Our peoples’ will to determine bilateral relations


H.E. Burak Özügergin, Ambassador of Turkiye to the Hellenic Republic

GR Diplomatic Review had the pleasure to discuss with his Excellency the Ambassador of Turkey in Greece about his country’s vision on international affairs, and of course to discuss on some aspects concerning the Greek-Turkish agenda. In our conversation the ambassador raised interesting issues that should be closely reviewed by the Greek policy makers. 

Interview to Pantelis Maravelias

In 2023, Turkiye will celebrate its Centennial as a modern nation-state and Republic. How do you evaluate your country’s past, and what is your country’s vision for the coming decades?

A few days ago, on 29 October, our nation celebrated the 99th Anniversary of the Proclamation of the Republic. Next up – the big 100! We are quite thrilled about the Centennial in 2023.

I guess we know a thing or two about being independent – for a thousand years or so now, mind you. Of course, navigating all the ups and downs of history teaches you not to take anything for granted. In any case, our country of today is not comparable in any way, shape or form with that of nearly a century ago – except our insistence on being free. Following the War of Liberation between 1919-1922 under the leadership of our great leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the signing of the Peace Treaty of Lausanne in 24 July 1923 secured our territory. The subsequent proclamation of the Republic on 29 October 1923 secured our peace. It was the determining act of the Turkish nation which put it on course of rapid evolution into a modern, democratic and social state.

I am hopeful about the future for my country. It is almost a cliché to claim to be living in a difficult neighborhood. It is probably true for most nations. What matters is what you do about it. In the last decade or so, we had economic crises to our west, social and political crises to our south, and now we have a military crisis to our north. Not to mention the health crisis that affected absolutely all of us.

So, we shifted our static foreign policy paradigm of the Cold War. For a couple of decades now, we try to stay ahead of the game. You have to consider context and shifting interests. You have to keep evaluating and reinventing yourself. There is no place for dogma.

Anyway, Turkiye is no longer a flank state. We do have some of the world’s wonders when it comes to bridges, but Turkiye is no longer just a bridge, either. Because most people often use bridges only briefly, to cross to get somewhere. We do what needs to be done.

Today, Turkiye is a regional power with almost global interests. However, there exists a contradiction regarding its foreign affairs. Although it appears as credible mediator in several crises (Ukraine, Armenia-Azerbaijan, Qatar-other Gulf countries, etc), relations with almost all of its immediate neighbors are fragile and problematic. What Turkiye says about that?

As I said, we have been around in our neighbourhood doing our own thing for the best part of the millennium. In an environment such as the one I just described, how can anyone expect us to stay as a mere spectator to events unfolding around us? Or to have a two-dimensional answer to three-dimensional problems? Hence, there is no contradiction in our foreign affairs. Rather, the contradictions that you mention surface when some of our permanent detractors attempt to purposefully disparage our actions.

In Syria, for instance, Turkiye actively confronted the terrorist organizations directly on the field, such as PKK/PYD/YPG and DAESH. The contradiction that arises when we are criticized is that our involvement in the region, which is sometimes targeted by Greece, is actually what prevented worse humanitarian catastrophes and further migration flows.

Moreover, Turkish support for Azerbaijan in liberating the occupied Karabakh paved the way for prospects towards a cooperation scheme including Armenia itself. Today, we are closer than ever to a permanent solution to a problem that has existed more than 30 years. To criticize that is the contradiction you should be asking about.

It should also be emphasized that our attitude towards the unilateral sanctions against Qatar by other Gulf countries had long been one of the reasons why our relations with those countries were not at the optimal level. We were on the right side of the future back then, and now we can say we were on the right side of the history as a credible mediator. That is the contradiction that you should be thinking about now.

When all is said and done, artificial alliances that are established to hurt or weaken Turkiye are condemned to fail. And fail, they always do.

Although the West maintains close commercial and allied ties with Turkiye, in terms of foreign affairs seems that western capitals feel uncomfortable toward some of Ankara’s intentions and they take action. For instance, the US blockaded the sale of the F-35 to Turkiye. How Turkiye plans to curve western anxieties?

First and foremost, let’s set the record straight. Turkiye was a part of the Western alliance before the East of yesteryear became the West of today. In those days, it was the members of the Warsaw Pact that were “uncomfortable,” as you say, about Turkish military capabilities! If you are an ally, you do not worry about your other ally’s strength.

Today the security architecture of the transatlantic region is transforming rapidly. We all need a broader and strategic perspective of developments, combined with farsighted leadership. Introversion and clubhouse mindset is of no use.

Having said that, Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine exposed the fragility of the European security architecture and shattered global dynamics. Therefore, the spectacle of a divided NATO, displaying cracks in transatlantic relations are to be avoided at all costs.

The developments speak for itself. Turkiye has a significant role in the peace, security and defense of the whole of the European continent. In the face of the current war, we helped as a facilitator to enable the ceasefire, grain deal and exchange of prisoners. Not a bad record for an “isolated troublemaker,” wouldn’t you say?

The EU’s security should not be overshadowed by bilateral political issues and maximalist and irrational national policies of a few member states. Turkiye expects to be treated fairly, full stop. You cannot try to isolate Turkiye and then accuse us of being independent minded.

The blocking of the Nord Stream pipelines leaves Turkiye as almost sole alternative supplier of Russian gas to Europe. Do you fear that this fact may trigger western sanctions against Turkiye or against Turkish products, sometime in the future?

It is a fact that there is a pipeline from Russia to Turkiye that can supply Southeastern European countries, but it is up to European countries to decide to buy Russian gas. I hardly think that Russia will try to force European countries to buy their energy from it. The pipeline existed before the war and continues to supply several countries in the region. To try to trigger sanctions against Turkiye in this case is like asking whether it is desirable to shoot oneself in the foot.

