İsmet Erikan: “I left the room with such a feeling as if I had been familiar with Mr Minnikhanov and Mr Shaimiyev for years”

The consul general of Turkey to Kazan gave an interview to Realnoe Vremya

İsmet Erikan: “I left the room with such a feeling as if I had been familiar with Mr Minnikhanov and Mr Shaimiyev for years” Photo: Maksim Platonov

İsmet Erikan has recently become the consul general of the Republic of Turkey in Kazan. This person is a complete stranger to residents of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and other Volga regions. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya’s correspondent, the diplomat talked about the first outcomes of talks with Rustam Minnikhanov and Mintimer Shaimyev and shared his expectations of an upcoming meeting with Rady Khabirov. In addition, Erikan voiced Turkey’s official position on the new military operation in Syria and expressed his opinion about Tatar language learning.

“As if I had been familiar with Mr Minnikhanov and Mr Shaimiyev for years

Mr Erikan, it’s been 1,5 weeks since your appointment as the consul general. What recommendations did your predecessor Ahmet Sadık Doğan give you?

Of course, before coming to Kazan I had talked with the previous consuls general — Turhan Dilmaç and Ahmet Sadık Doğan. They both said to me: “You are going to a place where you will be certainly warmly received, here you will certainly have good relationships”. And they both were right: I have made myself at home since my first day in Kazan.

Weren’t you scared of the Russian cold?

Freezing cold temperature and other natural phenomena don’t concern me a lot. There is a way to fight them: most importantly, the relationships, they must be warm, then no freezing cold temperature scares. So Russian freezing cold temperature doesn’t scare me, we will be able to take necessary measures.

Do I understand correctly that you’ve already been in Kazan?

It’s my first visit on this post. But I have already been in Kazan many years ago with a delegation of then-President of Turkey Abdullah Gül. I saw that freezing cold temperature you’ve asked about first-hand. This visit was in February. When I got off the plane, I thought my ears were going to fall off because of your freezing cold temperature. But as you see, I still have them (laughing).

You’ve recently met with Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov, then Tatarstan State Adviser, first President Mintimer Shaimiyev. What an agreement did you come to with the top officials of the republic?

Both meetings were courtesy calls. The current and previous presidents received me very warmly, though I had expected nothing less. I left the room with such a feeling as if I had been familiar with Mr Minnikhanov and Mr Shaimiyev for years. First of all, we discussed possibilities of further cooperation and attraction of investments. I expressed my desire to see as many Turkish companies as possible in Tatarstan. I also said that such large worldwide known companies as Tatneft, KAMAZ, Kazan Helicopters could invest on the territory of Turkey.

The current and previous presidents received me very warmly, though I had expected nothing less. I left the room with such a feeling as if I had been familiar with Mr Minnikhanov and Mr Shaimiyev for years. First of all, we discussed possibilities of further cooperation and attraction of investments

A lot of Russian citizens — about six million people — have been to Turkey this year. For us, this number is quite satisfactory. But we would like to see more Russian guests in the country. We also talked about Turkey’s big potential in health tourism. We said that we would work on making health tourism more popular and asked for Mr president’s support. Our investment development agencies will work together.

Moreover, we know that about 30 million Muslims live in Russia. And Muslims need halal products (there are 1,5 billion Muslims around the world). Speaking about halal products, we don’t limit to foodstuffs only, it is already a way of life: apart from food, it is clothes, medication, cosmetics and even tourism. We also agreed with the Tatarstan president to work in this area closer.

Have you managed to meet with other influential people of the republic — speaker of the State Council Farid Mukhametshin, Mufti Kamil Samigullin, heads of the largest companies?

We will also have meetings with them. I will meet them all as soon as arrange our schedules.

Turkish businesses are represented in SEZs and PSEDAs well. Nevertheless, Chinese companies enter Tatarstan more and more. How will Turkish residents live next to the Chinese ones?

The Chinese don’t constitute any inconvenience for us. We know that we are more successful than the Chinese in many sectors. Those who will find the local conditions more comfortable within the liberal economy will enter. Turkish companies already showed their abilities, how they could work. Huge projects were implemented in Tatarstan, big investments were made in Alabuga Special Economic Zone. And we already well known here. This is why competition with companies from China and other countries in the free market doesn’t scare us at all.

“We are ready to support Rady Khabirov’s efforts. We will visit Bashkiria at the earliest opportunity”

Are Turkish businesses represented in other Volga regions that are in your consul district?

Our consular district covers quite a big territory: Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Chuvashia, Mari El, Mordovia, Samara Oblast. Our businesses are primarily represented in this region, but your neighbours, undoubtedly, arouse our genuine interest too. With our businesspeople, we are ready to go to a place with opportunities. I think we have a lot of areas for fruitful cooperation. It would be wrong to think that we deal with commercial and economic relations with Tatarstan only.

