Ahmet Ünal Çeviköz

Emekli Büyükelçi, CHP İstanbul Milletvekili, TBMM Dışişleri Komisyonu Üyesi, AKPM Türkiye Heyeti Temsilcisi // Retired Ambassador, CHP Istanbul Deputy, Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, Representative of the PACE Delegation to Turkey

RT Interview: Türkiye makes no distinction between Western allies and Eastern neighbors – Ünal Çeviköz

Esra Karahindiba: Welcome to our exclusive interview. I’m Esra. And today joined by Ambassador Çeviköz, who is a member of parliament from CHP and chief foreign policy advisor to one of the prominent president candidates of Turkey. Mr. Ünal Çeviköz. Hello and welcome to the show.

Ünal Çeviköz: Thank you very much.

Esra Karahindiba: Let’s get into the topic. As one of the most senior former diplomats in the opposition alliance, I want to talk about what Turkish foreign policy would look like under a cultural administration in a recent interview. You criticized Turkey’s current foreign policy for being based on leadership diplomacy, and you said that this would be corrected with institution building. Can you expand this statement? What did you mean, actually?

Ünal Çeviköz: Thank you very much for this question. First of all, I think it is important to underline that during the AKP government for the last 20 years, institutionalization has been seriously neglected, not only in foreign policy, but in all levels and in all aspects. And foreign ministry, as far as the implementation of foreign policy is concerned, has been unfortunately sidelined. And that is what I mean when I say that the foreign policy will be institutionalized. Institutionalization of foreign policy means the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will again become a very important dynamic and element for the foreign policy formulation and making. And certainly, as far as the foreign policy implementation is concerned, whenever there are problems, you upgrade the level starting from the ministry and then going to the other levels. But during the AKP government, unfortunately the other level was always the dominant one and the president and his office tried to maintain foreign relations with other countries. This is what we mean when we say that reinstitute regionalization of foreign policy will be made. Certainly, another aspect is, of course, the foreign policy of Turkey after the elections under the new government will be based on peaceful resolution of conflicts and also the use of diplomatic language.

Esra Karahindiba: If there will be a change. In a way, you explain to us right now, will the new approach be radically different from Turkey’s current policy towards Russia, towards Russia?

Ünal Çeviköz: There won’t be any serious change because Russia and Turkey have a very long history and they have a very established state experience. And that’s the reason why I don’t think that there will be any change as far as the Turkish-Russian relations are concerned. State to state relations will certainly continue, but the ministries of foreign affairs will become perhaps more communicative. And then, of course, I understand that President Putin and President Erdogan had very good bilateral relations immediately after the elections. I’m sure that the new president, Mr. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, will also establish very good and cordial relations with President Putin. But of course, this does not mean that they are going to resolve all the problems at the presidential level. We simply expect that the state experience of both countries will help us to institutionalize our bilateral relations. And presidents’ function from both sides will be, of course, to touch the very last moment, and it will be the topping of the cake.

Esra Karahindiba: Talking about the foreign policy, of course, Syria is at the top of the agenda, both for Turkey and Russia. So, if Kemal Kilicdaroglu wins, how much can the country’s policy towards Syria and its military operation in northern Syria change? Is it possible that the Turkish troops could be completely withdrawn?

Ünal Çeviköz: You know that according to the official figures, we have around 4 million Syrians who are under temporary protection status in Turkey. We do not refer to them as refugees because according to the Geneva Convention of 1951, you know that Turkey has a geographical reservation. And that’s the reason why it’s very difficult for us to refer to the Syrians in our country as they are coming from the east of our geography. They cannot be referred to as refugees. But those Syrians, of course, are one of the main reasons why we have to establish immediately after the elections direct dialogue with Damascus. This dialogue is important between Ankara and Damascus because Kemal Kilicdaroglu has time and again several times mentioned that we will allow the Syrians to go back to their country and this will happen only if there is a dialogue between Ankara and Damascus. Of course, there are certain steps which have to be covered. The dialogue has to start. And then the Turkish businesspeople are expected to make serious investments in Syria because reconstruction and rehabilitation in the Syrian territory is necessary. The country has been devastated because of the civil war. And then, of course, these investments will also create the sustainability conditions for the Syrians who choose to return to their countries. As far as education possibilities for their children are concerned, job opportunities are concerned, health facilities are concerned. So, from this point of view, this sustainability is very important. There is also another aspect.

