Interview with Ambassador Namik Tan
By Alan Dessoff
Washington International (WI): What is the current relationship like between Turkey and the US?
Ambassador Tan: We have a comprehensive relationship with the US that goes back more than half a century. Turkey’s membership in NATO began the development of the relationship into a friendship, an alliance, a partnership. The United States is at the top of our foreign policy agenda. It has been tested in the pasta, but the relationship is as critically important to Turkey as it is to the US in the sense that Turkey, as a Muslim country, is a generator of peace and stability. We cherish the same values as the US does — transparency, freedom of speech, free trade, a free market economy.
WI: What are Turkey’s greatest resources, and how much has the downturn in the global economy affected your economy?
Ambassador: The figures speak for themselves. Turkey is the 17th largest economy in the world and the 6th largest in Europe. Excluding the difficult last year, when we all suffered from a global economic downturn, the Turkish economy has expanded uninterruptedly during the last six years with a 7.4 percent average growth rate, and thus achieved the highest economic growth rate among the OECD countries. With an 11.7 percent growth rate in the first quarter of 2010, Turkey ranked fifth in the world.
Turkey’s construction sector ranks second in the world, following China. There are 35 Turkish construction firms among the top 225 international companies. Turkey’s cumulative exports increased by an annual rate of 13 percent over the last nine years. Turkey’s foreign trade volume had surged to $334 million (US) by 2008. Turkey attracted some $20 billion US worth FDI annually over the last three years prior to 2009.
Last year, 27 million tourists visited Turkey, ranking our country among the top 10 tourist destinations in the world. We have the largest young population in Europe, with 65 percent under the age 34. Every year, 400,000 students graduate from 125 universities in Turkey.
Turkey is the second largest flat glass producer and the 7th largest cement producer in the world. We are the 8th largest shipbuilder and 3rd largest mega yacht producer. Turkey is the 5th ranked iron and steel producer, the largest fertilizer producer, the 6th largest automotive manufacturer, the largest bus manufacturer, and second largest light truck maker in Europe. We are the largest TV panel supplier to Europe and the second largest home appliance producer in Europe. In 2008, 18 million units of refrigerators, washing machines, ovens and dishwashers were produced in Turkey, with more than two-thirds of them exported to Europe.
Turkey is the second largest apparel and home textile supplier to Europe and fourth largest to the world. We are among the top 5 countries in global vegetable production and among the top 10 countries in fruits and crops production.
The Internet audience in Turkey is one of the most active in the world. We are the fifth largest Internet market in wider Europe. Turkey now has the third largest country presence on Facebook, behind only the US and Canada. There are 64 million cell phone subscribers in a population of 72 million. With a 90 percent of cell phone penetration rate, Turkey ranks as one of the highest in the world. Every month, more than a million cell phones are sold in the market.
Located in the vicinity of regions holding 70 percent of the world’s hydrocarbon resources, Turkey serves as a natural energy bridge between the East and West, North and South. Almost 10 percent of the world’s tradable oil will pass through Turkey once the proposed pipeline projects are realized.
Last year was a difficult one for all of us, so our economy shrank almost 30 percent altogether. But it is recovering now. In the first four months of this year, the figures show the economy is coming back and we are very happy about that. The potential is far beyond that. That is why, during our Prime Minister’s visit to the US last December, we signed a framework arrangement with the US that established a board of ministers, two from each side. These four political figures are tasked to find ways to expand even further the existing relationship between our countries. They will hold their first meeting in Washington in October. Presently, our Minister of Commerce is touring the US — Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta. He visited New York and Washington earlier.
We have reenergized all our agencies and businesses and they are aggressively working with their American counterparts to explore the potential of bringing our relationship with the US to new heights.
WI: To what would you attribute Turkey’s economic success?
