Ahead of the meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in an interview with TASS commented on Moscow-Ankara relations, the military coup attempt, the Kurdish question, Syrian peace settlement and anti-terrorism efforts.
- Mr. President, thank you for the opportunity to have this meeting. We are talking literally hours before your visit to Russia, to St. Petersburg, where you are scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin’s Press Secretary, Dmitry Peskov, has already said that joint steps to restore relations between our countries, including a wide range of issues from the economy to Syria, will be in focus. There is a great deal for you to discuss. That’s Russia’s vision. What is your agenda? How do you foresee the forthcoming talks?
- Mr. Gusman, thank you very much. It is true that ahead of the visit scheduled for Tuesday I am very grateful for the opportunity this meeting offers to express our own viewpoint, how things look to us in Turkey.
It has been eight months since the tragic downing of the Russian jet. Over this period our cooperation continued along a number of lines. As you know, in the context of Russian-Turkish relations we had planned to build up bilateral trade to $100 billion. There’ve been difficulties with that. A number of our major projects, including the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, have been suspended. I am certain that we will have an opportunity to discuss all these aspects and that a new page in Russian-Turkish relations will be opened. This new leaf to be turned over will include cooperation in the military field, in the economy and in culture. Our countries are key players in the region and they are going to accomplish a great deal together. It is with this conviction that I will arrive in Russia on a visit. I don’t have the slightest doubt that Mr. Putin has been making preparations for the visit in the same fashion, and I would like to say this using the opportunities of your television channel.
I envision this visit as a new landmark in bilateral relations, a clean slate from which to start anew. On behalf of myself and the Turkish nation, I cordially greet Mr. Putin and all Russians.
- Mr. President, of course it is a great pleasure to hear what you’ve just said. You mentioned a tragic page in our relations – the death of our pilot. I know that this episode caused ache in the hearts of all Russians. You surely understand this, Mr. President. So my question to you is who in your opinion is to blame and will the perpetrators be punished?
- I’ve already had a chance to explain our stance in the letter I had sent. I said that this event was a great misfortune to us and it deeply upset us. The culprits in what happened in Syrian territory have been detained and brought to justice already. The investigation is continuing. In fact, I conveyed that in my message. As for the pilots, I ordered a probe into the circumstances that occurred beyond the bounds of our customary rules of response. You also know that the man who caused the Russian pilot’s death, who killed the Russian pilot, is now in custody. He is standing trial. I would like to emphasize that.
- Just recently Turkey, the people of Turkey, and you personally experienced a very dramatic moment, of course. There was an attempted coup against the government. As far as I understand, you managed to suppress the coup by relying on the will of the people, first and foremost. These days we can see rallies in your support. You managed to establish stability in Turkey. Very many people, tens of thousands are under arrest and investigation. In a situation like this how did you manage to quash the rebellion? On the other hand, the large number of those arrested may possibly indicate that “anti-government forces”, let us refer to them as such, could have taken deep root in Turkish society.
- Those who tried to stage this coup against the government and the people, failed to take into account key factors. Although they had penetrated deeply into government agencies, the army, the police and the judiciary, we have police and military servicemen who refused to join the coup plotters. There were also judges and prosecutors who refused to join, too. Yet, the most important thing that we have, is our nation, a people such as ours. The plotters never took into account the will of our people. They never even imagined that our people would not hesitate to stop tanks with their bodies. They failed to take that into account. Not once did the thought enter their minds that these people would stand firm despite bombs being dropped on them from planes, or helicopters opening fire on them. At the moment, 240 are listed dead and about 2,200 others injured. Some of the survivors are still in intensive care. These people’s hearts are filled with a burning love for their country; they were ready to sacrifice themselves. That’s why they took to the streets, women and even elderly people. The young as well, take a look at those killed –15-year-old youths were among them.
Amid these events, I received a phone call from Mr. Putin already on the second day. As we talked he said that he was against the coup and would remain on our side. I recall his high-principled position with gratitude and I thank him on behalf of myself and the Turkish people.
All world leaders must resist treason, government coup attempts and attacks on their own people. Mr. Putin acted quickly and practically without delay. Once again, I express my gratitude to him.
