A “certified communist” in Turkey's Foreign Affairs

One of the newer contributors to the soL news, the recently retired diplomat Engin Solakoğlu has agreed to answer the questions of soL on the institution of “Foreign Affairs” and other issues.
Thursday, 22 April 2021 13:13

soL news strives to deliver the readers more than just banal commentary or news inspired by dubious sources, choosing to rely on informative sources able to point out inconvenient truths and relevant facts. One such source in the past few months has been Engin Solakoğlu, who, fresh out of retirement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has answered a need for the kind of commentary on Turkish foreign policy that combines an in-depth Marxist perspective with a mastery of the facts at hand.

Mr. Solakoğlu has agreed to answer the questions of soL, including some apparently personal ones, with rather non-personal answers.

Our readers have met you this year through your commentary on issues such as international relations, the Cyprus Question, or the European Union through a distinctly Marxist and political lens, thanks to your retirement in July 2020. There is an established pattern in this country of “retired soldiers” becoming much more outspoken than they were during their service, to the point an officer who previously served for years in NATO HQ can later become a “Eurasianist” pundit. How is your personal journey within the public service any different?

To join the Communist Party of Turkey (TKP) and to start writing on soL news were the two goals I had in mind when I retired last July. Having set myself rather realistic goals in life, I have had the opportunity to accomplish them since my youth. Coming back to the question, I first began contributing to SoL through articles and interviews from September 2020 and onwards, filing my application to the TKP in November. I have also unexpectedly been invited to the Solidarity Assembly, a collective of this country’s left-leaning intellectuals and activists, an invitation which I gladly accepted.

I chose the diplomatic profession with full awareness of its difficulties and limitations. I do not feel the slightest regret when I look back. I have exercised my profession without reluctance and with the understanding that I was meant to serve the people of Turkey. Sometimes I succeeded in this regard, sometimes I failed. This "journey", as you mention it, has brought me and my family so much another article would be needed for me to elaborate.

Based on the example in the question, I should perhaps clarify the following: public service has its own kind of deontology, especially when it comes to the military, diplomatic, and intelligence areas. You may express your opinion and even dissent against some decision within the institution and during the decision-making process, but you cannot go public and speak out after said decision has been made. I also followed suit, but with a twist: after I fully embraced Marxism in the early 2000s, I have never attempted to hide it whether within the institution or in other formal or social settings. My notoriety for this, however, was the indirect result of one of the Fethullah Gülen’s cult countless activities.

One of the pieces of evidence uncovered in 2008 during the sham coup d’état plot investigations was a bunch of CDs allegedly found in high-ranking officers’ homes with a list of public servants in various critical institutions who would be reliable or compliant in the aftermath of a successful coup. This list, which only featured the initials of said public servants, was immediately published by one of the Gülenists’ rags, later with the employees’ full names revealed not without the assistance of, as we had learned at the time, some members of the cult which had begun infiltrating the Ministry during Ali Babacan’s term [2007-2009]. I was one of the public servants on this list, having been flagged as “an opponent of the [AKP] government, but potentially troublesome given [my] ties to the TKP”.

It was not too hard for them to figure out these “ties” to the TKP, given my outspoken political stance within the institution, that I had explicitly told my colleagues I was a Communist and that both my wife’s and my cousins are members of the TKP.

Having just been assigned to the Embassy in Paris when this really blew up, I grabbed the relevant newspaper extract mentioning me and went straight to the Ambassador, very seriously telling him I could head back to Ankara should he refuse to work me. H.E. Osman Korutürk, who I do not mind naming -dropping here since he is still alive and free to correct any inaccuracy, simply laughed and told me to keep working without focusing on such things. That list eventually became sort of a joke within the Ministry after a while, with some feigning jealousy over not having been named in it.

