Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

On Turkish principles

Yonet Can TEZEL: “Our two countries are on the right side of history and should firmly oppose Russia”
2 March, 2016 - 18:22
Photo from the website GLAVCOM.UA

Despite the fact that Ukraine and Turkey are separated by the Black Sea, the two countries share history, the desire to join the EU, and now have enemy in common too, we mean Russia. And so it was likely no accident that during his first visit to our country as the head of the Turkish government, Ahmet Davutoglu said that Ukraine was not just a neighbor, but a nation which Turkey maintained strategic relations with.

In a conversation with Ambassador of Turkey to Ukraine Yonet Can Tezel, The Day attempted to find out whether such claims of strategic relationship were situational in nature, and whether they were caused by the deterioration of Turkish-Russian relations after the Turkish Air Force had downed a Russian Su-24 over Turkish territory. Meanwhile, our first move in that conversation was to request a comment on The Daily Mail’s article entitled “The Sultan and the Tsar: Will the Imperial Ambitions of Russia’s Putin and Turkey’s Erdogan Spark a New World War?”

“Those parallels drawn in some West papers you said Tsar and Sultan make attractive titles but it do not hold much substance. These titles are to lure readers. Proper analyses will show that these do not add up. Turkey is in a completely different league. Turkey is member of NATO and aspiring member to EU, member of almost all European institutions. Turkey is not irredentist, adventurist, aggressive. It has vibrant democratic structures. So, I think it is unfair to put Turkey and Russia in the same basket. Everybody in Ukraine and a lot of people in Europe already know Russian actions. But somehow you find these misleading commentaries in Western media as well. But the larger part of the international media is more commonsensical. People see that such analogies are not realistic.”

What is the vision of your country on how to resolve Syrian crisis, taking into account Russian military involvement which is considered by many in the West not constructive?

“The problem in Syria has been going on for more than five years. Half of the population has been displaced. We are talking about I think 5 million refugees and more then 2.5 million of those are in Turkey, almost 300,000 people are dead. Ukraine has been living through a major crisis too. Unfortunately about 9,000 people died in Ukraine. But in Syria we are talking about 300,000 people dead. We are talking about more than 12,000 children having been killed! So you see the proportions. Also in parallel to this crisis, my country has been affected directly from the events in Syria not only humanitarian wise but security wise. Security threat has increased with attacks that emanate from Syria mostly from terrorist organizations, but also from the Syrian regime. For example, a Turkish plane was shot down.

“When the Syrian president came to power we gave him the benefit of the doubt and we were at the forefront of international community to give Syria a chance to help integrate with international society in proper way and to act according to the international law. However, that has not happened; we tried until the end. But when the Syrian regime started killing its own people we could no more support the president.

“As for a solution; first of all, what happens in Syria should be decided by Syrians themselves. This requires an inclusive democratic political process, not top-down decisions but governance that reflects democratic aspirations of the people of Syria. That is a must. It must be a Syrian owned process and certainly the present regime in Syria has shown its unreliability, unresponsiveness to its own people. So the future is not with this regime. And what I am saying is already been reflected in international documents including UN documents. And all these documents talk about a ‘transition’: that is leaving this regime behind and getting a democratic regime. So that’s what we need.

“The fact that Russia has come into the picture has complicated things in a very unconstructive way. And it is no secret that what Russia has proclaimed and what it has done are two different things. Even in the past weeks since the beginning of this year their bombing campaigns hit 17 medical institutions, many schools. All this forces people to move, adding to the migration issue. So, we try to help build a process which keeps together the moderate and legitimate opposition. That’s how we were strongly behind in Vienna process. Unfortunately, latest round as you know was stalled simply because during those negotiations in Geneva aerial bombardment was continuing.

“So Russia has to really change its course; and if it really is sincere, it should make a positive contribution, not a negative contribution. In diplomacy people see things but they do not always say it out aloud; yet the whole world knows what Russia is doing.”

