Constantinople.- By Alkis Kourkoulas/AMNA
ALKIS COURCOULAS: Turkey is entering a period of centenary celebrations (100 years from the Balkan wars, 100 years of the first world war, 100 of the Armenian “genocide” and finally 100 years of the establishment of the Republic. Can you please comment on those occasions and especially on the 100th anniversaries of the Balkan wars that seem to still haunt the politics of our region?
AHMET DAVUTOGLU: The following ten years, starting from 2012 to 2023 mark the 100th anniversary of an important period in history. This period represents profound systemic changes which had transformed not only the Balkans and the Middle East but a much wider geography.
The Balkan Wars, the First World War, Turkey’s Independence War and the foundation of the Turkish Republic has not only ended the Ottoman Empire, but created completely new forms of relationships among the countries of the region which were often overshadowed by the legacy of these wars.
However now, a hundred years after the outbreak of the Balkan Wars, the region as well as the entire world is going through a rapid and vast transformation. The people of the region are taking important steps in order to build a peaceful and democratic environment and act with a sense of regional ownership. Today, we have a true opportunity that gives all of us the chance to see the region from a perspective of opportunity rather than a perception of threat and fear.
It is in this respect that Turkey is supporting all efforts to establish the necessary regional and international mechanisms with a view to resolving disputes through political dialogue, economic interdependence and cultural understanding. With such a cooperative and forward looking vision, Turkey is strongly committed to mobilize all its capabilities towards achieving the common goals of our neighbourhood. We would like to establish a new region, a model region for the rest of the world. In fact, our 2023 vision is precisely based on this understanding. But we cannot do this alone.
ALKIS COURCOULAS: How does the crisis in Syria affect Turkey? (The opposition claiming that your zero problem policy has collapsed, is it the case?)
AHMET DAVUTOGLU: Syria is not just a neighboring country to Turkey. Turkish and Syrian people have lived side by side throughout history and will continue to share a common geography. There exist close ties between the societies. That is why we cannot remain indifferent to the human tragedy in Syria.
Turkey, actively contributes to the efforts of the international community for the peaceful settlement of the crisis in Syria in accordance with the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people. On the other hand, Turkey keeps its doors open to every Syrian who is fleeing from the brutality of the regime.
Currently, we provide shelter to approximately 100,000 Syrian nationals. So far, we have established 14 camps to host our Syrian guests and new camps are being built in order to meet their needs.
To extend a helping hand to our Syrian brothers and sisters is not only a humanitarian responsibility, but also a requirement of the principle of good neighborliness and kinship. However, the number of Syrians seeking refuge in our country has increased due to the deteriorating situation in the country and we feel that, since the tragic consequences of the brutality by the Syrian regime are all tackled by the neighboring countries, the open door policy of Turkey is actually absorbing the potential international reaction. We expect the international community to live up to its responsibility in sharing this burden.
The regime in Syria has been a serious threat not only for the Syrian people, but also for the security and stability of the region. This threat is now gaining new dimensions as the regime carries its violent and aggressive policies that it has been waging against the people, beyond the borders of Syria. We are determined to take all necessary measures in compliance with international law to protect the borders of Turkey and fundamental rights and interests of Turkish citizens. The aggressive and hostile acts of the regime in Syria towards Turkey cannot go unanswered.
We will not tolerate either the attempts of radical and terrorist groups to hijack the legitimate struggle of the Syrian people and to exploit existing turmoil. Turkey decisively takes the necessary measures against all kinds of threats emanating from Syria. We consider the territorial integrity and the national unity of Syria as sacrosanct.
We wish to see the establishment of a free and democratic constitutional system in Syria that guarantees the fundamental rights and freedoms of all Syrian citizens without any discrimination and in accordance with their legitimate expectations. To this end, we call on the international community to take decisive steps in order to bring this bloodshed to an immediate end and to assist the efforts for the swift conclusion of the democratic transition process.
ALKIS COURCOULAS: How are relations with Iran affected by the Syrian crisis. Has Turkey any new elements to bring to the western approach of Iran?
AHMET DAVUTOGLU: Turkey has centuries-old relations, cultural ties and extensive economic cooperation with Iran. Almost 2 million Iranian tourists visited Turkey in 2011. Our bilateral trade volume surpassed 16 billion Dollars the same year. We expect that it will surpass 20 billion Dollars this year. We continue to exchange high level visits with Iran.
On the other hand, we find it natural that we don’t share the same views on all issues, one of which are the developments in Syria. While Iranians continue to support the Assad Regime and argue that Assad should be given more time to be allowed to maintain his position, we urge them to realize that Assad is murdering its own people and with the blood of thirty five thousand of its own people in its hands, the current regime has no legitimacy and future. The Syrian people must have the say on Syria’s future and decide how they will be governed.
