Moscow open to dialogue with anti-ISIS Syrian opposition, says Russian envoy
by Ali Ünal
ANKARAJul 19, 2015 - 12:00 am GMT+3
by Ali Ünal
Jul 19, 2015 12:00 am
Despite differences on foreign policy on Syria and Ukraine, the mutual ties between Turkey and Russia are "favorible" on its 95th anniversary, said Russian envoy to Ankara. He also drew attention to the significant investment projects between the two countries, including the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant
The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) poses the biggest threat to the world, and Russia is willing to establish a dialogue with any opposition group within Syria that doesn't cooperate with the group, said the Russian Federation's Ambassador to Ankara Andrey Karlov in an exclusive interview with Daily Sabah.
Karlov, who has been serving in Turkey since July 2013, said relations between Turkey and Russia had evolved from an antagonistic state to a strategic partnership, with wide-ranging commercial, cultural and diplomatic ties enriching both countries. The two countries still maintained a sound and healthy discourse despite differences of perspective concerning Ukraine and Syria.
On the issue of Russian ties with NATO, of which Turkey is a member, Karlov said the current state of ties was the doing of the alliance, which he noted had promised not to expand to the east after the fall of the Iron Curtain but had failed to keep it. He also praised the expanding economic ties, which includes joint nuclear and natural gas projects and constantly growing trade relations.
Even though Turkey and Russia's foreign policy perspectives differ, especially on Syria and Ukraine, high-level cooperation between the two countries is progressing favorably. Speaking to Daily Sabah, Russian Ambassador to Ankara Andrey Karlov said Russia and Turkey's foreign policies do not always overlap, but it is natural to possess different perspectives. Daily Sabah sat down with Karlov and spoke on various issues from the Turkish Stream to discussions about the re-establishment of the Iron Curtain.
While there was a centuries-long rivalry between Turkey and Russia, today we see the two countries cooperate in many fields. How do you evaluate the current bilateral relations, as the 95th anniversary of diplomatic relations is being celebrated?
As you have said, this year Turkey and Russia celebrated the 95th anniversary of their diplomatic relations, which is a nice preparation for the centennial celebrations. In comparison with the previous eras of our relations, we have progressed much further in the last 95 years. Russia and Turkey had fought against each other numerous times in history. Turkey and the USSR established diplomatic relations in the 1920s after World War I. In 95 years, the relationship has evolved from dissension to strategic partnership; today, Turkey is one of our economic partners and our volume of trade has reached $30 billion. If we include the service sector, which is disregarded in the statistics, the actual volume of trade is almost $45 billion. As you know, Turkish construction companies are the best in Russia. Concerning tourism, we are on par with German tourists in Turkey. There are also significant investment projects between the two countries. The Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant is one of the prominent Russian investments project in Turkey. I believe that the Turkish Stream will be added to the list of these investments as well.
Our interactions with Turkey in the context of international relations are maintained effectively. The presidents of the two countries meet every year as a part of the High Level Cooperation Council meetings. This year, they also had the chance to meet in Baku. They are to meet again during the G20 Summit in November and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's participation in the High Level Cooperation Council, which will be held in Kazan toward the end of the year. Our foreign ministers meet often either at the bilateral or international level. The counsel mechanism also exists on the highest level between our Foreign Ministries. While it would be wrong to claim that Russia and Turkey's foreign policies overlap, as it is only natural to possess different perspectives, we appreciate that we can discuss any subject with our Turkish colleagues.
On the cultural aspect, our relations are also progressing. Recently, the Kremlin Ballet and the Dance and Music Company, which is affiliated with our Ministry of the Interior, performed in Ankara and Istanbul. Students of the two countries study at each other's universities. As an interesting detail, as a part of the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant project, the Russian Federation provides education on nuclear energy to Turkish students, and this year, there were 5,500 applications for 80 spots. Therefore, the bilateral relations between Turkey and Russia are progressing favorably.
There are allegations in the Turkish media that the Russian technology that is to be used in the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant is obsolete. How do you respond to these allegations?
People who claim this are just ignorant, oblivious to the subject of nuclear energy. Akkuyu will be using the most recent technology. Even in Russia, only one active nuclear power plant has this technology. Therefore, these claims are farcical.
Upon the annulment of the agreement between Gazprom and Saipem, an Italian company, the discussions regarding the practicality of the Turkish Stream project heated up in the media. How do you evaluate this situation?