Throughout my career, I had the opportunity to work in what one could consider important positions: Nicosia [North Cyprus], Moscow, Brussels (the Permanent Delegation to the EU and the Embassy proper), and Paris. I have always worked closely with both military and intelligence personnel without feeling the need to hide my political views, and I have felt no animosity in return. Sometimes, if I mentioned I am a communist, some of them would simply refuse to believe me, thinking I surely could not be “that bad”. To this day I cannot fully comprehend the reasons for this attitude. Perhaps an incapability to reconcile this with their perception of a “dutiful and patriotic civil servant” …

Coming back to the question, I have indeed worked for 12 years as the only “declared” communist of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I have not, during this time, divulged any piece of publicly unavailable information even to my closest communist friends. I have shared my views and judgments yet never gave up information or intelligence. Being both qualified and reliable did not stop my career from being halted as the result of both an organized Gülenist smear job in 2012 and my non-affiliation to the cliques outside of Gülen’s cult, but I have never been expelled, suspended, or exiled. Even my last post abroad was Brussels, a spot many of my hardworking colleagues who put their health -and even their life – on the line would look at with much envy.

We are especially investigating the years of AKP rule, but what sort of transformations do you believe have occurred within “Foreign Affairs” in the past thirty years, during your career, in terms of institutional structure, staff quality, etc? While these are very much reliant on policy and strategic orientation, we often do not have the insider’s perspective when it comes to these subjects.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is an elite institution, but it is not a result of blue-blooded dynasties. It has an organizational culture that stems from the very mission that was given to it by the Republic: to deal with the rest of the World. It does not concern itself with the welfare of the masses, the domination of one class over another, or matters of public morality. It has met a fairly high bar in order to ensure the survival of Turkey as a mid-sized state within the difficult context it is in. Not only you should just speak one, preferably two foreign languages, you must also be able to produce written, coherent thought in them. The Ministry’s entrance exam back when I applied was fairly difficult, and I only managed to succeed the second time. “Luckily” Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the “honest retiree from the AKP”, and Gülen’s cult collaborated to open up the institution to “theirs”, an initiative which, after the 2016 coup d’état attempt, resulted in those who organized these exams and won them being scattered between the streets, prison, and exile.

When it comes to the institution’s structure, one must first mention only a very small percentage of people have family members who previously served as part of the “Foreign Affairs”. By the time I entered the Ministry in 1991, the so-called “hegemony” of Ankara Political Sciences Faculty graduates had already ended, and it would be an insult for everyone with an above-average intellect to define it as an elitist school for the privileged. While it is commonly believed in our country that being proficient in one or more languages requires a certain level of income, I have worked with dozens from less fortunate families who graduated from  State (Anatolian) High schools. Parallels can be drawn between how we have been smeared as “mon chers”[1] and  Boğaziçi University students who have been accused of  “elitism” for standing against the appointment of an unqualified and unworthy AKP supporter as rector. To me, it is just the reaction of the ruling class’ mediocrity against the quality.

As far as the political leaning of the personnel of the Ministry is concerned, the median line is somewhere close to European-style social democracy, Kemalism, and liberalism. I have not seen many people who put their careers before their love for the country. With some exceptions, their perception of Marxism is more ironic than hostile. You could label a Foreign Affairs civil servant as “Westernised”, but not too many people would correspond to the “pro-Western” epithet. To quote one of my most beloved superiors, you can live a good life in this profession, but you cannot become rich. You can definitely have a roof under which to put your head, but you won’t get to ride on the cars AKP’s junior cadres use.

Foreign Affairs used to work very closely with the General Staff [of the Turkish Armed Forces]. The country’s foreign policy orientations would evidently be jointly determined through a securitarian lens before being suggested -or, depending on the situation- imposed on the civilian governments. It would be inaccurate to draw from this that Foreign Affairs was a mere pawn of the General Staff, however, as the institution drew from its experience in tracking international developments to convince the military. I have witnessed how in situations where the two institutions would “clash”, the top brass would back down.