Ambassador: We have a very young, dynamic population. They are well educated and creative. Entrepreneurship is booming in almost every sector. When President Obama had the global entrepreneurship conference, it was opened to participation of entrepreneurs from Muslim countries. He announced that the next meeting will be held in Turkey next year, because he saw the potential and the energy and the willingness and the courage of the young entrepreneurs who participated in the conference. There were many interesting projects so they attracted a lot of attention.
Having the unique ability to reach out to almost every corner of the world because of our diverse culture, we have extensive relationships. Our aim is to create a peaceful and stable neighborhood.
WI: What about trading with your neighbors?
Ambassador: Yes, we are trading with our neighbors. It is a very tough neighborhood and we have several problems in the region. We have the Iranian situation, and complications in the Caucusus. We have very serious problems in the Middle East and other complications in the Balkans. We are surrounded by complex problems.
We try to project our soft power, reaching out and engaging all our neighbors irrespective of their political orientation, or faith or beliefs. We try to engage them in some common activity. That’s how we tripled our exports in the last 5 or 6 years.
WI: Have you seen any changes in the neighborhood because of your faith?
Ambassador: That is a very good question; why are we doing this? From east to west, west to east, north to south, south to north, every part of Turkey is working to reach out to reflect the best example of a democracy in a Muslim country, which creates a lot of attention.
We have been negotiating with the EU since 2004 to become a member. Several hundred Arab and Muslim journalists from all over the world were watching this process for the first time in the history of the EU. Why? Because they wanted to see Turkey’s experience as a Muslim and Arab country. It resonates in a powerful and effective way to all those countries that want to cherish the values we cherish. Turkey, with its democracy and vibrant economy, is and will be the best example for all those countries.
This is a huge change from Turkey a decade ago. It was a different Turkey. It is entirely changed now. You see change every year. Turkey’s dynamism is changing the country. The change is not well understood in your part of the world—the vibrancy that Turkey has, when you look at other countries, even the EU members, going through a very difficult time. But Turkey, with a stable, sound economy, is there, very powerful. I think the news comes here and goes into people’s minds and memories very late. They think of Turkey as a country with old habits and practices. It’s not any more. It is a different, vibrant country.
We have been doing a great job with the US in Iraq and will continue to do that. In Afghanistan, we have helped coordinate our efforts again to bring peace and stability to the country. Turkey is a positive actor there, with the US and other NATO allies. And in the Caucuses, again we have tried hard and are still trying to find solutions to the existing problems. We’ve been doing the same things to bring together the warring parties. In the Balkans, Serbia, Bosnia, in all these areas that have complex problems, Turkey is helping. Turkey is a NATO member and a founding member of all the western institutions that you can name. And we are a member of the most of the institutions in Eurasia and a founding member of some of them. And again, we are trying to find a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Turkey is next to no one in trying to bring these parties to a peaceful solution.
WI: Would you care to comment on the humanitarian flotilla from Turkey to Gaza that was intercepted by Israeli soldiers? And what is the current relationship between your country and Israel?
Ambassador: Well, of course, Israel made a big mistake. Turkey has always been a friend to Israel in this volatile region and is still a friend. But Israel, with this operation in international waters, they intercepted a civilian aid convoy and killed 9 Turkish civilians, including one who was an American citizen. So it really offended all the Turkish people. It can not be accepted unless they apologize for what they have done and compensate the families of the victims. This is a necessity and if they do not do it, I think our relationship will be strained. It’s already strained but will get worse, and we don’t want that. But the responsibility is not ours. They have to bear the responsibility and take the first step.
WI: They said the people were armed.
Ambassador: This can not be farther from the truth. I don’t want to go further into this tragedy, but nobody so far has proven that there were any weapons on those ships and they will never be able to do so. They were all civilians and the whole cargo was checked in Turkey. There were no weapons or devices of that sort. But anyhow, Israel is about to lose a friend.
WI: Will that affect your relationship with the US?