Ünal Çeviköz: Turkey cannot afford this all by itself. That’s the reason why we are expecting a very serious international solidarity and burden sharing, particularly expected to come from the European Union, the United Nations, the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP and all these will help us to allow the Syrians to go back to their country when they choose to do so. A final issue that I want to mention here is certainly during the dialogue with Damascus, we also have to reassure that those Syrians who go back to their country will not be prosecuted. And this is only possible if we have a dialogue between Ankara and Damascus. I think it is also important to underline here that there are certain mechanisms which allow the two countries to develop joint combat against terrorism. I’m referring to the Adana protocol of 1998, which has been revised in 2011, and I think President Putin has several on several occasions mentioned the importance of Adana protocol between Turkey and Syria. If Turkey and Syria can come to an understanding to establish border security and if Turkey does not perceive any more terrorist threat from the Syrian territory, then of course it will be perhaps possible to talk about the role of the Turkish armed forces on the Syrian territory. But this may only come after the reassurance that Turkey would get from the Syrian government that there wouldn’t be any danger emanating from Syria against Turkey’s interests.

Esra Karahindiba: There is now a political discourse in Turkey, especially in the opposition. Syrians returned home and Mr. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, in his different speeches, he said, we will send them back maximum within two years. So, what is your proportion of doing this? I mean, will the Syrians living in Turkey have their own chances if they want to go or stay in Turkey? Or you will have a strict policy of sending them because this is what the president candidate Kilicdaroglu says.

Ünal Çeviköz: It is quite clear that the leader of our party, Mr. Kamal Kilicdaroglu, has mentioned that they will be going back in in a matter of two years. Now, of course, there are certain Syrians who have acquired Turkish citizenship and there are around 700,000 children who are born in Turkey and those who have the Turkish citizenship and who have been integrated into the Turkish socioeconomic living and socioeconomic structures may choose to remain in Turkey because they have acquired the Turkish citizenship. I’m referring to those who have not acquired Turkish citizenship, but those who have acquired Turkish citizenship are only about a few hundred thousand, something like that. That’s what we hear from the official sources. That’s the reason why I am referring to the Syrians in general.

Esra Karahindiba: Syria has issued numerous calls for Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria actually to come together. How can this be achieved provided that those countries interests diverge greatly on several number of issues?

Ünal Çeviköz: Thank you for asking this question because it will give me an opportunity to explain what we mean with this project. It is generally referred to as the Middle East Partnership and Cooperation Organization, which is, in short, we refer to as MEPCO or in Turkish it is Ortadoğu Barış ve İşbirliği Teşkilatı, which is OBIT in acronyms. Now, all these four countries are actually being seriously affected because of two important phenomena which are prevailing in our geography. The first is international terrorism and the second one is migration. So, these two phenomena are very much interlinked. Iran is a destination country, particularly for migrants coming from Afghanistan. Iraq and Syria are source countries because many Syrians have left their country. Iraqis also leave their country. But Iraq also can be also considered as a transition country, and Turkey is a destination country. So, all these four countries being affected because of two, two important phenomena in our geography would perhaps need to get together and find a common platform where they can talk these issues. And that’s the reason why we are proposing this project. The project that I referred to as MEPCO. And if these four countries get together and establish a kind of common understanding about how to address these issues, I think it will be a basis for a further cooperation in the Middle East in general. Certainly, this project does not exclude other partners or other countries in the region, but it is not excluding other non-regional actors either. I know that there are so many international actors or international organizations who have also important role to play in that kind of a project. So, this is a project that we are probably going to put into action immediately after the elections, and we will certainly reach out to Iran, Iraq, and Syria in explaining how we can develop this project that I refer to as the Middle East Partnership and Cooperation Organization and NATO.

Esra Karahindiba: How would a victory of Mr. Kemal Kilicdaroglu affect if he wins the relations between Turkey and the rest of NATO? Is Ankara expected to ease its position on Sweden’s potential accession to NATO?

