Interview with H.E. Mr. Osman Koray ERTAŞ,
Ambassador of Turkish Republic in Romania
Vasile SIMILEANU: Your Excellency, Turkey has demonstrated that it is a geopolitical, geostrategic and economic actor of regional impact. We all acknowledge the new Turkish society’s edification in the context of several strategies with regional impact. What can you tell us in this regard?
Osman Koray ERTAŞ: With its geography at the intersection of different continents and civilizations, its rich history, culture, and social fabric, Turkey stands as an important regional actor that has the ability to reach various cultures and communities.
That is why we regard ourselves as both European and Asian at the same time. The last 10 years registered a considerable development in Turkey’s economy as well as the life standards of the Turkish nation. With the expansion of the middle class, millions of citizens were able to benefit from the shrinking wealth gap. Turkish entrepreneurs began to invest in various geographies, our businessmen flourished by developing ties with every continent, and youngsters became increasingly connected with their international peers. The country has opened up to millions of foreigners, be it investors, students, tourists or those seeking shelter. These fundamental economic and social changes have a direct bearing on the Turkish foreign policy.
On the other hand, most of the crises with a global impact have affected Turkey dramatically. Indeed, Turkey is at the forefront of the battle against terrorism, irregular migration and chaos created by failed states. The failed coup attempt of last year only added to this complex picture.
It is in such a difficult context that we are trying to preserve our democracy, open society and economic achievements through striking a balance between security and freedoms.
Unfortunately, this challenging external and internal context is thoroughly analyzed only by a modest number of international observers. Turkey is vital for Europe’s security and well-being. It is thanks to Turkey’s sincere efforts and institutional capacity that Europe overcame the huge humanitarian crisis of 2015. Turkey is also an essential actor in the fight against terrorism. In fact, DAESH was recently dealt a major blow in one of its strongholds in Syria, thanks to the Euphrates Shield Operation.
This being the case, we are sadly witnessing the unjust treatment of Turkey by the EU and some EU capitals. The second class approach of Turkey’s decades-long candidacy to the EU does not help sustain the European ideal in Turkey. We also noted a lack of solidarity on part of some allies after the FETO coup attempt which claimed many innocent lives. We are equally concerned that the rise of xenophobic rhetoric increasingly affects mainstream politics in some European countries. While Turkish Cabinet Ministers are not allowed to meet Turkish citizens in some European cities, PKK sympathizers are allowed to freely demonstrate / march on the streets, carrying banners of the terrorist organization. It was just recently that PKK sympathizers were allowed to rally at the heart of Europe with a banner on which Turkey’s democratically-elected President was pictured with a gun pointed against and a blatant message reading ”Kill Erdogan”. Such infamous scenes create serious outrage within the Turkish society.
Some European politicians think that it is only within the EU that leaders should take domestic political sensitivities into consideration. Yet politics imply the same mechanism in Turkey and it is only natural that our elected leaders take political sensitivities of the electorate into consideration.
Turkey has a clear European orientation. We have been a staunch NATO ally for more than half a century. Regardless of our EU membership process, Turkey is a European power. While we fully assume our responsibilities stemming from the NATO membership and our agreements with the EU, we also expect our allies and partners to abide by their commitments and pay attention to our concerns. A serious and balanced dialogue is much needed at a time when we all face common challenges that threaten our stability and well-being.
V.S.: Mister Ambassador, Diplomatic relations with countries in the region have evolved differently. What can you tell us about the bilateral relations with Azerbaijan? How will the TAP and TANAP projects develop?
Osman Koray ERTAŞ: Turkey’s policy towards South Caucasus is directed at establishing a common area of peace and prosperity by nurturing closer political and social ties as well as by promoting trade, transport and energy connections among countries in the region. In the early 1990s, Turkey was among the first countries to recognize the independence of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, and to provide support
in their state building efforts. In the following period we have succeeded in establishing close relations with Azerbaijan and Georgia in a wide range of fields. Thanks to this cooperation we were able to realize such large scale projects as the BTC and BTE pipelines, and to initiate the BTK railway and TANAP projects. Today, we are happy to see the concrete results of our joint efforts.