But how can one deal with Russia? Chancellor Bismarck told that the agreement with Russia is not worth the paper it is written on…

“Russia seems to rely on understanding of international politics that is based on Realpolitik. But that Realpolitik, as far as I see, is the Realpolitik of the 19th and 20th centuries. Realism and Realpolitik are not dead in today’s world. But international relation is not just about power. It is also about values, conscience, compassion, it is about people. Without these, foreign policy becomes inhumane. So, I hope Russia internalizing and implementing a foreign policy that is more in touch with today’s realities.”

Maybe for this purpose, to bring Russia to reality, the world should listen to Churchill who proposed to create armed forces of UN?

“There is talk about history making a comeback. And I don’t like such big generalizations. I know history does not fully repeat itself over time. History is a good source for drawing lessons and knowledge of history helps to build a better future. The reform of the UN is the very big need but also very difficult. Quite a few of the existing problems across the world, including lack of stability and peace in our part of world, relates to the fact that UN Security Council fails in many respects. And we as Turkey would prefer to have a more representative and more effective UN system like many other countries also want. It is difficult; yet we will strive for it.”

Dr. Dimitrios Triantaphyllou, Director Center for International and European Studies (CIES) told in a commentary to The Day: “Turkey has failed to become one of the key actors to have a say in whatever solution may emerge in particular ever since shooting down the Russian jet in November last year...” Russia used the opportunity to marginalize Turkey and make itself one of the indispensable players in Syria. And we know that you like as well the Kurdish organization which attack inside Turkey PYD to be recognized as terrorist organization.

“Turkey has been fighting terrorism for many years and not only one form of terrorism, but several types, including aggressive nationalist, ethno-nationalistic terrorism; that is the PKK. Please make a differentiation between Kurdish people and the PKK and its organically linked extensions like PYD or YPG in Syria. It would be unfair to reduce Kurds into these terrorist organizations which are based on Marxist-Leninist ideas. For example, in Iraq, Turkey has good relations with Kurds. As for the PKK, it is recognized as a terrorist organization by EU and US and quite many countries since many years.

“Syrian terrorist Kurdish groups have the same training facilities, the same organization structures and the same leadership as PKK. That’s why we consider them terrorists. It is unfortunately that, maybe for tactical gains, some countries fail to recognize that these are terrorist groups because if they recognized them as terrorists, it would be difficult to deal with them. Maybe they do not want to be seen inconsistent, so they do not call them terrorists; but all evidence point to the fact that PYD and YPG are terrorist organizations. It does not matter for us whether a terrorist group is Kurdish or DAESH as long as they conduct terrorist activities, they are a threat to us and we will respond to them. I told you there is ethno-nationalist, aggressive nationalistic terrorism. We have also seen ideological terrorism in Turkey. We have also seen terrorism based on a perverted, distorted presentation of Islam. It does not matter if it is leftist, rightist, whatever extremism we are against terrorism as a method. So what we say is that terrorism does not have a nationality, ideology, ethnicity, or religion. Terrorism is terrorism. It would be mistake for any country to benefit from terrorism tactically, for example, to attack DAESH – ISIS. This is wrong because terrorism will hit them back. I sometimes wonder how lessons of the past have not been learned. We have been warning about international terrorism even before 9/11. Our partners saw with delay how international terrorism is a very serious threat for all.

“Syria shot down a Turkish plane in 2012. As a result we put in place rules of engagement. Those rules of engagements require that when our borders, airspace are violated, when we are attacked from ground sources in Syria, we respond in kind. These rules of engagement resulted in the shooting down of the Russian plane in November. Recently when there was incoming attack of artillery from YPG we responded. These groups are claiming that they are fighting DAESH. However, anyone who has an understanding of maps will see that DAESH is not in that territory. More importantly, the Syrian regime confessed that these groups, meaning YPG and PYD are allies with Damascus. A representative of the regime claimed that ‘victory achieved in Northern part of Syria by the Syrian army and Syrian Kurds is victory for all Syrians.’ I think it will be easy for your readers to make the connections about who else is supporting Damascus.

