Ambassador Mr. Yönet Can Tezel's Interview To Ukrinform
Turkish Ambassador: We use relations with Russia for the benefit of Crimean Tatars and Ukraine
On Friday, the President of the Turkish Republic Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid the first visit to Ukraine. With a group of several key ministers he took part in the fourth meeting of the Turkish-Ukrainian High Level Strategic Council. Prior to this visit Ukrinform met with the Ambassador of the Turkish Republic in Ukraine Yonet C. Tezel to discuss the most important issues in the relations between our countries.
Ambassador Tezel has been on diplomatic service for more than 25 years. Before coming to Ukraine he worked in various Turkish diplomatic institutions in Israel, Canada and Great Britain. He has been more than a year in Ukraine now. In the interview he discussed his mission as an ambassador, specifics of Turkish relations with Russia and gas relations with Ukraine, along with the Turkish position on Crimean Tatars and Donbas.
- Mr. Tezel you are relatively new Ambassador to Ukraine. What are your impressions of being an Ambassador to Ukraine so far?
- I came to Kyiv at the height of the crisis in February last year. Leaving the crisis aside for a moment, what I found was a country of great potential, but I also realized that poor governance had prevented Ukraine from using its potential to the benefit of its people.
I see that Ukraine is a country with a rich history, rich identity that is being rediscovered. I come at an exceptional time, a time of change, hope, but also a time of very big challenges. I think that Ukrainian people have got what it takes to overcome these challenges. They can find their solutions to the present problems and the international community, including Turkey, will help and support them.
- What is your goal or mission on this post?
- First of all, I want to promote and further the Turkish-Ukrainian relations and help enhance cooperation. I try to explore ways to develop win-win projects. Given the complementarity of our countries there is a lot of potential for cooperation.
I am also trying to explore ways how we can help Ukraine in its work to become a stronger country that is well-governed and democratically reformed.
My mission also concerns our kinsmen in Ukraine. Apart from the obvious the Crimean Tatars, smaller groups of the Meskhetian Turks and the Gagauz Turks also live in Ukraine. We see them as bridges of friendship.
And there are also Turkish citizens, students and Turkish businesspeople in Ukraine and I try to help them, deal with their problems etc.
- We have a strategic partnership with Turkey. What are the pillars of this partnership on the Turkish side?
- Strategic partnership refers to a closer than normal form of relationship in a wide range of issues that are discussed at the highest level. It encompasses structured, high-level and regular contacts. This is exactly what we have with Ukraine since 2011; what is called the High Level Strategic Council presided by the two Heads of State. This week on 20 March, we will hold the forth such meeting in Kyiv. Several key ministers will also attend as usual.
In this context we also have the Joint Strategic Planning Group which meets at the level of Foreign Ministers. Our Foreign Ministers met several months ago in Kyiv to prepare the meeting of the Council. There are other subgroups which meet as needed, for example working groups dealing with energy, agriculture, commercial and other economic relations.
Our partnership is strategic also because Ukraine is our neighbor via the Black Sea and we have similar positions on many international issues. So it is natural that we are strategic partners, it makes a lot of sense. We are very happy with these relations.
- What was on the agenda of the President Erdogan visit to Ukraine?
The importance of this visit was that it showed the determination of our countries to continue and advance their partnership. On the Turkish side, the visit showed our support for the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and political unity of Ukraine including, of course, Crimea...
- What's about the Free trade agreement between our countries?
- The Free trade agreement is something that both parties genuinely want to conclude. We have been working on it and only a few issues remain. But experts need more time to finalize agreement.
- What about LNG shipments to Ukraine through Bosporus, will Turkey make any concessions to Ukraine?
- The passage of LNG tankers through the Bosphorus is a problem. This is first and foremost about safety and security in this already very busy, narrow strip of water; Istanbul is a highly populated world city. LNG tankers are much larger than oil tankers. In case of an accident, and accidents with oil tankers have happened in the past, there would be devastating consequences for the people and city of Istanbul. And the damage could simply not be undone. It's too risky. This issue is not about Ukraine. We would give the same answer to any of our Black Sea neighbors who would wish to pass LNG tankers through the Bosphorus.
As Ukraine, we also want to diversify our energy sources, we are looking for alternative sources. In this respect, we could develop ideas about what Ukraine can use instead of passage from the Bosphorus.
- Do you mean that Ukraine will buy gas from your gas terminals? Will this issues be discussed?
- Alternatives to the LNG passage can be found. But more generally, Turkey is becoming international energy hub. Our need for energy is growing. We have to diversify our sources. A major project, TANAP, is now becoming a reality. As we speak today, the Turkish, Azerbaijani and Georgian Presidents are attending the groundbreaking ceremony of TANAP in Kars, in the east of Turkey. This project is our major priority. It will take Azerbaijani gas and possibly Turkmen gas through Georgia across Turkey into Europe. There are other sources of natural gas Turkey uses and can transport westward. So, In the future Ukraine can be also benefiting from this energy hub Turkey is host to. Despite geopolitics, the energy market has a market logic to it. If the right decisions are made, if the right projects are adopted, anything is possible.
