How do you assess the ongoing process of normalization of bilateral relations? During the past seven months our two countries have demonstrated their wish to keep working together…
We were saddened and shocked by the tragic incident with the Russian plane that happened on November 24 of last year. Since then we have taken a number of steps to mend fences, but Russia, quite naturally, responded very emotionally to the downing of its plane and relations between our two countries suffered accordingly.
We didn’t want this to happen. Two friendly countries, two neighbors can’t always see eye to eye on everything, but neither of us has benefited from the crisis in our relations. Since then we have been making every effort to improve the situation. We have always considered Russia a good neighbor and an important partner, that’s why we kept making steps to normalize our relations. During this whole period we have been careful to maintain a balanced and reserved tone in our statements regarding Russia.
We did not introduce any sanctions against Russia, sticking firmly to our promise not to join any international sanctions against your country. Therefore, we are the only NATO country to have done so, and Russia and its people have had a chance to see this. As a result, thanks to all these steps, the letter, telephone exchanges and my subsequent meeting in Sochi with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the normalization roadmap we agreed there finally started bringing positive results. The recent meeting in St. Petersburg [between Presidents Putin and Erdogan] also played an important role.
In any case, I think that during the past 7-8 months our two countries have started to better appreciate the importance of our mutually-rewarding partnership. Russia is Turkey’s good friend in the region and Turkey is the best and most reliable friend Russia can possibly find. Now that our relations are improving, some countries, which, during the period of crisis, advised us to maintain good relations with Russia, have suddenly started to worry about our rapprochement with Moscow.
They say that “it looks like Turkey is losing stability,” or “Turkey has turned its back on us by choosing to mend fences with Russia.” Then why, only three or four months ago, did they keep insisting that we do so. Unfortunately this reflects the double-faced nature of these countries. That’s why Turkey and Russia are ready to discuss our differences in an open and unbiased manner. We could differ on certain issues again but what really matters now is to bring our relations to a higher level than before.
Some experts call you “a friend of Russia.” They mention the support you were giving Russia during your presidency at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. I mean some countries attempts to recognize the 1930s famine in Ukraine as an act of genocide.
I, just like everyone else in Turkey, have always considered Russia and its people as a friend. I have even started learning Russian. But on the international scene, including at PACE, I discharged my duties in an unbiased, fair and well-balanced manner, always staying away from the policy of double standards.
I told the Russian side that during my presidency I would not allow any double standards to be used against your country. This concerns the initiatives I made and the reports I filed there. The report on the Holodomor was really hard to work on, but I believe that I made an unbiased research. Naturally enough, there were some forces, including the Ukrainian government, who wanted me to characterize those events as genocide.
But I, as a politician, can’t classify the Holodomor as an act of genocide based on insufficient and controversial information. I will never forget the visits I made to Ukraine, the Caucasus, to Belarus and Kazakhstan during my work on the report. During a visit to Ukraine, before meeting with President Yushchenko, I talked to a group of scholars. When I asked them if they thought that Holodomor was an act of genocide, 40 percent said it was, 30 percent said it wasn’t and the rest were undecided. After that I told Yushchenko: “You want me to classify those events as genocide, but your own scholars remain divided on the issue. Then how can I singlehandedly decide on this?” As a result, after they read my report, even the Ukrainian delegation thanked me for the work I had done.
The Russian side thanked me too. Trying to make everyone happy is a thankless job. As a result of our research I simply wrote the truth. If you are honest, fair and unbiased in your work, then everyone will feel satisfied. We worked with Russian representatives as a group. There was also a delegation from Azerbaijan. We managed to work as a single whole. They also gave me a lot of help.
No matter where I worked I have always tried to maintain good relations with Russia, because I know the big role it plays in our region and in the world at large. I think that Russian politicians have noticed and appreciated this. I was the first foreigner to be awarded an honorary medal by Russian Federation Council.
It was given to me by Valentina Matviyenko who is a good friend of mine, just like Leonid Slutsky, Alexei Pushkov, Sergei Naryshkin, Dmitry Rogozin, Konstantin Kosachev and Mikhail Margelov. Their main task, however, is to strengthen our bilateral relations. During my visit to Moscow I met with your three religious leaders: Patriarch Kirill, Chief Rabbi Berl Lazar and Chief Mufti Ravil Gainuddin. We have established a good dialogue with all strata of Russian society and are ready to take this dialogue even further.
What kind of a cooperation mechanism are Turkly and Russia going to establish in the Middle East, including in Syria?
Unfortunately, the situation in Syria is going from bad to worse. The Syrian problem can’t be solved fast by military force and armed struggle. Neither can it be resolved singlehandedly. That’s why we must work together to have a political solution and a sustainable ceasefire.