“When these groups attack us we will attack them back. But this has nothing to do with migration flows. Migration flows which in fact is still looming or boiling behind are caused by Russian and Syrian aerial bombardments against civilians. So we have to make that distinction. I think most of our allies and serious people know this but one can still see some propaganda claiming otherwise.

“I think Ukrainians are experienced enough to know what to believe or not to believe when it comes to Russian claims.”

But we see that Italian Prime Minister Renzi will come to Moscow and previously Hollande was in Moscow, and all of them invite Russia to resolve this crisis which in fact was escalated by its involvement. And all this happens after annexation of Crimea by Russia and continuing aggression in eastern Ukraine. How can you explain such shortsightedness?

“The thing is we know Russia too, as you know it as well. Hopefully Russia will resume being a positive, normal country. It is an important country, with an important culture and history. It will continue to be our neighbor and we would like to be again partners with them. I think this is also valid for Ukraine in the future. So we should keep open door if that is possible. But when they attack and are aggressive we should stay strong. We should also be able to be ready to speak if they are sincere enough.

“I do not comment on the policies of any specific country, Italy or Germany. But we in the West know what Russia is doing. I am saying ‘we’ because Turkey is part of the West but also we are part of the East. Turkey is a special member of Euro-Atlantic community. We all know what Russia is doing. We worry that Russia might believe what it also propagates. What do I mean by that? For example, as NATO member we know what NATO is and what it is not. We know NATO is not what Russia claims it to be. However, if Russia believes this and if it does not change its opinion about NATO, this means that it is reading international relation in a very wrong way. I hope that will change.”

Mr. Ambassador, taking into account tension between your country and Russia, don’t you think that Turkish government should join sanctions against Russia as have done the EU, the US, Canada, and Japan after annexation of Crimea and start of aggression in eastern Ukraine?

“I will answer this question in the following way. There are several reasons why Turkey did not join EU sanctions against Russia. First of all, these sanctions were not decided in environment or room where Turkey was present. We are member of Western Alliance and European community of nations. When important decisions are taken we need to be there first of all. We should not be expected to automatically join decisions taken without consulting us. Secondly, we are living in a neighborhood with so many problematic neighbors that in any given time there is always a country around us who is subject to sanctions. If we were to join sanctions whenever America, Canada, the EU or others decide to use sanctions, we would always be surrounded by countries with sanctions. So we have principle; we join sanctions when they are binding, UN sanctions. And there is an important third reason. Sanctions are not always the best instrument in all cases. European and American sanctions exist but this does not mean European or American trade stopped with Russia. Turkish trade with Russia is not of strategic content. We sell clothes, fruits for example but we buy a lot of gas, as Ukraine used to do. So our joining the sanctions would not have produced results the sanctions are supposed to produce.”

But now it seems that without your will you are in sort of sanction regime with Russia.

“No. After this incident with shooting Su-25 by Turkish air forces Russia declared many measures and is implementing some of them. We tried not to escalate the crisis because a lot of people will suffer. Turkey will suffer from these sanctions to some degree. I think Russia will also suffer from them. We want to see what is happening. We are keeping an open door. This is not position of weakness. Whatever we do, we will remain legitimate and within international law and our reaction will be reasonable. We are patient. But if necessary we will adopt our own countermeasures. It is possible that Russians will see that there are limits to what they can do. Russia has unfortunately been causing problems across their neighbors including NATO allies. The security landscape has changed because of that and affected Ukraine very much as well. Now we have Russia acting in Syria, thousands of kilometers away from its borders.

“Our concerns with Syria are real and they are not academic. This is our next door. We are not coming from thousands of kilometers away and seeking some geopolitical gain. It is a matter of immediate security threat for us.”

Mr. Ambassador, what do you think of the current EU affairs, namely Brexit? David Cameron has had two-day-long talks with Angela Merkel and they reached some kind of agreement about the referendum on the EU. And Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, declared that he will vote for Great Britain to leave the Union. What are the opinions in your country, as you have been trying to join the EU, and now see one country going out?