- In this connection there is one question I would like to make clear. As you may know some media outlets in and outside of Russia carried reports that Russia and its secret services had conveyed some sort of warning, that they had notified the special services that preparations for a government coup were underway. The question I want to ask you does this scenario conform to reality.
This is the first time that I have heard such a thing. Even if it had really been so, those concerned would have been obliged to inform me first thing. I received no such information, not from intelligence, nor through any other channels. We don’t know who said what and to whom. I believe that this is a groundless rumor.
- As far as I know, Turkey has asked the United States twice or possibly more to extradite Mr. Gulen, who, to my knowledge was one of the failed coup plotters. There’s been no response from the United States so far. If the US refuses to meet Turkey’s request, how do you see future relations with Washington?
- It would be wrong to approach this question from that standpoint. At the moment, the process of negotiations is continuing. Earlier, I addressed Mr. Obama with such a request. Whenever you demanded that we should extradite terrorists, I told them, we satisfied those demands. The head of the Fethullah Terrorist Organization (led by Fethullah Gulen) has been in your country (the United States) since 1999.
Regrettably, at a certain point we had provided full support for him and his team. They were saying that they were involved in some activities in the field of education, and that they worked for the future of our country. Regrettably, they did not proceed along these lines. It was a cover-up. Then we realized that they were moving in a different direction. I had suspected there was something wrong about that from the very start. They were opening private schools. Moreover, the activities at such educational establishments were far from positive. In fact they were working in a very negative way. Their activity was entirely centered on profit-seeking. We failed to pay proper attention to that when I was prime minister.
Starting from 2010 we had begun to crack down on this problem, by closing down such establishments, but much more of them were cropping up. When such schools were shut down, we arranged to compensate people by setting up weekend courses. Our people started going there because they did not have to spend much money. Many of them are poor and we saved them. Also, it was a source of extra income for our teachers.
In reality, even though we have demanded this man’s extradition. They say if you regard this man as a terrorist, then send us the documents. We will study them first and then take measures in accordance with US legislation. True, there are some documents we had sent them before. By now we’ve sent 85 boxfuls of paperwork on this case. In the near future, the Turkish justice minister, foreign minister, special envoy and a number of prosecutors and judges who were in charge of this matter will go to the United States and brief the American authorities in person.
- I know, Mr. President, that you pay much attention to creating Turkey’s new fundamental law, the new Constitution. You are the architect of the new legislation. What fundamentally new features will the new Constitution have? Should the people adopt it at your initiative? And how will this Constitution reconcile the traditions of a secular Turkish state with the Muslim religion?
- Turkey is a secular, democratic and social state ruled by law.
I don’t know what you understanding of secularism is. We understand secularism as a state of affairs that allows an individual of any religion to feel free to profess his or her faith. We declared that very clearly from the outset when we established our party. In other words, Christians, Muslims and Jews are free to profess their faith without restrictions. Muslims account for 99% of Turkey’s population. Everybody knows that Russia’s population is mostly Christian.
All citizens of our country are guaranteed freedom of conscience, just as they are in Russia. These guarantees are established by our Constitution. Turkey is not a clerical state. One should remember that. Alongside secular features, our state has a social-democratic basis. For some reason, the West confuses these notions and keeps hinting that Turkey is about to change its secular foundation. But that won’t be. We have repeatedly proven that by action over the past 14 years that we have been in power. We must fight against such prejudices. The processes that are afoot in European society are also in progress within Turkish society. But there is a certain system of values. Attention should be paid to it, but we do not dictate it to all social strata. Each individual lives one’s own life, believes in things that he deems right and acts in the way he regards as proper. The government guarantees this right on a permanent basis. Regarding respect for and guaranteeing democratic rights and freedoms, Turkey is beyond comparison, even next to EU countries.
- And another issue, which seems to be painful, Mr. President, a burning issue for Turkey and a troublesome one for you, is the Kurdish question. That topic has existed for a long time and it has long been discussed in Turkish society, in addition to being discussed in the world. The issue of how to settle the Kurdish question.
