Interview with His Excellency Osman Koray ERTAŞ
Ambassador of Turkish Republic in Romania
After the Cold War, significant changes are seen in the Caucasus. What are the main strategic priorities for Turkey in its relations with these countries?
Osman Koray ERTAŞ: As a NATO member and EU candidate country, Turkey strongly supports Euro-Atlantic perspective of the countries in the Balkans, Black Sea, and the Caucasus. Turkey has been a leading advocate of NATO’s open-door policy for the last two decades, just as we have been a strong supporter of Romania’s membership to NATO. We also believe that the EU should do more to encourage the European perspectives of Eastern Partnership countries. Accession of the new members is instrumental in achieving our common goal of a free and united Europe. We have unique historical and cultural tenets to develop relations with Azerbaijan and Central Asian Republics. Georgia and Azerbaijan are Turkey’s strategic partners, including in energy and trade. Our vision is to increase economic interdependence with these countries to create a region of prosperity.
Can you please comment Turkey’s relations with its EU and NATO partners, Poland and Romania? How did the new geopolitics and geostrategic paradigms affect the region?
Osman Koray ERTAŞ: We have excellent relations with Romania. The two countries enjoy strong political, economic, cultural and humanitarian relations. The level of our relations was raised to strategic partnership with the signing of Strategic Partnership Declaration in December 2011. The Action Plan on the implementation of the said document was signed in March 2013. The exchange of high level visits between Turkey and Romania reflects the close political dialogue and friendly relations. Turkey and Romania are also two close allies in NATO and act in close cooperation in international and regional organizations such as the UN, the OSCE, the SEECP, and BSEC. Romania has been a strong supporter of Turkey’s EU accession. Turkey also highly values its relations with Poland. Turkey sits both at the eastern and southern flanks of NATO. As three important countries in the eastern flank, Turkey, Romania and Poland initiated a trilateral consultation mechanism. Recently we have elevated the mechanism to the level of Foreign Ministers and our Ministers met in Warsaw in June this year. In addition, Presidents of the Foreign Affairs Committees of our parliaments also meet regularly. We believe this mechanism has proven to be an efficient instrument to discuss the latest developments both in eastern and southern flank of NATO and brings added value to the Alliance’s common defense strategy.
How does the illegal annexation of Crimea and Russia’s aggressive politics affect Turkey’s relations with the countries in the region?
Osman Koray ERTAŞ: Turkey does not recognize the illegal annexation of Crimea, which is a violation of international law. We strongly support Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. We are also concerned with the deteriorating conditions of human rights in Crimea. Turkey will continue to closely follow developments in Crimea with particular emphasis on the security and well-being of the Crimean Tatars. We would like to see peace and stability in the Black Sea region. Massive military buildup would not help the security of any littoral states. We will continue to support resolution of the current problems through dialogue and within international law.
How does the recent Russian policy affect Turkey’s relations with countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia?
Osman Koray ERTAŞ: Central Asia is a strategically important region for ensuring the security and stability of the Euro-Atlantic region. Its energy resources are vital for global energy security and it is a major hub for gas and oil pipelines as well as trade corridors. Turkey is the first country to have recognized the independence of the Central Asian countries. Since 1991, our desire for a stable, independent and prosperous Central Asia has guided our policy priorities there. Given our common historical, linguistic and cultural ties, we have sought to increase engagement with this region on a broad range of issues. Similarly, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Turkey has indiscriminately recognized the independence of the countries in the South Caucasus, established diplomatic relations with the new countries. As I underlined above, Turkey enjoys special relations with Azerbaijan and Georgia. The strategic importance of the region has increased with regional projects such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Crude Oil Pipeline (operational since 2006), Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum Natural Gas Pipeline (operational since 2007) and Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railway (its groundbreaking ceremony was done in 2007).
What should be done to limit Russian influence in the Black Sea basin? Do you think riparian countries have a common strategy to preserve international status of the Black Sea?
Osman Koray ERTAŞ: During the long years of the Cold War, Black Sea remained a backwater where two hostile blocks maintained an uneasy balance. However, Black Sea lies at the center of a region stretching from Eastern Europe to Central Asia. At the very center of this region lies the Black Sea basin where the continents meet and the land routes and sea lanes connecting east and west and north and south intersect. This is the region that includes the Balkan Peninsula, the Caucasus and the northern and southern shores of the Black Sea linking the Caspian and Mediterranean Seas as well as the Middle East and Southeastern Europe. The collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989 paved the way for a historic opportunity of regional cooperation. To seize this historic opportunity, Turkey took the lead in early 1990s to set up regional cooperation mechanisms in economic and military fields. This was the cooperative spirit that gave birth to regional mechanisms like Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC), BLACKSEAFOR, and Black Sea Harmony. The illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 dealt a heavy blow to this cooperative spirit. We are equally concerned with the massive naval build-up in the Black Sea. As NATO allies we work very closely with the Romanian government to ensure peace and security in our shared neighborhood. Our militaries already enjoy close relations. We see Black Sea as a place where littoral states cooperate to increase our common safety and welfare. It should not be a place for arms race. That said, we do and will take necessary measures to protect our security in this region. We will continue to work with our allies and partners. While doing this, we will continue to give utmost priority to the preservation of Montreux Convention, which proved to be an important instrument that provided peace for decades. We hope that all littoral states go back to the cooperative spirit and, above all, abide by the basic principles of international law.
