Bagis: Greece and Turkey Must Follow the Road of Dialogue and Democracy

Mr. Egemen Bagis. (Eurokinissi/Doukas Antonis).

“Dialogue” is the essence of “democracy” and both of these words are Greek contributions to the human civilization. Therefore I believe that dialogue and democracy should be the road to follow especially between us as neighbors. By doing so we can deepen and foster trust between us. Trust is the key to open the door of our future relations, Egemen Bagis, close associate of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and former minister for EU Affairs, said in an interview with the Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA).

“President Erdogan’s visit to Athens also had the intention to establish a new era in the relationship between Turkey and Greece, by overcoming outdated rivalries,” he added.

Asked on the release of the two Greek army officers, he said: “People of Turkey, from each and every ordinary citizen on the street to President Erdogan himself, sent a very clear message of friendship to the people of Greece. It was a decision based on generosity, humanity and political judgment: a clear signal on how Turks see the future relationship of the two countries. Diplomatic efforts absolutely contributed to and facilitated the process. I know that the relevant authorities from both sides were in close contact throughout this time and Greek officials and family members were able to visit the officers in Edirne. However these efforts are mostly of administrative origin and do not have binding effects on the final decision of the judiciary.”

He also referred to the role of EU Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos: “I have to admit the role of European Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos from day one till the last moment was important, given his long-standing trustful and friendly relationship with President Erdogan. He has passed continuous messages to the President and all involved Ministers.”

However, he criticised Greece’s stance on the issue of the eight Turkish military personnel. “We are not judging the independence of the Greek judiciary. However, no crime should go without punishment. This is a universal principle of law. Those criminals, after participating in a bloody coup attempt on 15 July 2016 that resulted in the martyrdom of almost 250 people, escaped Turkey with a hijacked military helicopter. Turkey has provided the Greek judicial authorities with pages of documents, together with other material, proving their involvement in the coup attempt. However, by granting asylum to these criminals, the Greek justice let these criminals go without punishment, after all those horrible things they did on that night in Turkey.

These 8 traitors are plotters of the coup attempt which targeted democracy more than anything else. As the birth place of democracy and as a victim of military interventions in the past, Greece should be the most sensitive country towards these enemies of democracy, stability, peace and public order.”

He stressed that “ultra-nationalists and extremists in all countries usually damage their countries’ national interests by creating an atmosphere of fear and mistrust. Recent European history is a clear reminder of this.”

Asked why there are so many and daily violations of Greek airspace by Turkish aircraft, he replied: “This issue is a part of the Aegean disputes. Because of our differing positions, we define things differently. What you define as an airspace violation constitutes merely a flight in the international airspace. Turkey here does not act with an intention to provoke Greece, but with a view to protect its legitimate rights and interests based on international law. As two NATO allies we have responsibilities to protect and guard each other. Therefore we should simultaneously change our focus from defense issues and find ways of mutually beneficial new income generation methods via joint projects in tourism, health, energy, logistics, etc.”

“We always say the Aegean Sea should be a sea of friendship and cooperation between Turkey and Greece,” he underlined.

On the casus belli from Ankara, he said: “We have to look ahead to the future. We therefore need a solution on this too. One of my proposals would be to take a brave decision and establish a joint parliamentary Committee of the Turkish and Greek Parliament, to work on the issue and come up with constructive proposals to both governments and parliaments. Such a committee doesn’t exist today, but would be the most appropriate and effective way to solve this problem. Our President stressed this many times. We are resolved to explore every avenue to attain a comprehensive and lasting solution to the Aegean disputes as a whole.”

Regarding the Lausanne Treaty, he noted that that “this is another part of the Aegean disputes. We have expressed our stance many times. Turkey does not have any claim over the islands, islets or geographical features which were unambiguously ceded to Greece by internationally valid instruments. However, there are still many islets and geographical formations in the Aegean whose sovereignty were not indisputably given to Greece by treaties. And this issue is one of the blocks before reaching a settlement as regards the delineation of maritime borders. That’s why we defend a holistic approach when it comes to resolving the Aegean disputes.”

As for Turkey’s relation with Washington, he said: “Ankara is not the only capital that is having difficulty in communicating with Washington these days.”

“President Trump’s administration seems to have disputes with many countries including Russia, China, EU member states like Germany, France UK, some Middle Eastern countries and even their neighbors such as Mexico and Canada. At at a time when the “butterfly effect” is more relevant than ever, no country can pretend to be an isolated island. What happens economically in one part of the world which will have its affects on others.”

“Just like when Greece was having economic difficulties, we tried our best to help our neighbors achieve stability not only because we care about them but also we knew that it would have its implications on our economy, it is time for the rest of the world to see that the US actions against Turkey can be damaging for them as well.”

