Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent visit to Kyiv might have gone largely unnoticed outside Ukraine, were it not for the fact that he fell asleep during a press conference with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
That news may have provoked laughs across the internet, but it also likely distracted from the serious nature of the meeting.
On October 9, Erdogan came to Ukraine for the sixth meeting of the High-Level Strategic Council between the two countries. During their talks in Kyiv, Poroshenko and Erdogan discussed furthering the Ukrainian-Turkish relationship and signed several major bilateral agreements. The most important were an investment protection agreement and a double taxation avoidance agreement.
That may seem par for the course in international negotiations, but these agreements — and broader economic ties with Turkey — are extremely important, says Sergiy Korsunsky, who served as Ukraine’s Ambassador to Turkey between 2008 and 2016.
Photo credit: HROMADSKE
“Both agreements were signed in the ‘90s and were existing until recently,” he told Hromadske. “But two years ago, it was decided on both sides that they have to be seriously updated because of changes in both Ukrainian and Turkish legislation to make them more useful instruments for the development of our cooperation.”
Turkish support is also important for Ukraine’s Crimean Tatars, who have face oppression and imprisonment since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014. Erdogan raised this issue during the press briefing.
“We’re trying to take all possible measures to help our [Crimean Tatar] brothers… I think time will show the result of our efforts,” he said.
Despite such strong support for the Crimean Tatar community and Erdogan’s condemnation of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, the Turkish leader does not back sanctions on Russia. Korsunsky explained that this is not connected to the country’s specific attitudes towards Ukraine or Russia, but to its overall approach to foreign affairs.
Photo credit: HROMADSKE
“The principal position of Turkey is that they do not trust sanctions, they do not believe in sanctions,” Korsunsky said. “They believe that you have to fight in court, you have to fight at international organizations level.”
Hromadske spoke with former Ukrainian Ambassador to Turkey Sergiy Korsunsky to understand why the Erdogan-Poroshenko meeting was so important in the context of Ukraine’s foreign policy.
Ambassador, how would you characterize President Poroshenko’s meeting with President Erdogan? What were the big takeaways?
First of all, we should understand that Turkey is one of the major regional powers which is around the Black Sea and its position is extremely important from every point of Ukrainian foreign policy, I mean economically and politically. Definitely, the number one priority right now is the occupation of Crimea. So we have to work with Turkey. It doesn’t matter how Turkey cooperates with Russia, so the meeting was very important. It was supposed to happen in May but due to different reasons, it happened in October. I think it was important that our presidents would discuss again where we are, what should we do and if Turkey will join the circle of friends of Ukraine in this initiative that was announced at the United Nations that will be extremely important.
Poroshenko and Erdogan signed several important agreements and probably the most important are an investment protection agreement, the double taxation avoidance agreement. Ambassador Korsunsky, what is the significance of these documents in your view?
Actually, if we stick to the facts, those both agreements were signed in the 90s and they were existing until recently. But two years ago, it was decided on both sides that they have to be seriously updated because of changes in both Ukrainian and Turkish legislation, to make them more useful instruments for the development of our cooperation. And I’m very glad that it was done. I already left Turkey a year ago so it was without me but definitely it was a very important step and the next one should be free trade.
And the Deputy Minister of Economy of Turkey has said that this agreement might be signed in 2017 so how likely is it to happen?
The problem is that basically this agreement maybe 75-80% negotiated that agreed upon. But the problem is that there are some sensitive issues in this agreement which only issues concerned opening of the markets in Ukraine for Turkish goods and in Turkey for Ukrainian goods and unfortunately we’re not able to come at this point to the final resolution of those issues. But they have been discussed. What is important to understand in our relation with Turkey, we have no problem on political level. So that means that political will is there. So it’s up to the professional, to industries, to talk between them and to agree upon the schedule how we can open our market for industrial goods for Turkey and Turkey would open its agricultural market for Ukrainian products because for us right now, agriculture is probably the number one priority, taking into account the export potential of Ukraine.
Why so much effort? Why are ties with Turkey so important for Ukraine?
I’ll tell you, this is maybe not such a widely known fact, that among all our trade partners, Turkey and Ukraine…Ukraine has a huge positive trade balance. Say if we have 6 billion trade, 2 billion plus is on the Ukrainian side. And this is extremely important for our economy because the whole trade balance of Ukraine, normally as a rule for 25 years is negative, generally negative. 9:52 The most part of it is oil and gas. We worked exporting oil and gas from abroad, specifically from Russia and that was distorting the balance. But with Turkey, we were always on positive side. So for us, turkey was always the second destination of our export, generally. In the best years, we have had 8 billion trade; it's huge by Ukrainian standards. So right now, then it was decreasing because of war in Syria, because of occupation of Donbas and because of a annexation of Crimea. But right now it is improving and this is very good. That means we are now started to get out of this crisis both internally in Ukraine and bilaterally with Turkey. And for us… But agriculture now rather than steel products as it was before, now agriculture is more important and for Turkey this is very sensitive and this is a similar position Turkey attached to every other free trade agreements with other countries. But now with Ukraine, we are already negotiating, for two or three years, those issues. Hopefully they will be resolved soon.