In the Turkish media, there are some who try to damage Turkish-Russian bilateral relations through the abuse of these kinds of developments. Turkey will be signing the agreement with Gazprom, not the said Italian company. In addition, Russia has been selling natural gas to Turkey for 30 years. No one can claim that Russia did not hold up the conditions of the agreement. I believe that the realization of this project will contribute to both the Turkish economy and bilateral relations.
We are currently transporting natural gas to Turkey through two pipelines, the Blue Stream, which passes through the Black Sea, and the Western Pipeline through Ukraine. However, in our perspective Ukraine is no longer a trustworthy partner. Therefore, we will cease the transportation of natural gas over the Western Pipeline by 2019. Countries that acquire gas through this pipeline will have to think of alternatives. The Turkish Stream will be a great alternative. The Turkish Stream is planned to have four pipelines and if the construction starts immediately and Turkey will be able to have the first shipment of natural gas in December 2016. The delivery will be delayed as long as the construction process is delayed. Many European countries understand that this issue has to be solved hastily. We had proposed this project to Turkey in December 2014. In June, during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, many European natural gas companies proposed we construct the second Northern Pipeline. This proposition proves that they understand the situation very well. Therefore, we can say that Russia has alternatives to the Turkish Stream regarding the transportation of natural gas.Our natural gas system consists of two important segments, which are Asia and Europe, and these two segments do not have a direct connection. However, in the near future, we will conjoin these two segments and be able to transport natural gas to any country we want. If the Turkish Stream is constructed and a transshipment center is established near the Greek border, we will be able to sell natural gas to the European countries that need it. Southern European countries are aware that a Northern Pipeline will be more costly, so they will prefer the Turkish Stream.
The Ukrainian crisis continues to be one of the problematic areas between Turkey and Russia. Turkey, due to its bond with Crimea, does not accept Crimea's annexation by Russia. In your opinion, what is the importance of the Ukrainian policies in Turkish-Russian bilateral relations?
This issue is a real tragedy and this is how it is perceived in Russia. We are the friends of the Ukrainian public. During a meeting with my colleagues at the embassy, I asked them to raise their hands if there was a person in the room who did not have relatives in Ukraine. No one raised their hands. Naturally, Turkey as an independent country has the right to determine its own policies regarding international affairs. Yet, I would like to give two important statistics on this issue. To resolve the Crimean problem, a referendum was held and 85 percent of the population had participated. More than 90 percent of the participants agreed to Crimea's annexation by Russia. On the other hand, while European countries announced figures of Russian soldiers who were allegedly in eastern Ukraine, they could not back up their allegations with proof. If we take the U.S. into consideration, the U.S. has the most advanced satellite reconnaissance systems. It is very advanced. During my childhood, I remember news that the U.S. had the technology to track even a golf ball in the USSR. European countries claim that there are hundreds of Russian tanks in the Donetsk region, but U.S. satellites do not provide any footage to support this allegation, which seems absurd.
About 2.5 million people who are mostly of Ukrainian and Russian descent, fled to Russia from the war-torn territories. Of this 2.5 million, 500,000 are youth who did not want to serve in the Ukrainian army. If the aforementioned allegations were true, do you think 2.5 million people would flee to Russia, the targeted enemy of Ukraine? It should be considered why they fled to Russia, instead of western Ukraine.
There are discussions about the re-establishment of the Iron Curtain. What is your opinion on this subject?
We only used our humanitarian potential in Ukraine. We provided 40,000 tons of humanitarian aid to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which were embargoed by the Ukrainian government. We have transported many of the seriously ill, including children, to Russia and provided medical aid.
Western countries would accuse us of re-establishing the Iron Curtain even if the Ukrainian problem did not exist. On the other hand, it is not possible to claim that our relations with the West until February 2014 were good, anyway. The relations were deteriorating by the day and, as Russia, this is not our fault. NATO is getting closer to our borders by the year. According to the assurance during the abolition of the Iron Curtain, it was said that NATO would not expand into Eastern European countries, but these assurances were not kept, and now NATO is at our doorstep. In this context, you can understand the ill intentions in the U.S. generals' statements, saying that Russia is getting closer to NATO borders.
Due to the events in Ukraine, Russia is still facing economic sanctions and they are negatively affecting the Russian economy. Many claim that Russia will not be able to hold its stance and back down. How do you respond to this claim?
