İshak Alaton: TÜSİAD is likely to wither like a rose

İshak Alaton: TÜSİAD is likely to wither like a rose

İshak Alaton

April 11, 2011, Monday/ 17:14:00

As Turkey's oldest and richest business organization backpedaled from supporting a new approach in a new civilian constitution to replace the current one, a legacy of the bloody Sept. 12, 1980 coup d'état, one of the most respected businesspeople of Turkey, has said that this stance is “shameful.”

“Now in its 40th year, TÜSİAD has come very close to ending its mission. Either they change their attitude drastically toward democracy and revise their image, or they will wither like a rose and close themselves and become ossified,” İshak Alaton told Today's Zaman for Monday Talk regarding the attitude of TÜSİAD.

‘Now in its 40th year, TÜSİAD has come very close to ending its mission. Either they change their attitude drastically toward democracy and revise their image, or they will wither like a rose and close themselves and become ossified. They are dead afraid of the military. They are not aware of the fact that Turkish society has been changing quickly. They are happy with the old system of having military pressure on the elected government. It’s a shameful approach to a democratic system’

TÜSİAD stated that a draft constitution proposed by a group of academics and announced by the association in March does not reflect the opinions of TÜSİAD but those of the academics, pointing out that the association is against the proposal to amend the first three unchangeable articles.

One major suggestion of the draft concerned the first three articles of the Constitution, the article defining Turkey as a republic would be retained but the remaining two articles would be changed. The first three articles of the Constitution define Turkey as a republic that is democratic, secular and a welfare state governed by the rule of law. The articles also define Turkish as the official language in Turkey and Ankara as its capital. The first three articles are irrevocable, and amendments to them cannot even be suggested, according to the current Constitution.

Two professors had presented the draft after they had prepared it together with some 20 experts and opinion leaders for TÜSİAD. Alaton said that with TÜSİAD backpedaling from a democratic position as it did in 1997, this proves that they live in the past.

“They are not aware of the fact that the Turkish society has been changing quickly,” he said.

Attaching great importance to solving Turkey’s long-lasting Kurdish problem, he answered our questions on that topic too.

The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party [BDP] has a campaign of civil disobedience and had a sit-in in Taksim Gezi Park around a small tent they had put up. What have you learned from visiting the place?

I’ve learned that finding a peaceful solution to that endemic problem is moving in the right direction. I went there on March 30. A lot of people were there sipping coffee and tea and chatting. They were not paying attention to who was coming or going. It was a very relaxed atmosphere. There was no atmosphere of nervousness. It was a very peaceful demonstration. This peaceful attitude will help greatly in reaching a solution. I have the feeling that the street is ready to accept any solution that would be first ratified by the government and then Parliament.

When you say “solution,” what does it consist of?

It consists of including into the new constitution the right to have equality as Turkish citizens and respect for their Kurdish identity.

Why do you think this problem remained unsolved for so long?

We’ve been brainwashed since our childhood that there are Turks but nobody else. There have been objections to this idea, but we were unable to express our views because of being afraid of the state. Now it is time to become more democratic, take the bull by the horns and call a spade a spade, and Kurdistan as Kurdistan. Five years ago, we would not utter the word Kurdistan. Today we can say that Kurdistan is part of Turkey in the Southeast.

When you say Kurdistan, is this a reference to separation or a federative system?

Not at all. We had in the first Parliament of Atatürk, members of Parliament who were coming from the Southeast, and they were called representatives of Kurdistan. We had also Lazistan representatives meaning that they were from the Black Sea region. Why have we become so dead afraid of using those expressions 80 years later?

‘Turkey needs to spend on education, not on armaments’

“As the founder of TESEV [Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation] and the Open Society Foundation of Turkey, I can say that they work for more democracy and transparency; democracy and transparency go hand in hand. There is a long way to go for transparency, especially regarding the expenditures of the military. There are plans to purchase 100 fighter jet planes for $14.1 billion, AirWACS for $2.6 billion and seven submarines from Germany for $4.2 billion. In total, the cost is about $20 billion. Imagine that one school is built for $1 million anywhere in Anatolia, and if you lose one plane in an accident, you will lose 140 schools. This is a disgrace because we are a nation 16th on the economics scale, but when it comes to educational standards, we are 89th. It’s shameful for a nation not to spend enough to raise educational standards but spend a hell a lot of money on the military even though you don’t need it because you have a policy of zero problems with your neighbors. I was talking to a Russian Duma member recently in Stockholm; he told me that Turkey is full of contradictions as it spends so much money on armaments, and on the other hand tries to be friendly with all of its neighbors. He said that if Turkey intends to use its armaments against Russia, it needs to spend so much more! He was blunt. In 2002, Gen. Yaşar Büyükanıt had expressed uneasiness to me about TESEV. Some of our members were pro-restraint, some not. We continued to put our security almanacs out.”

Do you think TÜSİAD has an interest in solving the problem?

TÜSİAD is a sui generis institution with certain pre-conceived attitudes toward all burning issues in Turkey. They do not like to take an active role in discussing the problems of Turkish society. They would rather concentrate on having good relations with Ankara and minding their own business. They are interested in doing good business.

Is it really possible to do good business without solving this problem?

It’s no longer a question of doing good business at all. It is a matter of having a respectable position toward the society that you live in. There is a motto that has been underlined very thoroughly by Karl Marx. He says that the banner of freedom is borne by the bourgeoisie -- bourgeoisie meaning the well-to-do people who have evolved into the better part of the society that is actually represented by TÜSİAD in Turkey. If TÜSİAD members pretend to be part of the bourgeoisie, then they should act accordingly because society expects them to bear the banner of freedom. That amounts to taking part in discussions to develop a better democracy because we have to accept that in today’s Turkey, democracy is far from being perfect. TÜSİAD should take an active role in the development of democracy. But TÜSİAD has refused to do that. They are happy with the status quo. They are content to live in an ivory tower without much interest in looking at how society is evolving and changing and asking for more democracy. They prefer to live in the past. This is why I have distanced myself from TÜSİAD since 1997.