- I don’t know what you mean by the Kurdish issue. At present, our Kurdish citizens, my Kurdish brothers are not concentrated under the roof of one certain party. My citizens of Kurdish origin voted in the largest numbers for my party. There are ministers of Kurdish origin in the government.
The political movement, which ascribes to itself leadership in uniting the Kurds, unfortunately, has only oppressed the Kurdish people, dragged it into the streets and, regrettably, was the cause of 53 Kurdish deaths, who were citizens of our country. Those who died are Kurds and those who killed them are also Kurds. For example, a 15-year-old citizen of Kurdish origin, Yasin Beruk, was thrown out of the third floor only because he was giving out meat to the poor.
Among politicians, I visit this region more frequently than others. And I have been doing this for decades. My relations with citizens of my county of Kurdish origin are entirely unique. Further on, my position won’t change. Unfortunately, investors and entrepreneurs are not coming to that region due to the waves of terror, which that party has provoked. They simply can’t go there. Why? Because of the terrorists. But we’re cleaning up the region thanks to the operations that we have been carrying out.
Following these clean-up operations, we have begun a new stage: the process of urbanization. I hope that investors and businessmen will come there and start investing in the region thanks to new urbanized territories and also security provision measures. During the first stage, we began constructing social housing units and modernizing infrastructure. There are a large number of municipalities in that region claiming to represent the interests of Kurdish citizens. All of them are supplying weapons to terrorist organizations and providing them with money. So, I ask you are such things possible in the Russian Federation? Would the Russian leadership allow this? Would it allow terrorists to act? Unfortunately, in our country, they are carrying out terrorist activity. We’ll continue fighting them by any means and we’ll try to neutralize them like the Gulen terrorist organization, which we’re trying to eradicate. Additionally, they are acting in unison with each other.
I will also need the support of my dear and respected friend, Vladimir [Russian President [Vladimir Putin] in the joint struggle against terrorism in that region. Regarding the issue of cooperation with Russia in that direction, we’re ready to take all the necessary steps.
- Mr. President, both you and those in Russia have said that the Syrian settlement will be among the most important issues that will be discussed in St. Petersburg. How do you see a solution to this issue? This is a very burdensome issue for Russia, for you and for the entire world. How do you see it?
- I’ll tell you in a frank and straightforward manner. Basically, Russia is fundamentally the key and most important player in establishing peace in Syria. I believe it is necessary to solve this crisis with the help of mutual action by Russia and Turkey. If the talk is about widening the circle of participants, then I already told my dear friend Vladimir [Putin] earlier: if necessary, we’ll also involve Iran in the effort. We can invite Qatar, Saudi Arabia and America. In this regard, we can form a wide circle of participants. If not, then the Russian Federation and Turkey given our common 950-km border with Syria, can take some steps, without violating Syria’s sovereignty.
We don’t want Syria’s disintegration, but the departure of Bashar Assad who is guilty for the deaths of 600,000 people. This is the condition for preventing this scenario. Syria’s unity cannot be kept with Assad. And we cannot support a murderer who has committed acts of state terror. Let the Syrian people themselves elect an individual they want to see in power. I’m confident that we’ll hold talks on this sensitive issue but both the Geneva conference and the opposition based here insist on one thing: a solution without Assad. Iran can also participate in this process. Through joint actions, we’re especially seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed once and for all.
- The struggle against the Islamic State is a very serious issue for Russia as well, and it is no secret that the fight against Islamic State is complicated due to some serious economic angles. They have the means, the financial sources, they have oil. What must be done to disrupt the economic means of this terrorist organization, this terrorist movement, if you like, in order to cripple their oil revenues? How can the Islamic State be fought from this angle?
- Indeed, it is very important to cut off these sources of the organization’s financing. However, we see our strategy in the following way. If we look at the sources of profit they get from the sale of energy resources, we’ll see that the government of Syria is one of them. It is one of the places where the Islamic State sells its oil. I had earlier been told that these facts also pointed to Turkey.