Ambassador: It has nothing to do with the US relationship. That is entirely separate. This is not a problem between Israel and Turkey. It is a problem between Israel and the international community. But everybody should know what we have done for Israel. We tried to find solutions for their problems with the Syrians; we mediated between Syria and Israel. So we have never had any intention to destroy our relationship with Israel. It’s the Israeli government that has taken a clumsy stance.
But we are actively working in the region to reach our common goal of bringing peace and stability and democracy to the whole neighborhood. The tool that we use is economic, commercial integration, with the countries around Turkey. Now we have a very good relationship with Russia, and good relations with Greece, Syria, Iraq and Iran. I mean in the sense that we are trying to reach them economically and on a human-to-human level, no political thing.
WI: What about sanctions against Iran?
Ambassador: Iran is our neighbor, so whatever happens there has an immediate effect on all of Turkey. This has happened in Iraq as well. In the crisis of Iraq, we paid the price, we suffered, we lost a great deal, so we don’t want a similar thing to happen to Turkey again.
So the fundamentals of our position with the US are exactly the same, 100 percent overlapping. We don’t want nuclear weapons in Iran. We are against nuclear weapons, and not only in Iran. We don’t want any nuclear weapons in our region.
We think that engagement should be the solution, especially with regards to Iran, so we fully support the engagement policy of the US. Our political leaders — our Prime Minister and Foreign Minister — have spoken to their US counterparts, President Obama and Secretary Clinton, tens of times. They have exchanged extensive information as to what we have done in trying to bring the Iranians to the negotiating table. If we want to have a sustainable peace with Iran and the international community, the only way should be finding solutions to the differences only in negotiations, not by any other means.
We see hope. We strongly believe we can deliver on this and that the international community can deliver, because we have been talking with them, we are engaging with Iran. We are telling them they should be transparent and work closely with the international bodies.
With Brazil, we signed a trilateral document that commits Iranians, for the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran, to sign a commitment. The sole aim was to create a future to have Iran negotiate with us. So we made that commitment on paper. This was an important achievement and at every step we coordinated all our efforts with the White House and State Department. They have been briefed at the highest levels by our ministers and they had several meetings. So there should be no disillusionment about Turkey’s efforts.
WI: Can you trust that Iran is not building nuclear weapons?
Ambassador: If you have prejudices or prejudgments, you cannot negotiate with anyone. We want to have them commit themselves to peaceful means so that they won’t be willing or able to develop any nuclear weapons. That’s what we are trying to do. What is engagement? It is sitting and talking with somebody. It’s a negotiation. That’s what it is. It should go on as long as the Iranians keep themselves committed to those papers that they have signed. So long as they are committed, we should follow the diplomacy track until the last moment. We have to follow it.
WI: What are the major issues right now that you are trying to deal with?
Ambassador: In our relations with the United States, my major objective is to make the American people, the American audiences, understand the new Turkey, the emerging power in Turkey. And make them understand that this is an asset to them, not a liability. It’s been seen somewhat as a sort of liability. Turkey is an asset for the West and for the United States in particular.
This is important because what I see from my post is that they have some perception gaps in their minds. I need to explain to them what Turkey is today. I try to make them understand that this is a country of enormous vibrancy.
WI: I think one of the things we as Americans are trying to understand is the possibility of Turkey changing from a secular society. You are 98 percent Muslim. Are you moving away from Ataturk?
Ambassador: That perception cannot be farther from the truth. It seems to me it is inconceivable for Turks. How can you imagine us deviating from the founding pillars of our society? Turkey is the only democratic country out of 57 with Muslim majorities. We have always had a conservative society in general, like the US. We are not so different from the US. in terms of having a conservative base. But as a democracy, we have many colors, and different levels and expressions of conservatism. We have freedoms of speech, dress, way of life. I would advise Americans to go and see Istanbul. The life and standards there are no different than in the US. There are some parts that are better than the US. Of course there is an economic disparity. That’s the way it is in a democratic society, a free market economy. There has never been radicalism, the kind of extremism. It is a society with some conservative values. That has always been, and it hasn’t changed.