It’s a pity that peaceful civilians keep dying in Syria. Unfortunately, the earlier agreed ceasefire is being violated. We need to wage an all-out war against terrorist organizations in Syria. If we don’t flush them out, the wave or terrorism will keep spreading across the world, like an epidemic, threatening Turkey, Russia, Europe, the whole world.
That’s why we need to act together also on this track. We believe that the Syrian problem can be resolved if all countries come together in good faith. As we have said once and again, even during this period of crisis between us, without Russia there will be no lasting settlement in Syria. We keep insisting on this now.
The same goes for Iran. We are negotiating with them and are all set to strengthen our cooperation along this particular track. We should not forget about the countries in the Persian Gulf and in Europe. We must make our positive contribution to our common cause. We are convinced of Russian and Iranian support for our effort to secure the Syrian border and ensure the territorial integrity of that country. I am positive that by working together we will be able to resolve this problem.
There was a time when Turkey and Russia maintained mutually-beneficial military cooperation in the Black Sea region holding joint naval drills. What we often see happening there now are regular NATO exercises. Is there any chance of our two countries resuming their cooperation in this region?
We don’t want the Black Sea to become an epicenter of tensions. We want to see it as a center of stability and cooperation. To make this happen each country needs to contribute to this effort. This region must not be allowed to become a source of threats to anyone, be it Turkey, Russia or anyone else.
There are other countries here too – Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia and others and they need to realize this too. If they do there will be no reason for any tensions, no one will see the other as a security threat. On the contrary, we will be building up cooperation that everyone will benefit from. It’s an ideal picture I just painted though, because the situation in this region is not always so. Crimea has in recent years become a reason for tensions between NATO and Russia over the events in Ukraine.
All the countries in the south of the Black Sea region, Turkey included, are NATO members, hence the tensions that were inevitably created between us. However, during the recent NATO summit there was an overall understanding of the need to resume our dialogue with Russia. We need to strengthen this understanding and try to resolve our problems through dialogue.
Do you see any prospects of closer military-technical cooperation between Turkey and Russia?
We want to boost our defense industry and are ready to work with anyone who is willing to work with us in the field of technology exchanges, joint investments and production.
We have previously proposed a number of cooperation projects to our NATO allies but, unfortunately, it looks like they are not eager to share their technology with us or engage in joint investment projects with our country. Turkey intends to develop its own defense industry and its defense potential and if Russia is interested in such cooperation we are ready to discuss this.
One problem that may arise here is how a NATO member-state is going to have such cooperation with a non-NATO member. Still, there are many NATO countries that cooperate with Russia in this area. Secondly, if someone does not want to work with us then they should at least not prevent us from cooperating with other countries. We want to strengthen our defense industry and our defense potential, that’s why we are ready to maintain contacts with and work with countries willing to cooperate with us in the area of investments and technology exchange.
Russia was one of the first countries to realize that Fethullah Gülen's organization FETÖ posed a threat. Schools established by this organization were closed in Russia a decade ago. What direction could Russia and Turkey's joint efforts aimed at tackling FETÖ take?
Russia saw the threat and the danger that we did not recognize at first right from the beginning. We thought that supporters of this movement were law abiding citizens, believers. We could not imagine that they were secret agents. If Russia was wary of this organization, it must have had strong reasons to be concerned. This is why Russia is one of those countries which is largely unaffected by this issue at the moment. This is why Russia did not give this organization any chance to develop.
At the same time, the Dialogue organization that was established by FETÖ is currently active in Russia. We hope that Russia takes all the necessary measures in this respect. We highly value support that our friends provide us with regard to dealing with threats that Turkey faces.
Moreover, many branches of FETÖ have been active in other countries located in our region. We all face the risk that members of these structures will try to carry out coups like the botched putsch that took place in Turkey, grab power and strengthen their influence. This threat is real for Russia, Turkey and the region in general. This is why we need to work together to tackle this challenge.
Regarding Gülen's extradition…
We sent an extradition request to the United States, providing all the necessary documents and papers. We have all the documents and evidence linked to the attempted coup at the moment. Turkey's justice minister is currently working on the case. We will share all the information with a delegation from the United States that will visit Turkey on August 23-24.
We will also meet with US Vice President Joe Biden and discuss this issue with him. Once the case is fully prepared, representatives of Turkey's Ministry of Justice will probably go to Washington to personally deliver the documents and perform all the necessary procedures. We signed an agreement with the United States with regard to this issue.
Up until this moment Turkey has approved all extradition requests received from the US. It is Turkey's natural right to demand the extradition of the head of a terrorist organization that became the reason why 240 people in Turkey lost their lives. He must face trial. Let no one doubt that all those extradited to Turkey, including those already detained and placed under investigation, will face trial.
