The Sit Down: An Interview with the Ambassador of Turkey to Georgia


Latest developments in the tensions in Nogorno-Karabakh have begun drawing more attention after a ceasefire failed to produce the desired results. Now, Turkey, Russia, and the United States have begun looking for alternative ways to establish peace in the region. Turkey, the largest and arguably most involved player in the ongoing conflict, has taken a multifaceted approach, particularly with their long-time ally, Azerbaijan. In this installment of “The Sit Down”, GEORGIA TODAY spoke to the Ambassador of Turkey to Georgia, H. E. Fatma Ceren Yazgan, to discuss some of the security matters in the broader Caucasus, as well as some outlooks on the renewed fighting in the region.

What is your personal mission with regards to the overall Georgian diplomatic mission?

I’m here as the Turkish Ambassador. My first duty is to Turkish and Georgian relations, and that covers 28 years of relations. My job, as one of many past and future ambassadors, is to “put a brick on the wall,” and that wall is about keeping Georgia, our neighbor, safe and stable; our relations productive in every field; and, as Georgia continues its consolidation of its sovereign territory, capacity building and institution building. We as a neighbor country have the responsibility to help Georgia, and we have been doing so for the past 28 years. We are the only neighboring country to have a demarked border with Georgia, and we have been working in the cultural field, in people-to-people contacts, economy, trade, military, defense- everything. My job is to keep those relations alive and kicking, and furthering those relations and opening up new opportunities as the circumstances change: furthering Turkish-Georgian relations on a bilateral level, but also in a regional context, providing the necessary toolkits to our Georgian friends from the Turkish side to develop regional cooperation.

How would you describe your relationship with the Georgian government and its people?

As a Turkish Ambassador, my first time in such a position, I’m very comfortable and have very good access, and a very good platform, to discuss anything and everything. I’m privileged because as much as we may have different points of view, we have really comfortable platforms from which to talk about these differences, and these differences are few, because the interests of Turkey and Georgia in this region, and overall in global affairs, very much overlap.

What are your military relations with the Georgian defense forces?

In the 1990s, when Georgia was independent and the Soviet Union had collapsed, Georgia had to build a nation state, and that came with all its difficulties. Georgia, like Azerbaijan, had to face issues with its territorial integrity and capacity building in terms of security and defense structures. NATO perspectives were not there at that point, it being busy elsewhere in the wake of the Cold War, and Turkey was the first country to provide Georgia training and human resources; to establish those structures, together with our allies, particularly our NATO allies- but we were at the forefront. We also provided equipment and institutionalization help. More than 2000 Georgian military defense personnel have gone through training in Turkey, and also language training. Then we started cooperation in the military-industrial field. I can’t tell you the overall cost to Turkey, but we recently signed an agreement which foresees 100 million Turkish Lira, about 50 million Lari, in a military grants program. Now we’re trying to see how we can best put those into use for developing the Georgian defense capacity. There are also some infrastructure projects that we’ve been working on together. We contributed financially to the SNGP [Substantial NATO-Georgia Package] in terms of personnel, and we have provided as a neighbor in the Black Sea, as a littoral state, coast guard capacity building by donating two coastguard boats with ongoing maintenance services.

There is a military cooperation action plan between the two militaries for defense, and then there is the Turkey-Georgia-Azerbaijan Ministers of Defense cooperation platform. Turkey, as one of the staunchest supporters of Georgia being a member of NATO, and of Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic efforts, will continue to support those efforts.

How often do you train or conduct exercises with the Georgian Defense Forces, and are more reduced exercises needed?

Are more needed? Of course. I don’t know anyone who would say we otherwise. The more exercises we have together, the more interoperability develops, which is very useful, particularly as a NATO ally. Our soldiers are cooperating in Kabul, in Afghanistan, so we have places in other countries where we cooperate. But, I can’t give you a calendar of events that we have planned together or have conducted. But it is certainly an ongoing process.

How would you describe the Turkish military relationship with Azerbaijan?

Azerbaijan is our very close partner, strategic partner, brother, sister; we are one nation, two states. It’s a close ally and of course we stand together with them, but we also have very close cooperation in terms of strategic projects which involve other partners. Azerbaijan is an important energy resource in the diversification of energy sources for Europe, and Turkey, with international partners, including multinational companies and not only governments, has been instrumental in realizing the potential of Azerbaijan.