WI: Are you promoting tourism from the US to Turkey?
Ambassador: Very much so, but there are some difficulties because of the recent economic downturn. But it is not so bad and is picking up again. We have some incentive programs. Turkish Airlines has done a great job. They will soon have direct flights from and to Washington, Miami and Los Angeles, with brand new 777’s they will receive soon from Boeing. They are flying now to New York and Chicago.
Turkey is among the top 10 travel destinations in the world. It is full of history. But to motivate Americans to travel to Turkey is not easy. You have 310 million people here in the U.S. and it is a vast and great country and you have everything. It takes five hours to travel across it and you have the diversity of the mountains, the valleys. We need to educate Americans more about Turkey and create more incentives, attractions. That’s what we are trying to do.
I would tell Americans that in many places in Turkey they will see a church, a chapel, a mosque and a synagogue. We once had a large Jewish presence in Turkey. Now most of them — 125,000 Turkish Jews — have emigrated to Israel. There are 35,000 left in Turkey. There once were 650 synagogues. If Americans knew this, and knew that they would see things like the mosaics that have been on display in art museums in Baltimore and Boston, and that there are thousands of them in our country, they would rush to see them. And if they knew that we have several thousand years of history.
So that is our richness. We are rich in history, in people and their backgrounds, in food. We want to share our riches, the colors of Turkey, with all our friends.
WI: There is a demonstration right now outside the Embassy over the Cyprus situation. What is the latest on the solution to that issue between the Turkish and Greek Cypriots?
Ambassador: The solution was missed a few years ago when United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan drafted a peace effort. It was negotiated between Turkey, Greece, and the Turkish and Greek Cypriots, under his auspices and with observers from the European Union. So it reflected a very powerful consensus. That was in 2004. The Secretary General said it should be put before the people of both sides for their approval by referendum. The Turkish Cypriots said overwhelmingly ‘yes’ for the reunification of the island and the Greek Cypriots said overwhelmingly ‘no’ for some reason we have never understood.
We expected that they would not be rewarded by the EU. But the EU made a big mistake in accepting them and excluding the northern Cypriots, the Turkish, although they said yes to a peace plan. If you reward the party that has rejected the peace plan and penalize the party that accepted it, this complication will never come to an end. That’s what we are living through, because the Greek Cypriots see their membership in the EU as leverage to block everything. In a way, they stop the process of peace. Whenever something is done, they refuse it. But we still encourage the Turkish Cypriots to sit at any negotiating table, and the negotiations still are ongoing.
This problem can not be solved by other countries or institutions. It can be solved only by the people of Cyprus, the Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. Meanwhile, the Green line is there, so they can go across, although it is discouraged by the Greek Cypriots. But the gates are open.
WI: Has the Turkish government improved the economy on the other (Turkish Cypriot) side?
Ambassador: They are under isolation and the isolation has not been lifted. They were promised that it would be lifted if they said ‘yes’ to the Annan peace plan. We give every support to the parties to find solutions to their differences at the negotiating table. We encourage the Turkish Cypriots and urge our friends, the Greeks, to do the same with the Greek Cypriots so they can agree on a solution.
WI: And the European Union’s decision?
Ambassador: They made a mistake in accepting one side although it had said ‘no’ to a peace plan. I don’t want to go into details why they did it, but there are reasons.
WI: Is there anything else you would like to say before we end this interview?
Ambassador: I am thankful that you would make our vision known to Americans. It is very important. We want this relationship to be expanded and diversified. We want the alliance to be more powerful. That is the ultimate objective in our minds. We are committed to this relationship. Our objective is to uphold the values that we cherish.
And of course, we want more Americans to come to Turkey. It is easy for me to tell you these things, but for Americans to understand it, they need to come and see Turkey — the transforming and booming Turkish economy, Turkey’s soft power. They have to see it with their own eyes. Then they would understand.
We are located strategically in a crucial part of the world. So we are doing everything we can to generate and resonate peace and stability. That is all we want to do.