“What we are doing [in Syria] is a military operation targeting YPG terrorist organisation,” Yağmur Ahmet Güldere, Ambassador of Turkey to Ukraine said in an interview to Hromadske. “It is not something anti-Kurdish.” That is how he described the Turkish military invasion in northern Syria that started after the withdrawal of American troops from the territory in early October.
Güldere confirmed that Turkey’s position on Crimea has not changed, despite the fact that President Erdogan shook hands with Russian politicians elected from the annexed peninsula. Nine months after starting as Turkish Ambassador to Ukraine, he describes Ukraine as a lively country with vibrant domestic politics. During the interview, Güldere also clarified an incident that recently occurred in front of the Turkish Embassy in Kyiv on October 11.
We know that Turkey's official position regarding Crimea is that Crimea is an integral part of Ukraine and that the annexation of Crimea is illegal. But ... you may know are President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with two so-called deputies of the Russian State Duma that is Nataliya Poklonskaya and Ruslan Balbek and they were elected from the annexed Crimea. Does it mean that the Turkish position regarding Crimea has in any respect changed?
No, that's not the case. Yes, there was this incident, and we have discussed this issue with our Ukrainian counterparts in Ankara and here in Kyiv. I have also spoken with the Crimean Tatar leadership. While we discussed this issue, we informed our partners and Turkey's position on Crimea has been clear and consistent since March 2014. We have declared time and again that we do not recognize the annexation. That position is valid still and this handshake in the format of the multilateral meeting where the President was simply greeting the foreign guests should not be interpreted as a change in Turkey's non-recognition policy.
This might be considered a sort of misunderstanding, right?
Yes, it could be said so.
You understand why this issue is so painfully perceived in Ukraine because recently some Ukrainian and international analysts have pointed out that Turkey has been closer with Russia than ever before. I mean for example the construction of the TurkStream, the purchases of C400 defense missile systems and numerous meetings between Russian and Turkish officials. Can this mean in your opinion that in the so-called Russia-Ukraine-Turkey triangle Turkey will be more inclined towards Russia than Ukraine, even to the detriment of Ukraine's interests?
This is not the line of thinking that we have. Russia is a country in the region with which we have issues where we disagree, issues where we agree. On places where we agree, we are cooperating, and on issues where we disagree, we are disagreeing. And that's a fact of life and that's not only between Turkey and Russia. The same goes for everyone including Turkey's allies, with which we have lots of disagreements and very serious ones if I may say so. Meanwhile, our relations with Ukraine are great. We have extremely positive bilateral relations. The relations are developing in various fields and about the issues you raised: energy, defense industry. These are issues actually where we have cooperation possibilities with Ukraine, especially in the defense industry. It's one of the perhaps rising stars and the future stars of the Turkish-Ukrainian partnership. So we do not see this as a zero-sum game, we have always wanted to have a working close relationship and developing cooperation with all the regional partners between us, among us all together. Yes, there are difficulties but we always believe that the opportunities these communication channels that we have should actually not be seen as a threat but an opportunity and they have proved their usefulness in the past. So we tend to think in another way on that issue.
As a follow-up to my previous question, one of the moves taken by Turkey which was also painfully perceived in Ukraine was when on June 25 Turkey voted in the PACE to bring the Russian parliamentary delegation back. The Russian delegation had been absent before due to sanctions imposed in regard to their annexation of Crimea as well. So why did Ankara take such a step then?
This is basically the MPs casting their votes there so as a starter I don't think it should be attributed as a full official position of Ankara, but that being said, we look at that issue not in terms of one aspect of that, but it was an existential crisis for the future of Council of Europe in total. Because there were lots of issues at stake there and highlighting one element could have worked to the detriment of the functioning of CoE as an organism and I do not think that we are headed towards that way. That's not the outcome that we wanted. Yes, there are issues that should be addressed, but they should be addressed at the correct platforms with the intended results, and not the opposite. Because these multinational, multilateral mechanisms exist for a reason and they should be worked towards those reasons and towards the objectives they were created for.
One another hot issue that is being covered by media extensively is Turkey's incursion into northern Syria. The operation [Peace Spring] started on October 9 and it kind of has drawn international ire, including from the United States which is actually a Turkey’s ally and member of NATO. President Trump acted a bit undiplomatically when he sent that condemning letter to President Erdogan then he slapped sanctions on the Turkish economy and the same moves are now being considered in U.S. Congress. Does that in any way threaten NATO integrity and unity?
