Yonet Can Tezel mostly satisfied with Ukraine-Turkey relations
When asked if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a democrat or a dictator, the country's normally articulate and fast-talking ambassador in Ukraine, Yonet Can Tezel, hesitated slightly before carefully choosing his response.
"I represent Mr. Erdogan, the president. What I would say is the following in a diplomatic way: Indeed Turkey is going through democratic challenges, the most obvious being the coup attempt last year which, for this or that reason, our allies failed to recognize and give us the democratic support that we need," Tezel told the Kyiv Post in an Oct. 24 interview. "That has eroded some of the confidence."
But democracy is far from dead in Turkey, Tezel said, speaking ahead of the Oct. 29 holiday to mark the 94th anniversary of the start of the modern Turkish Republic with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as its founding father and first president.
"We know, all too well, that we can develop fully only with democracy," Tezel said.
The deterioration of relations between Turkey and many nations in the West, including the United States and in the European Union, accelerated after the failed coup attempt last year to topple Erdogan. Turkey's government blames Fethullah Gulen, an Islamist cleric living in the United States, for masterminding the coup attempt, and is seeking his extradition.
America's harboring of Gulen has fueled anger among Turks, some of whom blame the United States for backing or even leading the coup, while others blame the U.S. for not warning the Erdogan government about the coup plot. The most benign version is incompetence — that the United States simply didn't know anything about the coup attempt.
The EU also comes in for blame in Turkey because, after the coup attempt, Europe "did not stand up for the very values and principles it wanted to strengthen Turkey. That led to a loss of confidence," Tezel said. Additionally, many Turks are frustrated by what they say is open
racism in Europe that is blocking their decades-long aspiration to EU membership.
The West, of course, would say the bad relations are Erdogan's own fault, accusing him of curtailing democratic freedoms to repress critics, imprison journalists and thousands of others and kidnap Americans as hostages to win the extradition of Gulen.
'Understand each other'
So it's no wonder that Tezel is happy to be in Ukraine, rather than in one of the many nations with whom Turkey is feuding.
"We don't have crisis. We don't have problems with Ukraine," Tezel said. "I am a very happy ambassador in the sense that my host country and my country have very good relations and they're going upwards… We understand each other."
He blames the news media, including the Kyiv Post, for focusing on Erdogan's exhaustion at the Oct. 9 press conference in Kyiv between Poroshenko and Erdogan. The Turkish president had trouble staying awake.
"He was tired, that was not a big story," Tezel said.
The real story, he said, is that at least 10 ministers from Turkey joined Erdogan on the Kyiv trip and that the two sides held substantive meetings for more than three hours that led to substantial agreements to strengthen the bilateral relationship.
"That's the story," the ambassador said. "When Erdogan and Poroshenko meet, it's always good, always positive, always concrete. Not all is fully shared with the press."
Besides the signing of many defense agreements, Ukraine and Turkey also took steps to prevent double taxation and to stop tax evasion of citizens and companies working in each other's countries. Agreements were also signed on the reciprocal protection of investments, he said.
No free trade deal
Moreover, both leaders set an ambitious target of hitting $10 billion each year in bilateral trade. Considering that the current trade is worth only $3 billion and no free trade agreement has been reached, tripling trade would appear to be an unrealistic goal.
But Tezel called the target "quite achievable, not the least because in 2007–2008, we had $8 billion in trade with Ukraine. For the last three years, for obvious reasons, mainly problems here (with Ukraine's economy) hitting bottom, but also problems in Turkey, trade has come down. But there are a lot of competitive advantages and complementary (features) between the economies."
Turkish investment into Ukraine, at least $250 million by some estimates, is ready to go higher.
"Of course, we should trade more," Tezel said. "Turkish Airlines is willing to fly twice the frequency of flights."
Other bright spots are agriculture and the service industry. He also said that Turkish companies "are coming in and looking at investing in renewable energy" in Ukraine.
Trade experts between the two nations are meeting in Kyiv as part of six-year negotiations to reach a free trade agreement. Agricultural tariffs appear to be one of the sticking points as many nations seek to simultaneously protect domestic pro- duction and boost exports.
Tezel suggested that Turkey is not to blame for the slow progress.
"Turkey has negotiated more than 35 trade agreements. Ukraine is relatively new to this," the ambassador said. "In all the cases, in all the agreements, we haven't been able to fully liberalize in agriculture. It's no surprise. Ukraine is looking for a fuller liberalization, which would be not possible at this stage."
Ukraine has a trade surplus with Turkey, so has every reason to reach a trade agreement soon, he said.
"Ukraine has the advantage," Tezel said. "We want to make the pie bigger so each side gets a bigger part of the pie."
He said, however, the Ukrainian
side is "afraid of Turkey coming in too strong in certain sectors" under a free trade pact. "We want them to see the bigger picture."
Consequently, reaching a trade pact could still be many months away, Tezel said.
He added that achieving a deal would "be another bonus, seal of approval, sign of trust on the part of the Turkish and Ukrainian governments. Even without it, I'm encouraging businesses to come to Ukraine and to put Ukraine on their radar, but also to consider realistically the risks."
