Ayşe Yarar: Mr. Donelli, thank you very much for accepting our interview proposal. Could you please give us some information about your academic life and studies, especially about the International Center for Contemporary Turkish Studies established in Milan?
Federico Donelli: First of all, I would like to thank you for your interview proposal, I’m glad to talk about my researches on such an important site. About my academic life, it is still too short to be defined as “academic”; I consider myself only a student who had the opportunity to deepen his research interests. I work at the University of Genoa. Genoa is a seaside town that historically has many similarities and proximity to Turkey. They both look at the same sea, the same meeting, the same challenges. I’m doing historiographical research, but I’m also working a lot on the current Turkish Foreign Policy. I think that the two fields are not alternative, but complementary and allow to gain a greater depth of analysis. I believe that to understand a little more of any country, we must know its history and its roots. So, I exploit historical knowledge to understand better Turkish Foreign Policy development. About the International Center for Contemporary Turkish Studies (ICCT), I’m a research assistant of the Director Prof. Dr. Carola Cerami, with whom I collaborate in the research and organization of events. About ICCT, it is an independent non-profit research center based in Milan, whose aim is acquiring scholarly and policy oriented multidisciplinary research on contemporary Turkey. Its main goals are to promote frequent and challenging high level meetings, seminars, conferences and publications and -in a broader way- to create international academic networks and joint projects involving think tanks and civil society organizations in order to enhance and improve the dialogue between Turkey and its regional partners as well as between Turkey and the European Union.
Ayşe Yarar: You studied “Ottoman Millet System“ in your PhD thesis. How do you evaluate this topic broadly? Could you please share your opinions with us?
Federico Donelli: My choice to analyze the Ottoman Millet System in depth has been dictated by the many systemic aspects that I consider useful in today’s world. I’ll explain it better. After 9/11, it seemed inevitable a reading of history oriented only to the Huntington’s paradigm of the “Clash of Civilizations”. This interpretation leaves little hope for the future, especially about the relationship between Islam and the West, where the clash seems inevitable. Although I greatly respect Huntington’s thesis, I believe that the future is not so inevitable and I also believe there is no better way to understand it by looking back at our common history. In particular, the Mediterranean history, as originally shown by Fernand Braudel, is an example not only of tensions and clashes, but mainly of a “meeting” of civilizations. In that frame, the Ottoman Empire, an Islamic State, guaranteed for centuries religious and legal pluralism, a peaceful interfaith cohabitation characterized by cultural syncretism, dialogue and coexistence. I know that the Ottoman system isn’t adaptable to the contemporary society, but in a globalized world where multiculturalism and “diversity” are all around us, I believe we can learn something from the Ottoman experience, in particular the idea of acceptance and respect for “differences” and for the “others”, which led to centuries of coexistence.
Ayşe Yarar: What would you say about the new concept in Turkey called The New Turkey? What exactly is New Turkey according to you? Can you tell us your assessments about the presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan?
Federico Donelli: Well, I don’t completely agree with this political concept. I don’t think that at 10th of August, Turkey entered into a new stage of its modern history simply because I still consider the AKP’s electoral victory in 2002 as the main turning point in the Turkish political history. I think that the New Turkey was born at that moment, it was a gradual but quick process that has breathed new life to the whole Turkish society manifested by a tangible frenzy in various areas of public life: economy, culture, education and politics. I think AKP’s victory election in 2002 did not bring a new balance to the Islamists-secularists dichotomy, but created the conditions for the resolution of centre-periphery conflict, a fracture that has already existed in the Ottoman Empire. In the last thirteen years, Turkish public space has matured as well as Turkey’s civil society with a new configuration of social actors. Honestly, I’m not a big fan of Erdoğan, but I think that too often the perspective of many in the West (media, public opinion, academic) who speak and give opinions on Turkey and Erdoğan’s governments have a short-sight, forgetting what Turkey was before. I don’t want to make judgments but, I think that Erdoğan’s great merit was to be able to restore self-confidence to a country and its people. Thanks to that awareness, which the New Turkey has been able to opt for political pluralism, market economy, free trade, reconciliation process with Kurds, international visibility and more. The democratic deficit is still present in Turkey, but I’m not so convinced that it is wider than twenty years ago.