Asked if Turkey’s accession to the EU is still a high priority for the country, he replied:

“More than membership to the European Union we prioritize increasing the living standards of our citizens to the standards enjoyed by the citizens of EU member countries.

“We have achieved many unimaginable reforms in order to increase our standards and we will continue to do the same. Turkey’s relations with European Union resemble the relations between a dietitian and his client. When it dietitian tells us to exercise regularly and eat healthier we become more fit and we get rid of excess weight. When the dietitian himself is overweight or has a few clogged arteries that doesn’t make his prescription bad.

“Turkey where the trauma of the coup attempt takes time to disappear deserves much better treatment and understanding from EU. Barring Turkey from accession to the European Union, or preventing visa free travel to her citizens or blocking arms sales to Turkey, signals undue focus on the current situation with no effort to look beyond recent measures Turkey has had to take.

“By bringing the military under direct civilian control as expected by EU norms, despite difficulties in the rule of law presented by Turkey’s domestic security threats, President Erdogan has perhaps debilitated the single greatest threat to the consistency of Turkish governance and democracy for the long term. Not only does the new constitutional arrangement cripple Turkey’s gravest domestic destabilizing force, but the parliamentary deadlock that previously incentivized military takeovers is mitigated as the executive is now foremost in policymaking.

“It is time for both Turkey and Europe to take pragmatic steps for rapprochement and to understand the sensitives of each other because Europe needs Turkey at least as much as Turkey needs EU.”

The full interview follows:

Thank you very much for speaking to the Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA), especially during a time full of important developments in our two countries and in Greek-Turkish relations.

Q: I would like to begin this interview with the issue of the release of the two Greek army officers, a development that was greeted with great satisfaction in Greece. President of the Republic Prokopios Pavlopoulos even used the phrase “a new start” for Greek-Turkish relations. Was this act simply a message of friendship?

A: Let me first state that I am talking to you in my personal capacity as an experienced former statesman and a global thinker and not on behalf of my government.

As I said in one of my recent interviews, when these two officers crossed the Turkish border illegally and were detained by Turkish security forces, I was in Greece participating at the Delphi Economic Forum. There, I expressed to my Greek friends and also to the Greek media that they should trust the Turkish justice. I also stressed that we should not allow such incidents and third parties profitting from such incidents to damage our bilateral relations. I still have the same opinion. At the end, the independent court of Turkey gave its decision about the case, which made all involved happy. If there is a message here, I think it is first a message of trust and friendship.

I have to admit the role of European Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos from day one till the last moment was important, given his long-standing trustful and friendly relationship with President Erdogan. He has passed continuous messages to the President and all involved Ministers.

I was actually chatting with him in Delphi when the news broke about the 2 soldiers. His reaction was immediate. He is a true statesman with an important weight in the international political scene, and his intervention mattered just like the constructive interventions of other Greek politicians.

However, Turkish Justice, like the Greek-one, are independent and apply the law. This is why the final decisive and determining decision of the court was supported by the majority of the citizens of Turkey.

People of Turkey, from each and every ordinary citizen on the street to President Erdogan himself, sent a very clear message of friendship to the people of Greece. It was a decision based on generosity, humanity and political judgment: a clear signal on how Turks see the future relationship of the two countries.

President Erdogan’s visit to Athens also had the intention to establish a new era in the relationship between Turkey and Greece, by overcoming outdated rivalries. I have to mention that the attitude of Greek judiciary regarding the 8 Gulenist terrorists who have been granted a safe haven in Greece is poisonous and damaging the motivations of optimists on both sides.

For me there is only one way forward. Trustful relations, cooperation, opening channels of friendship and mutual understanding between our two nations.

Let me also share my strong conviction that the bileteral relations could improve much faster if unfortunate and inappropriate statements could be avoided. Ultra-nationalists and extremists in all countries usually damage their countries’ national interests by creating an atmosphere of fear and mistrust. Recent European history is a clear reminder of this.

Q: Doubtless, the joint diplomatic efforts of Greek and Turkish leaders contributed to the release of the two Greek servicemen, wouldn’t you say?

A: Diplomatic efforts absolutely contributed to and facilitated the process. I know that the relevant authorities from both sides were in close contact throughout this time and Greek officials and family members were able to visit the officers in Edirne. However these efforts are mostly of administrative origin and do not have binding effects on the final decision of the judiciary.

Q: The contribution of the European Union must have been equally important, right?