Turkey has an estimated 15,000 citizens in Ukraine and more than 600 businesses.
But Tezel said he still hears more complaints than success stories.
Ukraine has not achieved a "level playing field" — meaning strong rule of law with trustworthy courts, he said. "The faster it happens, the quicker this trade will grow. If the investment environment is improved as we all want, that's what Turkish businesspeople are looking for. The Turkish business associations share our views on that."
Tezel said Turkey was able to attract record amounts of investment in the last decade by strengthening rule of law and arbitration procedures to resolve business disputes. He said Ukraine must do the same.
Tourism boom & bust
Turkey's round of conflicts with many countries have hurt its vital tourism industry, which accounts for 13 percent of the nation's gross domestic product by some estimates. The number of foreign tourists dropped from 36.2 million people in 2015 to 25.4 million people in 2016, a 30 percent fall.
In 2015, after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near the border with Syria, the Kremlin retaliated by suspending visa-free travel between the two nations and banning some imports, such as tomatoes. The number of Russian tourists coming to Turkey declined.
After conflicts erupted with the EU, Germans and other Europeans also started bypassing Turkey.
Ukrainians, by contrast, are traveling to Turkey in greater numbers than ever, aided by close proximity to its Black Sea neighbor and visa-free travel. A record 1.1 million Ukrainians are expected to visit Turkey this year, Tezel said.
Tezel said that the tourism industry in Turkey "is picking up again" as more Europeans, Russians and others return.
"Reservations for next year are very good news," Tezel said. "Despite the problems, German reservations have increased for next year. We have to go up above 40 million tourists again (each year). Some of our more traditional European customers went to alternative countries. Now they're coming back because the level of services, infrastructure that Turkey has to offer is so good."
Turkey has a complicated relationship with Russia. They have conflicts over Syria and other parts of the Middle East, over the NagornoKarabakh enclave in Azerbaijan, over Cyprus and other issues.
But Turkey refuses to join most economic sanctions imposed by the West on Russia for the Kremlin's 2014 military invasion and annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and the ongoing war in the Donbas, which has left Ukraine dismembered and has killed more than 10,000 people.
Additionally, Turkey — a NATO member — has reached an agreement to buy more than $2 billion worth of S-400 anti-aircraft missiles from Russia. The two nations are reviving trade in other areas. Yet the suspension of visa-free travel remains in place.
Turkey also remains dependent on Russian natural gas, too dependent to curtail trade and impose sanctions.
"Russia has been a big file for us for centuries…with ups and downs and lots of disagreement," he said. "We in many ways disagree with Russia but people still trade."
He noted that Ukraine's biggest single trading partner remains Russia, despite nearly four years of war. The EU, which has imposed sanctions on Russia, is still buying Russian natural gas.
"You still work and trade with them, without giving up our principles," Tezel said, describing Turkey's foreign policy with Russia.
Support for Ukraine
Despite Turkey's need for trade with Russia, he said, Turkey "has not moved an inch on our position on Crimea and the Donbas." Turkey condemns the seizure of Crimea and Russia's war and has called on Russia to change its position and resolve the crisis.
While Turkey plays no direct role in the peace talks, it has contributed in other ways. Its intervention persuaded Russia on Oct. 24 to free two imprisoned Crimean Tatar leaders to Turkey. The former political prisoners, Ilmi Umerov and Akhtem Chiygoz, were expected to arrive in Kyiv on Oct. 27.
Also, Ambassador Ertugrul Apakan of Turkey has been the chief monitor of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine since April 2, 2014, almost from the start of the conflict.
Turkey is also in favor of some of the international sanctions.
For instance, Turkey bans ship and airplane traffic between Russianoccupied Crimea and Turkey. Tezel said Turkey also recently moved to more strictly enforce the ban after Ukraine complained that some ship owners were hiding their movements and their true ownership behind false flags and false documents.
Tezel said Turkey will continue to ensure that it does not legitimize the Russian takeover of Crimea. "Why would Turkey sell out Ukraine and its principles so that a few guys will sell a few tons of tomatoes to Crimea?" he asked.
"We sympathize with the Ukrainian position morally and in international law," Tezel said. "We support them because that's the right thing to do. Strategically and geopolitically, we need Ukraine to be strong and stand on its feet and have democratic, inclusive politics, rule of law, successful reforms and a successful fight against corruption."
A general view taken on Jan. 2 in Istanbul shows seagulls flying near the Ortakoy Mosque by the shores of the Bosphorus Strait, the world's narrowest navigable waterway, which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. (AFP)
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey in 1923.
Turkey's Ambassador to Ukraine Yonet Can Tezel speaks with the Kyiv Post in his office on Oct. 24, five days ahead of the holiday to celebrate the 94th anniversary of the founding of the modern Turkish Republic. (Oleg Petrasiuk)
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko welcomes his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as they review an honor guard during a welcome ceremony ahead of their meeting in Kyiv on Oct. 9. (Mikhail Palinchak)