It was Turkey that has exerted major efforts to bridge the gap between Iran and the P5+1 on the Iranian nuclear programme. We have been advocating dialogue and diplomacy for the solution of the problem. The Tehran Declaration was adopted in 2009 upon Turkey’s and Brazil’s joint initiative. We hosted the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 following a one and a half years break in Istanbul on 14th April. Two technical-level meetings were held in July in Istanbul with the participation of representatives and experts from both sides. Another meeting between the Iranian Chief Nuclear Negotiator Jalili and the EU’s Foreign Policy Chief Ashton was held on 18 September in İstanbul again. This shows that the dialogue approach advocated by Turkey for a long time is the correct one.
ALKIS COURCOULAS How relations between Greece and Turkey can be affected by the idea the declaration of Exclusive Economic Zones in the Aegean and the Mediterranean?
AHMET DAVUTOGLU : It is our sincere belief that mutual understanding and respect for each other’s sensitivities on the basis of good-neighborliness are essential to further the constructive atmosphere in Turkish-Greek relations. With this understanding, Turkey is resolved to make further contributions to the current positive trend in our relations. Unilateral declaration of EEZ in disputed maritime areas would not be to the benefit of either party.
ALKIS COURCOULAS: How you assess the declaration of the Exclusive economic zones by Cyprus?
AHMET DAVUTOGLU: Unilateral actions of the Greek Cypriot side has been untimely and negative in terms of the settlement process. It is accepted by all sides that the Turkish Cypriots have equal and inherent rights over the off-shore resources of the whole Island. The oil and gas issue can either be a liability or an opportunity for Cyprus, depending on how we treat it.
The Turkish Cypriot proposal of 24 September 2011 and 29 September 2012 to the UN Secretary General is therefore a tool upon which a common understanding can be built upon. As set forth with this proposal, Turkish and Greek Cypriots should be encouraged to sit together immediately in order to jointly determine the future course of off-shore oil/gas activities, including revenue sharing and funding of a possible settlement. If achieved, this would also boost the ongoing Cyprus talks towards a comprehensive settlement. If not, the Turkish Cypriots said that they will continue off-shore exploration/exploitation activities in the south of the Island. It should also be borne in mind that besides being a major market, Turkey is the safest, most feasible and profitable gateway to the European oil/gas markets as it has the necessary infrastructure in place.
Furthermore, let me underline another aspect of the issue. Some parts of the concerned area overlaps the Turkish continental shelf to the west of the Island. Regarding its legitimate rights and interests within its continental shelf, it is natural that Turkey would spare no effort in order to preserve its ipso facto ab initio rights.
ALKIS COURCOULAS: Will Turkey intervene in the debate on the future architecture of the EU? Are you discussing this issue with the Greek government?
AHMET DAVUTOGLU: Turkey is part of the European family and has a close relationship with the EU, with a perspective to become an EU member. Therefore, it is natural that Turkey follows the developments in the EU closely and the debate concerning the future of the EU re-invigorated by the on-going financial crisis. The “State of the Union” address of Mr. Barroso, the President of the European Commission, at the European Parliament on 12 September as well as the Final Report of the “Future of Europe Group” published on 17 September herald a broad deliberation that could bring on new arrangements and even Treaty changes in the EU.
The crisis has not only a negative impact on the economies of the EU countries but also political and social implications. We hope that the crisis would not lead to an introverted EU. The enlargement policy, which significantly contributes to peace, security and prosperity in our continent, should also continue unabatedly. On the other hand, in these unfavorable circumstances, the extreme right is on the rise. Increase in racist and xenophobic tendencies and discourse is a further source of worry for us.
We will be exchanging views with our Greek neighbors on the possible way forward in the EU.
ALKIS COURCOULAS: How do you explain the lack of progress on the HALKI (HEYBELI) seminar?
AHMET DAVUTOGLU: The Heybeliada Theological School is not operational since 1971 as a result of a court case interpreting the relevant provisions of the Constitution. This is why it cannot be opened by a purely political decision and the remedy has to be legal. This court case had nothing to do with the Heybeliada Theological School per se, but it was indirectly affected. According to the Turkish Constitution and relevant legislation, religious instruction is only possible under the supervision of the State.
This Constitutional restriction applies to all religious communities in Turkey and there is no discrimination vis-a-vis the Greek Orthodox community.
In the past, the reopening of the School under the aegis of one of the state universities in Istanbul was proposed to overcome the current legal hurdle which did not receive a positive reflection.
We understand the need of the Greek Orthodox community to train its clergy and, with a constructive spirit, we are exploring a viable solution to re-open the Heybeliada Theological School on satisfactory terms to all interested parties.
ALKIS COURCOULAS: How do you explain the new law that restricts the right of Greek citizens to acquire immovable property in Istanbul?
AHMET DAVUTOGLU: In all countries, foreigners’ land or property acquisition rights are determined based on several criteria ranging from the type and location of the property to the principle of reciprocity and national security concerns. Sometimes, specific situations such as proximity to cultural property protection areas are taken into consideration. From an economic perspective our Government is taking steps to eliminate the existing restrictions as much as possible. The scope of the right of foreigners to acquire immovable properties in Turkey, and this includes citizens of all countries, not only Greeks, is determined by taking all relevant factors into account. I am pretty sure that this methodology is valid for all countries.