We expect the EU to deliver on its promises. Turkey cannot continue on its own to stabilise irregular migration towards the EU if the EU is reluctant to comply with the agreement – H.E. Tanju Bilgiç, Ambassador of Turkey.
Your Excellency, you are here in Serbia with the reputation of a good observer of conditions in the region. How do you assess present relations, and are you concerned about occasional friction between Belgrade, Sarajevo and Zagreb?
– The political stability and economic welfare of the Balkans is Turkey’s main priority. We would like all countries in the region to have good neighbourly relations.
When it comes to occasional friction between Belgrade, Sarajevo and Zagreb, it is normal for neighbouring countries to have open issues or differences of opinion from time to time. As long as there is political goodwill and determination to solve these issues through cooperation and dialogue, it is not difficult to overcome these problems. Within this context, we appreciate Serbia’s efforts towards improving relations with all of its neighbours.
Turkey took over the presidency of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organisation (BSEC) from Serbia in December. How important is cooperation in this region, and what will be the priorities of your presidency?
– First of all, I wish to congratulate Serbia for its successful Chairmanshipin- Office of the BSEC, during the second half of 2016.
In line with the importance Turkey attaches to sustainable development goals, we have set our priorities on intensifying cooperation in a number of sectors, such as trade, investment, agriculture and agro-industry, strengthening the role of small and medium-sized enterprises in the economy, green and sustainable energy, education and tourism.
On the other hand, looking at the experience and progress already achieved during the Serbian chairmanship and previous chairmanshipsin- office, Turkey will work closely together with all member states to finalise ongoing reform efforts in BSEC.
Since our Chairmanship-in-Office coincides with the 25th Anniversary of BSEC, we are going to host a 25th Anniversary Summit of BSEC, on 22nd May 2017, in Istanbul. We are expecting the highest level of participation from Serbia at this important event.
As you were until recently spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, how would you describe the present position of Turkey and its relations with its partners, to the east and the west?
– We are living in an era of rapid change. Taking the necessary steps to keep up with this change is the most important task for decision-makers. This extraordinary process also shapes Turkey’s foreign policy, since it is geographically located in one of the important intersections of different dynamics. Therefore, Turkey has to pursue a multidimensional foreign policy. This explains why we are a strong and reliable NATO partner, committed to integration with the EU and doing our best to develop good relations and cooperation with our neighbours, including Russia. We have no prejudice in this respect and we can be partners with different countries. So, there is a similarity between the foreign policies of Turkey and Serbia. Both countries are capable of having good relations with different leading actors, such as the EU, U.S., Russia and China.
The situation in Syria is dramatic. Do you think it is possible to stop the conflict and who would play the most important part in this?
– The conflict in Syria is in its sixth year and it must be ended through a political solution. For that, there must be a genuine political transition process leading to a new constitution and free and fair elections in which the people of Syria can fully express their will.
From the outset, Turkey has been actively involved in efforts to find a political solution to the conflict in Syria. It has stepped up its attempts to re-establish a ceasefire in Syria to create the necessary conditions on the ground. The next step is to get the political track re-started where it left off last April. We believe that the Astana meeting on 23rd January 2017, which ended with an agreement between Turkey, Russia and Iran to establish a trilateral mechanism to observe and ensure full compliance with the ceasefire, will provide a basis for the UN to move on to Geneva talks in February.
We are disappointed with the Presidency Conclusions of the EU General Affairs Council on 13 December, which state that “under the currently prevailing circumstances, the “opening”of no new chapters is being considered”
At the last summit of EU heads of state, there was no particular conclusion about Turkey. However, the majority did not support Austria’s proposal to block accession talks with Turkey. Since your country’s leadership has also sent out signals that this process could be stopped, what exactly is its status?