A: The EU is important for both Turkey and Greece for various reasons. However, the EU is not a dispute solving mechanism. Turkey and Greece should be able to overcome their problems on their own. I must admit EU does not have as much leverage on Turkey as it did in the past because of all disappointments witnessed recently. The respect and effect European Union enjoyed in Turkey has been severely diminished in the recent years because of the unkept promises of EU.

Q: At the Varna summit a few months ago, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker also said that Turkey’s relation with Greece and Cyprus is the most important factor in Turkish-European relations.

A: We value our relations with Greece and this is independent from our EU integration process. As two neighbors, we have a great potential to further our bilateral relations and cooperation. Also, solving the Cypruss issue, which has unfortunately been unfairly used by various circles as a political barrier and excuse against Turkey’s accession to the EU, would benefit first to us, to the people of our region.

Q: In a recent interview, you said that the release of the two Greek officers proved the independent nature of Turkish justice. Isn’t this true also however for the independence of Greek justice, which decided to grant asylum to the eight Turkish former officers?

A: We are not judging the independence of the Greek judiciary. However, no crime should go without punishment. This is a universal principle of law. Those criminals, after participating in a bloody coup attempt on 15 July 2016 that resulted in the martyrdom of almost 250 people, escaped Turkey with a hijacked military helicopter. Turkey has provided the Greek judicial authorities with pages of documents, together with other material, proving their involvement in the coup attempt. However, by granting asylum to these criminals, the Greek justice let these criminals go without punishment, after all those horrible things they did on that night in Turkey.

These 8 traitors are plotters of the coup attempt which targeted democracy more than anything else. As the birth place of democracy and as a victim of military interventions in the past, Greece should be the most sensitive country towards these enemies of democracy, stability, peace and public order.

Moreover, this decision encouraged other FETO members to seek shelter in Greece. This is the core of our criticism. On the other hand, we always express how much we appreciated the messages of support by the Greek President, Government and all our Greek friends to Turkey and its democratically elected Government, immediately after the heinous coup attempt.

At times, I even wonder if there a deep internal or external forces which pressure the Greek judiciary in order to sabotage Turkish-Greek relations because some of their decisions simply do not make any sense to me.

Q: You have repeatedly said that Ankara does not want a dispute or tension with Athens, but prefers peace and calmness. You also said recently that “some people are selling arms to both countries, using the fear there is between the two neighbors.” However, why are there so many and daily violations of Greek airspace by Turkish aircraft?

A: This issue is a part of the Aegean disputes. Because of our differing positions, we define things differently. What you define as an airspace violation constitutes merely a flight in the international airspace. Turkey here does not act with an intention to provoke Greece, but with a view to protect its legitimate rights and interests based on international law. As two NATO allies we have responsibilities to protect and guard each other. Therefore we should simultaneously change our focus from defense issues and find ways of mutually beneficial new income generation methods via joint projects in tourism, health, energy, logistics, etc.

Q:Has the time come to revoke the so-called casus belli that Ankara imposed in 1996 during the Imia crisis?

A: First of all, we should set the records straight. The decision you referred as ‘casus belli” was taken by the Turkish Parliament as a reaction to the Greek Parliament’s unilateral decision about the extension of territorial waters from 6NM to 12NM in 1995.

Every action creates a reaction. In other words, Turkey was forced to take this decision to protect its legitimate interests as a littoral state in the Aegean. No country should take unilateral actions that will have binding effects on future generations. We always say the Aegean Sea should be a sea of friendship and cooperation between Turkey and Greece.

We have to look ahead to the future. We therefore need a solution on this too. One of my proposals would be to take a brave decision and establish a joint parliamentary Committee of the Turkish and Greek Parliament, to work on the issue and come up with constructive proposals to both governments and parliaments. Such a committee doesn’t exist today, but would be the most appropriate and effective way to solve this problem.

Our President stressed this many times. We are resolved to explore every avenue to attain a comprehensive and lasting solution to the Aegean disputes as a whole.

“Dialogue” is the essence of “democracy” and both of these words are Greek contributions to the human civilization. Therefore I believe that dialogue and democracy should be the road to follow especially between us as neighbors. By doing so we can deepen and foster trust between us.Trust is the key to open the door of our future relations.

Q: The Lausanne Treaty defined finally and irrevocably the borders between the two countries. Why are some people in Turkey still speaking about “gray zones”?

A: This is another part of the Aegean disputes. We have expressed our stance many times . Turkey does not have any claim over the islands, islets or geographical features which were unambiguosly ceded to Greece by internationally valid instruments. However, there are still many islets and geographical formations in the Aegean whose sovereignty were not indisputably given to Greece by treaties. And this issue is one of the blocks before reaching a settlement as regards the delineation of maritime borders. That’s why we defend a holistic approach when it comes to resolving the Aegean disputes.