- How does the TANAP priority correspond with the project with Russia, Turkish Stream? Is there a competition?
- The project called the “Turkish Stream” is in fact rather similar to the “South Stream” project which was initially accepted by Europe. The Russian proposal is to redirect the western end of the South Stream down southwards toward the Turkish-Greek border. This proposal is at the early study stage. We have agreed to see if it is feasible, profitable, and efficient. It's not at the level that TANAP is. Also, since the major part of the consumers will be European countries, much will depend on how they approach this project.
- What other issues are important in the approval of the Turkish Stream?
- This project will take some years before it is completed and the larger part of it reaches the Turkish-Greek border. Meanwhile, we have to look at the price, the cost of investment, the risks etc. We would not refuse any proposal without serious consideration. We say: “Let's look at it. Is it feasible?” Turkey has a growing energy need because Turkey itself is growing significantly. We have to consider additional energy sources from the east, south and north. And we need to do this wisely, manage it well and seek optimum results.
- Getting to the Crimean issue. A group of experts was supposed to start working in the Crimea in order assess the situation of Crimean Tatars there. Have they began their work?
- There is an intension to send an informal delegation of Turkish academics and experts to see the situation on the ground, especially the Crimean Tatars. This informal delegation is making some preparations; the work on the modalities, the timing, program etc. is not finalized yet.
- Human rights agencies on many occasions said that human rights were violated in Crimea. What is your position on this issue?
- This is an important subject for us and a serious source of concern. The Crimean Tatars are our brothers and sisters. Crimea is their homeland. Also, there are several million Turkish citizens of Crimean Tatar descendent in Turkey, who arrived mainly during the 19th century. This is a historic relationship. We will try to do our best to help them preserve their rights, their identity and wellbeing. We are concerned with what is happening, we are trying to follow the developments. We raise our concerns internationally, but more importantly with the Russian leadership at the highest level very openly and concretely. This has become an important part of our agenda with Russia.
Turkey has not recognized and has openly spoken against the illegal attempt at annexation. And we speak out very clearly that this was wrong. We express our view and concerns with the Russian leadership on this issue. Crimean Tatar people come from a peaceful democratic tradition and that is personified in Mustafa Dzhemilev, and his leadership. This is an asset for all parties. Unfortunately, the leadership, notably Mr Dzhemilev and Mr Chubarov, is cut off from their homeland. One way of helping the Crimean Tatar people is to help the leadership at this difficult time.
- What assistance can you provide to Crimean Tatars?
- We had projects in Crimea like building dormitories, buildings, housing units, mosques, cultural centers etc. Some of these were completed. As for those which are not completed, we cannot advance them under the present circumstances. This is unfortunate.
Meanwhile we are happy that the Ukrainian leadership in Kyiv now embraces Crimean Tatars more than the past administrations. Important laws were adopted by the Verkhovna Rada. However, I think that some more concrete steps need to be taken. For example, work on the concrete implementation of the laws would be helpful. Turkey has also been asked to help and we will.
- You said that the Crimean Tatars question was raised at the highest level. What was the response?
- The Russian side has its views and explanations. We do not agree with Russia on certain international issues and Crimea is one of them. I am not in the position to share with you all the conversations at the top level. But suffice it to say that because we have a certain relationship with Russia, certain experience, we have expressed our concerns with regard to what we expect and what we see as wrong. I don't want to comment on their response, but we will continue in this direction.
- Do you have trust in what Russia told you with regard to Crimean Tatars taking into account the image that Russia earned, in particular when denied RF troops presence in Crimea?
- For us, the starting point is not image. We know what is happening on the ground, we see and observe. We look at the things from our point of view. Our long history with Russia has given us a certain way of interacting with them, even when we differ on issues.
- Do you have any leverages to influence Russian actions?
- When there are differences in opinion, sometimes on important matters, we have a strong belief in the peaceful resolution of issues. We believe in the power of diplomacy, not acute confrontation.
We cooperate with Russia when possible, disagree when necessary, but keep a certain relationship, because Russia will continue to be our neighbor and will continue to be Ukraine's neighbor. But this doesn't mean we will compromise our principles and stay silent when we see a wrongdoing. We have a principled position. We believe we know them and I assume they know us. Based on that, I assume they would also like to keep their relationship with us.
- Do you feel that any additional diplomatic efforts are necessary with regard to the Crimean Tatars issue right now?
- Yes, obviously. Diplomacy is the only way we should give priority at the moment. We need to observe, explain what is happening, share our findings, and seek solutions. The international community has a good accumulation of experience in human rights issues. International organizations like the OSCE, Council of Europe, the specialized agencies of the UN, they should be able to observe and report things in Crimea. That is one way. And we should not give up expressing our concerns and views directly to Russia.