– Austria’s initiative to freeze accession negotiations with Turkey was not accepted by other member states. This shows a certain vision on their part. However, we are disappointed with the Presidency Conclusions of the EU General Affairs Council on 13th December, which states that “under the currently prevailing circumstances, the “opening” of no new chapters is being considered”. The “prevailing circumstances” to which the Conclusions refer were created by artificial and political blockages by the EU, not by Turkey. Accession to the EU remains Turkey’s strategic choice. However, Turkey has experienced the longest accession process in EU history. To date, only 16 of 35 chapters have been opened, with 14 chapters blocked due to artificially created political reasons. We expect the EU to deliver on its commitments and to conduct and conclude accession negotiations as a technical process without political obstacles.
Can tension with Brussels or some EU member states threaten the border agreement and the movement of migrants? How real is the message that Turkey could ‘open its gates’ and send migrants towards the EU?
Turkey, but also on Europe as a whole, including Serbia. Therefore, at Turkey’s initiative, an historic agreement was reached with the EU on 18th March 2016 to curb irregular migration in the Aegean Sea.
We should bear in mind that the 18th March agreement was based on mutual pledges. While we committed ourselves to stemming irregular crossings in the Aegean, the EU made promises on a wide range of issues, such as visa liberalisation, financial assistance for Syrians in Turkey, the launch of a resettlement programme, the Customs Union and accession negotiations. Over the last nine months, our efforts have generated a deterrent effect on attempts by around 850,000 irregular migrants to reach the EU. However, an important part of the EU’s commitments still awaits action. The nature of the 18th March agreement is opposed to this approach. We expect the EU to deliver on its promises. Turkey cannot continue on its own to stabilise irregular migration towards the EU if the EU is reluctant to comply with the agreement.
In a sense, your arrival in Serbia is a baptism of fire, given that this is your first mission as Ambassador. What have you set as your main objectives?
– We consider Serbia a strategic partner, and a key player for achieving peace, stability and development in the region. In the light of this, we are committed to taking our existing good bilateral relations with Serbia much further.
I believe economic and trade relations should be one of the main driving forces in our bilateral relations. Therefore, as Turkish Ambassador here, I am planning to make this a priority, like my predecessors.
We are closely monitoring the reform process in Serbia and appreciate the positive results so far achieved. I think this is the right time for our companies to be here and I will continue to encourage them to step up investments in Serbia.
It is important to develop people-to-people contacts as a way of eliminating prejudice and removing barriers between different nations. We believe that tourism can play a crucial role here. I am glad to point out that the second largest number of tourists visiting Serbia, after citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, are Turkish. So tourism will be another focal point of my efforts.
Your predecessors have left you a lot of work, especially Ambassador Bozay. There was again talk in Sarajevo not long ago of building a Belgrade- Sarajevo motorway that Turkey could co-finance in a trilateral cooperation. How close are we to seeing such a project?
– The Trilateral Consultation Mechanism between Turkey, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina is the result of our collective understanding and represents an effort to increase peace, stability and welfare in the Balkans. Along with Turkish endeavours, the Serbian and Bosnia-Herzegovinian governments have actively supported and made tangible contributions towards this process.
The Trilateral Trade Committee, which is the economic leg of the Mechanism, has made steady and consistent progress since its inception. One of the most tangible results of the Committee meetings has been the establishment of a joint Serbian-Bosnia-Herzegovinian Trade Office in İstanbul, which was allocated to the two governments as Turkey’s contribution. During the last Committee meeting in İstanbul on 26th September 2016, the parties agreed for Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina to jointly define an infrastructure project, which Turkey would support. The idea of co-financing a Belgrade-Sarajevo highway is the result of that agreement. We are now working on the details.
We expect the EU to deliver on its promises. Turkey cannot continue on its own to stabilize irregular migration towards the EU if the EU is reluctant to comply with the agreement
Is Turkey still interested in infrastructure projects in Western Serbia – in the municipalities of Novi Pazar, Tutin and Sjenica?
– Turkey is interested in expanding cooperation with Serbia as a whole. As such, supporting road infrastructure in southwest Serbia is also on the agenda, and we will spare no efforts to make it happen. To this end, a technical delegation from the Turkish Ministry of Transport recently visited Serbia, had a field trip to the region and studied some sections in need of reconstruction. It only remains for the relevant authorities in the two countries to discuss the financial details.