About Erdoğan’s presidency, I think it may represent only a new chapter of the same story that began twelve years ago. If many results have been achieved, many other challenges still remain including a more balanced state-society relationship, intolerance to differences, identity issues and above all enhancing citizen participation in decision-making processes. Turkey needs to reform its political system and administrative structures, strengthening democratic institutions and inclusive participation. I am confident in Davutoğlu’s government because his long-held position has been to strengthen Turkish democracy, which he always considered to be the major source of Turkey’s “soft power”. In his foreign policy vision, Davutoğlu has always given great importance on the equilibrium between domestic and foreign policies. Therefore, he is well aware about the relevance of domestic affairs on relations with neighbors.
Ayşe Yarar: What do you think about the premiership of Ahmet Davutoğlu? How would you compare his premiership with Erdoğan’s? Do you think that there are big differences or changes from the former period or nothing will be changed?
Federico Donelli: I think it is too early to assess Ahmet Davutoğlu’s premiership and his political agenda. However, I think that much will depend on the next election, but rather on the development of the constitutional reforms, which could establish a semi-presidential system in the country by giving broad powers to the President of the Republic. At any rate, these first months have shown an important difference between Erdoğan and Davutoğlu: they have two very different personalities. Davutoğlu lacks of the Erdoğan’s charisma and his communication ability, as well as his persuasion skills. Davutoğlu’s speeches hardly affect the “hearts” and “minds” of his audience. Conversely, new Prime Minister overcomes these shortcomings with a reflective and mild disposition, which leads to more moderate positions and less impulsive reactions. Erdoğan is more of a leader, Davutoğlu is more of a diplomat. The two characters, however, are not alternative to each other, because Davutoğlu’s quiet manner does not make him a threat to the Erdoğan’s leadership. This is the reason why I expect a long honeymoon between them. About the current government, I am very interested to see how it will take advantage of the G20’s presidency next year. In particular, I expect that Turkey will strengthen its role of international mediator, highlighting sensitive issues such as cooperation towards less-developed countries, to tackle Ebola spreading and of course, facing to the various political crises (as Syria, Iraq, Ukraine). I’m confident about Turkey’s ability to pursue a constructive partnership with all powers and also to reach both the “North” and the “Global South”.
Ayşe Yarar: Can you give us your opinions about foreign policy strategy of Ahmet Davutoğlu?
Federico Donelli: The new course of Turkish Foreign Policy theorized by Ahmet Davutoğlu, is an other part of my research interests. I think that essential for starting of this “new course” in international field, was the recovery of self-confidence that I mentioned earlier. In my opinion Davutoğlu’s merit was mainly psychological, because after years in which Turkey had maintained a contracted vision about its role, only interested in tutelage the status quo, Davutoğlu as PM chief advisor as well as FM, has restored confidence in Turkey’s potentials and aspirations. He was able to change Turkish Foreign Policy makers perspective by expanding their views. I consider that process not only as a “axis-shift”, but in a broader way as awareness of a “New Frontier”. In a recent work, I have considered this new discourse similar to the “New Frontier” stated by the United States President J. F. Kennedy in 1960. Like him, but obviously in a different global and regional context, Davutoğlu’s strategy has pushed Turkey into a new environment full of challenges and opportunities. In Davutoğlu’s perspective, as in Kennedy’s one, many opportunities mean many responsibilities that Turkey must assume to strengthen its regional power role. Many scholars and analysts consider Syrian civil war as a sign of Turkey’s failed strategy. I do not think that Turkey should completely revise all its policies, but simply fix them and to adapt them to the changes and challenges. This process has already begun. A good example is the diversification of foreign affairs actors (institutions, NGOs, businesses associations, charities) and the increase resonance of humanitarian and mediation discourse.