That's three very tough questions all rolled into one. Let me start with Syria - why we had to start this operation and maybe while trying to answer this question I may also have to [address] certain issues because of all the disinformation going on. This has been labeled as an invasion, as an occupation, as a massacre of certain groups of people, as something anti-Kurdish. What we are doing, which is currently at a pause is definitely not this but the opposite. This is a military operation, whose objectives and scope had been very clearly defined and announced to the international public opinion and its sole target is the YPG (Kurdish People's Protection Units — ed.) terrorist organization which has been allowed to take root there, to grow there, to turn into some sort of an authority in the region. And as a result of this situation over the last two years, we had more than 300 acts of hostility towards our country from the East of the Euphrates, the zone of operation of Peace Spring. In addition to these physical attacks and when I mean, these physical attacks I mean fatal sniper attacks, and I mean even guided anti-tank missile launches — these come from the other side of your border so it's not acceptable. In addition to this, you had tunnels being built across your border, into your border from this terrorist-controlled zone into which your country is being smuggled weapons and ammunition to be used against your citizens. On top of this, this YPG terrorist organization has been intimidating the local population there, this includes both the Kurds and the Arabs and I keep hearing about Turkey's operation is aimed at demographic engineering. The demographic engineering has already been done, and it's been done by the YPG organization, not us. What we are doing is actually creating a safe zone which would allow the rightful owners of the land to live in peace there without having their kids abducted by a terrorist organization and forcefully conscripted into their terrorist armed formations and they can be provided with basic healthcare, basic education without being in fear of what’s going to happen tomorrow. You are right in saying that the operation has not been understood in the right way and I am actually quite puzzled as to how some portray this operation saying America is betraying its allies and allowing Turks to attack Kurds. This is not the issue. This operation is going to secure the lives of the Kurds themselves there. The problem here is: we have to make a distinction — YPG is a mainly Kurdish organization, but it’s not the representative organ democratically elected representative body of the Kurds, it's a terrorist organization which abuses the Kurds there, which abuses the situation there and comes up with its own agenda. The Kurds who do not subscribe to YPG's agenda had to flee this land and they fled to Turkey, you can interview these tens of thousands of Turks and the Kurds that we are hosting there, and the Arabs who have been intimated and kicked out of this place because they do not subscribe to this separatist agenda. So the operation simultaneously helps us secure our borders, it's actually helping Syria maintain its territorial integrity by eliminating separatist, terrorist presence from Syria's territory, and also overall it's actually helping those who have been living under very tough conditions in foreign places to be able to return to their homes. Here I also want to underline one very important point: again with all this demographic engineering, this information, it's portrayed as people are being uprooted from where they are now and being sent there - that's not the case. We're simply preparing the conditions to allow the rightful owners of this land to go back to their homeland. These figures of 1 to 2 million people who could go back to the safe zone are estimates based on the results of our two previous operations which we conducted in 2017 and 2018, operations Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch. After these operations, we secured a landmass of 4,000 square kilometers into which more than 350,000 Syrians went back and settled. Now they're living in peace, they enjoy basic services like health, education and all of that. So the 1 to 2 million is a long-term estimate of how things would look once the safe zone is fully established and secured.
Back to Ukraine, but this question is going to be a bit associated with the Turkish operation. You may know that on October 11 there was an unfortunate incident outside the building of the Embassy of Turkey in Ukraine. A group of protesters was speaking against the Turkish incursion into Syria and then some unidentified ran out of the building and attacked the protesters. Your embassy commented on the incident but didn't specify who those people were. Could you please explain, what can you say about the incident?
That's, I think an unfortunate incident, and it unfolded as follows: I understand in Ukraine the demonstrations and the protests do not need to be announced beforehand, that they can be organized just by informing the authorities that we are doing something like this, but in usual practice when there is an embassy in question, when there is a foreign office, this information usually comes to us so if there are any precautions that should be taken we are allowed to do so. There have been two protests in front of the embassy and in the first protest it came entirely as a surprise to us and looking at the way the protest was organized it was very clear to us that it was not just a peaceful protest but it was an act of provocation looking at the slogans and the banners that they were carrying which had very clear insults, not just protesting words, but clear insults. This, I think should not have been allowed, but what happened was: I have more than 23,000 registered Turkish citizens living in Ukraine so every day — you can imagine — we have a high number of citizens coming to the Embassy for all sorts of document issues. The protesters were allowed to stand right next to the embassy entrance. I have to say here that my personal car, the Ambassador's car could not enter the Embassy compound because of the protest. So this explains how close they were, and how freely they were doing their protest. So a few Turkish citizens who had their consular work done and left the embassy, they were this close to these protesters and the protesters were shoving these banners toward the heads of these guys with a clear act of provocation. Sadly, the local security was not quick and strong enough to separate these groups, and there was physical contact. Of course, when there is such physical contact, we try to assist the security forces in order to prevent the escalation of the situation by re-allowing these Turkish citizens to the Embassy building. That's the end of it. This happened in the first thing and I wouldn't say there was a physical attack there, there was physical contact but I don't think we need to exaggerate this and turn this into something it isn't. As for the second protest, there were enough security measures and everything went perfectly smooth and we certainly disagree with what the protesters are saying. But their right to protest, we certainly respect it. Again I would have preferred if there were some physical distance between the embassy and the protesters but the second time there were at least enough security measures in order to prevent the repetition of another unfortunate incident. That's it.
You've been in Ukraine since January 2019. It's more than nine months since you started your diplomatic residency here. What are your overall impressions about Ukraine? What can you say about our country in general?
It's a lively country, full of energy — that much is certain. I used to joke with my colleagues in Ankara, with the diplomats: we also have a very lively domestic policy. And when it comes to foreign policy, Turkey also has lots of issues going on all the time. I was always saying, as Turkey, we make sure that we make the foreign diplomats deserve their salary, so I think the same goes here. You have a very vibrant domestic policy — lots of things going on, Ever since I came here there were the presidential elections, the two rounds, the parliamentary elections. This all reform agenda, lots of investment, many Turkish companies and when it comes to Ukraine, Crimea, Crimean Tatars is always a very critical issue which we closely look at. Another issue is: Crimean Tatars are not the only Turkic population that is a part of Ukraine: you also have Gagauz people, Meskhetian Turks. So I try to travel to cities of Ukraine, try to see them, and each city has its own legacy and culture. So Ukraine is a big country, full of energy and potential. It's indeed a great pleasure and privilege to be working here. I'm talking with my colleagues at the Embassy — they're also thrilled to be working here because there's always something to work on, something interesting to dig about. Indeed, serving as a Turkish Ambassador, strategic partner of Ukraine is a challenge but it’s an opportunity and an honor.
/Interview by Oleh Pavliuk