Serhiy Korsunskyi: “Turkey Is an Extremely Complex Society That Should Be Understood and Respected. Otherwise, Mutual Understanding Cannot Be Achieved”

Interview with Director of the Hennadii Udovenko Diplomatic Academy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine


— At one time you worked as a Ukrainian Ambassador to Turkey. In your opinion, are there achievements in the Ukrainian-Turkish bilateral relations that suit both sides? And do these relations meet the principles of strategic partnership?

— Turkey and Ukraine established strategic partnership relations in January 2012, that is, during Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s visit to Kyiv, when the corresponding declaration was signed. Since then, many interesting and useful events have taken place, trade has grown, many major projects in military and technical cooperation have been launched and so on. Then, as you know, a coup was attempted in Turkey, Russia launched the war against Ukraine. By the way, Turkey and Russia have also established strategic partnership relations in the same way — by signing a memorandum. Of course, this could not but affect the context of our relationships, as there were additional factors that did not depend on us.

— Please, comment on peculiarities of Turkey’s today’s politics. After all, now it is hard to overestimate the role of President R. Erdogan, as well as the role of his Justice and Development Party. Since he became President in 2002, the country’s GDP had grown from 238 billion US dollars to 1 trillion US dollars in 2014. And today, the goal is to increase GDP to 2 trillion US dollars by 2023. Do you think such plans are realistic?

— This question is quite correct, because in Turkey during R. Erdogan’s being in power, GDP has grown more than three fold. And within 15 years! The result is very good, especially since the country is actively developing, although there are some problems in the Turkish economy. They are traditional — significant inflation, high unemployment and current trading account balance. In other words, they buy more than they sell, which is why there is always a deficit. Therefore, the Turks are trying to attract investments into their economy to offset it. Unemployment rate, usual for them, — to 9 %, because Turkey is a Muslim country, families are large, there are many young people who cannot always be provided with jobs. This is a demographic problem that the Turks have learned to cope with. By the way, this Turkish experience is interesting, about which we, the staff of our Embassy, at one time constantly reported to our leadership in Kyiv. For example, the Turks let small business breathe freely, not burdening them with new regulations, taxes, etc. According to Muslim tradition, a man should take care of his family, provide for it financially, and in order to do so, he must have a job. If you get to any Turkish city, you will see that all the first floors of the houses are occupied by all sorts of small private businesses — shops, pharmacies, hairdressers… That’s how the Turks earn a living. This is very good for the country itself. And in this we see manifestations of their mentality…

Besides, there are highly professional economists in Turkey who created their national economic system in the early 2000s, which actively developed the country for 10–12 years until the coup d’état.

— The Turkish armed forces played a significant role in the development of the state, several times in the 20th century even resorting to military coups, we have witnessed an attempted coup in the 21st century. Moderate Islamist President R. Erdogan, after the events of 2016, somewhat limited the role of the army in the Turkish society. But, as we can see, the maintenance funds for the army are sufficient. What is the logic behind this approach?

— Yes, the Turkish army has been and is funded sufficiently; it is well-supplied with weapons and ammunition. After the outbreak of war in the East of Ukraine, our reformers from the Ministry of Defense studied the defense procurement mechanism in the Turkish armed forces, trying to adopt their experience in logistics. And they were pleasantly impressed with what they saw… In a word, everything is performed according to NATO’s well-known standards.

— Yes, that’s interesting. Then how to explain the discontent of the Turkish military, who opposed their state leadership, when all over the world there were talks about coup attempt?

— The army in Turkey has always played a specific role. Ataturk repeatedly said that the army is the guarantor of the secular state. I recall the occasion when, in 2009, as Ukraine’s Ambassador, I for the first time attended a festive reception at the Presidential Palace in honor of Turkey’s Independence Day. Turkey’s President and his wife are religious people, so the wife of the then-President A. Gul always appeared in a headscarf at all official receptions, which you can see in photos of such events (shows a photo). So, high-ranking military officials — from the General Staff, its Chief with his Deputies — would never come to the presidential palace on such events, though they did get official invitations. You may ask: why? Because, in their opinion, the wife of the President of Turkey violated the law by covering her head with a headscarf in the state institution… By the way, nobody punished those generals for ignoring the official reception. Nobody! Even the President who appointed those generals …

All this began to change in 2013, when two events occurred — criminal cases were opened against the military accused of an attempted coup d’état. Many arrested servicemen were deprived of their military rank, some were even sentenced, including the former Chief of the General Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces…

Two years later, before the coup (2016 — Ed.), R. Erdogan suddenly admits, “We were wrong!” And all those prisoners are released from prisons. But it was this imprisonment that struck the army for the first time, and it lost its so-called iconic status.

It was R. Erdogan’s first such deed with the arrest of the military. Deed number two — after the coup, when tens of thousands of the military were imprisoned. In my opinion, President R. Erdogan did manage to do the impossible: to break the system that had existed for more than half a century, since the time of Ataturk…

— But it is the initiators who must be responsible for the coup, right?

— If we remember the Turkish events of 2016, the military coup took place, so to speak, halfway, so without knowing all the circumstances there, we should not draw any conclusions… It can be said that the army has finally lost the image of the guarantor of the Constitution.

— Moreover, it has already lost its ability to influence the general situation in the country, in particular to carry out a coup?

— That is exactly the case, even today, the Turkish society approves this attitude to the army, which has also been deprived of various privileges, including special pensions for military reservists. In a word, the society has taken the military under civilian control…

— Does the President consider the wishes of the Turkish population?