Ayşe Yarar: What do you think about the membership of Turkey to the EU? How is the perception towards Turkey in Italy about this issue? Do you think that Turkey can be accepted as one of the Western countries?
Federico Donelli: I hope I’m wrong, but I fear that Turkey will never join to the EU. Among European citizens there are still too many unjustified fears and suspicions on Turkey. It is necessary to distinguish two different arrays of this obstruction to Turkey’s access: one is politically motivated and the other one is linked to the public opinion. With regard of the public opinion, as I said before, there are different biases mainly related to religion, to Islam. The average European citizen, even if not intolerant towards Muslim, has an unconscious fear which has renewed strength after 9/11 and more recently by the reports from ISIS atrocity. Turkey is seen as an Islamic threat for Europe. These attitudes are reminiscence of ancient topoi and clichés and often the result of ignorance about Islam and about Turkey and the Turkish. From the political point of view, Turkey’s entry would upset the balance of parliamentary seats, breaking German predominance and its political agenda especially in the economic and financial matters. Also, there are vetoes of other member states (Greece, France) affected by old political issues such as Cyprus Dispute and the recognition of the Armenian Genocide claims. Italy, despite the instability of its governments, has always supported Turkey’s accession also for the constructive cooperation within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and strong trade ties. If, as I think, Turkey never joins to the European Union, the “old Europe” will lose a good opportunity to boost its community political and economic project towards the Southern Mediterranean. On the other way, the inclusion of Turkey could lead to the spread of democratic values and European standards not only in Turkey, but in all those MENA countries that are still looking Turkey as a ‘guide’ and ‘a source of inspiration’.
Ayşe Yarar: Turkey had tape scandals showed the corruption in the Turkish government at the end of last year. What would happen, if such a tape scandal occurred in Italy? I am asking this question, because Erdoğan won a huge support again from Turkish people last presidential election after all the tape scandals and has been Turkish President since that time.
Federico Donelli: I think that in Italy, it would be the same. In the recent past, we have had similar experiences. When scandals of this type involve a political and/or institutional figure, the result is a polarization of opinion and discussions around him. Those who followed Erdoğan before, considering him as a victim or a persecuted; those who were previously against Erdoğan, doing it with greater force. This mechanism always leads to a political confrontation centered on the figure of the leader, in Turkish case Erdoğan, while in the Italian one we lived something similar around Silvio Berlusconi. So, the political confrontation loses its proactive and pedagogical character, do not debate about content and parties political agenda but only if you are “with him” or “against him”. I conclude by saying that I believe in democracy and always respect the verdict of the polls, of course if polls are without fraud. Erdoğan swept regular presidential elections, so now I think it would be more useful for his opposition to understand his political strengths trying to counter it on political ground rather than focusing their attention on his controversial figure.
Ayşe Yarar: As a last question Mr. Donelli, could you give us the names of Turkish academics or writers that you follow closely and take their views into consideration?
Federico Donelli: There are a lot of Turkish scholars that I follow and read with admiration and interest, but probably two are the ones whose works have had major influences on my training and growing up as a student: Ziya Öniş and Bülent Aras. About Ziya Öniş, I really like his research because from a political economy approach he provides a simple and complete framework on Turkish Foreign Policy and other sensitive issues. I had the pleasure of talking to him in Perugia last September; he is always very nice and available in helping me and giving me useful tips. I also really appreciate the works of Bülent Aras on Turkish Foreign Policy and specifically on Davutoğlu era. I think his works could form the base for any analysis on this topic.
Ayşe Yarar: Mr. Donelli, thank you very much for sharing your opinions with UPA. Good luck in your studies.
Federico Donelli: Thank you for the opportunity. I take this chance to suggest to all scholars who are doing research on Turkey and neighboring regions, to follow initiatives of the International Center for Contemporary Turkish Studies through its website (http://www.contemporaryturkishstudies.org/) and social networks (Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin). ICCT would like to be a good platform for networking and exchanging ideas.
Follow Federico Donelli on Academia.edu; http://unige-it.academia.edu/FedericoDonelli
Interview: Ayşe YARAR