Turkey’s top diplomat calls for lifting all trade restrictions against Russia

– The year 2017 was a landmark for both Russia and Turkey. How do you evaluate the political dialogue between Moscow and Ankara? How would you estimate the importance of bilateral collaboration for the region and for the world as a whole? What are the key issues on the agenda today? 

 Turkey and Russia are good partners. We have deep-rooted social and cultural ties that bring us closer. Our economies complement one another, and in the energy sector, there is a huge potential for growth. Therefore, we must create the necessary conditions for our people to use this tremendous potential.

From a broader perspective, we also have regional and global responsibilities. What Turkey and Russia have achieved in terms of curbing the bloodshed in Syria is a clear example of making a change for the better.

Our agenda today is to prepare for the bilateral and trilateral summits that we will be hosting next month in Turkey. I am sure that our bilateral and regional cooperation will get stronger in the upcoming period.

Apart from political and economic aspects of our cooperation, 2019 will be reciprocally celebrated as the “Turkey-Russia Culture and Tourism Year.” Our Ministers of Culture signed the Declaration of Intent on 10 March 2017 during the visit of our President to Russia.

Russia, Turkey and Iran are guarantors of the Syrian ceasefire, and de-escalation zones began to be set up in May. In your point of view, what is the role of Russia in resolving the conflict and maintaining peace? What are your prospects on the matter?

More than a year ago, we started the Astana meetings together with Russia and Iran. Our common goal was to improve the situation on the ground through a nationwide ceasefire. The three countries have established a fruitful working relationship that we made possible despite our differing visions on the future of Syria.

We focused on our common ground to start this partnership: we all respect Syria’s unity and territorial integrity. We all support a political solution to end the conflict. We all agree on the need to combat terrorism. We succeeded in establishing de-escalation areas in Syria, and we helped reduce the level of violence on the ground.

It is natural that each guarantor may have its own priorities or red lines. As Astana guarantors, we respect each other’s red lines. That’s why we adopt our decisions by consensus.

The Astana mechanism still has a lot to contribute to international efforts for ending the Syrian conflict. We will continue our cooperation with Russia and Iran on the Syrian conflict.

I will meet my Russian and Iranian counterparts in Astana this Friday (16 March). This will be the first Astana meeting at the Ministerial level. We will take stock of the recent developments regarding Syria, and we will exchange views on how to give a push to the political process, in light of the conclusions of the Sochi Congress.

We will also address issues related to the de-escalation areas., and we aim to hold the first meeting of the Working Group on the release of detainees.

The previous Trilateral Presidential Summit (22 November 2017) paved the way for holding the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi. The Congress contributed to the Geneva process by calling for the establishment of a Constitutional Committee.

We are planning to host the next Trilateral Presidential Summit in Turkey in early April. Our leaders will discuss ways on how to further join our efforts to contribute to a political solution in Syria.

– The Pentagon made a statement saying that Turkey’s operation Olive branch in Afrin “is not helpful and threatens to damage the ongoing fight against Islamic State militants.” Nevertheless, it seems like the battle with DAESH is very close to its end. According to the statement of the US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Washington is not considering halting its support for Syrian Kurds and starting to take back the weapons given to the YPG. How would you comment on this? When do you expect the USA to stop arming the YPG and PYD in Syria?

First of all, I must make clear that there should be no room for terrorist organizations in Syria’s future. This is essential for restoring stability in Syria. Turkey is committed to fight against all terrorist organizations in Syria, including DAESH and PYD/YPG. Turkey is capable and determined to eliminate any threats targeting its territory.

We always emphasized that collaboration with PYD/YPG, even for tactical reasons, was a grave mistake. Such short-term tactical actions have become a source of instability. PYD/YPG-controlled territories in all of Syria should be returned to their real owners. The Counter-DAESH Coalition-led stabilization efforts in the eastern Euphrates will lack legitimacy as long as PYD/YPG is involved in these efforts.

During US Secretary of State Tillerson’s recent visit to Turkey, we agreed to establish a result-oriented mechanism. Our technical delegations gathered in Washington last week (8-9 March) for the first meeting of the Turkey-US Working Group on Syria. We had a fruitful dialogue on specific issues. We are willing to continue this dialogue, and we aim to deliver tangible results on the ground as a result.

– President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s spokesperson İbrahim Kalın has said that the intelligence agencies of Turkey and Syria can get in direct or indirect contact to solve certain problems in the field. Can you tell us if this kind of partnership has taken place previously? If it has not then how can it be realized in practice?

Presidential Spokesperson Ambassador Ibrahim Kalın talked about the possibility of intelligence agencies’ getting into contact related to specific issues on the ground. This is among the tasks of all intelligence agencies. Contacts among intelligence officials related to practical matters cannot be interpreted as political dialogue.

– In December, construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant began under a limited license in Turkey. How do you see the future of the project, and what can be done in order to enhance and broaden cooperation in the domain?

The construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant will be a first step for Turkey in the use of nuclear energy to generate electricity.

We are determined, as are our Russian partners, to see this project through. There is strong will and commitment on both sides to make the first reactor operational by 2023. We will hold a groundbreaking ceremony soon to mark the launch of the construction phase of the project.

Energy, including nuclear power, is one of the main pillars of our excellent bilateral relations. Our cooperation based on a “win-win” approach will continue to expand and deepen in this field.