At bilateral level, we enjoy excellent relations with Azerbaijan. Besides regular highlevel political dialogue, we maintain close cooperation in economic and energy fields.
Strong people-to-people bonds underpin the existing web of comprehensive relations.
Concerning your question on the ongoing energy projects, the work on TANAP which forms the backbone of the Southern Gas Corridor is already at an advanced stage. The first gas through TANAP is expected to reach the Turkish market in mid-2018, whereas the TAP section which will connect to the European market will become operational in 2020. As a result, for the first time Western markets will start receiving the Caspian natural gas in large quantities.
What about the relations with Georgia?
Osman Koray ERTAŞ: Relations with Georgia have witnessed a similar dynamic trend in the last 25 years. Political dialogue was institutionalized through the High Level Strategic Cooperation Council mechanism. Economic relations have considerably expanded, making Turkey the second largest trade partner of Georgia and among leading investors in this country. Indeed, cooperation schemes such as the joint use of the Batumi airport as well as the current ID card-based travel regime exemplify the existing level of trust and cooperation between the two countries. We will continue to work along the same path to the mutual advantage of the two neighborly peoples.
V.S.: Excellency, The Armenian issue is still open. How will the diplomatic relations with Armenia evolve?
Osman Koray ERTAŞ: Unfortunately, we have not been able to develop the same positive agenda in our relations with Armenia. Taken hostage by its territorial ambitions and a distorted historical narrative, Armenia distanced itself from its neighbors and regional cooperation projects that would have changed the fate of the region for the better. The constructive approach that we demonstrated by signing the Zurich Protocols in 2009 as well as by introducing unilateral confidence building measures afterwards was not reciprocated as well.
In this context, I would also like to touch upon the painful page in our common history that continues to cast a shadow on our relations. Let me express in all sincerity that we honor the memories of the Ottoman Armenians who lost their lives under the tragic conditions of the First World War and share the pain of their grandchildren. We do not dispute the immense suffering of the Ottoman Armenians. What we dispute is the portrayal of these tragic events as ”genocide” perpetrated by one side against the other, disregarding the suffering experienced by the other constituent communities of the Empire and the complex history behind it. History cannot be built upon selective memories and contested claims. Historical events cannot be defined by parliamentary decisions. We should find a way to establish a just memory on this particular period with the joint work of Turkish and Armenian historians that we believe will pave the way for lasting reconciliation. Our proposal to establish a Joint Historians Commission is still valid. We do not shy away from the truth and, as our leaders expressed it publicly, we are ready to accept the results of such a commission. However, we will not allow one sided political initiatives to target modern Turkey and the whole nation without objective historical evidence. The recent decisions of the European Court of Human Rights and the French Constitutional Court clearly supported the Turkish view on the matter, underlining that the nature of the 1915 events are subject to scholarly discussion. Turks and Armenians had lived in peace and harmony for a thousand years, and it is this part of the common history that should guide the future generations of the two neighborly peoples.
V.S.: Mister Ambassador, How do you envision the development of relations with Russia?
Osman Koray ERTAŞ: Our relations with Russia passed through testing times last year. Now, after a series of steps taken to mend ties with Moscow, political relations are normalized. We have re-launched our established dialogue mechanisms as part of which meetings at the level of Foreign Ministers, Prime Ministers and Presidents took place.
On the other hand, we have a hard time understanding criticism made with respect to the normalization process, with some going so far as to accuse Turkey of shifting axis. Indeed, ever since the airplane incident, our allies had been calling for deescalation and normalization. That is the path Turkey has been following in the post-November 24 period. I have just set forth the larger context shaping our foreign policy.
As such, we are not turning our back on the West, we are just carrying on our relations with Russia to where it should be. Given the complex geography we are living in and the challenges that we need to cope with, it is only natural that we pursue a multidimensional policy and continue our close contacts with Russia with which we have an intense cooperation in fields such as economy, energy, and more importantly in the Syrian context. That being said, we maintain our principled position about Ukraine’s territorial integrity and do not recognize the illegal annexation of Crimea.