In order to reinforce the security measures in the Black Sea, if requested, what can Turkey provide in terms of strategic support?
Osman Koray ERTAŞ: National security and collective security are the two main interrelated pillars of the general concept of security. In an era defined by globalization, the current security environment has further strengthened this linkage and confirmed that security is truly indivisible. As a response to today’s evolving security challenges, the international community and the allies need to constantly revise the methods they use. Turkey sees NATO as the linchpin of Euro-Atlantic security. A leading ally within NATO, Turkey has been contributing to the defense and security of its allies for over six decades. NATO is known as the most successful defense alliance in the history. Article 5 of the founding document, that refers to collective defense, constitutes a valuable security guarantee for Turkey as well as for other Allies. Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria are the three NATO member countries which share coasts around the Black Sea. Black Sea has always been an important agenda item for the Alliance’s strategies and surely will continue to be so in the future. This was also confirmed in the last NATO Summit in Warsaw. We will continue to work in close cooperation with Romania within NATO and on regional basis.
Turkey has an important role in the fight against terrorism. Turkey hosts the refugees coming from Syria and Iraq. What are the steps taken by Turkey to stop illegal migration and prevent terrorism?
Osman Koray ERTAŞ: Turkey has been countering terrorism in different forms and manifestations for decades, from the ethnic separatist PKK terrorism, and the leftist DHKP-C to religiously motivated terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and DAESH, as well as ”17 November”, ”ASALA” terrorist organizations. The terrorist groups targeting our country have been operating across national borders: Running training camps, acquiring financial resources, operating media outlets to disseminate their propaganda and glorify their vicious acts abroad. Perpetrators of terrorist crimes, their mentors and financiers have been able to escape justice and travel freely. Our own struggle against this menace has thought us the crucial lesson that we cannot succeed in our counter-terrorism efforts in the absence of solid international cooperation. Accordingly, Turkey has been on the forefront of efforts to increase awareness of the international community on the threat of terrorism. We have worked hard bilaterally at the various international platforms to create mechanisms for more effective counter-terrorism measures. Since its formation, Turkey has been actively participating activities of the anti-DEASH coalition to defeat DEASH. A diverse group of countries from across the globe have embarked on persistent and comprehensive approach. In that regard, members of the anti-DEASH Coalition have made progress to degrading DEASH on the battle field. Turkey has been and continue to be a key actor in these efforts. That said, we reject the notion of good or bad terrorists. Just as we cannot cooperate with Al Qaeda since it is fighting against DEASH, we should not condone PYD terrorism, just because they are against DEASH as well. Terrorism should be condemned unequivocally regardless of its nature, motivation, and manifestation.
Turkey and EU negotiated for solutions to the refugee crisis. What’s the latest situation?
Osman Koray ERTAŞ: Turkey, with humanitarian considerations, maintains an ”open door” policy for Syrians without any form of discrimination since 2011. Currently, Turkey is the largest refugee hosting country in the world. We strictly comply with the principle of non-refoulement. Turkey hosts more than 2.7 million Syrians. 270,000 Syrians accommodated in 26 temporary protection centers are provided with food, non-food items, health and education services as well as psychological support, vocational training and social activities. In addition to that, Syrians who live outside these centers are also under our protection regime and they benefit from free health care and education services. Turkey remains committed to her obligations under international law and is determined to continue providing protection to Syrians fleeing from the instability and violence in their home country. Our legislation, which complies with the EU standards, provides sufficient legal safeguard. Turkey will spare no efforts to provide necessary protection to those in need. Recently, our Government started to explore avenues to provide citizenship to Syrians, who met certain criteria, living in Turkey. EU membership is a strategic choice for Turkey. The Turkey-EU Summits on 29 November 2015, 7 and 18 March 2016 have given new momentum to Turkish-EU relations. A new Chapter (Economic and Monetary Policy – Chapter 17) was opened in December 2015. An additional chapter (Financial and Budgetary Policies-Cahpter 33) was opened in June 30. We expect the political and/or artificial blockages to be lifted and the remaining chapters be opened without further delay. As agreed at the Turkey-EU Summit on 18 April 2016, we expect the lifting of visa requirements for Turkish citizens to the Schengen area soon. We reached a game changer agreement with the EU on March 18 to stop irregular crossings in the Aegean Sea. The agreement is based on the proposal made by Turkey only for humanitarian purposes. We have three main objectives in our proposal:
to prevent loss of lives in the Aegean,
to break the migrant smuggling networks,
to replace illegal migration with a legal one.
According to the agreement, Turkey started to take back all irregular migrants as of April 4, while on the same date resettlement of Syrians in Turkey towards the EU countries was launched. This deal had concrete results as the numbers of illegal crossings in the Aegean fell dramatically. Turkey did its share by taking a big risk and burden. We expect the EU to fulfill its commitments as well.
Your Excellency, could you say a few words to GeoPolitica Magazine?
Osman Koray ERTAŞ: I appreciate GeoPolitica magazine for its dedication on international issues. As you have mentioned, we have a good cooperation and you have organized GeoPolitica Summer School in 2015 and 2016. It has been a pleasure to find the opportunity to explain Turkish foreign policy priorities to students at these summer schools. Once again, I would like to extend my gratitude for your support to these summer schools.
Interview by Vasile SIMILEANU