Russian-Turkish relations have overcome a difficult period in recent years and the multidimensional relations have strengthened with the joint launch of construction work on the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant (NPP), which was recently held in Ankara in with participation of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Speaking to Daily Sabah about bilateral relations and regional issues, Russian Ambassador to Ankara Aleksey Yerhov said President Putin's recent visit is evident of the success between the two countries while adding that the Turkey-Russia win-win partnership can be a model for others to follow.
Regarding the trilateral summit on Syria that took place in Ankara with the participation of the Russian, Turkish and Iranian presidents, Ambassador Yerhov said these three countries have all the changes to revive Syria in spite of all the odds, troubles and conspiracies.
Commenting on the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal and what has followed, Ambassador Yerhov said there is a large, worldwide defamation campaign around the incident whose nature is still largely unknown. Explaining that some countries, like Turkey, do not play these humiliating games of sanctions and expulsions, he said Turkey's stance on the matter is something to be valued.
Daily Sabah: How do you evaluate Russian-Turkish relations following Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent visit to Ankara?
Aleksey Yerhov: The visit has become an evident success – and not because of many treaties having been signed or many deals having been concluded. On the contrary – we do not need any more huge packages of intergovernmental agreements. We have already most of them signed, come into force and working for the benefit of our two countries and peoples.
The joint launch of construction works at the Akkuyu NPP was, of course, a major common triumph, a classic 'win-win' model for the others to follow. But few people know how much intense work was behind this historic event. And we all owe very much to the leaders who have largely contributed to this success – President Erdoğan, Prime Minister [Binali] Yıldırım, Minister [Berat] Albayrak, Minister [Nihat] Zeybekçi and many, many others with whom we spent hours discussing the project, its problems and ways to solve them. Not speaking of course of the Russian side – I know very well that practical issues of our bilateral cooperation are under close control of the Russian leadership.
DS: The Akkuyu NPP project is significantly important for Turkey. But I would like to ask the significance of the project for Russia?
AY: This is a very important, strategic project for our bilateral relations. This is the first Turkish nuclear station, which gives Turkey a member ticket for the nuclear family. This is not only about the factory. The project comprises many other dimensions such as, for example, education programs for Turkish students so that they will be able to work at nuclear power stations. This is a very specific field of science, of industry. We have already had the first group of students – graduates from the Moscow Physical Institute. They were present at the ceremony with President Putin and President Erdoğan. It was a very touching picture. We are glad to be able to share our competence and our technology with Turkey so that in Turkey you will be acquiring a solid source of energy which will cover up to 10 percent of Turkey's needs in electricity. This is quite much. The aim is, as the document states, to give the first electricity, to launch the first reactor for the one hundred anniversary of the republic in 2023. And we are working hard to make it possible.
DS: The U.S has recently expanded the scope of the sanctions on Russia. Do you think that U.S. sanctions will have any impact on the ongoing project between the two countries, such as TurkStream and the Akkuyu NPP?
The behavior of some Western leaders and their governments, especially in the field of sanctions, is sometimes unpredictable. So, it is very hard to understand the logic being followed by them and to predict the consequences of their activities and their sanctions. Therefore, it's very hard to make any prognosis. Let's wait and see.
DS: Some claim that there was no concrete resolution in last week's trilateral summit that took place in Ankara with the participation of the Russian, Turkish and Iranian presidents. What are your comments in relation to the summit? Do you think that the trilateral unity between the countries will establish peace and stability in Syria?
'No concrete resolution?' Quite the opposite – there was a joint statement by three presidents of April 4, 2018. A three-page, very concrete and very promising document, a real positive fruit of the Astana format which is considered the only effective international initiative that had really helped reduce violence across Syria.
It was underlined hundreds of times: Astana is not a substitution to the Geneva talks, it is something which would help to move them forward – it is no secret that Geneva is stalling. So the commitment of Russia, Turkey and Iran to continue encouraging the political process by following up the results of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress and energetically pushing ahead the issue of the Constitutional Committee is undoubtedly of extreme importance. Only in such a way can a political solution of the conflict be achieved – a solution through an inclusive, free, fair and transparent Syrian-led and Syrian-owned process based on the free will of the Syrian people and leading to a constitution enjoying the support of the Syrian people, and free and fair elections with the participation of all eligible Syrians under appropriate U.N. supervision.
So the keyword is 'Syria' – I intentionally use it so often. We mean Syria, we think Syria, we dream Syria and we all wish Syria to revive again. Now, after the Astana summit, I am more than ever sure that this dream of ours – Russia, Turkey and Iran – has all the chances to come true, in spite of all odds, troubles and conspiracies.
DS: Tourism also one of the important dimensions in bilateral relations. What is your future prospects about tourism?
We have already broken the record – last year we had 4.7 million Russian tourists who visited Turkey. This year we predict that this number will be even bigger. Therefore, the Turkish tourism industry needs to work harder and organize many events to help tour operators to attract more Russian tourists. So, I think this year we will have another record number of Russian tourists visiting Turkey.
Tourism is one of the main dimensions in our bilateral cooperation. It brings money to Turkey so it's profitable to Turkey and it gives pleasure to the Russians so it is good for the Russians. Russians are interested in Turkey as a place where they can spend their vacations. They need sun, they need sea, they need relaxation and they get it in Turkey. It is mutually advantageous for our cooperation.