Ünal Çeviköz: May I simply refer to your if question that we don’t have any? If in our minds we believe that on the 14th of May, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is going to win the elections. Having said this, I think, of course Turkey does not make any distinction between the East and the West, and Turkey is fully bound and is in compliance with the commitments that it has taken so far. One of those commitments is, of course, the membership in NATO. Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952, so it is more than 70 years already. And this is a very important identity of Turkey. But let me also remind you that during the Cold War, for example, in spite of the fact that Turkey was a member of NATO, Turkey had very good relations with the former Soviet Union. So, Turkey’s foreign policy in a balanced approach does not make any distinction between its Western allies and its eastern neighbors. In fact, both geographies are complementary with one another. And Turkey, from this point of view, has a very important strategic geography. And this location gives Turkey the advantage to be equidistant to all these actors around itself. There’s not going to be any change in our relations with Russia after the elections, and there’s not going to be change in our relations with NATO.

Ünal Çeviköz: And I’m sure the new government and President Kilicdaroglu will be very keen to maintain this balanced foreign policy conduct in the new era in front of us. As far as Swedish membership to NATO is concerned, you know that last year there was a trilateral memorandum which was signed in Madrid and Turkey was complaining because of the behavior of Finland and Sweden and its reaction. Turkey’s reaction was against the attitude of these two countries to PKK terrorism. Some progress has been made and Finland has become a member of NATO, and the Turkish Grand National Assembly approved that. I think Sweden also made some progress at the beginning of this year. They changed their constitution and starting with the 1st of June this year, a new law will be put into implementation and on combat against terrorism. So all these actually show that Sweden is also willing to make some progress to ease the difficulties between Sweden and Turkey and to respect to the sensitivities of Turkey. So it will be up to the new parliament after the elections. And if the new parliament and if the new government feel that Sweden has made enough progress, certainly they will look at it from a more positive point of view.

Esra Karahindiba: Mr. Kilicdaroglu also calls for a remedy for the relations with Western countries. Can Turkey combine rapprochement? With the West while staying firm on its core principles.

Ünal Çeviköz: The core principles of Turkish foreign policy are peace and good neighborly relations with our neighbors and non-intervention into the domestic affairs of other countries and to become very important, honest broker or a facilitator in resolving conflicts. Now all these basic parameters and main principles will remain, and they will become the main parameters of Turkish foreign policy. So, there is no contradiction there. And it is possible, of course, to expand the foreign policy implementation of Turkey based on these principles. And I think this is going to be probably the main change because the current government, unfortunately, has neglected some of these principles. What do I mean, like that? For example, non-intervention in the domestic affairs of neighboring countries has not been applied. During the during the AKP rule in the last 20 years, there has been a deviation from this principle of the Turkish foreign policy. Another deviation has also occurred in as far as impartiality is concerned, because Turkey started to take sides in the regional conflicts, because it is something that we have inherited from Ataturk. Ataturk has always said that we should not intervene into the domestic affairs of our neighbors in the Middle East. And whenever there is a conflict, we shouldn’t take sides among the conflicting actors. These two principals have been neglected and seriously violated under the AKP rule. This is going to change, and it is going to put into practice again. And that will be the main basic approach of the Turkish foreign policy after the elections.

Esra Karahindiba: Can you refer to the specific examples of what you were saying, like the intervention to domestic affairs? Do you mean Syria and taking sides issue? Do you mean Azerbaijan and Armenia?

Ünal Çeviköz: No, Azerbaijan and Armenia are not in the question here. I think the most striking example, of course, could be Syria, because it is obvious that right from the outset the AKP government took sides and, in a way, positioned itself against Damascus and against the Assad administration. I think that appeared and it was perceived as a very serious intervention into the domestic affairs.

Esra Karahindiba: Would Egypt be one of your examples also?

Ünal Çeviköz: I don’t think so because Turkey has not intervened into the domestic affairs. But after what has happened in 2013 when President Morsi was in a way dismissed from his position by a military coup, then there was a reaction of the AKP government that was not an intervention into domestic affairs, but it was a position which in a way interrupted the diplomatic relations between Turkey and Egypt for so many years. And I am sure many people, and many political scientists admit that this interruption and the downgrading of the relations between Egypt and Turkey from an ambassadorial level to a chargé d’affaires level has cost the Turkey a lot, particularly in the eastern Mediterranean.

Esra Karahindiba: What stance will Turkey hold regarding the Ukrainian crisis during his administration? And you as a foreign policy advisor, do you think that will anchor A be able to make a breakthrough in the mediation process?