Q: Recently there is a dispute in the eastern Mediterranean about the EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zones). Do you expect tension to rise, or do you expect a solution?

A: If all parties act rationally and see the natural resources in this area as an incentive to solve the problems, cooperate and develop friendly relations, I don’t see any reason for any tension rise. However, if one persists acting unilaterally and disregards others’ legitimate rights and interests, naturally, those others are forced to defend their own interests. So, it is all about intentions and perceptions.

I wish we had the neighborhood of Switzerland for example, the same neighbors. But our neighbors are quite difficult and there are conflicts in almost all of our neighbors. Believe it or not Turks do not consider Greece as a threat but an opportunity. You would understand what I mean by looking at our map and compare Greece with our other neighbors. We should try to understand the sensitivities of each other.

Q: Turkey has been facing important economic issues lately. Is the cause to be found in Ankara’s dispute with Washington?

A: Ankara is not the only capital that is having difficulty in communicating with Washington these days.

President Trump’s administration seems to have disputes with many countries including Russia, China, EU member states like Germany, France UK, some Middle Eastern countries and even their neighbors such as Mexico and Canada. At at a time when the “butterfly effect” is more relevant than ever, no country can pretend to be an isolated island. What happens economically in one part of the world which will have its affects on others.

Just like when Greece was having economic difficulties, we tried our best to help our neighbors achieve stability not only because we care about them but also we knew that it would have its implications on our economy, it is time for the rest of the world to see that the US actions against Turkey can be damaging for them as well.

Q: We see Turkish President Erdogan now turning to the EU for support. Next month, specifically, he is visiting Germany. What does Turkey hope to achieve, and what is the current state of EU-Turkish relations?

A: Germany is indeed a strategic partner for Turkey. Germany is our number one trading partner, they send us millions of tourists every year and most importantly there are approximately 4 million Turks who live in Germany. Therefore despite occasional ups and downs in the relationship Turkey and Germany do not have the luxury to ignore each other. Our economies are very much linked. So it’s very natural for President Erdogan to visit. As a matter of fact, Chancellor Merkel had invited him prior to his re-election.

Turkey is a member of G20, so we are a globally skilled economy, we are a founding member of most of the European institutions and a candidate for the EU membership for more than 50 years and we have been a member of NATO for the last 66 years. Turkey is a bridge. Turkey is the most eastern part of the West and the most western part of the East. And that’s what we do best. We have the second-largest military after the United States within NATO, but our trade with the Russian Federation is twice our trade with our ally, the United States.

Turkey is situated in such a situation that we are a European country, an Asian country, a Middle Eastern country, a Caspian country, a Balkan country and Mediterranean country and a country of the Black Sea and the Caspian regions at the same time. So we serve as a bridge and like all bridges we need to be strong.

Q: Is Turkey’s accession to the EU still a high priority for the country?

A:More than membership to the European Union we prioritize increasing the living standards of our citizens to the standards enjoyed by the citizens of EU member countries.

We have achieved many unimaginable reforms in order to increase our standards and we will continue to do the same. Turkey’s relations with European Union resemble the relations between a dietitian and his client. When it dietitian tells us to exercise regularly and eat healthier we become more fit and we get rid of excess weight. When the dietitian himself is overweight or has a few clogged arteries that doesn’t make his prescription bad.

Turkey where the trauma of the coup attempt takes time to disappear deserves much better treatment and understanding from EU. Barring Turkey from accession to the European Union, or preventing visa free travel to her citizens or blocking arms sales to Turkey, signals undue focus on the current situation with no effort to look beyond recent measures Turkey has had to take.

By bringing the military under direct civilian control as expected by EU norms, despite difficulties in the rule of law presented by Turkey’s domestic security threats, President Erdogan has perhaps debilitated the single greatest threat to the consistency of Turkish governance and democracy for the long term. Not only does the new constitutional arrangement cripple Turkey’s gravest domestic destabilizing force, but the parliamentary deadlock that previously incentivized military takeovers is mitigated as the executive is now foremost in policymaking.

It is time for both Turkey and Europe to take pragmatic steps for rapprochement and to understand the sensitives of each other because Europe needs Turkey at least as much as Turkey needs EU.

Let me complete my words by saying that Like millions of my countrymen, I am a friend of Greece and a very sincere advocate of Greco turkish rapprochement. Our similarities are much greater than our differences. I have no doubt that an average Greek feels, thinks and acts much more like a Turk compared to some other nationals from their partner countries in EU.

We can indeed create together a vey auspicious future of our two nations in all fields. Our citizens have realized it well before than most of our politicians.