— Yes he does, it is populism, which is perceived positively by citizens. Voters who voted in favor of R. Erdogan live mainly in eastern Turkey. The recent local elections, when the opposition won in Istanbul, showed that R. Erdogan was not welcomed in that city. For businessmen, big businesses require, so to speak, secularity, secular life. They are used to it, to restaurants, concerts, fashionable clothes… In Istanbul, you can see women in fairly light clothing on bare shoulders, and next to them — in long black abayas and dark shawls. These are the consequences, among other things, of the current war in Syria, from which many Arabs run to Turkey. After all, we see this gap in the self-awareness of the Turkish population, when some of it is pro-Western, oriented towards European traditions, while in the Sharia’s East, the population is getting more aggressive.

— Will it grow into some kind of physical confrontation?

— It is quite possible, if not prevented in time. Although, truth be told, so far I can’t see a proper reaction to this.

— Turkey’s geopolitical influence is hard to overestimate, since on it depend the global socio-political and economic processes in the territory from the Altai to the Balkans, from the Persian Gulf to Ukraine. Until recently, its foreign policy was based on such principles as neo-Ottomanism, neo-Pan-Turkism, Turkish Eurasianism, which may underlie foreign policy activity. Isn’t it possible to say so?

— Turkey is definitely a regional leader. It is also one of the two Eurasian countries (the other is Russia). It does remember its Ottoman history and projects neo-Ottomanism into the present… And their closest friends today are Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, that is, countries of the Turkic world united in the union of Turkic states. Besides, a considerable amount of money is invested in the study and development of the Turkish language, in particular, a special institute has been established for this purpose. Turkish is being promoted in other countries, including through annual Turkish language competitions all over the world. By the way, Turkish is studied at seven departments of our Ukrainian universities…

— What about the general political principle of “zero problems with the neighbors”, in particular in light of Turkey’s relations with Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia?

— This was Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s concept, called “zero problems with neighbors”. Frankly, it completely failed. Davutoglu, when he was still Minister of Foreign Affairs (and he was also a Professor and I often had contact with him), had such a positive attitude. This is where the idea of a Middle Eastern European Union came from when the Turks signed a free trade and visa-free agreements with Syria, Jordan and Egypt. In that way Turkey tried to create around it a positive belt of countries whose relations were to be like those in the European Union. But the war in Syria began, and all the plans went awry… Turkey has always had special relations with Israel… Turkey’s relations with Greece cannot be called decent. Both, because of Cyprus and because of the islands that were ceded to Greece after the First World War, although they should have been under the control of the Turks, since they are located near Turkey. Relations with Iraq are also complex, with the Kurds in the mountains, who are being considered terrorists. The Turks quarreled with Egypt because R. Erdogan supported the Muslim Brothers, whom al-Sisi (Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi — Ed.) arrested there. Although in my time their relationship was excellent and the Egyptian Ambassador was a respected person. The Turks also have parted brass rags in relations with Saudi Arabia, because they have strategic relations with Qatar, which has hit a rough patch with Saudi Arabia…

— The relations with Europe are not very clear, although there are plenty of Turkish citizens by origin. And Turkey’s path to the European Union has already become proverbial…

— In relations with Europe, the Turks had problems during the elections, when France, Germany and the Netherlands banned Turkish ministers from campaigning in their territories. The Turks are still offended, believing that such demands were undemocratic, that it was done in R. Erdogan’s despite.

As for the European Union. Yes, you are right about Turkey’s application for EU membership, which was made back in 1952 and then in 1987. In 2005, formal negotiations began on this topic. But now they are stopped…

Also, a customs union is established between Turkey and the EU, which is beneficial only to Europe, since its goods are delivered to Turkey duty free, but the Turks have to pay such a duty for their goods. At their request to regulate the relations, Europe refused… Today, Europe proposes to determine some other conditions for cooperation with Turkey. To which the latter strongly disagrees.

— But this to some extent unties Turkey’s hands in its policy, doesn’t it?

— Yes, it does. Although bilateral relations are beneficial to both, Europe and Turkey, they are first of all economic.

— In 2000, 52 % of Turkish citizens had a favorable view of the US foreign policy, and in 2002, the sympathizers made 30 %. As of 2011, only 9 % of the Turkish population liked US policy. Why has anti-Americanism started to rise in Turkey?

— The Turks are now acting on a principle beneficial to them. And President R. Erdogan is now confidently proclaiming what he sees right. For example, the Turks openly support the Crimean Tatars, but at the same time the Turkish business operates on the Crimean Peninsula… Or they say that they respect Ukraine and are ready to cooperate with it, including in the military-technical sphere, but at the same time they buy the latest military equipment from Russia.

— Do you think that we are now witnessing the emergence of new principles of international cooperation, an example of which is demonstrated by Turkey?

— Of course, this is exactly what is happening! I write about it a lot in my works today, in particular, my article has been published in Washington….

— That is, you mean the parties do not seek any compromise in negotiations, but just persistently defend their positions?

— Exactly… That is why I insist that my colleagues thoroughly study their countries of residence, not, so to speak, jumping on the surface, not trying to draw premature conclusions and not limiting themselves to statements of politicians. As a matter of fact, Turkey is an extremely complex society, and it took me almost four years to study it. It is the latest coup attempt in Turkey that has highlighted all its peculiarities, which should be understood for our successful cooperation and must be respected. Otherwise, mutual understanding cannot be achieved.


Interview recorded by Oleh Makhno

Photos by Volodymyr Rayevskyi


Serhiy Korsunskyi — Ukrainian scientist and diplomat, Director of the Hennadii Udovenko Diplomatic Academy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine. He was Chargé d’Affaires, a.i. of Ukraine to the USA in 2005, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Ukraine to the Republic of Turkey in 2008–2016


The full interview you can read in the “BINTEL” Geopolitical Analytics Journal, Issue 3, 2019

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