Ünal Çeviköz: I think the new government after the elections will continue to become an honest broker to the extent that it is possible. A role of mediation and a role of facilitation will certainly continue because this is a very important advantage of Turkish foreign policy. Turkey has been using that kind of a role in many geographies, starting from Afghanistan, for example, or in the Balkans between Bosnia and Serbia in the past, then again in the African horn, for example, between Somalia and Ethiopia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, etcetera. So, this is a practice that the Turkish diplomacy has acquired in so many years. And this certainly has to continue in the example of Ukraine. I think it is important for our own security because Turkey is surrounded with so many hot conflicts and we do not want to have another escalation in the Black Sea basin, because Black Sea basin is a very peculiar geography and both Ukraine and Russia are our neighbors. And certainly, the next government after the elections will continue. All the deliberations which have been conducted so far in terms of perhaps a. Ensuring the sustainability of the grain deal, certainly to facilitate contacts between Kiev and Moscow so that you know, that we have also achieved some kind of a prisoner’s exchange in the past between the two countries. These efforts will certainly continue. And of course, a lasting peace has to be brought to the Black Sea basin and to our northern neighbors. All these, of course, will be our primary targets after the election.

Esra Karahindiba: Is there any gossip about who will run the Foreign Ministry? No, I didn’t.

Ünal Çeviköz: Say anything about that. But all these issues will be certainly decided after the elections.

Esra Karahindiba: Are you one of the candidates to be the foreign chief?

Ünal Çeviköz: I have not heard this.

Esra Karahindiba: A domestic policy question. You want to turn back to parliamentary system from the presidential one? If you can do it, what would that mean for this domestic politics? I mean, what would be the benefits.

Ünal Çeviköz: The change in 2017 after the referendum from the parliamentary system into the presidential system has created a very serious setback in terms of separation of powers, in terms of rule of law, because under the system that we are currently implementing, the executive authority is dominating, and it has an omnipotent power over the legislative and the judiciary. This is contradictory to a democratic understanding of separation of powers. This has to change. And that is the reason why the six parties and the National Alliance have come forward with the idea of a strengthened parliamentary democracy, strengthened in the sense that it is not going to be a status quo ante. It will not be a return to the back of the old parliamentary system. It will be simply a new kind of an understanding which will enhance the functioning of the separation of powers, and which will enhance the role of the Parliament. But there will be, of course, a balanced approach between the three important authorities, the executive, legislative and the judiciary. Now, certainly once this transformation takes place, rule of law will prevail in the country. All kinds of fundamental and basic rights and freedoms will, of course, be enjoyed, and there will not be an omnipotent domination over the legislative body and over the judiciary. This is very important, and I think it is important for the democracy and democratization of the country. People are very much aspiring to achieve that kind of a democratic turkey.

Esra Karahindiba: Actually, a party government refers to the clash of the prime minister and the president in Turkey’s history, which caused a very big economic crisis for Turkey at the beginning of in the beginning of 2000. Do you have any hesitation that the same unfortunate experience for Turkey can be repeated?

Ünal Çeviköz: I don’t think so, because there will be certain important safety mechanisms which will be introduced with the strengthened parliamentary system. For example, one striking example is as far as the annual budgetary control and budget accounting is concerned, there will be a special committee which will be established, and it is the intention of the Nation Alliance to assign someone from the Opposition to the chairperson position of that committee. So, this is actually creating a very democratic understanding and many new mechanisms will be introduced to ensure the smooth functioning of the legislative and a balanced approach between the legislative and the executive. Some past examples, of course, are there in history, but they are not going to happen, and they can only be understood as individual examples, which cannot be considered as a kind of a permanently repeating possibilities.

Esra Karahindiba: Yeah, that was my final question, Ambassador, because thank you very much for your participation.

Ünal Çeviköz: I thank you very much. And as a former diplomat, I started my career in Moscow more than 40 years ago in the Soviet Union, and I have very good feelings about Russia. The Russian culture and the Russian literature. So, may I also take this opportunity to send my best greetings to the Russian people?

Esra Karahindiba: Thank you very much and bye for now.

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Emekli Büyükelçi, CHP İstanbul Milletvekili, TBMM Dışişleri Komisyonu Üyesi, AKPM Türkiye Heyeti Temsilcisi // Retired Ambassador, CHP Istanbul Deputy, Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, Representative of the PACE Delegation to Turkey

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