“Having worked and lived in London, I admire British political and democratic culture. And I’m sure the British people will debate this thoroughly and decide in line with their interests. Based on what I’ve been reading, the British government has been working hard to find a solution that is acceptable to their people. Beyond that, I don’t want to comment on British politics. But for us the EU, for most of the time, has been a successful process of regional economic integration, perhaps the most successful in the world. It has generated a sphere of stability and prosperity across Europe. That is the reason why we want to join it as well. We want to join the EU, because we want to increase the standards of our people politically, economically, and socially. If these standards were in Africa, we would have liked to have integration with Africa, but they are in Europe. Also, we’ve been a European player throughout modern history. We’ve been part of the European balance of power; it makes a lot of historical and cultural sense for us to be part of Europe. And we have an ongoing accession process. So, we would like Europe to continue being a successful story, we don’t want it to be weakened.

“Europe does sometimes make mistakes, of course. We know it from our history; we know it from our present experience with Europe. Making collective decisions is never easy with so many members. They sometimes have difficulty in generating visionary policies. For example, Europe can remain small and still be some international actor; or it can follow a more visionary policy and together with Turkey, and eventually with Ukraine, become a broader force better fit to address international global challenges. A country like Turkey, which has multicultural skills, which has historical and cultural links to other parts of the world, can really introduce a lot of vibrancy demographically and economically into the EU. Unfortunately, because of some domestic issues, sometimes I see decisions within the EU countries that are somewhat myopic. However, while Europe can make mistakes, it has the intellectual strength to overcome mistakes and contribute a lot to humanity. So, we believe in Europe.

“Coming back to the British question, one can expect it to be resolved in a democratic way – hopefully with Europe not becoming weaker, but stronger.”

If you have read some British newspapers, there is an article in The Economist, called “A graveyard of ambition: Turkey is where European foreign policy went to die?” And it gives a citation of what you’ve said in other words, a caption located in your EU affairs ministry: “Let’s bring a dynamic industry, young workforce and unique cultural diversity to freshen and revive the European Union. By welcoming Turkey.” So, it turns out that even they see this bleak picture the EU finds itself in, and recognize Turkey as a useful potential member of the Union?

“Yes. Maybe, because of history, because of geographical location, because of diplomatic experience, the British have been more successful in seeing the bigger picture than some others in Europe and in the Euro-Atlantic area. The UK has always been supportive of Turkish membership, which we appreciate. And this is not based on some romanticism, it is based on good analytical thinking and knowledge of history, and an understanding of modern geopolitics, I think. There is also a need in today’s world to cherish diversity as an asset. With Turkey in, Europe will be stronger. I think the British recognize this.

“Not all European politicians see things like this. Perhaps Turkey has not been very successful in showing them our positive contributions. But, in the last analysis, the issue of Turkey for the EU is rather a decision that Europe within itself has to take. We have proven what we can do, we have shown what we can contribute. We have also learned much from our integration process with the EU. The good thing is that when we are shown some of our shortcomings, we recognize and try to improve them. That’s very important. So, our accession process has been a learning process. The EU process has a disciplinary dynamic embedded in it. For example, we have Customs Union with the EU since 1995. And this Customs Union had somewhat worried the Turkish private sector at first, as it may be the case now in Ukraine. But eventually, it has really increased the competitive capabilities of Turkish industry, and now we do more than half of our trade with Europe. Most of our exports to Europe are industrial goods thanks to the Customs Union which forced the Turkish industries to be more competitive.

“It’s a give-and-take process. Both the EU and Turkey will win from the Turkish membership, which is a strategic choice for us. And if it doesn’t happen, both sides will lose. I think that Europe will lose even more.”

You mentioned that Ukraine should eventually join the EU, but there is a referendum in the Netherlands. They have chosen to hold a referendum on Ukraine’s – not Moldova’s or Georgia’s – association agreement. What do you think of this?

“Again, this is something I would rather not comment very much about. This is for the Dutch people to decide. The Dutch are very deliberative people. They debate, they discuss, they are an open society. I’ve lived in the Netherlands when I was young, and have warm feelings toward them. Yes, there have been some problems recently in Dutch politics in terms of integration of and the attitude towards foreigners. Nevertheless, I believe, the Dutch will make the best decision, and the government is also doing its best so that what comes out from the referendum will be positive for Europe and positive for Ukraine. And I should not comment further on that.”