V.S.: Excellency, We are talking about common energetic and economic projects. In what stage are these? What states from the Caucasus will be partners? What is Romania’s role and place in this context?
Osman Koray ERTAŞ: I already touched upon the TANAP and TAP pipelines as regional energy projects that we prioritize. They will not only help diversify Turkey’s energy supplies but also contribute to the energy security of Europe. We are happy to note that both projects are advancing as planned.
Another project of economic significance that brings together Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey is the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railroad project. It forms a major component of the ”Middle Corridor” as part of the efforts to revive the modern Silk Road. When completed this year it will provide uninterrupted railway transport between China and Europe via Turkey. We think the BTK railroad has the potential to expand further with additional cargo transportation lines to South East Europe including Romania. In this context, we should also explore possibilities of establishing multimodal transportation lines that would enable us to make a better use of our Black Sea ports. In that regard, restarting Ro-Ro connection between Constanta and Istanbul is of particular importance to Turkey.
V.S.: Your Excellency, Ever since 1990, there has been a lot of talk in international analysis about the regional instability of frozen conflicts. What can you tell us about the Nagorno-Karabakh, Ossetia and Abkhazia? What would be the strategies for ending this conflict?
Osman Koray ERTAŞ: The ”frozen conflicts” in the South Caucasus stand as major impediments on the way to regional stability, cooperation and integration, preventing the realization of the region’s full potential. Last year’s military attacks along the contact line in Nagorno-Karabakh confirmed once again that the status-quo is not sustainable and that these conflicts can no longer be regarded as ”frozen”. We believe a lasting peace can only be achieved at the negotiation table through peaceful means within the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Azerbaijan and Georgia. We stand ready to contribute to efforts to achieve this goal.
V.S.: Mister Ambassador, How do you assess the bilateral relations between Romania and Turkey?
Osman Koray ERTAŞ: Turkey and Romania enjoy a multi-dimensional relationship. From strong political and military dialogue to security relations, from economic and commercial ties to intense contacts in tourism, from cultural field to people-to-people contacts, we experience a constant progress in various fields every passing year.
We are not only old friends and neighbors but also close NATO allies and strategic partners sharing the same ideals and values. Increasing threats emanating from our region require common and swift responses, and we need to extend the axis of cooperation.
We work very closely on a broad geography spanning the Balkans, Black Sea, Caucasus, and the Middle East as well as on critical issues such as energy security, joint defense initiatives, regional security, fight against terrorism, and organized crime.
Relations in political, military, and security fields continue to flourish based on strong mutual trust. In a difficult geography, these intense politico-military contacts will continue to flourish as a force for peace. We also strive to strengthen NATO’s eastern and southern flanks. We continue to see the trilateral mechanism with Poland as a valuable strategic forum to strengthen our solidarity.
The number of high level visits, joint military exercises, economic, touristic and cultural exchanges make Romania one of our most important partners in these fields.
Reciprocal visits of our Presidents in 2015 and 2016 reiterated the strong bilateral cooperation between our nations.
Economic relations continue to flourish as our bilateral trade volume surpasses 5 billion Dollars. Turkey is the largest trading partner of Romania outside the EU. More than 10 thousand Turkish companies operate here with an overall investment of about 6 billion Dollars, including indirect ones. Our active business community is a strong force in bolstering our relations. As our economies continue to grow, Turkish investments in Romania will grow as well. We already witness new investment decisions by major companies in various sectors.
I should particularly highlight the valuable contributions of the Turkish – Tatar community as well as members of the Turkish expat community, who came here after the revolution in Romania. They serve as a strong cultural and social bridge between our nations. We are proud of their contribution to Romania and the Romanian society. I would also like to reiterate our appreciation for the positive approach of the Romanian authorities towards them.
As we pass through turbulent times globally and regionally, we need reliable partners and allies such as Romania in the face of multitude of challenges. I would like to thank our Romanian friends, once again, for the solidarity and support to Turkey after the heinous coup attempt of last year. We will certainly continue to use the existing potential to create concrete projects for the benefit of our nations.
March 2017, Bucharest
Interview by Vasile SIMILEANU