, whatever I used to defend. We stood upright when the closure case [against the AKP] was opened.
Taraf: Did you have any conflicts?
Gunay: During the previous term, I had no major conflict with the party chairman [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan], barring some arguments related to arts, the artistic community and theaters. I can even say we did good job. For instance, the restoration of Nazim Hikmet’s citizenship, my contacts with relatives over repatriating the remains of Ahmet Kaya and Yilmaz Guney to Turkey, the invitation extended to Sivan Perwer to return home, the return of [confiscated] religious shrines to non-Muslim communities, even if limited in scope. All these happened with the prime minister’s knowledge. The rupture began largely after the 2011 elections.
Taraf: You and the prime minister argued also about that monument. Did you speak face to face on the issue?
Gunay: We did. That was before the 2011 elections. He used a very unpleasant word for a yet-unfinished statue in Kars. I told him it was wrong for the prime minister of the Republic of Turkey to use that word. We had quite a lengthy argument. That word is still haunting him. A prime minister who called a statue a “monstrosity.” …
Taraf: They say the prime minister’s arguments with ministers get truly severe sometimes. What about yours?
Gunay: We’ve had loud arguments. We argued on issues related to construction in Istanbul, the protection of arts and the artists, the protection of sculpture and theaters. But we never got rude. After 2011, the arguments ceased to be between him and me, he began quarreling with society.
Taraf: So, 2011 was the turning point in the rupture?
Gunay: After the 2011 general elections, I returned from Izmir, my constituency, to Istanbul and saw residential buildings rising up at Kazlicesme. I saw that their height would greatly disturb Istanbul’s silhouette and personally wrote a letter to the municipality. I wrote also to the Environment Ministry. The construction was very close to Yedikule [Fortress], distorting its silhouette. So I made sure it was suspended by the heritage protection boards. The decision was communicated [to the construction company]. Thereafter, this issue became a subject of conflict between the prime minister and me. The prime minister defended those buildings, and they rose up under his protection. I realized I could not overcome the line of defense that the prime minister, the urban planning minister and the municipalities laid when it came to problems concerning construction zoning in Istanbul, and so I decided to take the issue to the media.
Taraf: And what did you do?
Gunay: My remarks were published in various newspapers with headlines like “Let’s stop faulty development in Istanbul,” or “Profit-drive in Istanbul enfolds society like octopus.” In time, it became impossible to discuss Istanbul with the prime minister. Finally, in December 2012, when I was still minister, the Istanbul Protection Board rejected the project to build [replica] military barracks at Gezi Park. We argued over the decision. I said the rejection was justified, he said it was not. That was my last cabinet meeting and it was a loud argument.
After I was gone [as minister], they got the decision approved at the Higher Board. Later they stepped back, saying they would build a shopping mall at Gezi Park, then it became a luxury residential building, then a hotel and finally a museum. I strove to explain that the resistance at Gezi Park was justified, that cutting the trees was wrong, that the project must be revised and that the conflict there could be easily resolved with a bit of empathy and dialogue. But, in a sense, I was talking to the walls.
Taraf: Why was that?
Gunay: Because the prime minister, on the very first day, said, “No matter how much they shout, we’ll build that building.” For 35 days Turkey paid the price for his uncompromising, haughty and arrogant rhetoric. They said it was a conspiracy, they spoke of foreign powers, of Otpor. But what brought us to that point was the inability to empathize and listen to the masses and a concept of development devoid of environmental concern.
Taraf: You say the prime minister was the defender of certain construction projects …
Gunay: The prime minister never really quit the Istanbul mayor’s office. He closely follows all large-scale development projects across Turkey. High-rises in Istanbul can be built only with his approval. Unfortunately, his say is largely restricting the authority of ministries. The [resignation] statement of the urban planning minister points to how closely the prime minister runs all those big and problematic projects.
Taraf: There are allegations of unfair profits in the construction sector. How is the rent generated?
Gunay: When you start increasing the floor-area coefficient, drawing up zoning plans with no concern for the city silhouette, green areas and the historical environment, and when you start giving coefficients of two or three to places where the coefficient should be one, an incredible unfair profit is created. And while those profits are created, certain benefits are, of course, distributed to certain mechanisms. Recently we’ve come to hear this rhetoric: “We’ll bring to account anyone if a single penny is gone from the state coffers.” [The money], however, is gone in a different way from the state coffers.
Gunay: You provide the man with unfair profit, and then he gives a certain amount of that unfair profit to you. The sum is not stolen directly from the coffer, but a supposedly public wealth is distributed to others. Hence the arguments against corruption accusations are presented in very sophisticated language. In terms of bribery, it’s obviously not money stolen from the coffer. In bribery, you either get a benefit, or you pay a price to obtain or obstruct something. And that’s legally a crime.