I asked for the relevant evidence to be demonstrated. However, no one could prove it to me. Nothing of this kind can be found with regard to Turkey. They also tried to entangle my family in this. I said prove it, I’ll leave my post, if you demonstrate the relevant evidence. I turned to those who conjured up these insinuations and asked them about whether they would leave their posts, if no evidence was found. Silence followed. There is a mission to cripple the sources of the Islamic State’s financing. But there is also another question. Where does IS get its weapons from? This also merits attention. We see terrorist organizations countering IS. As long as these terrorist organizations get assistance in the form of weapons, IS itself receives a portion of these armaments. There can’t be good and bad terrorists. They are all bad. For example, the al-Nusra front has separated from Al-Qaeda. At the same time, it is countering the Islamic State and is putting up armed resistance to this group as well. Those who call the al-Nusra front a terrorist organization do not consider the Democratic Union party as terrorists. But on what grounds? On the grounds that they are fighting against IS.
Considering that the al-Nusra front is also fighting against the Islamic State, it should not be considered as a terrorist organization either. This is an incorrect approach. You supply the Democratic Union party and People’s Self-Defense Forces with weapons and exactly the same amount of armament finally gets into the Islamic State’s hands. This concept is a vicious cycle. We, the countries with weight in the region, need to “synchronize our watches” and ensure peace for people living in this territory by destroying all terrorist groups.
- I would like to get back to Russian-Turkish relations. They cover a wide range of areas, with the fuel and energy industry taking up the bulk of the economy.
Likewise, nuclear energy tops the agenda, as does the Turkish Stream and its future potential. What are your assessments of this side of our relations, particularly the future of the Turkish Stream?
- I would like to start my answer about energy cooperation with the Akkuyu project. We’ve lost a lot of time. The Akkuyu construction deal is the most important agreement clinched with the Russian Federation as it deals with nuclear power. The station will generate 4.5 GW of electricity. Our goal is to finalize the project and put the station into service. We planned to complete the project within 7-7.5 years. Time is slipping away while we haven’t properly launched the works yet. During this period we prepared a cadre of young engineers. They returned to their homeland. During the notorious events we kept wasting time. Our greatest wish is to resume talks on the issue and complete the project as soon as possible. As far as the Turkish Stream is concerned we are sticking to the view announced at the top-level Cooperation Council attended by the honorable President Vladimir Putin. And we have no ulterior motives. We are ready to promptly take steps towards implementing this project, discussing it and making a decision.
There are no obstacles whatsoever before us. The infamous tragic event had been the only obstacle. Currently, we purchase the greatest portion of gas from Russia, and we can take joint steps in this area as Turkey actively uses natural gas in its industrial production. Moreover, gas consumption is bound to increase. As you know, we also cooperate within TANAP project. However, given that the issue is about gas supplies to the EU, the Europeans also have high expectations. The situation will totally change once TANAP and Turkish Stream are put into operation. As of end-July 2016, the volume of natural gas imported from Russia amounted to 12.5 bln cubic meters. This demonstrates the importance of Turkey as an economic partner in this area. As for products exported from Turkey to the Russian Federation we also have to change the situation. As you know, currently the exports are mainly food products, plant products and poultry. We have to take new steps in this direction.
During the upcoming visit about ten businessmen will accompany me and from the Russian side around ten entrepreneurs will participate as well. They will have their own talks. Those will be members of the Russian-Turkish business council, heads of companies that already worked on the Russian market, the biggest and most active investors. I hope that for their part, they will turn over a new leaf in relations and revive cooperation with renewed vigor as well.
Besides, tourism presents a common ground for our peoples. At the moment we’re suffering from a serious deficiency in the travel industry. Russia was about to become the first in terms of the number of tourists, and this year Russia could have outstripped its rival Germany. I’m confident that the tourism sector will develop further by more Russians coming and our cooperation expanding. Another key factor, family ties of those who come from Russia to Turkey and from Turkey to Russia, in other words marital and familial ties will also boost the development.
- Mr. President, you just mentioned tourism. True, Turkey is a favorite place for Russians. It’s no secret that the bulk of our tourists have always gone to Turkey but it is also no secret that a whole host of problems are related to security issues, and Russians are still concerned about it. In this respect, I’m aware of the fact that Turkey has already undertaken measures to ensure security for Russian tourists that come to Turkey, but nevertheless I’ve got a personal request to you as President, can you state with certainty that Russian tourists will be safe in Turkey?