Not much changed at first when the AKP rose to power [in late 2002]. The Ministry had already embraced European Union membership as a major goal. The AKP and its cadres were at first baffled to see how an institution they had accused of being “mon chers” and “dönmes”[2]  was “loyally” performing its duties. The Ministry’s own cadres were also betting on “them” leaving after the first election, in a way that would not disturb the policies of opening up to the EU and the world they were supporting. The AKP’s first Foreign Affairs Minister was Yaşar Yakış, who despite being a notoriously pious person, came to be respected during his rather short stint [2002-2003] both for his competence and because he had risen through the Ministry’s own ranks.

Over time, we began to witness some minor adjustments, especially during Babacan’s term. For instance, we witnessed a bright yet highly junior diplomat, who had just become the Minister’s special advisor, trampling over and giving instructions to senior executives, superseding even the Undersecretary. In an extremely coincidental turn of events, this fellow has been tried for collusion with Gülen’s cult.

Over time, we began to witness some minor adjustments, especially during Babacan’s term. For instance, we witnessed a bright yet highly junior diplomat, who had just become the Minister’s special advisor, trampling over and giving instructions to senior executives, superseding even the Undersecretary. In an extremely coincidental turn of events, this fellow has been tried for collusion with Gülen’s cult.

Then came Davutoğlu, whose weight had already been felt in policy and institutional matters as the Prime Minister’s Foreign Policy Advisor. Some “pure” youngsters started landing key positions as Ambassador and Consul General, which normally requires long years of service in the Ministry.

It is during Davutoğlu’s term [2009-2014] that the Ministry really “opened up”. Thanks to fraudulently organized exams and with recommendation letters signed by local leaders of the AKP and/or the Gülenist cult, the Ministry began admitting candidates by the hundreds per year. As most of them did not properly know even one foreign language, the Ministry had to send them -for the first time in its entire history- to English language courses at METU. I have worked with some of them and witnessed the way they felt completely “alien” to the institution. That I have seen nothing nefarious coming from them does not change the fact they were utterly ignorant and unqualified. These exams were investigated in the aftermath of the coup attempt, which led to some of the staff involved being either imprisoned or forced to flee, yet the ministers who knew the full extent of the subterfuge have not even been questioned.

Almost a third of the Ministry’s original staff was purged after the coup attempt, most of them being younger than myself. While it would be the last idiotic thing on my mind to remotely trust this period’s administrative and judiciary processes, I do not know a single person among them who was not affiliated with the cult in some way. For all that is worth, the middle-to-upper ranks became filled up with people who had almost all joined in the 1990s, and who we knew were not cultists. It felt like the Cult had never been part of our lives, a feeling all too misleading given what was to come.

Then came the monstrosity that is called the “Presidential System of Government” [in 2017], and the mayor I mentioned above got to see the sharks wreak havoc. We witnessed practices that had not been seen in the institution until that day. The services in charge of assignments and promotions became helmed by goons of the AKP who had not even an iota to do with the Ministry’s own institutional culture. The quality of its output dropped as it seemed like the Ministry’s experience and knowledge were no longer needed and that even an accidentally well-done job would only bring harm to the civil servant performing it. Thanks to their above-average intelligence and adaptational capabilities, Foreign Affairs’ cadres quickly realized that pretending to be “zombies” is the most appropriate method to avoid being torn apart by them. They do not strive to “innovate”, so to speak, focusing on complying with peculiar orders – even as they mumble their way through – for the sake of being able to finance their home installments or the school expenses of their children, most of whom study abroad given the nature of their profession.

As grim as the situation may look, I believe the Ministry’s institutional capacity remains in place.

You have become a regular contributor of soL, with op-eds every Monday. How would you evaluate the overall commentary and news coverage of Turkish opposition media outlets, especially when it comes to international politics?

I am an avid reader of soL and stick to following specific authors I prefer when it comes to other media outlets, especially – but not limited to – those who comment on international politics. I do not intend to limit myself to this topic in my own column. I have been studying Marxism for almost forty years and there are still aspects I cannot fully grasp and gaps I try to complete. While I have an endless hunger for reading since my youth, I am certainly lagging behind when it comes to praxis, and I hope organized politics under the banner of the TKP may help me catch up.