Some experts say that current rapprochement between our countries is based on current situation – a sharp deterioration in relations between Turkey and Russia. What can you say about this?

“These are not very in-depth analyses. They reflect a certain lack of information regarding Turkish-Ukrainian relations. For example, recently we are seeing a lot of high-level contacts. This is not surprising, first of all, because we already have a strategic partnership with Ukraine. For the past five years the leaders of the two countries have been visiting each other annually. And the past year the Turkish president was here with five or six ministers, meeting President Poroshenko and Ukrainian ministers. And it is now Mr. Poroshenko’s turn to go to Turkey for that annual exercise, which we call the High-Level Strategic Council. Mr. Klimkin was in Turkey also a few weeks ago, talking about this. The Turkish prime minister was here past week [the interview was recorded on February 23. – Author] with six ministers.

“Two things are happening. The first is what is supposed to happen according to the natural course of our relations. And second: one should recognize that our countries are on the right side of history and should of course stand firm against Russia. So, there’s a parallel momentum there. If those commentators were to read what our embassy has been saying, my interviews, what my government had been declaring in the past two year, before the Russian plane was shot down, they would see that what’s happening now is not surprising. It is a logical continuation.

“Let me share that, it was already back in 2003, even before the Orange Revolution that Turkey decided that Ukraine should be a strategic partner with which we should develop relations on a priority basis.

“The Turkish-Ukrainian cooperation makes a lot of political sense, commercial and economic sense, and geopolitical sense as well. What has been happening recently with Russia, has given an extra push, but the direction hasn’t changed. It is the same direction that we were following.

“So, as the Embassy, we are very happy that relations are further advancing. There is a lot of complementarities between our economies, and there are competitive advantages on both sides. If used properly, if harnessed properly, that potential will come out in very good ways, in ways that are beneficial to both sides. So, we have been encouraging Turkish investors, Turkish businesses to remain in Ukraine, and to come to Ukraine if they are not here. And my prime minister spoke to Turkish businesses in Ukraine past week – just before the meetings with Prime Minister Yatseniuk and President Poroshenko. He made a short, but wise analysis, and he said the following to the businessmen: ‘Turkish-Ukrainian relationships and their strategic partnership have an enduring, permanent feature. The problems of Ukraine are temporary. Don’t make decisions about leaving Ukraine by looking at the problems of Ukraine. Look also at what is more permanent, more real – the importance of Ukraine and Turkey to each other, and the potential of the Ukrainian-Turkish relations.’

“He advised them to stay here, to invest more – and it’s possible. The Turkish business representatives in return said that they understood this, and they said they wanted to invest more – but they also had some expectations. Of course, the reforms are important, and some companies have some problems to overcome. What is also very important – and this should be noted – they said we need to see a free trade agreement between Turkey and Ukraine so that they are more confident about investing in Ukraine. We’ve been talking about this agreement for some years now, negotiating it for long. I think we have to look at the bigger picture, and that bigger picture is not only about this or that commercial gain in this or that sector. The agreement is also about the broader political, geopolitical vision. It is now time to finally conclude the free trade agreement.

“We have free trade agreements with 22 countries. In fact we have concluded free trade agreements with 32 countries, but 10 of them became EU members, and since we have Customs Union with EU we now have 22 individual free trade agreements.

“The free trade agreement is not only about trade either. It’s about investments. It’s about making the pie bigger. So, we are hoping that this bigger picture will be seen more, and that we will soon finally have the free trade agreement with Ukraine. I have to open a parenthesis here – you, and your economic correspondent also, might be interested to know that since the EU and Ukraine trade agreement is now in place, we need the agreement between Ukraine and Turkey even more, because otherwise there will be a trade deflection. Turkish goods will be disadvantaged, it will be unfair. So, our policy is when the EU has a trade agreement with a third country, we as Turkey also need a trade agreement with that country.”

What are the problems that prevent the signing of this agreement?