- I have already told this to my dear friend President Vladimir Putin. As of now Turkey has no problems, particularly concerning tourist areas. We’re taking all necessary security measures. And I stressed this speaking with my dear friend President Putin that we’ll be taking those measures further on. No worries here. We’re definitely assuming necessary measures in those regions and will be doing this in the future. Up till this very moment, not a single tourist has died during the most recent events. Nothing of the kind has happened because we have been taking very serious measures. Among victims of the recent events are those who were standing against tanks, aircraft and helicopters. Currently the beaches are safe. The seaside, in particular, is waiting for tourists. However, the issue is not only about seaside vacations. As you know we can offer a wide range of travel services: religious, cultural tourism, golfing packages, and health resorts. There are a lot of tourism areas that are open in different seasons. There is mountain tourism, which Turkey is actively promoting. We’re particularly ready to receive our Russian friends and are looking forward to seeing them in our country.
- I’ve got another question, Mr. President, everyone knows that you’re fervently oriented towards Europe, and committed to Turkey’s European integration while simultaneously as far as I understand the European Union has more and more questions for Turkey. How fervent an advocate of Turkey’s entrance to the European Union are you under current conditions and what steps do you think should be done to finally resolve the issue?
- Obviously we completed everything we had to, in due time. We launched the negotiation process on entering the EU, back in 1963. Unfortunately, 53 years have passed since then, and we’re still being hassled. As of now more than 3 million refugees have arrived from Syria and Iraq to Turkey. We fully offset all expenses related to their accommodation. Our joint expenditures with noncommercial associations have already exceeded $20 billion. There is no assistance from Europe.
There’ve been talks about assistance but we haven’t seen any yet. The UN has only granted around $500 million. Given this background, Turkey is shouldering a great burden. In the meantime, western countries are up in arms about potential refugee arrivals to their shores. They’ve said that once the readmission agreement is signed they would lift the visa regime but they never did this. They were about to lift it starting June 1 (in fact July 1) but they didn’t. How long is it going to last? We want honest dealings. And while we’re systematically straightforward, the European Union fails to reciprocate; it fails to stand by its word. We, on the other hand, remind them: “Keep your promises, and let’s take steps simultaneously.”
- Mr. President, we haven’t met for almost four years, our latest interview has even become part of this book. I recollect and had been reading this interview prior to this meeting. It was very calm, you were speaking then about peaceful, generally simple things while today’s world has changed dramatically, which is obvious judging from our conversation. We’re speaking about many problems, many challenges that your country as well as Russia and the whole world are facing. Hopefully we’ll meet soon, or maybe some time later. What do you think Turkey, Russia, the rest of the world should do to make sure that our next conversation also focuses on simple peaceful matters, when there won’t be such tensions? And how can we all manage that?
- As I previously said Russia and Turkey are two friendly nations in the region. Of course, we have some differences over the Crimean Tatar issue. Regarding the matter, the honorable President Vladimir Putin earlier told me that it would be solved, and I don’t have to worry about it. In order to overcome the current implications in this world I assume we have to focus on peaceful coexistence. This planet has enough space for all. We have had enough of the sounds of bomb exploding, nuclear race, enough about arms. Let’s not spend money that could be allocated on promoting democracy and people’s welfare, on the military sector. Of course, when some invest in the military-industrial complex others that have no such opportunities are forced to ignore the needs of their own people in order to find the means. We have to change this. People’s welfare has to be the main goal. People need peace. Religion, language, race, culture, etc. – it is necessary to take all this as it is and live in peace under the sun, because all this feeding frenzy, breaking friendly ties, making demands on one another can do no good neither for us, nor for the whole world.
I see Russian-Turkish relations in a totally different way, as a stone’s throw away from each other. If I cry out someone will hear my voice in Sochi, while if one calls out to me from Sochi I will hear it. This is how close we’re to each other. I think we have to get involved in this peaceful process together, to stick together and be united. I would like to extend most friendly greetings from my people to all Russian people, and we’re waiting for our friends, tourists from Russia and are sending our nationals to you.
- Thank you, Mr. President!
- Thank you!