Interview with H.E. Mr. Egemen Bagis, Ambassador of Turkey in the Czech Republic

Hans weber: Prague Forum: Your career has not followed a univocal diplomatic path. Can you tell us something about your previous steps ?

Ambassador: I am not a professional diplomat, but I have been in diplomacy all my life. I have been involved with NGOs, initially as the President of the Turkish-American Federation in New York. Later I have joined politics, which also requires diplomatic skills, I have been a member of the Turkish Parliament for 14 years and represented my country at NATO Parliamentary Assembly where I was elected Chairman of the Transatlantic Relations Committee. I was Foreign Policy Advisor of the President Erdogan when he was Prime Minister for 4 and a half years.

I served as Minister for European Affairs and Chief Negotiator of Turkey to European Union.

I left politics in 2015 and have worked as an academician and consultant until 2019, when President Erdogan asked me to serve as the Ambassador of Turkey in Prague.

Here, because of Covid restrictions, I have devised an innovative way to meet with people. I have set up a new Facebook account and sent invitations to people from various relevant fields. I have established many friendships.

During his official visit to Turkey in September 2019, Prime Minister Babis had agreed with President Erdogan to increase the volume of bilareral trade between the Czech Republic and Turkey and I was asked to coordinate the efforts towards that goal. Despite the pandemic, we have managed to achieve an increase of around 12% in 2020. In particular, the PPF Group invested in the bus manufacturing sector in Turkey and became partner of the SABANCI group in Turkey. Further cooperation is in the defense sector, where the Czech and the Turkish industries are complementary.

Czech Repulic and Turkey also started supporting each other’s candidates and cooperate at international organisations.

Hans Weber Prague Forum: is tourism a relevant sector in the bilateral trade between Turkey and the Czech Republic?

Ambassador: Of course. Turkey is quite affordable for European tourists probably the most affordable due to currency changes! Before the pandemic 100 000 Turks were visiting the Czech Republic and 330 000 Czechs were coming to Turkey every year. Now we, in Turkey, want to render tourism Covid-free. All operators working with tourists are vaccinated and are regularly tested. We are now mostly using Pfizer-Biotech vaccination which, by the way, was invented by Turkish scientists in Germany. Moreover, we have obtained a license from President Putin to produce Sputnik in Turkey.

Hans Weber Prague Forum: what have you visited in the Czech Republic?

Ambassador: several places, like Karlovy Vary, Brno, Ostrava, Pilsen, Lieberec, Olomouc, many small towns. In particular, I try to visit the cemeteries where our soldiers from the World Wars are buried. There are three of these cemeteries in the Czech Republic and We are responsible for their maintenance. There must be many descendants of these soldiers in the Czech territories, because the last name “Turek” (Turk) is quite spread in the Czech Republic.

Hans Weber Prague Forum: what is your favourite place in Prague?

Ambassador: there are many but I would opt for the Castle. It is a place which is not just a monument but it is still a working ancient structure and an important symbol of independence. I like and actually find peace in Letna Park, which has something magical in it. I knew Prague long before coming here as Ambassador and I had always been amazed by the beauty and importance of parks.

Incidentally, as for peace and nature, I am organizing a golf tournament on the 11th September during which we will promote Turkish coffee !

Mauro Lazzari Prague Forum: Turkey and the accession process to the EU. As a former Chief Negotiator, what would you see as the main obstacle preventing the entry of Turkey ?

Ambassador: Prejudice from both sides. We are not further from European standards than certain recent EU member states, looking at, for example, transportation, communication, freedom of speech and air quality.

Turkey has started with its application process more than 50 years ago , but prejudice still exists. It is no secret that people of Turkey have a different religion than most of the EU states and it is a large country.

This could bother some large EU members, as said to me several times informally during my mandate as Chief Negotiator with the EU. However EU and Turkey need each other.

I believe EU should come with a program for countries like us, UK, Switzerland and Norway. We all want to trade with the EU, irrespective of being represented in the EU Parliament. Turkey wants free circulation of goods and persons more than formally being a member.

Of course, our path to EU is complicated also by the attitude of Southern Cyprus, which has blocked the negotiations in many fields including the chapter on energy. This is honestly hurting not Turkey but European interests because EU needs Turkey to ensure energy sustainability.

Hans Weber Prague Forum: what are constitutional limits to the permanence of Erdogan as a President ?

Ambassador: two term mandate, so he could run again for the term 2023-2028. Honestly, I do not see anybody else in Turkey able to challenge President Erdogan. Europeans do not realize that he is a democratically elected President. He has been democratically elected by the majority of his nation who really like him.

It is essential for his critics to understand that he must be doing something right in order to keep on getting reelected right ? Erdogan has achieved a lot for Turkey, he has modernized our country a lot !

Hans Weber Prague Forum: how European is Turkey ?

Ambassador: Turkey is the most European part of Asia and the most Asian part of Europe. However, Turkey has always been a bridge between the two Continents. Turkey brings different forces together. Turkey is many things at the same time: European, Asian, Eurasian, Middle Eastern, Balkan, Mediterranean, Caspian and also a country of the African basin. We are very valuable for Europe because of this multidimensional identity. A few hours away from Istanbul, one can reach almost 50 different countries.