Taraf: You served long as a minister. Have you ever witnessed such an affair?
Gunay: As a jurist, I would deem it disrespect both to myself and others if I start making accusations I am unable to document. But especially in Istanbul, the existence of a very tall and dense construction [drive] is obvious. Istanbul is neither Dubai nor Manhattan. Istanbul is a heritage entrusted to us. Istanbul was there before us, and will continue to be after us. We have no right to ruin the silhouette of such a city. Looking from outside, it seems that unfair profits are earned. But I cannot accuse a specific person or entity without concrete information and documents.
Taraf: The prime minister declared a “liberation war.” Do you believe that Turkey is today under an international attack, that an operation is under way against the government?
Gunay: I might have taken this seriously had I not seen the same rhetoric during the Gezi events. We heard of so many plots, we read so many fabricated documents. The Gezi protests were said to be a plot hatched at foreign centers. I’m one of those who knows best that this was not the case. There was a justified board decision [rejecting the project], and the decision was reversed. The municipality entered the park brutally, and the people resisted. They assumed they would easily drive the people out as they did on May Day, but the anger that had accumulated across Turkey boiled over into the streets and reached an incredible scale. The prime minister had the people pay dearly for his own mistake, while presenting this as a conspiracy and an international plot. I hear the same today.
Taraf: What is the same?
Gunay: Whenever the government encounters trouble, it never asks itself whether it did something wrong. That’s the essential problem. One should first do some self-criticism, one should first look in the mirror. If you never do that and instead accuse others each and every time, you lose your credibility. A politician who used to be portrayed as a regional leader or a world leader only several months ago is today portrayed as an adversary of all regional power centers. Which one we are supposed to believe in? As far as I can see, he is acting out of despair.
Taraf: Why should he be desperate? He’s not losing electoral support.
Gunay: We’ll see whether he loses support or not. In April 2012, the [AKP] provincial chairman in Istanbul, Aziz Babuscu, made a speech in which he said, “We are entering a new phase. The previous phase was one that everybody shared due to [efforts] such as curbing the [military] tutelage and expanding the channels of the democratic system. In the new period, however, our old allies might not walk with us. The liberals, the democrats, the leftists might all abandon us because we are entering the building phase. We will be building our own system, our own era. Hence, we must be stronger in our own inner core.” The speech was more or less in this sense. It is not a speech an Istanbul provincial chairman can make.
Taraf: What are they going to build?
Gunay: It’s probably a more authoritarian system of submission that would further oppress every realm, a top-down hierarchical societal order. It’s certainly not a democracy. Since [the corruption probe started on] Dec. 17, the principles of the rule of law have been clearly eroded. … That imperious style, which rejected dialogue during the Gezi Park protests, had abandoned democracy and drifted toward an authoritarian rule. Now, in an extremely grave manner, we are drifting away from the rule of law toward a more arbitrary rule. They’ve come to see even the existing laws as an obstacle. Can you imagine?
Taraf: What exactly?
Gunay: You are investigating a relative of someone from the executive branch, and you come under fire for not informing the person on top of the executive branch. If the judiciary is conducting a real investigation, naturally it will not inform the executive branch. I’ve studied law. The actions undertaken [in recent days] are actions that go against all fundamental principles of the rule of law, the Constitution and existing laws.
Taraf: Where do you think this trend is going?
Gunay: Look, warnings are now coming one after another. … All of the country’s right-minded judicial entities, individuals and organizations are saying that the [government’s] actions go against the rule of law. The scale of what is happening is beyond even the Gezi events.
Taraf: What scale exactly?
Gunay: … The recent events have to do directly with all those people who suffer, who are downtrodden across Turkey. That’s why we are faced with a different situation. No one can overcome this easily. We are at a graver threshold. We have to return to the rule of law.
Taraf: What would you tell the prime minister if you see him face to face today?
Gunay: That I’m very upset. That he is wasting both himself and the hopes of the nation.
Taraf: Is there a gang within the state targeting the government?
Gunay: A gang which is trying to uncover theft and corruption within the state? The people are making fun of this. One should not ridicule the intellect of the people. You may sell your anti-democratic actions to some quarters through demagogy. But when certain incidents appear to be corruption-related, you — as the prime minister of this country — cannot explain money found stashed in shoe boxes as charity or donations. … One day after the 2009 elections, I said, “Mr. prime minister, our voters are very poor, but the people around us are becoming too rich. I’m afraid this will take us away from the real expectations of those voters.” When I said this, the cabinet meeting went as cold as ice.
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