- Is there a red line for you with regard to the Crimean Tatars issue?
- I am not a fan of the concept of red lines in general. But of course there are always red lines in one's mind. Our concerns about Crimean Tatars are about people's lives and existence. We want our kinsmen to live in Crimea as they deserve. It's their homeland, they deserve to live there with other Crimeans enjoying all their rights in a democratic way, according to international standards. We can't let go of that. We cannot stop seeking improvement in the Crimean Tatars' situation.
- So it's only concerns so far and not a matter of sanctions or further actions?
- Sanctions is only one tool employed in international relations. Sanctions work in some cases, and don't work in other cases. Sanctions may work when they are employed by a certain group in a certain region and do not work when employed by another group. Sanctions can even be counterproductive.
Turkey is in such an area that, unfortunately, at any given time there are some sanctions in place or being considered against one or more of our neighbors. And these sanctions, if they are not UN sanctions, are often decided through procedures where we have not been consulted. So we approach sanctions cautiously.
In our case, sanctions against Russia probably would not produce the desired results. That is mainly due to the content of our relations with Russia. We believe the frank dialogue that we have with Russia is important. Turkey has a certain comparative advantage in the sense that we don't see our membership in Western institutions like NATO, our accession process with the EU, as an alternative to having relations with Russia. This gives us the opportunity to speak with all sides. I think many understand Turkey's position.
In other words, we are trying to use this channel with Russia in a way that would be beneficial to Crimean Tatars and overall to the whole region and, also in the interest of Ukraine. Diplomacy is the most important method we can rely on and we will continue to use it. That is part of our culture of foreign policy.
- But in this process what do you rely on the Turkish interests or the European values if you are trying to integrate into the EU?
- It's both.
- Then there is a contradiction.
In the following sense there is no contradiction. We want to be in the EU, it is our strategic choice. We want to offer our people the highest standards politically, economically and socially, and the EU accession process facilitates that. We want it because it is good for our people. Obviously, by wanting to be part of the European integration you agree on fundamental values and principles. Our national interests are not in contradiction with this. On the contrary.
The EU is a very special and unique entity. But the EU members have their own national interests as well, that is normal.
The accession process is a two-way street. Both sides have tasks. As Turkey we recognize the things we have to do, and we have done a lot. The EU has to do its share and be more forthcoming, which is sometimes difficult for Europe with so many members and domestic political dynamics. It is sometimes difficult to take decisions. Our public support for EU membership has generally been high. But when people see double standards, ambiguity towards Turkey, public support lessens.
Turkey is a major asset for Europe. If the EU is to generate strategic vision, if they want to be a more dynamic force in the region and the world, it makes a lot of sense to have Turkey in. Turkey cannot force its way into Europe, we will just do what membership requires and expect the commitments made to us by the EU to be fulfilled. So the EU has to overcome its internal issues that complicate our accession. The ball is on their side too.
- Getting to the situation in the Eastern Ukraine. What is the Turkish position with regard to Russian actions in Donbass? Do you recognize that Russian troops are there?
- Like the Crimean issue, when we speak with the Russian side, we speak openly about the whole problem. As a NATO member, a regional player, we have an understanding of what is happening in the east of Ukraine and our position is made clear in our official statements. Our support for the territorial integrity, political unity, sovereignty is very clear and we express it to the Russian side.
We also understand that this issue is not only about Russian-Ukrainian relations. It has implications beyond that; it is important for all the region. So as in the Crimean case, we want to use our relations with both sides to help resolve the problem, through the force of diplomacy, the peaceful way. If there are specific issues and requests we will try to help. Both sides know this and I believe they appreciate it.
- Do you support a lethal arms supply to Ukraine?
Ukraine has the right to defend itself. But this is a difficult issue and there are risks. The issue is widely debated in the US for example. For the time being, I believe our priority is to pursue the Minsk process. This offers a certain way forward. We should use it as much as possible. Let's not lose any chance for the peaceful resolution.
- What about the peacekeepers? Do you support this?
- I see that there is logic to this request. But there are too many questions unanswered; which peacekeepers, how can you take decisions for that, for example, are UN peacekeepers a realistic possibility, will they work well given the present circumstances etc.? At this stage I would say: let us see if the peacekeeping idea matures and then Turkey can consider it. Meanwhile, we already have the OSCE deployed in Ukraine. The number of monitors and experts in the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) is growing, surpassing 500 already I believe. This important mission is headed by a very experienced Turkish diplomat. This could also be seen as one of Turkey's contributions to resolve the crisis. Despite difficulties, I think that they are doing a good job of reporting as objectively as they can. You need standards of objectivity in this sort of a conflict. That is what the SMM has put in place.
Kateryna Bezruchenko, Kyiv.
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