As for our European identity, can we all remember that, at the time of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, we were called “The Sick Man of Europe” ? Yes, “ of Europe”, not “of Asia”. We have been considered European during our worst part of history , we deserve to be European also when we are enjoying the most prosperous days of our history.

Hans Weber Prague Forum : How are now your relationships with Russia?

We have an annual trade of almost 25 billions of dollars, we cooperate on many issues. Sure, we have also disagreements . Crimea, Libya, and the regime in Syria are examples of our disagreements. But we respect our neighbours and Russia is one of the important ones. We cooperate on those issues where we agree and we wait for mutual understanding as for those where we disagree.

Germany, the Czech Republic and USA actually do the same with Russia. Turks, as one of the oldest

Nations with states in the world, have learnt how to respect other nations even when there are different views on some issues. Everybody has the right to live in prosperity

Hans Weber Prague Forum: Turkey has some complicated relationships with some neighbours, like Greece, Armenia, Syria. Is there any normalization going on ?

Ambassador: yes, we constantly try to normalize our relations. As for Armenia, the main problem was with the region of Karabakh, but there seems to be a recent solution following the military victory of Azerbaijan. We Turks are very close to Azerbaijan. Turks and Azeris consider themselves as one nation with two states. We are ready to start diplomatic relations with Armenia as long as they make peace with us and with the Azeris.

As for Greece, some people do not understand that we are both NATO members and we are bound by an agreement of mutual defense. We would both be the first to run to defend each other in case of an outside attack. Most of the problems between Turkey and Greece would disappear as soon as Turkey joins the EU. Our problems are basically the borders, some islands in particular. As soon as Turkey joins EU these problems would disappear because there would be just one common European space.

Hans Weber Prague Forum: can we discuss about Cyprus?

Cyprus is a country which is divided into two parts. According to EU Law, a country de facto divided should not have accessed the EU , but an exception has been made for Cyprus. Currently, EU Law simply speaking does not apply to the north of the island. We need to find a solution. Turkey and Turkish Cypriots had accepted the reunification of the island by voting in favor of the Annan plan, but the Greek Cypriots refused it. In any case, the two sides should enjoy political equality and feel being part of a community. The two sides should in any case agree: either being as equals in the same country, or accept a formal and peaceful separation, as the Czechs and the Slovaks have done.

Currently, there is a lot of trade and commuting between the two parts of the island so they can easily make a decision together.

Hans Weber Prague Forum: there are a lot of refugees in Turkey. How is Turkey managing the situation ?

Ambassador: We are currently hosting more than 4 million refugees in Turkey and we need to understand the reasons why they have left their countries. Syrians in Turkey are running away from a dictator ! We should bring democracy back to Syria

Hans Weber Prague Forum: the EU provides financial support to Turkey as for the management of refugees?

Ambassador: Not really enough. The EU gives us 3 billions of euros but we have spent more than 35 billions of euros. Turkey would like to establish a free and safe zone in Syria at the border between Turkey and Syria controlled by the United Nations, so that refugees could settle. There should be houses, schools for these people and we could progressively increase the area. This project is the most reasonable one but needs to be financed by the international community.

How do you think the world will change after COVID?

The coronavirus has proven that even super powers cannot deal with the force of nature. This episodes of human history is going to have long-term effects on our society. We could even call this the end of an era and the beginning of another.

I have no doubt that science and innovation will eventually find a cure and preventive methods against this deadly pandemic. But the lessons learned will leave important marks on all of us.

We have all understood and reiterated the importance of hygienic standards and being clean. We should continue eating healthy strengthen our metabolism from now on. We have learned the importance of getting adequate sleep so we don’t fall week.

Instead of using cash we will be using more credit cards and digital currencies.

The attitude of anti-vaccination is going to be weakened and the school of thought that promotes more preventive vaccinations will become more popular.

The Corona experience is going to have affect on international relations as well. The world has really become a global village where the butterfly effect is more evident than ever and we will have to find solutions to the problems of others because if we don’t solve them those problems will become ours as well.

This actually is a part of our culture in Turkey where we always say “if you don’t help your neighbor when his home is on fire, that fire will eventually burn your own home, as well”. That’s exactly what’s happening today.

The hunger problem or the high ratio of HIV in Africa is the problem that we all have to focus. What’s happening in Palestine, in Cashmere, in Karabagh, in Cypruss, in Arakan and in all other chronically conflicted parts of the world cannot be ignored anymore. We have to become better human beings and more caring than before.

International organizations such as the European Union, the world bank IMF and even the united nations will also have to restructure themselves with the lessons learned of this dark episode. We have seen that all of the European Union member states prioritized their own citizens. The basic concepts such as freedom of travel were interrupted.

European Union will either become a real union like the United States of America or it will continue to exist but with much more decision making at the level of member states and even at regional local governments.

The need to have unanimity for even simple decisions can no longer stand. The EU will have to adapt a more democratic and realistic decision making process. EU should also introduce different memberships options for countries that do not want to surrender their sovereignty but at the same time want to be a part of the grandest peace project of the history of mankind.

The United Nations on the other hand will have to draw some lessons from what we went through as well. As president Erdogan has been saying at all of his UN General assembly speeches during the last five years; “the world is bigger than five”. What I mean by five is the five permanent members of the Security Council that have the right to veto all decisions at the UN. United Nations will have to become more inclusive and more nations should have a chance to be represented with full fledge rights at the security council.

Hans Weber Dear Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much for your time and answers.

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