So, how close are we? We speak the same language. There are many people in Turkey whose family, whose ancestors, came from what is Azerbaijan today. Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Ukraine had to face challenges to their territorial integrity, and Turkey, not only because we feel so close to our kin, but in terms of principle, supports the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and freedom for them to cooperate with whomever they want. With these principles, we not only defend Azerbaijan but also Georgia, and Ukraine, for instance, or any other country in the region, not only in the Caucasus but also in the Balkans. When you look at our Balkans policy, it’s pretty similar. With Azerbaijan, our defense relations are also very close. We have provided them, as we did Georgia, training, equipment, and technology. Of course, it’s there, and they buy from us. It’s not only about gifting; they buy from us as they buy from other countries. We’re not the only supplier, nor even their major supplier.

Might it become necessary to assist them in the Nogorno-Karabakh conflict?

At this stage, there has been no request from the Azerbaijani side for our support, and President [Ilham Heydar Oglu] Aliyev himself has given interviews about this. It was very clearly put by him and our president, [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, and our Minister of Foreign Affairs, [Mevlüt] Çavusoglu. If they need us, we might be there, but they don’t need us and we have never been a part of that conflict. We stand by Azerbaijan in their struggle to get back their territory, and again I will underline they are now fighting in their own territory. We have also been a part of the [OSCE] Minsk Group for all these years. We try to help the co-chairs to find a solution to negotiations, and we have never been in those negotiation rooms. The Minsk Group, which was established for this, takes United Nations Security Council resolutions which effectively recognized all these territories as Azerbaijan’s. We would like to see a lasting peace, not a lasting ceasefire.

What would trigger a military response from Turkey and compel their armed forces to intervene?

Well, if we were targeted, obviously it would compel us to protect our own territory and interests, and of course if our interests are targeted, like the international projects which we are a partner with, in the consortiums and all that, it might. But Turkey doesn’t want an escalation of this conflict. We have never been the side to escalate any conflict for any reason, because we don’t need that in the region. We need security; we need stability; but we don’t need fake peace which can come back in more destructive conflicts. It would be very hard to pull Turkey into this conflict, but I think we have proven ourselves capable of protecting ourselves and our interests when challenged.

We strongly urge all actors in the region to behave responsibly, and of course call on the belligerent side, which we believe is Armenia occupying Azerbaijani land, to fulfill their obligations according to the United Nations Security Council decisions.

What happened in July was also alarming. I personally don’t understand why no one else found it as alarming as we did, because out of nowhere one day, the Armenian forces attacked a point that is about 300 kilometers from the ceasefire line, where there are transport and energy corridors, pipelines, some 50 kilometers from the Georgian border. Why would the Armenians do that? It’s still a mystery to us, but the consequences were very serious. In Azerbaijan, there was a big public upheaval. [The attack] targeted a project which is also feeding Georgian strategic interests. It’s unacceptable. And since then, there have been increasing provocations from the Armenian side, and of course the Azerbaijanis retaliated. As a diplomat, I ask my colleagues: where is diplomacy that should have prevented this escalation? I ask the Armenian side: why did you do this? Rather than speculating what might trigger Turkey to join the conflict, the question here is what triggered Armenia to do what it did?

What is your ideal end-state to the conflict, assuming total peace is not a possibility?

Well, obviously, outright peace will come through negotiations, but saying that, past negotiations, which lasted years, failed to yield a result. What the road ahead is for those negotiations is the question we should all be asking.

Do you see the Russians as a military obstacle for you, and Azerbaijan, in the region, given their presence in Armenia?

Why should the Russians be an obstacle for us? We’re not a part of this conflict. The Russian base in Armenia, in Gyumri, has been there for a long, long time, since the Cold War days, and actually Armenia is the only country I think in the region which hosts a Russian base. And, obviously, Armenia is part of the CSTO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which they are in with Russia. Azerbaijan is not a part of it and Turkey is a NATO member, so, we don’t have a place in that conflict, and Russia is not our rival or our enemy.

Azerbaijan buys also weapons from Russia, but Russia gives the same weapons to Armenia for free. Russia and Armenia, and Russia and Azerbaijan have their own bilateral relations.

How would Turkey respond should Russian military forces be used in the Karabakh region?

I think Prime Minister [Nikol] Pashinyan called President Putin a couple of times. We don’t know what they talked about. But the Russians declared, and the CSTO declared, that their responsibility is towards Armenia. The Azerbaijanis are recognizant of the fact that the CSTO would be compelled to help Armenia if Armenian territory was under attack. Some speculate the reason the CSTO is not coming to help is because it’s not Armenian territory now. That is, the clashes are ongoing.

Georgia is a close neighbor, both politically and geographically. How would you like to see Georgia act in this conflict?