Both within my field and generally, I am known to be intolerant of blatant mistakes. I am quick to react to inaccurate or incomplete news, which is why I try to be rigorous when it comes to following news sources. To be absolutely candid, most of the articles on soL have satisfied my own criteria, and I have been able to report to my friends those that haven’t. I strive to follow soL’s very own motto: “Lying to the people is a crime”.

Both within my field and generally, I am known to be intolerant of blatant mistakes. I am quick to react to inaccurate or incomplete news, which is why I try to be rigorous when it comes to following news sources. To be absolutely candid, most of the articles on soL have satisfied my own criteria, and I have been able to report to my friends those that haven’t. I strive to follow soL’s very own motto: “Lying to the people is a crime”.

With your retirement having “freed” you politically after a long time, you have recently become a member of the Communist Party of Turkey. What is the TKP’s place in your personal history and how would you evaluate its past and present as an observer during your career?

I began attending university in 1986 as a social democrat, a euro-socialist at best, the child of a center-left supporting family. I met actual socialists there, and being a reading buff made me read every left-wing publication at the time. One of them, Gelenek[3], seemed different compared to the others, with articles barely distinguishable from granite and just as impossible to be fully immersed in. I became curious as to how these people were so informed and were capable of such problematization, so I jumped at the sources they referenced, then at the sources of those sources. Being fairly critical or more or less everything at the time, I was quite sure something was not right in the system yet unaware of an alternative. My knowledge of the Soviet Union was limited to the pictures displayed on the glass in front of its consulate in Taksim. Then came the book fairs, the panels, Yalçın Küçük and his whole bibliography… I eventually graduated, joined the Ministry, and married in 1992. My wife’s cousin and closest friend was part of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SİP) at the time, and we engaged in very long conversations. I was still sticking to my social democratic guns, deeming these guys to be “highly honest, yet a bit harsh”. Then came the Susurluk affair and the [libertarian socialist] Freedom and Solidarity Party (ÖDP) that rose up in its wake. One of its founders was my teacher in University, another one my wife’s cousin’s father. My first “socialist” vote ever went to them, if I recall correctly, while I was on duty in Moscow. I was able to call myself a socialist from now on, no longer seeing myself as a “back wheel for capitalism”.

When the SİP became the TKP in 2001, I closely read up on the TKP’s history and started tracking the party through my wife’s cousin. Its communiqués felt most pertinent to me, to the point whenever I come up with an opinion on my own when it comes to an issue, I see the TKP has published something that nearly matches it. Either I was a natural TKP member or the TKP was siding with me, yet both sides were unaware of it. I also learned at the time one of my own cousins is in the TKP as well, then came the year 2008 and the events which I mentioned earlier.

Whatever happened to the TKP, its successes and failures, the split which deeply saddened me but left my perception of the party as a distant observer unfazed… the correct party line is what ultimately matters to me. I consider the TKP to have maintained a proper and successful line within the context of this crippling global pandemic. Initiatives such as the District Houses, the Unity Union, and the Breathing Down the Bosses’ Neck watchdog collective make me proud to call myself a comrade. I remain fully aware there is much more to be done and think of ways to become part of it, for I do not want my children to live in a world dying from overconsumption and exploitation.

[1] A derogatory label most often used to single out some diplomats’ alleged elitist behavior, westernized cosmopolitism, and overall disconnection from the genuine concerns of the Turkish public. See Doğan Gürpınar, “Foreign Policy as a Contested Front of the Cultural Wars in Turkey: The Middle East and Turkey in the Era of the AKP”, Uluslararasi Iliskiler, Vol. 17, No. 65, 2020, p. 19, https://dx.doi.org/10.33458/uidergisi.660644

[2] Crypto-jew.

[3] Gelenek (Tradition) is the ongoing main theoretical publication (monthly) of the Communist Party of Turkey.