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Interview: Turkish Ambassador Says Syria Of 'Great Concern'

Turkey's ambassador to the Czech Republic, Cihad Erginay, at RFE/RL's headquarters in Prague
Turkey's ambassador to the Czech Republic, Cihad Erginay, at RFE/RL's headquarters in Prague
Turkey's ambassador to the Czech Republic, Cihad Erginay, visited RFE/RL's headquarters in Prague. RFE/RL correspondent Robert Tait spoke to the ambassador about regional issues, domestic affairs, and relations between Turkey and the EU.

RFE/RL: Prime Minister Erdogan has described the crackdown by Syrian forces on antigovernment demonstrators as "savagery." Turkey over the past decade has enjoyed a fruitful relationship and rapprochement with Syria, in which President Bashar al-Assad has been an integral part. Does Turkey believe that President Assad has a future as leader of Syria, given the violence and repression that has taken place?

Cihad Erginay: Syria, as you know, is one of the closest neighbors of Turkey. It's one of the most important neighbors. It's a large country. We have very good relations with the people of Syria. We have family relations with them.

For many years the peoples on both sides of the border were kept apart from each other. But over the past few years, with the opening of the borders with the visa-free regime established with Syria, that was overcome and the people for the past two years, I believe, have been able to go back and forth without visas, which has also had a trickle effect on the economy of both sides.

For instance, cities like Aleppo on the Syrian side and Gaziantep in Turkey have achieved major economic upturns because of these new relations between our countries.

As of last year, we also had the meetings where the cabinets of the two countries would meet and discuss issues and come to solutions on whatever problems existed such as, for instance, energy, infrastructure, or water issues.

They would talk together and come to solutions, achieve projects, and implement those. So relations with Syria were at a high. The events of the past few months in Syria, as has been expressed by our spokesman at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, are a source of great concern to Turkey.
If a weapons program is established in any country, not only Iran, that would be a source of concern for Turkey.

We believe that what has happened in the Middle East -- the Arab Spring -- is a delayed reaction in the area. They are actions of the people of the region that maybe should have happened decades ago, as they did in Eastern Europe. So we follow these. We assist them as much as we can in terms of humanitarian assistance, in terms of sharing Turkey's experiences in democracy and institutionalization of its state structures. We try to do our best.

For instance, in the case of Tunisia, when the revolution happened there, we were the chairman of the Council of Europe and together with the secretary-general of the council, the foreign minister of Turkey visited Tunisia and we talked with them.

We shared our experiences and we agreed that the interim Tunisian government should take advantage of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe. It's a process whereby they cooperate with the structures of the Council of Europe in order to progress with their democracy and this commission helps in that way.

We believe that all the events in the region, including in Syria, should be resolved through dialogue, through cooperation, through democratic processes, which is not what has been done in Syria lately.

We are concerned with what's happening and we hope that all the reforms and the reform processes that have been promised by the administration there actually come into effect.

RFE/RL: Where does that leave President Assad?

Erginay: President Assad -- that's a matter for the Syrian public. I cannot comment on the leader of another country.

RFE/RL: In 2010, Turkey tried to broker a nuclear fuel-swap deal with Iran that was unsuccessful because it was not accepted by the United States. Turkey has also opposed further UN sanctions on Tehran over its uranium enrichment program. Does Turkey share the belief, widely held in the West, that Iran's nuclear program is aimed at producing an atomic bomb?

Erginay: Turkey's view on the subject is that every single country in the world has the right to develop nuclear programs for peaceful purposes.

This is also our opinion of the Iranian nuclear program -- that this should be aimed at peaceful purposes only, nothing else.

If a weapons program is established in any country, not only Iran, that would be a source of concern for Turkey. Iran is a neighbor of Turkey; therefore, we follow what's happening there very closely, which is the reason why we were involved, together with Brazil, in reaching a deal for the enriched uranium needs of Iran to be obtained through mechanisms that were foreseen in the declaration that was signed by the three countries.

Ultimately, that declaration did not go into force because of the opposition of certain countries on the UN Security Council. But we believe that had it been implemented at the time, uranium in Iran would have been taken by Turkey and Brazil and enriched uranium that would be necessary for the hospitals and health sector in Iran would have been provided to them.

This did not happen, and now we are at the process where Turkey is sponsoring meetings between Iran and the P5+1 [the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany]. The first meeting of the latest round of this mechanism was held in Geneva and the second meeting was held in Istanbul.

We sponsored this meeting and we hope that this process, this dialogue, will continue whereby we will achieve a solution in the end where everyone is happy with the outcome and the sanctions regime against Iran is ultimately lifted.
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (right) with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

RFE/RL: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has described Iran's president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, as a very good friend of Turkey. That description surprised and indeed alarmed many people in the West. What would you say is the basis of this friendship? Is it shared values?

Erginay: Turkey and Iran, we have a great history between ourselves. It's a history that's been dotted with conflict at times and friendship at other times. They are an important neighbor. The borders between the two countries are the oldest in the world. They have been unchanged for the past 650 years.