What is your explanation for their initiatives, like having a report on constitutional change recently and another initiative in the 1990s?

You’re right that they want to take part in the debate; the first time was in 1997 when the board of TÜSİAD asked Professor Bülent Tanör to prepare a report called “Democratic Perspectives of Turkey.” Tanör prepared the report in six months. We presented the report to TÜSİAD’s general assembly where it was not well received. A few members came up to the podium and expressed their displeasure and distanced themselves from the report. Actually, no one had even read the report; they just had reacted to the title of the report. They were annoyed at hearing the name of a report that said “democratic.” They thought looking for democracy was not among their goals. TÜSİAD is an institution to create more jobs; in order to create more jobs, they have to make profits. The report was refused. On top of it was a further disgrace -- which I still feel -- that they did not approve the board of directors of TÜSİAD. It was the only board that was not approved and because of the report! They did it for a reason.

What was the reason?

They wanted to send a message to the General Staff in Ankara, then the prevailing power behind the government. Consequently, I have distanced myself from TÜSİAD since 1997 although I have been legally part of it. We paid our dues, but I did not feel part of it.

‘Ümit Boyner should have resigned’

Do you think times have changed as the new head of TÜSİAD took the initiative to have a report on a wholesome constitutional change?

Yes, times have changed. That’s why I decided to see TÜSİAD more positively and started to take part in their meetings. I thought that TÜSİAD, after this episode in 1997, had changed its philosophy and was becoming a bourgeoisie of the Western style. I was hoping that TÜSİAD members are on the way to becoming as bourgeois as Karl Marx had expressed. However, this report, which was presented by two professors recently on TÜSİAD’s 40th anniversary, and the way it was refused the same way, was the second disaster and disappointment for me. I came to the conclusion that TÜSİAD has not changed at all, quite the contrary, they prefer to live in the past; they sent a message to the General Staff again. They are happy with the old system of having military pressure on the elected government. It’s a shameful approach to a democratic system.

Do you think Ümit Boyner is disappointed?

I am sure she is suffering from the situation. She says there is no division between her and the board. She tries her best to keep a broken arm in a sleeve [what happens in the association, stays in the association], as in the Turkish saying. This is not satisfying. It is shameful to back out for the second time for the same reasons. It is the endemic fear of the military. They are dead afraid of the military. They are not aware of the fact that Turkish society has been changing quickly.

İshak Alaton

He founded the Alarko Company in 1954 together with the late Dr. Üzeyir Garih upon returning to İstanbul from Sweden. In half a century, the company has grown into a group of 22 independent subsidiary companies, with a total of 6,400 employees, building and operating hydroelectric and thermal power plants, industrial goods, air-conditioning equipment and heaters. Alaton actively promoted social democratic alternatives in the Turkish private sector. He is also the chairman of the board of the TESEV think tank. He also founded the Open Society Foundation of Turkey.

Cem Boyner [liberal businessman and the husband of TÜSİAD’s president Ümit Boyner] made a blunt statement after the presentation of TÜSİAD’s report, and you were there and you reacted immediately.

I went up and kissed him and said “Bravo Cem!” Some newspaper columnists blasted me for that.

What made you so happy with Cem Boyner’s words?

Either you stand behind this report or you better back out early. He knew that they would react negatively.

What is your explanation for Ümit Boyner’s attitude of staying as the chairwoman of TÜSİAD?

She should have resigned. I have no explanations for her attitude. After all that controversy, the report is out there.

No doubt. The report is a TÜSİAD report as it says on the cover. They made a hell of a mistake, costing them their credibility – their credibility is very close to zero!

‘Field is wide open for TUSKON, MÜSİAD’

What is gong to happen to TÜSİAD?

TÜSİAD will become more and more irrelevant. It looks like a giant but it gets more and more empty; it gets archaic. Since they live in the past, they no longer grasp the change of time, and they are bound to be left aside. Others, which are their competitors – TUSKON [Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists], MÜSİAD [Independent Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association] – will take their place and represent Turkish business society.

Don’t you expect democratic initiatives from TUSKON and MÜSİAD?

Maybe they are not coming out and expressing their views. Maybe they don’t feel up to the task. The field is wide open. It is the right time for them to express their views.

You give them a lot of credit. What have they done to impress you?

I am looking for alternatives, and they are the only ones I can find. Maybe it is time for them to have a higher profile.

You are not a member of TUSKON or MÜSİAD, right?

I am not and I do not intend to become members of TUSKON or MÜSİAD, but I will continue to give them moral support. They also represent a good part of the Turkish economy. TÜSİAD has about 500 members; more than 50 percent of the Turkish economy is under the umbrella of TÜSİAD. On the other hand, you have TUSKON, which has 27,000 members, and their influence is less than TÜSİAD, no doubt. But numerically, they are much further ahead; they represent a larger segment of the Turkish business community. This makes them much stronger than TÜSİAD when it comes to voting. Democracy is one man, one vote! There is also MÜSİAD. Now in its 40th year, TÜSİAD has come very close to ending its mission. Either they change their attitude drastically toward democracy and revise their image or they will wither like a rose and close themselves off and become ossified.

Do you think TÜSİAD believes in the fight against Ergenekon [a clandestine criminal network accused of working to topple the government]?

As there is concrete evidence about it, I think people who believe in the fight are in the majority. It is hard to deny it. But those who restrain from talking about it are also in the majority. It is not easy to erase the fear that terrorized society for 80 years. We will slowly become more democratic.

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