The sanctions harm both the enforcer and the enforced. Our economy is of course damaged due to the sanctions, but many major European companies have also suffered from the sanctions and are continually so. Most of the executives of the said companies clearly say that the sanctions applied to Russia must be lifted. We will survive no matter what. Actually, we have to express our gratitude to the countries that enforced the sanctions. Now, we are on our way to produce many of the technological products that we used to import from them. Also, the sanctions have forced us to seek new markets. While we have found the alternative to the inventory we used to import from Europe, we wonder how they will fare. Even after the sanctions are lifted, we will continue our endeavors to provide an alternative to European trade.
We have always said that the Ukrainian crisis should be resolved through politics. The contested territories are part of Ukraine and this is their internal affair. The Minsk Agreement provides solutions to these issues. Some military chapters of this agreement were implemented partially such as the withdrawal of heavy armaments from the field. This agreement also has economic chapters. The Kiev administration should cease embargoes on Donetsk and Luhansk and start to pay the pensions of the pensioners. Not paying pensions to pensioners who worked for the government for many years means that the Ukrainian administration is stealing from them. In addition, according to the agreement, the administration should also reform some chapters of the constitution, but nothing new has been implemented.
Russia is not a part of the conflict in Ukraine. The conflicted parties are the Ukrainian government and unrecognized people's republics. Both parties are subject to actualizing the decisions in the Minsk Agreement. Yet, while it is Ukraine that does not act in accordance with the agreement, Russia faces harsher sanctions. This is incomprehensible.
How does Russia evaluate Iran's agreement with the P5+1?
We are pleased and rather proud of it. We believe that we played a crucial role in the success of the agreement. Even U.S. President Barack Obama, who openly displays his disdain toward Russia, appreciated Russia's involvement and contribution. I believe that this agreement that took place in Vienna is the greatest success in the history of international diplomacy. Some Turkish news outlets indicated that the agreement will cause a drop in oil prices, which would further harm Russian economy. This is not our priority; our priority is the achievement of peace. Money is not everything.
The Syrian civil war is also a controversial subject in Turkish-Russian relations. From Russia's point of view, why does Russia continues to support Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime?
While we are unanimous on the necessity of resolving the crisis, we differ in the methods. We believe this issue has to be resolved peacefully. We agree that Syrian society requires important political reforms. The road map was defined in the Geneva agreements. There is a lot of criticism of Russia's positive relations with the Assad regime, but in some situations cooperation with the regime is a requirement. The chemical weapons issue could not be resolved without cooperation with the regime. They say Assad must go, but no one shows an alternative. We have experienced these approaches previously in Iraq and Libya. Libya is currently divided into numerous administrations. This caused the weapons in Libya to spread to the world and some of them our at the hands of terrorists. The most crucial issue in Syria today is the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). This is an issue that poses a threat to the whole world. We are ready to have dialogue with Syrian opposition groups that do not cooperate with ISIS. We have invited both the regime and the opposition to Moscow to provide a common ground. At the moment, I do not think that the opposition will be able to form a reform government due to their fragmented structure. We have said that it would be easier to agree with the regime if the opposition determines a common view on the future of Syria.
Russia's status is unique as it has dialogue with both of the parties. While we want peace in Syria, we definitely do not want it to be reminiscence of Libya. Therefore, the minister of the state in charge of the Middle East's representative, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Mikhail Bogdanov recently held counsel with the undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and then met with Syrian opposition representatives.
There are claims that the Syrian crisis can be resolved with a government representing all of the parties. What are your comments?
As I have said, we are in favor of a political resolution of the problem. The structure of the government should be determined by the parties in Syria. Russia does not dictate what should be done in Syria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's proposal regarding the usage of Russian bank cards in Turkey was covered by newspapers. What are your opinions on this subject?
This matter has been discussed with Turkey for some time now. Usage of national currencies in trade is important for bilateral relations. This is not a dream; we are currently trading with China using our national currencies. This will be especially useful for Russian tourists. Similarly, I believe that the usage of Turkish bank cards in Russia will also be contributive.
Millions of Russian tourists visit Turkey. They face problems when they try to convert their money to Turkish Lira, which is done through converting to the euro or dollar. If they could use their bank cards, they will be relieved of this problem and be able to spend more comfortably.