We have great economic and trade relations with them, which have been affected by the sanctions regime, of course. It could have been much more. Although abiding by the sanctions regime that has been put forward by the United Nations, for those areas of trade and economic relations beyond that, we try to do our best and the relations between the two countries on a people-to-people basis are very good.

We have a large community in Iran that speaks a kind of Turkish (Azeri speakers, around 25 percent of Iran's population), so it's very easy for us to communicate with them as well. And when you look at it historically, Turkish literature, for instance, has been greatly influenced by Iran -- Iranian literature, Iranian language.

So there are these special relations that we always try to promote for the benefit of both countries and ultimately the international community.

RFE/RL: On Armenia, is the controversy over the 1915 genocide, as the Armenians term the events of that period, the main stumbling block to the restoration of ties between Ankara and Yerevan?

Erginay: Yes. Two countries, Turkey and Armenia, have different recollections of what happened in 1915. The Armenians term it as genocide, as alleged genocide.

The crises that were expected in some circles after the resignations of these generals didn't transpire. Everything went on very smoothly…
We say they are unfortunate events that happened during the First World War. They are a calamity. But they should be properly discussed by both sides and we should leave it to the historians to come up with what actually transpired at the time, what were the effects of them.

And while such allegations are made against Turkey, people always tend to forget that during the same year, 1915, the Gallipoli campaign was taking place on the other side of Turkey.

So the Ottoman Empire was fighting on many fronts at the same time. This thing that happened during the period, [was] unfortunate of course, but something that should have been discussed openly by the historians of both countries through a commission, as has been proposed by Prime Minister Erdogan several years ago but which has not been taken up, unfortunately. But we hope that [the Armenians] will [accept the commission] some day in order for us to open the gates for better relations between two countries, which we wish for.

RFE/RL: Moving on to domestic events, how do you explain last week's unprecedented resignations of four senior Turkish generals, including General Isik Kosaner, the head of the armed forces?

Erginay: The resignations of the generals, we respect their decision of course. They have gone into retirement now, but the events following the resignations have shown that the system in Turkey is well-established.

The crises that were expected in some circles after the resignations of these generals didn't transpire. Everything went on very smoothly and the commission that needed to get together in order to decide on the next generation of high military authorities in Turkey, they did get together and everything transpired quite smoothly.

So this shows how democracy in Turkey is maturing, how the civilian control over military affairs is improving and this is something all the countries in the Western world work for, try to achieve.

For instance, I served at NATO at one stage and one of the programs given by NATO to partner countries -- countries who are not members of NATO -- is this issue of civilian control over military structures. So it can only be good that a country such as Turkey is a live example of how this can be achieved.

RFE/RL: Some people don't see it that way. They suggest rather that under the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey has been moving from a military to a civilian form of authoritarianism. As evidence, they cite the jailing of scores of journalists -- there are estimated to be more than 80 currently in custody. There's also the $3 billion tax fine imposed on the Dogan media group, alleged intimidation of media, the mass arrests in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer alleged coup plots, which these critics suggest are based on trumped-up charges. What is your response to that?

Erginay: There are legal procedures that are ongoing in Turkey, so it would not be correct of me to answer that directly. But you mention the arrests of journalists. Maybe the question should have been put some other way. The question should have been the number of journalists arrested for the purposes of journalism, for their actions as journalists, which is not the case.

Some would be zero, really, because all of the journalists, as far as I know, have been arrested for activities -- and this is still under investigation, of course -- in subjects such as involvement in terrorist organizations, for subjects such as falsification of documents, for attacks against other people, for inappropriate actions against children and so on, not for their journalistic activities.

RFE/RL: Regarding relations with the European Union, Mr. Erdogan has been quoted as threatening to suspend ties with the EU if Cyprus were to assume the presidency of the organization in 2012, as scheduled, before any deal is struck to end the island's division. Do you see that as a real prospect and does such a threat imply that Turkey has effectively written off its chances of becoming a permanent EU member in the foreseeable future?

Erginay: Of course not. Turkey is a negotiating country with the European Union and we hope to eventually become a member of this family, and we hope that this is sooner rather than later. This is the reason why Turkey is achieving all the reforms it is. This is why Turkey has changed shells -- it has become almost a new country over the past 10 years and now it is the 16th strongest economy in the world, it's the sixth strongest economy in Europe, it is a country which is the biggest contributor to operations in NATO.

So it is a target for us to become a member of the European Union and we are doing our best to achieve that as soon as possible. In terms of the negotiations on Cyprus, we have been very active in trying to reach a solution as soon as possible.

The issue has gone on for too long and the stance of Turkey and its leaders has been to always be a step ahead of others in the negotiation process. We are the ones who have always come up with new proposals, of new openings of the process. And we hope that the leaders of the island, who are meeting under the auspices of the United Nations secretary-general, actually come to an agreement, hopefully by the end of this year, because we believe that an open-ended negotiating process is getting us nowhere.

So there should be a target whereby these leaders should achieve a solution and we hope that they can do this, especially by the fact that, after the July meeting of the two leaders with the secretary-general of the United Nations, intensified negotiations have started and we hope that this brings a result.