– 48 percent of the offshore segment of the Turkish stream pipeline has already been laid. What are the benefits of the project for Russia, Turkey, and the region? How would you estimate our collaboration in the field? What other potential projects can be fulfilled in the foreseeable future?

The TurkStream Project is progressing as planned. The construction of the off-shore section of the pipelines will be completed according to schedule. We are also working together to finalize the onshore sections as well.

The TurkStream project is to the benefit of both Turkey and Russia. It will contribute to the energy security of Turkey, and it will enable the direct purchase and transport of gas from Russia. A direct line is to the advantage of both the consumer and the producer. Plus, the second line of the TurkStream will enable Russia to export volumes of gas to other interested European buyers.

Russia is Turkey’s largest supplier of gas. Our partnership in this field has withstood the test of times, and our cooperation in this field will also continue. We are open to future projects as long as they are economical, based on a win-win approach, and contribute to regional peace and prosperity.

– Trade and economy have always been the basis and the traditional key fields of our bilateral ties. What are your prospects for this year? Could you kindly provide us with exact numbers of Russia-Turkish trade?

Russia is our primary trade partner in terms of not only energy but also mutual investments, tourism, agriculture, and other sectors. The latest trade figures indicate that our commercial relations follows a positive trend. Our bilateral trade volume increased by 30 percent, reaching 22 billion USD in 2017, according to official figures.

We need to abandon all restrictions on trade to deepen our commercial relations. We are jointly working hard towards that goal through major projects in energy and defense. But we should also keep an eye on improving business relations at the micro and macro levels.

I hope that 2018 will witness further consolidation of our commercial ties with the conclusion of the Trade in Services and Investment Agreement.

– Turkey and Russia signed an accord for Moscow to supply Ankara with S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries, finalizing a deal set to deepen military ties between two countries. This S-400 deal is reportedly worth some 2.5 billion US dollars. Are Russia and Turkey envisaging other deals and agreements in military technical cooperation?

If and when there is a new development, you will be the first to know.

– Turkey is one of the most favorite places for Russian tourists. And as summer is just around the corner, many of our fellow citizens would like to know:  what measures have been undertaken to ensure security and to boost the figures of cooperation? What are the prospects of facilitating a visa regime between two countries?

My hometown is Antalya. Tourism and agricultural relations with Russia have a key role in my electoral district. I am glad to see that last year’s tourist flow from Russia to Turkey exceeded the figures of previous years, with a total of 4.7 million in 2017.

We are cooperating with Russian authorities at the technical level on tourism security. We pay the utmost attention to the safety and well-being of Russian tourists while they are our guests in Turkey.

4.7 million is a big number of tourists. When certain incidents occur, we need coordination and timely sharing of information to deal with situation. This is also important to prevent misperceptions.

I suppose our cooperation on the tourism front has erased particular concerns. I am happy to learn that we would even go beyond the 2017 figures this year.

In 2019, we will celebrate the Culture and Tourism Year in Turkey and Russia. Cultural as well as promotional activities in each country throughout the year will certainly contribute to attracting more Russian tourists to Turkey and vice versa.

It goes without saying that “people-to-people contacts” are an important part of our multi-faceted relations. The Visa Waiver Agreement, signed in 2010, provided us a concrete basis to strengthen the social, economic, and cultural ties between our two countries.

Russian ordinary passport holders enjoy a visa-free regime to visit Turkey, and we never suspended the visa-free travel to Turkey for Russian citizens. While Russian ordinary passport holders enjoy this visa-free regime, our citizens unfortunately cannot benefit from visa-free travel to Russia.

In order to further enhance our cooperation in various fields, the Visa Waiver Agreement should be reinstated and fully implemented, with all its provisions.

– In 2019, Russia and Turkey are to hold reciprocal years of culture and tourism. And as far as we know, a Turkish cultural center is to open in the coming days. Could you kindly tell us what the mission of the center is and what is the role of cultural ties between our two nations?

An agreement was signed between our countries in 2012 to establish cultural centers initially in Ankara and Moscow. The Russian Cultural Center resumed its duties in 2014. Due to some minor issues, we initiated the process of establishing Yunus Emre Cultural Center in 2017. 

As a matter of fact, our center opened its doors as of February 19, 2018. Next week, there will be an official opening ceremony with the participation of our Minister of Culture and Tourism.

There is a huge potential for bilateral cooperation in the field of culture. Turkey and Russia recently made great progress as to cultural cooperation by completing necessary legal background.

During the visit of President Erdoğan to Russia in March 2017, our two Ministers of Culture signed a Declaration of Intent on 10 March 2017 to celebrate 2019 as the “Turkey-Russia Culture and Tourism Year.”

To this end, the first Joint Working Group convened on 30 January-1 February 2018. We have suggested to hold the next meeting on 15 May 2018 in Ankara, and we are expecting our Russian friends’ positive response.

Preparations are underway to celebrate “Turkey-Russia Culture and Tourism Year” not only in Moscow but also in other cities of Russia. Turkey is preparing various programs to attract participation. We hope that the Russian press will support the programs to be presented by Turkey and give extensive coverage of the cultural activities.

This event will be an excellent opportunity to raise awareness among Turkish and Russian societies. It will certainly lead better understanding and a rapprochement among our two peoples.