You have already briefly touched upon the essence of my next question. We know that Turkey maintains rather good relations with Russia, as of now, and what sort of tension does it create in Ukrainian-Turkish relations, if any?
Definitely that's a point of I would not say concern, but [it’s] very thoroughly watched on our side, the Turkish relations with Russia. I would like to stress that for Turkey, the principle of pragmatism in foreign relations is extremely important. From pragmatic point of view, Turkey is exporting in 27 billion cubic meters of gas—it's more than 50% of Turkey’s consumption. The number of Russian tourists per year exceeds 4 million, and normally it was number one—they were with Germany. So it's huge money; we are talking about, tens of billions of dollars of income to Turkey. a huge number of projects for billions and billions in construction area were conducted by Turkish companies. Russians are not able to build stadiums for the World Cup next year. This job was in the hands of Turkish companies. And then when the famous accident happened with the Su-24 and Russia kicked out all Turkish business out of the country. It was visible that the loss from the economical side is huge. So therefore, for Turkey, this is number one. It’s extremely important, they have to cooperate. But number two, the issue which emerged with Syrian conflict that Turkey realizes now, more than ever before, that without Russia —unfortunately for us definitely — we would welcome if would be a Turkish-American alliance or Turkish-European alliance and NATO would be probably more active in this conflict. But what happened, it just happened that Russia, Iran and Turkey they found the ground on how to cope with this Islamic State. The most important issue in the Syrian conflict right now it's not Assad, it’s the Islamic state. This is terrible terrorism, it's absolutely unbelievable what they are doing in their territories. So to clean up Syria from Islamic states, it's an interest of Russia, Turkey and the United States and ours as well. So therefore, taking into account this political issue,Turkey had to cooperate with Russia. So I would not overestimate the level of deep love between Turkey into Russia. I would say, they have their serious problems, still the economic side and definitely the issue of Crimean Tatars because for Turks, this is absolutely a principle issue that Crimean Tatars, they call them Crimean Turks, this is a king nation for Turks.
Actually they call them brothers. And at the same time, while not recognizing the annexation of Crimea by Russia, they do not support sanctions against Russia.
Yes and as you may imagine, we have been discussing this issue many many times in different levels. The principal position of Turkey is that they do not trust sanctions, they do not believe in sanctions. They believe that you have to fight in court, you have to fight at international organizations level— that’s what we are doing, but sanctions, they believe it's not a workable framework. And by the way, when we talk about this right now, we can see that on one hand we have a very thorough regime of sanctions from the Western world but at the same time, just one visit of King Salman from Saudi Arabia brought $10 billion of common fund, during fight with Russia, so investment will be coming from the Persian Gulf from China, from the Eastern world. So that from the Turkish point of view, this is another justification, so why would we implement a sanctions regime if anyhow it will not work? We see the world differently, we believe sanctions are extremely important, we believe that Russia would like to maintain very good relations with the West. It's an important destination of goods and cooperation and Russian oligarchs are hiding money in the West, so definitely sanctions must be in place. But Turkish position, it's like principle. It’s not because of Ukraine, Russia but generally speaking, they say: ‘We will not support any kind of sanctions regime in the world.’
Coming back to Crimean Tatars, do you think that the actual help that they get from Turkey is as effective as Mr. Erdogan claims?
I think that they value very much the Turkish position because I know for sure that at every meeting of Turkish officials with Russian officials, they raise this issue; they talk about Crimean Tatars they bring this issue on the table in different international organizations. The other thing where the Russians are listening to those requests, definitely, you know Turkey is going through their own internal complicated political problems, specifically after this last year’s attempt at a coup d’état. Of course we would like to see a more active position of Turkey. Of course we would like to see more persistent push of those issues, together with us on different levels. But again, the foreign policy, it's the art of possibilities; we cannot use this if and somehow. We want to achieve the results and with Turkey. I think what has been achieved during the recent visit,that was probably the maximum that we can get right now. and definitely, we have to reciprocate, we have to work with Turkey on the issues in their interests and that's exactly the art of foreign relations with other countries, how you build this balance.