Moreover, it shouldn’t be hard to see that Turkiye is one of the very few countries that actually contributes to good things happening on the ground through addressing issues that affect all of us, not just Turkiye. Our mediation efforts have indeed borne fruit. The Black Sea Grain Initiative is a critical agreement that was product of the diplomatic efforts of Turkiye and the UN. The Secretary General himself lauded the deal as one of the most significant accomplishments of the United Nations in recent decades. The prisoner exchange was achieved by the process started by the initiative of Turkiye.

Immigration issues negatively affect EU-Turkiye relations. So far, the EU has considerably delayed the adoption of a common Asylum Policy, along to the approval of a relevant budget. Given EU’s inertia, does Ankara has a plan to discuss with Brussels in mitigating this pressing matter?

Our position on immigration is clear, and it has been for the last 10-12 years. You need to look at the issue in a holistic manner and not treat migrants like the enemy. Turkiye has been under the heaviest migration pressure in the world. We host the largest refugee population in the world since 2014 – more than 4 million refugees and asylum seekers. We support even more people in the neighboring countries so that a new wave of immigration does not happen. We work relentlessly to combat migrant smuggling and to control irregular migration. We apprehended more than 162 thousand irregular migrants and around 7.800 migrant smugglers in 2021.

However, we will not carry the burden of another migrant influx. Migration is not an issue that can be solved simply by closing borders, by keeping people for years in closed structures or by throwing humanitarian and monetary aid at the immediate problems. Or by blaming Turkiye.

The international community must also support source countries in addressing the root causes of migration. Enhancing resettlement opportunities is a crucial element in this aspect. Achieving fair and realistic resettlement policies is an important step to manage and prevent irregular migration. For example, we expect the EU to work with us so as to support the return of Syrians, in line with the 18 March 2016 Statement. You cannot ask Turkiye to continue sacrificing, while the EU, including Greece, is not holding up their end of the bargain. That is not how things work.

Hellenic – Turkiye relations are coming through difficult times. Greece claims that Turkiye constantly violates its sovereignty and threatens Greek islands with the mighty presence of the Turkish army in Asia Minor. Do you believe that Greece does not have the right to defend its sovereignty in the Greek islands? How do you believe that this situation will end up?

Turkiye has no eyes on anyone’s land. What we will not get tired of pointing out is that Greece’s contractual obligation stemming from Treaties to demilitarize the Eastern Aegean islands cannot have anything to do with the deployment choices for various Turkish military units. This is clear and no amount of obfuscation on the part of some Greek analysts is going to change that.

The longstanding and interrelated issues in the Aegean and the Mediterranean cover complex political, legal, economic matters. How we need to solve these problems is already there in the vast body of international law. The problems are difficult, but the method of solution is plain and simple. We treat each other honestly, try to solve what we can bilaterally, and take the rest to some sort of third-party dispute settlement mechanism – maybe the ICJ or some other mutually acceptable court or other fora.

Several Turkish officials claim that Greece is a “bad neighbor”. What Greece should do to become “good neighbor” for Turkiye?

When a lot of historical and emotional baggage is involved in a relationship, as in the Turkish-Greek one, asking the right questions becomes fundamental.

As Bernard Lewis once said, the question “who did this to us?” only leads to neurotic episodes and conspiracy theories. But to ask “what did we do wrong?” offers more hope by possibly leading to a second one – “how do we put it right?” Remember, repeating your position only shows your determination, not your correctness.

Greece and Turkiye discuss a “positive agenda”, too. What has been done so far, and what are the future prospects? Is there room for further collaboration (into the “Blue Economy” initiative for instance) or even proposals for the creation of innovative co-ops that could potentially surpass geopolitical differences?

Notwithstanding the current situation which I hope is temporary, the “Positive Agenda” initiative is one of the many bilateral channels that we have with Greece. The focus is on subjects that can stay out of the “storm” of the conflicted topics of our relations – like bilateral trade, transportation, communication, social security and civil protection. As part of the initiative, we follow a pre-determined list of goals to reach “checkpoints.” It is a practical, quantifiable process. It also helps us to engage the Turkish and Greek institutions to get together and work on mutually beneficial projects. So far, the sides have been able to make significant progress. When the circumstances allow, we hope to complete lots of tasks and projects without delay.

Of course, there is always room for further cooperation, especially in the economic sphere. We see the Aegean Sea connecting the two countries, rather than separating them -I don’t see why this kind of reference upsets some people here. Therefore, blue economy is always in the forefront of our economic agenda. In terms of tourism, trade, transportation, maritime protection, shipping, fishing, even energy in the future, there is an enormous, untapped potential.

We have Turkish brands investing in Greece (mostly in the retail sector), while many Greek businesses produce or import their products from Turkiye. What can we do in order to see even closer commercial ties between our two countries?

Unfortunately, economic activities between the two countries have always been under the shadow of the “heavyweight” subjects of Turkish-Greek relations.

Let me give you an example. In 2021, Greece occupied the 18th place in the exports of Turkiye, and 26th place in our imports. These numbers are symptomatic. Our countries enjoy many advantages vis-à-vis each other that they don’t have with their primary trade partners. For one thing, we are close to each other, at least within the same customs union. Our people know each other very well and there are strong people -to – people connections.

Governments may differ in their views, and this is normal. But people are the same everywhere. They want to live healthy, secure, happy lives. They want to trade with each other. Visit each other. They want peace and stability.

We should accordingly base our relations on what the two peoples want. This is the way that will encourage the governments to resolve their problems sooner or later.

Thank you very much for this interview

SEO: Turkey, Burak Ozugergin, Greece, Greek-Turkish relations