Again, my job is to make sure Turkish-Georgian relations continue flourishing, as they have been doing. Georgia has a very principled approach in terms of its own territorial integrity, and I believe it is also a country which, being in the Council of Europe and the United Nations, has approached all questions from that perspective. I don’t think Georgia will change its principled approach about territorial integrity and sovereignty. Georgia has never been an irredentist state, even in the Turkish case, as there have been some provocations from different marginal sources which questioned Turkish territorial integrity. But the Georgian government has always been responsible in answering such marginal provocations.

With this conflict, of course the government is in a hard place. There’s a conflict going on between their two neighbors, Armenia and Azerbaijan, with one of their neighbors occupying the other’s territory. Of course, with the Georgian principled approach, they would have to manage the situation. It’s very delicate. We respect Georgia’s stance on being respectful to the United Nations resolutions, international law, and good neighborly relations. Georgia has a minority Armenian and Azeri population, and it is very important, of course, to respect these Georgian citizens from different backgrounds, and to understand they should not be able to push Georgia into the conflict. To be frank, I have not seen any signs of such conduct from the Azerbaijani community here, just some provocations in Akhalkalaki in which the community leaders, church, and Georgian government had a dialogue.

Turkey and Turkish diplomats have been targeted by certain terrorist groups with a single issue, and they have targeted Turkish interests and Turkish diplomats. Since 1973, we have lost 31 Turkish diplomats to terrorism, and, unfortunately, in the past two years, we have seen a revival of that group. It’s called ASALA [Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia]. In any case, it is worrisome, and we would like all such provocations, and attempts at provocations by third parties, prevented, because there are many peaceful, loyal citizens of Georgia who are of Armenian ethnic origin too. We wouldn’t want to see them targeted as one of these ‘Dashnak’. It’s part of the history of this region: the ‘Dashnaksuyun’, as we and the Armenians call them, and Tbilisi was a ‘Dashnaksuyun’ city in the 19th century: that’s where they started.

Would you expect more or less activity from the Georgians in the future, particularly given the coming Georgian elections?

I don’t think the Georgian foreign policy is being influenced by the elections in this regard. I wouldn’t expect that to happen, and it shouldn’t happen.

What does the long-term hold for Turkey with regards to the disputed regions?

Well, we’re part of the Caucasus, as much as we’re a part of the Balkans, or the Mediterranean, or the larger Black Sea, or the Middle East. We have a vested interest in having a stable, secure, prospering region.

We’ve seen annexations, we’ve seen occupations, we’ve seen turmoil, and we’ve seen disintegrating states. There is a lot of instability around us, and we would like to see those instabilities stabilized, because this is how you prosper.

In Turkey, there are Georgian ethnic citizens, there are Abkhaz ethnic origin Turkish citizens, as there are Kurds, Arabs, ethnic Turkomans, Turks, and Armenians. We believe stability and security in this region will not come if we don’t all agree not to use proxy, not to be irredentist, not to be revisionist, and to start using new media, new platforms for people to really get to know each other. I’ve seen too many prejudices in Georgia about Turkey, though we’ve been living together for at least a thousand years. While these 28 years have seen constant interaction, the Turks still don’t know Georgia, and the Georgians still don’t know Turkey beyond some trade relations, and very good trade relations by the way, or Istanbul airport or the beaches. In turn, the Turks think Georgia is about Batumi, which it’s not. With due respect to Batumi, I think there is a wonderful Georgia beyond the city. And people here, when picturing Turkey, tend to think of the Russian empire propaganda, or in terms of mythology. When I was appointed here, I had difficulty persuading people that I was the Ambassador, not the wife of the Ambassador, and they’ve ask, do you have Caucasian blood? I say yes, but I also have the other blood as well, so blood is not that important in this.

So, yes, there are lots of prejudices. I’ve heard horrible anecdotes about Armenians. I’ve heard horrible anecdotes about Azeris, and I’ve heard horrible anecdotes about Georgians, and about Turks too. So this people-to-people contact, with real intellectual content, needs to be developed. Trade is developing, the economy is working. But trade and economy is not enough. We need to build on that, in terms of addressing those prejudices, mythology, and distrust. That distrust is the direct product of 19th century imperialism. It’s time to move on: this is the 21st century, and our children, the next generation, should not inherit 200-year-old problems. That’s my vision of what we should be working on. And we shouldn’t rely on, with respect, USAID, or the Germans, or the Swiss, to do it for us: we are the ones who have been living together here for centuries. We have to get away from thousands of years of mythology, battles and bad history, and focus on the future. If we don’t look ahead, we’ll have to leave it to the next generation, and they deserve better than that.

By Michael Godwin

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15 October 2020 21:52