DS: But the visa issue still remains a problem. When do you think that we will re-implement the visa free regime again?
Firstly, we should understand that the Turkish authorities have taken a decision to let Russian tourists enter Turkey without an entry visa, which largely simplifies entry procedures and which is a very strong factor promoting Russian tourism to Turkey. Needless to say, Russian tourists and Russian authorities are grateful to the Turkish authorities for their decision taken.
Secondly, the intergovernmental agreement of 2010 is not exactly a visa free agreement. This is more complicated than that. This is an agreement which is called an intergovernmental agreement on mutual trips of citizens. It provided for a simplification of entry procedures for people who travel to both countries on short basis, mostly tourists of course – that was the major objective of this agreement. For many reasons we are deprived of a possibility to go directly back to the fulfillment of the agreement of 2010. This given, we propose some measures to ease the visa procedures for different groups of Turkish citizens who seem to be more interested in the simplification of visa procedures such as truck drivers and businessmen who work for Russia and visit Russia more often. So, this is something we are ready to discuss. We are quite ready to discuss the abolition of visas for the holders of service passports. We need some preparatory work to be done in order to put it on paper and we are doing this work with Turkish colleagues.
DS: After Turkey's decision to procurement of the S-400 air missile defense system, the leaders of our countries also pledged to extend cooperation in the defense industry. Could you provide more details about it?
No. I would not. Even if I knew I would not. You know, some things do not like public attention. Some things need to be held somewhere on the tables or in the safes of those who are in charge. Our relations with Turkey have reached a very advanced stage. So we are talking, we are discussing, we are having deals in spheres which even some years ago could be unthinkable. The latest example is the S-400. So the current level of relations between our countries, as I've already told you, enables us to discuss all the issues we want to discuss and all the issues which can be of our mutual interest. So, let's wait and see. In the course of the events, we will learn quite a lot of things.
DS: What do you think about the Skripal case and the incidents afterward?
This case is very much alike to what happened in Douma. Same 'chemistry.' There is a large, world-scale defamation campaign around an incident whose nature is still largely unknown. An assassination attempt against two Russians in Salisbury? Maybe. But how, who, in what way and by what reason? No one seems to know. Any evidence? No reply, only intriguing silence. Enigma wrapped up in a riddle covered by a mystery. What we hear may be translated in the following way: No, guys, we will tell you nothing but you have 24 hours to prove your innocence – and you have no right to know in what concrete case. Such are the realities of our unipolar world; you play or we sanction you.
Some say it is like the Cold War. No, no comparison with these 'good old times.' The Cold War was better, there were at least some rules obeyed and protagonists had some respect for each other.
And it is great that some countries do not play these humiliating games of sanctions and expulsions. Like Turkey, which is following its own independent course, proudly preserving its sovereignty and dignity. This is something to be valued.
DS: There are theories that connects the timing of the Skripal case with the recent Russian legislation that aims to encourage the repatriate capital of Russian oligarchs from abroad especially from London. What's your thought about it?
The legislation is there. Some Russians from London have already used it, many have not for their own reasons.
Sometimes strange stories happen with those who live in Great Britain. Let's remember the mysterious poisoning of [Alexander] Litvinenko. No one profited from that, especially Russia. However, our country was blamed for that and again with no evidence.
Very strange story about the death of [Boris] Berezovski, a very famous Russian oligarch, close to [former President Boris] Yeltsin, who was living in London. He was going to go back to Russia, he was said to be in negotiations with the Kremlin to get back. All of a sudden, he died in his house in London in very strange circumstances.
Now this is the Skripal case. Russia was the last one to be interested in poisoning this man and his daughter who is a Russian citizen. Thank god she has recovered. She left the hospital being taken to some unknown place by some unknown people. So, strange things are continuing.
Maybe the methods of Graham Greene and John Le Carré, the methods which were described by these famous British writers, are still in use. But we definitely cannot appreciate the games where Russia is blamed for something Russia has not committed. The approach of the other side is too cynical. Like in Syria, there is no proof, there is no evidence, there are no tests produced, but we point at someone whom we believe to be blamed for and we sanction him. We expel Russian diplomats just because we trust Great Britain? Sanctions, more sanctions, for what? All these are the rules of the game they try to impose on us. Most regrettably, this is the world we are living in.
DS: By the time we published this, the U.S. may have had a military operation in Syria; what are your thoughts about it?
They are so unpredictable that their own allies are very prudent in taking sides and taking decisions in participating or not participating at such a war games. The situation is very dynamic and very dangerous and these games have unpredictable results. We would like very much to avoid such a scenario. We are proposing to investigate what happened in Douma, because what happened in Douma seems to be a very tricky event. No evidence, no proof, no victims, no official records, only internet trailers by the infamous 'White helmets,' well-known for their fake productions. It looks like the OPCW, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, is going to send one or two expert teams to Syria. Let them check, let them come and let them test, professionally and officially, without any propaganda, without any slogans and without empty accusations. So, that would be the way to follow and that would be the way which will save us from aggravation of tensions.