I am convinced that the trial will be transparent and objective in accordance with our laws and within the framework of the constitution. Let no one have any concerns. We prevented a coup from succeeding. Judicial inquiries and other legal proceedings have been launched with regard to coup plotters. This will also apply to Gülen and others who will be extradited to Turkey.
Why did the West fail to provide all the necessary support to Turkey's legitimate authorities in the wake of the coup? Russia backed Turkish leadership. Some Russian experts have said that the coup attempt failed due to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's firm and tough stance.
This is true. Mr. Erdogan's firm stance and his address to the Turkish people prompted the Turks to take to the squares, streets and airports across the country. This lasted a month. The Turkish people did not leave the streets and squares. If needed, they would have remained there for a year. Clearly, Turkish people who fearlessly took to the streets and blocked the road to tanks greatly contributed to preventing the coup from succeeding. This is why no words will be enough to describe how proud we are of our people.
We have received messages of support from foreigners, not only from the Muslim countries, but also from Western nations. People have openly expressed their admiration and respect for the Turkish people. True, Mr. Erdogan is a brave and frank leader. There are countries and statesmen who approve of this. But as former ambassador in Ankara said many people disapprove of how direct Mr. Erdogan is and the fact that he points at mistakes made by other people. They hope that Turkey will once again humbly follow what they tell Ankara to do and will keep silent and refrain from expressing its own opinion. They will continue to frame Turkey's policy and Turkish political leaders will follow these instructions.
However, Mr. Erdogan does not resemble the leaders of bygone days and Turkey is not what it used to be. Turkish people see the truth now. We will continue to speak the truth.
This is essentially why many countries and political leaders dislike Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Putin tells the truth flat out, the truth about their mistakes and miscalculations. And they think that Russia and Turkey are second rate countries and complain that these second rate countries have the courage to criticize them. They think that they are the only ones who have the right to say these things openly. This is why they worry when they are faced with firm and direct rhetoric from Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Putin.
They need to understand that they will always experience this anxiety until they change their behavior. Our leaders will continue to evoke fear and concern in them. The West needs to understand this.
I have long said that this approach to great Russia is unreasonable and unrealistic. You will not achieve anything by trying to threaten, humiliate and decry Russia. The same is true of Turkey. They reduced the grandiose 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi to a single topic, the LGBT rights. One cannot reduce relations with such a huge and great power as Russia to a single issue. I do not want to explore this subject further. I will only say that when relations with a country are reduced to a narrow issue, nothing positive will come of it.
Look at what happened to Ukraine. They constantly threatened Kiev and forced it to make a choice between them and Russia. The said, "You will either be with us or with Russia." This approach is unacceptable. What is currently happening in Ukraine reflects the key problem in the region. Clearly, our stance on Ukraine and Crimea is obvious. With regard to Crimea our position on the issue could be different from Russia's stance on the issue. However, on the other hand we must understand why this happened. We have to face the truth. I expressed my opinion on the issue before and after the events in Ukraine. A year and a half — two years before the Ukrainian crisis I said that if things proceeded the way they were proceeding, then what happened in Ukraine would happen. Sadly, this is what happened. The West has to change its approach and its tactics. It should abandon its policy of patronage. This is a dead-end.
Why has the European Union failed to deliver on its promise given to Turkey to lift the visa regime?
Sadly, xenophobic, Islamophobic and anti-Turkish sentiment, as well as the hatred of all that is different from the mainstream are on the rise in Europe. Populism in Europe has reached the highest level due to xenophobic sentiments and other negative factors. We have seen this trend even in those parties that have lost voters to radical movements.
They have become closer to radical and nationalist movements to receive their support and bring back lost votes. Essentially, they have been unable to fully adhere to the terms of the agreements due to populism. They need to adhere to these agreements fully or not observe the treaty at all. One cannot be selective about it. One needs to either comply with the deal, or not.
In response to our stance they have accused us of blackmailing or threatening them. No, we are not threatening anyone, but why then reach these agreements? To adhere to them. Otherwise why did we sign them? They are not used to such a stance. This is why they have been discontent.
Who benefited from a cold spell in relations between Russia and Turkey? Are the pilots who shot down the Russian aircraft FETÖ members? At what stage is the inquiry into Alparslan Çelik in?
It is absolutely clear that neither Turkey, nor Russia benefited from the crisis in bilateral relations. In fact, no one benefited from it. With regard to Çelik, the judicial inquiry was re-launched and is ongoing. He is currently in prison in connection with other crimes. He will stay there until June 2017. The investigation is ongoing. The public prosecutor announced that if Russia has information that could aid the investigation, Moscow could send it to Turkey. It will be examined and added to the case. Some of the pilots that took part in the incident were detained on suspicion that they are linked to FETÖ and the attempted coup. This process is being thoroughly carried out. I think that it is improper to discuss the case until all facts of the matter have been reviewed.