Our consular district covers quite a big territory: Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Chuvashia, Mari El, Mordovia, Samara Oblast. Our businesses are primarily represented in this region, but your neighbours, undoubtedly, arouse our genuine interest too

When are you planning to visit Ufa? How can Bashkiria interest you and Turkish investors?

Talking about Bashkortostan, I must note the following. The Republic Day was celebrated in Bashkortostan on 11 October. Taking of advantage, I congratulate all residents of Bashkortostan, all Bashkirs on their national holiday! And I am delivering warm greetings from the Turkish people. We want to develop cooperation with other regions like with Tatarstan. Now the republic has a new leader — Rady Khabirov who knows Turkey very well. This is why I believe that he will also put a lot of effort to improve relationships of Bashkortostan with Turkey he is familiar with first-hand. And we are ready to support all his efforts. I want to visit this region at the earliest opportunity. We will have a chance to discuss (Editor’s Note: with Mr Khabirov) what joint projects we would have in detail.

Direct flights operated by Turkish Airlines connect Istanbul with Ufa, Samara and Kazan. And the three destinations in the region are very important for us. I can’t name specific projects so far, but we have room for improvement.

When are going to visit Bashkiria anyway?

Soon, certainly this year.

The launch of direct flights between the island and Turkey is named one of your achievements during your service in Taiwan. Aren’t you going to increase flights between Russian and Turkish cities?

We had quite a long talk with the director of the office of Turkish Airlines. They wish to increase the number of both flights and destinations in accordance with passengers’ demand. I have already enumerated three cities (Kazan, Ufa, Samara). There are direct flights there at the moment. You know that there are charter flights to Antalya and Dalaman when the flow of tourists is high, in summer. Here it is also important to understand that Turkish Airlines is a private company anyway. In general it already operates in the area that seems to it promising and profitable. If they have some specific wishes, we are ready to support it.

Will citizens of Nizhnekamsk see a regular flight to Istanbul come?

I can’t say so far about specific agreements, neither do I see obstacles to it.

Erdoğan would come to Kazan with pleasure”

Turkey and Russia experienced a crisis in relationships several years ago. Have we managed to go back to the pre-crisis level in commercial and economic cooperation? First of all, precisely Tatarstan concerns me.

A tendency for growth is seen in our bilateral relationships with Tatarstan this year. Last year, commodity turnover totalled $314 million. We already achieved this number during the first eight months this year. But the previous years the numbers used to amount to almost $1 billion. Our goal is to reach at least this level. As you know, now commodity turnover between Russia and Turkey is about $25 billion. There is a goal that President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President of Russia Vladimir Putin set — to raise the bar to $100 billion. For this reason, if we increase commodity turnover between Tatarstan and Turkey, we will make our contribution to the achievement of Turkey and Russia’s goal.

Erdoğan used to visit Kazan quite often, almost every year. Why does he come rarely now? Will we see the president of Turkey arriving again?

At the moment we don’t have information about any scheduled visit. But this doesn’t mean there won’t be any. At the same time, we can’t say when it will be. I am sure that if Mr Erdoğan has a chance to be in Kazan during his visit to Russia, he will come with pleasure.

Kazan used to be a site for Russian-Turkish relationships. Now Erdoğan visits Moscow only…

Due to the improvement of relationships, due to the Syrian crisis, the leaders of both countries quite often meet both in Moscow and Ankara. However, we shouldn’t forget that the prime minister of Turkey (Editor’s Note: Binali Yıldırım) visited Kazan a couple of years ago, and the minister of foreign affairs (Editor’s Note: Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu) did it last year.

I am sure that if Mr Erdoğan has a chance to be in Kazan during his visit to Russia, he will come with pleasure

Before the crisis, hundreds of Tatar and Bashkir students studied in Turkish universities, at the same time a lot of Turkish students did in Kazan and Ufa universities. Can we go back to the previous positions?

Why not go back? We can go back to not only these numbers but also exceed them. Might both the number of Turkish students increases and students go to Turkey to study, I would like it. Turkey has a lot of organisations that support grants given in different spheres. Thousands of students from all over the world already study in Turkey’s universities. Plus, universities directly offer some grants to foreign students. I think that if students themselves keep an eye on these programmes themselves, ask questions, the number will naturally rise. The Yunus Emre Institute, the Council of Higher Education, Administration for Compatriots’ Living Abroad and Related Communities. Different universities have programmes not only for bachelors but also master’s, doctor’s degrees. There are programmes for state workers, journalists, linguistic grants.

Meanwhile, TÜRKSOY, which performed well in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, left Russia. Is this organisation going back?

This topic isn’t within the consulate general’s expertise and isn’t linked with our consular district. It is rather expertise of the embassy in Moscow, they likely work on it.