Trade between Serbia and Turkey is somewhere in the region of a billion euros (currently around 800 million). The Serbian government believes this symbolic figure may be exceeded next year if the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is expanded to include a new bilateral agreement. Can such an agreement be made?
– My government and I personally believe in a bright future for Serbia. That is why we are seeking ways of raising economic relations, which are currently below their potential, to the desired level. Despite the increasing volume of trade throughout the last decade, particularly the impressive rates after the FTA of 2010, there is still much room for expansion. Turkish and Serbian business circles are confident that they can easily reach a billion euros of trade volume within a short period. The relevant authorities of both governments are in touch constantly, trying to revise the legal infrastructure in light of current opportunities and challenges. Negotiations that started last October continue in a constructive manner, with a view to updating the FTA. I can state happily that the negotiating teams are displaying a high level of mutual understanding and trust.
A number of investors in the textile industry have arrived in Serbia. Apart from this, what could be new areas of economic cooperation?
– Some global Turkish players made investments last year in Serbia not only in textiles, but also in the automobile spare parts industry.
I would also like to underscore the importance of the presence of Halkbank on the Serbian market since mid-2015. This is proving to be a robust game changer. I am confident that Halkbank, which is among the top players in the Turkish banking sector, will contribute significantly not only to the Serbian banking sector, but also to bilateral economic ties between Turkey and Serbia. With its particular expertise in dealing with small and medium-sized enterprises, Halkbank will also give a much-needed boost to this sector of the Serbian economy.
There are also some notable Turkish firms in Serbia operating in the tourism and wood-processing sectors.
We see the IT sector, infrastructure and construction, as well as the agriculture and food industries, as fields that have the potential to attract Turkish investments.
Turkey has taken it upon itself to renovate some cultural monuments in the region. In Bosnia- Herzegovina, the famous Bridge on the Drina in Višegrad has been renovated, alongside cultural monuments in Mostar and Konjic. In Serbia you are preparing renovation work at Kalemegdan and Ram Fortress near Veliko Gradište. When will this work begin?
– The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) is very active in Serbia in the field of development cooperation, including the restoration and renovation of historical monuments. Since the opening of its office in Belgrade in 2010, TIKA has invested almost 20 million euros in education, health, agriculture, infrastructure and cultural projects.
We have three projects in Kalemegdan this year. Renovation work on the Sokullu Mehmet Paşa Fountain (Mehmet Paşa Sokoloviç) and the Tomb of Damat Ali Pasha within the Kalemegdan fortress will be launched in March by TIKA, in cooperation with the Belgrade City authorities. TIKA and the Belgrade City authorities are also preparing a project to renovate the Small Staircase in Kalemegdan Park facing Pariska Street, which was built in 1903 according to a design by Jelisaveta Načić, the first female architect in Serbia.
Our projects regarding Ram Fortress are not new. TIKA installed an external lighting system in the fortress in 2013 and this year will launch a tender for reconstruction work.
Turkey is interested in expanding cooperation with Serbia as a whole. As such, supporting the road infrastructure in southwest Serbia is also on the agenda and we will spare no efforts in making it happen
Your term of office in Serbia is starting with the renovation of your embassy in the very centre of Belgrade. How do you like your view of Belgrade?
– I started my Belgrade posting with a very hectic agenda. We had several delegations, not only for BSEC meetings in December, but also for academic, cultural and sporting events. We organised the opening of our renovated building and an academic conference in a very short space of time. We hosted important Turkish writers, including Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk. I also spent almost ten days in Turkey at the annual Ambassadors’ Conference. That is why there are still places in Belgrade that I have unfortunately not yet been able to visit. But what I have seen so far has left a very positive impression on me. Belgrade is a vibrant and beautiful city, a city with a soul. Serbs are very friendly and hospitable people, and I have received a very warm welcome from everyone I’ve met. Therefore, I do not feel like a foreigner here. On the contrary, I feel at home. This is certainly helping me to adapt to Belgrade better, not only as a diplomat, but also as an ordinary Belgrader.