“I’m not in the negotiation team, I don’t know the technical details. But one issue is that the Turkish agricultural sector is not fully liberalized, we have some reservations in that sector. But we have this special arrangement with all the other 22 trade agreements. And maybe Ukraine isn’t very familiar with that, and sees this as something different. As part of the negotiations Turkey has made some compromises and an agreement should be within reach. And that’s why we should all see the bigger picture and understand that this is not about just making a few commercial calculations. The free trade agreement promises to deliver much more.”

May we hope that it will be signed during the coming Poroshenko’s visit to Turkey?

“We hope so, but that might be too soon. In any case, we should strive to sign it in the next few months. We have another round of negotiations planned for the second week of March. The Turkish side will be ready to go ahead, and I hope the Ukrainian side will be ready too.”

What do you think about the Minsk II agreement? Do you believe that Turkey should join the sanctions together with other countries in order to force Russia to fulfill this agreement? Because it is Russia that fails to fulfill the main part of the agreement: the ceasefire, the withdrawal of weapons and troops from the border. Ukraine fails as well, but it is easier for us to adopt some legislation.

“We already have the Minsk process in front of us. And Ukraine is of course a main player there. We don’t want to be in a position to offer alternatives to it. For the time being our priority is that Minsk should be implemented fully, and by ‘fully’ we mean all aspects of it. This includes not only the ceasefire, not only the withdrawal, but also the border control. But there’s also the elections issue. Perhaps, Minsk is not perfect in many ways – no agreement is perfect. However, it’s there, it’s a plan; it’s something worth working on. That’s why we support it fully; especially we support its full implementation. So, we are not in a position at this point to offer alternatives to Minsk, but we are supporting it as much as we can – within the OSCE, for example. And by the way, as you know, one contribution of Turkey to the Ukrainian problem has been by offering a Turkish diplomat to head the SMM – the Special Monitoring Mission. Ertugrul Apakan is a very experienced Turkish diplomat. And he is doing his best with his team to contribute to the resolution of the problem. Of course, what our allies and partners, Germany and France, are doing is quite important. We want them to be successful, and we want to support them. Because they have taken the responsibility in this issue, and they want to deliver, and we hope they will be able to deliver.”

What are your expectations of this Poroshenko’s visit to Turkey? We have already mentioned the free trade agreement, but are there any other expectations of Turkey from this visit?

“We have a big file about bilateral relations. Increasing economic relations, trade, cooperation in energy, cooperation in transportation, cooperation in defense industry are all parts of it. And each visit is an opportunity to advance those files more. These high-level visits are a push to the bureaucracy, for everybody to work more – and that’s why we made a decision to meet each year at least once at the leaders’ level. But ministers and other officials meet more frequently. I mean, Mr. Poroshenko has met the Turkish prime minister and president several times in the past two or three months – in Paris, Davos, etc. This continues to happen, as well as with Mr. Yatseniuk recently. So, there is a momentum, a dynamic. And I hope that during the High-Level Strategic Council some of the documents we are working on will be signed. But we have the whole year during which we will continue to have meetings. Our embassy has a slogan regarding what we want: ‘More of Turkey in Ukraine, more of Ukraine in Turkey.’ High-level visits will help in that.”

Here, we see a lot of Turkish films in Ukrainian. But are there many Ukrainian films in Turkey?

“Not very many. And we would like to see more. Turkish television series are quite popular across the world. They have become one of Turkey’s major exports really. They’ve become very much in demand. I think that in Ukraine there is an interest in learning more about Turkey and Turkish history, but also about Turkish-Ukrainian common history. And in this respect I see more interest on the part of Ukrainian historians and intellectuals. And we want to promote a similar interest on the part of Turkish intellectuals and historians. We have some plans this year. Turkish cultural profile in Kyiv and other cities will be higher this year, because we are planning some good activities. A lot of Ukrainian tourists go to Turkey; I don’t know the exact number of Turkish-Ukrainian families, but it is also increasing. So, we may have more work in the Embassy, politically, commercially, and culturally, but we are happy with that.”

By Mykola SIRUK, The Day