H.E. Süleyman Gökçe, Ambassador of Turkey to Bulgaria
“Turkish-Bulgarian Relations in the 21st Century” – 20.11.2014
Having spent a quarter of a century in the Turkish diplomatic service, including postings in Afghanistan, Italy, Pakistan, the UK and the United States, career diplomat Süleyman Gökçe arrived in Bulgaria at the end of 2013.
Born in 1973, he is a graduate of International Relations at the University of Ankara and holds a certificate from Oxford University. In the period 2011-2013 he was Director of the "Administrative and Financial Affairs" of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Turkish Ambassador in Bulgaria H.E. Süleyman Gökçe presented his view of future relations between Turkey and Bulgaria in terms of common political and economic interest and shared cultural heritage. The ambassador talked about the Turkish foreign policy of integration in the region, the energy sector and the Syrian refugees.
Foreign Policy and Regional Integration
In the 21st century, Turkish foreign policy is based on: balance between freedoms and security; integration of Turkey within the neighborhood; and effective bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. Turkey is actively seeking EU integration, while keeping close relations with the East. Bulgaria is an important component, providing geographical connection to Europe. Turkey sees the region in terms of improving security, ownership and inclusiveness. Countries in the neighborhood should join efforts in finding solutions to their problems. These answers, he insisted, should not be imposed by outsiders. Turkey seeks full integration of the region, including all Balkans states within the European and Euro-Atlantic structures. Important aspect of these relations is the economic interdependence, which brings countries closer. A significant element in Turkish foreign policy is preserving the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious social fabric of the Balkans.
The Ambassador finds it surprising that the media talks about “waves of refugees” on the Bulgarian border. “If you want to have an ideas of what a wave looks like,” he said, “please take a look at the situation in Turkey.” The country has received approximately 1.6 million Syrian civilians, which is 200 times more than the number of asylum seekers in Bulgaria. In its efforts to accommodate and prevent them from crossing into Bulgaria, the government has spent approximately $4.5billion. Only $250 million of that sum is from international aid, while the amount of aid that came from the EU is zero, he said.
Still, Turkey understands the concerns of the Bulgarian authorities, ensuring that there is full cooperation between the two states on border security. Answering a question from the audience, the ambassador dismissed the need for a barbed wire fence on the Bulgarian-Turkish border. In his view, the debate on the construction of such a fence was exacerbated by the far right formations that recently entered the Bulgarian government. This tendency is troublesome, he explained, especially on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Cultural and Political relations
Turkey seeks preservation of common cultural heritage sights, the ambassador said, citing as an example the restoration of St. Stefan Church in Istanbul. The church is the last of its kind, and is recognized by the Turkish authorities as “an inseparable part of the Bulgarian national, religious and archeological identity.” The project will cost $8million, paid for with taxpayers’ money. Another example is the restitution of properties to the Bulgarian communities in Edirne and Istanbul. The return of 10 properties was completed in 2008, as part of a bilateral agreement between Bulgaria and Turkey. The status of the properties claimed by the Grand Mufti's Office in Bulgaria, however, is still pending.
Economy and Bilateral Trade
The current bilateral trade volume is approximately $5 billion, compared to $12 million in 2012. This rise, the ambassador explained, is insufficient. The lack of reliable infrastructure in Bulgaria, among other factors, explains the low level of investment and trade between the two countries. An example for this is Trakya Glass, the largest foreign investment in Bulgaria of approximately 1 billion euro, which provides 1% of Bulgaria’s GDP. “Still,” Mr. Gökçe explained, “the factory does not have a decent road.”
Many Turkish investors have preferred to take their businesses to Romania and elsewhere. Another probable cause, apart from the inefficient infrastructure in Bulgaria, the ambassador cited the level of tolerance in the country. After the attacked on the biggest mosque in Plovdiv last year, he received numerous calls from potential investors, disturbed by the event.
Still, there is a huge potential for trade between the two states. There are 1,500 Turkish companies in Bulgaria, and Turkish investments in the country are close to $2 billion. Turkey is a $1 trillion economy and its market is 100% open. Istanbul, one of the largest financial centers in the world, is right next-door. Moreover, Turkey is the second country in the world after China in heavy investments in infrastructure, science, technology and innovations.
Bulgaria could greatly benefit from these developments, especially in view of the construction of the new airport near Istanbul. The second biggest airport in the world will be connected to the Bulgarian border with highways and high-speed trains. “Instead of talking about barbed wire fences,” he insisted, “You should ask why are you not building speed trains and improving your highways.”
The Energy Sector
The energy sector is one of Turkey’s priorities in the Turkish-Bulgarian relations. The ambassador spoke of the construction of the longest pipeline in the world, which will carry natural gas from the Caspian Basin through Turkey to Greece and Bulgaria. Turkey is also putting strong emphasis on the use and development of renewable energy. The increasing demand in Turkey, however, could not be met by renewable sources alone. Thus, Turkey plans to build three nuclear power plants that will serve the growing economy.
In view of the economic boom in Turkey, a representative from Bulgarian National Radio asked about the motivation behind Turkey’s interests in joining the EU. His Excellency explained, “EU membership is not a project to profit from.” This decision is based on shared values and history: “Turkey is part of the European values and democracy,” he said, explaining that this choice had been made long ago. Turkey is diligently following its accession efforts, but unlike other countries is not receiving any per-accession aid.
On a question from a German citizen about Turkey’s efforts in keeping Syrian citizens in Syria, Mr. Gokce explained that his country has been trying desperately to convince the international community to take action to protect Syrian people. Turkey has been the only state to make concrete proposals for the establishment of safe havens within Syria, advocating the protection of civilians from air bombardment and criticising the use of chemical weapons. In addition, Turkey had been proposing a program for training a peaceful, or at least moderate, Syrian opposition, capable of defending itself against the authorities committed by the government in Damascus. The ambassador reprimanded the permanent members, who keep on vetoing decisions in UN Security Council, hindering a resolution on Syria.
Answering a question on Turkey’s attitude towards EU sanctions against Russia, Mr. Gökçe explained that Turkey is not a EU member, and as such is not bound to comply with the sanctions, especially when Turkish national interests are at stake. Yet, Turkey is taking these sanctions into consideration, and is in close consultations with the EU and the US. In his view, economic sanctions are not going to hit Russia, suggesting better strategies, such as oil prices.
Asked about his opinion on the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) in Bulgaria, Mr. Gökçe explained that he avoids commenting on Bulgaria’s national politics. Still, discussing the question, “Is DPS an Turkish ethnic party?” he clarified that in his view the party cannot be called ethnic, since half of its members are Bulgarian. In contrast, the Kurdish party in Turkey is, without a doubt, 100% Kurdish. Nobody asks them, “are you a Kurdish Party?” Moreover, during the last government, DPS had three ministers in office, and two of them were Bulgarian. DPS is not a regional or ethic party, but a nationwide Bulgarian political movement. He agreed that the party had contributed to Turkish-Bulgarian relations, but no more than any other party in the country. Ethnic and religious minorities are the link between the two countries. They have underwritten cultural influences on both sides, helping us to better understand each other. “We have been living together for hundreds of years,” he concluded, “and this is only natural.”