“There is some information vacuum about the Turkish military operation in Syria”

Mr Erikan, Turkey began a special operation in Syria, and the reaction to it in Russia as well as in the USA was quite painful. Will Ankara, Moscow and Washington reach a compromise?

The main reason for this special operation is that there weren’t found areas of common interest between Ankara and Washington. You know that we have worked hard to settle the situation in Syria. We have to find out what was behind the Operation Peace Spring, which began on 9 October. I think that there is some information vacuum, different sources issue unconfirmed data. Thanks for mentioning this topic.

As it is known, Turkey fights several terrorist organisations operating next to its borders. On the one hand, we protect our borders from the terrorist organisations, on the other hand, we support attempts of the international community in the fight against terrorism. Turkey conducted two key military operations: Euphrates Shield in 2017 and Olive Branch in 2018. We cleaned an area of more than 4,000 square kilometres off terrorist groups — DAESH (Editor’s Note: ISIS is banned in Russia) and PYD (Editor’s Note: Democratic Union Party created by Syrian Kurds, YPG (a branch of the Kurdish PYD). 360,000 Syrians managed to go back to their homes. As you know, 3,5 million Syrian refugees live on the territory of Turkey. Despite all these actions, the threat of terrorist organisations hasn’t disappeared. The Turkish-Syrian border is 960 km. The terrorist organisations are located in the East, next to the Euphrates River. There have been over 100 attempts to attack our country. There were dug tunnels to Syria on this territory, through which they supplied explosive devices and handed them over to fighters of the Kurdistan Workers' Party. YPG is still in the country and stages terrorist attacks outside. They recruit children, the locals live under conditions of constant pressure.

We explained this all to our allies. None of our attempts at a talk with America yielded results. This is why we decided to take advantage of our legal right for the protection of our borders and begin the military operation on 9 October within international rules. Its goal is to protect our state borders, eliminate terrorists in the region, protect the Syrian people from the threats posed by the rebels. It is important to note that we are targeting at the terrorists’ military facilities, their weapons, transport. We are taking all the measures so that the civilians won’t suffer. Our allies’ military bases and facilities aren’t our goal.

None of our attempts at a talk with America yielded results. This is why we decided to take advantage of our legal right for the protection of our borders and begin the military operation on 9 October within international rules. Its goal is to protect our state borders, neutralise terrorists in the region, protect the Syrian people from the threats by the rebels

How long will this operation last?

The answer is very simple: unless our border is safe, unless there is no threat to the Syrian people, unless we clean the territory off terrorist groups. When these tasks are performed, then we will complete the operation. It is important that those Syrians who had to leave their homes can go back. We are ready to work with the UN and other international organisations in this area. We don’t want to influence the demographic situation somehow, we just want to clean the region off terrorism. We believe that this military operation will help preserve the territorial integrity of Syria and its unity. In this region, Turkey is the only country fighting DAESH head to head. Thousands of rebels have been arrested. These captives’ further fate is important. We consider important to return them to those countries they were recruited in by ISIS fighters. By the way, many of such people turned out to be from European states.

We notified the UN and the secretary general of NATO of this operation. Moreover, the Consulate General of Syria operates in Istanbul — we also notified them. It is important for us that the public know true information about this operation.

Perhaps the question is naïve: will we see Erdoğan and Assad at one table for talks, shaking their hands one day like it was the previous years before the war?

I will give a naïve answer. We don’t know how the situation will develop in the future. We shouldn’t forget that Assad dragged his country to a deep swamp, millions of Syrians have already suffered, hundreds of thousands have died.

“Russian and Tatar language skills will simplify my daily work”

To be honest, there is little information about you. You know from your biography that you speak English, French and Bulgaria. Are you going to master the Russian language, which is close to Bulgarian, and Tatar, which is related to Turkish?

I have been a diplomat for 40 years already, I have worked in different countries. I had a chance to work in those countries whose language I speak, except for Taiwan. Moreover, I didn’t have difficulties in Taiwan: I didn’t learn Chinese, however, this didn’t impede my work, as I spoke English. We, diplomats, can work in different countries. One also shouldn’t forget that diplomat is, first of all, a person, and it is simply impossible to learn the language of every country he works in. You correctly noted that the Russian and Bulgarian languages are similar, one can understand the speech. The Tatar language is also similar to Turkish. If I listen carefully, I can see the point. If my daily work allows mastering these languages, I will try to do it. Russian and Tatar language skills will simplify my daily work in Kazan and life here. Language learning is enrichment. People in Turkey say: “One language is one person”. And I would like to learn these languages. But if my schedule in Kazan is as tight as it was previously, I simply won’t have the time for it.

Russian and Tatar language skills will simplify my daily work in Kazan and life here. Language learning is enrichment. People in Turkey say: “One language is one person”. And I would like to learn these languages. But if my schedule in Kazan is as tight as it was previously, I simply won’t have the time for it

Have you already moved here with your family?

Yes, my spouse is here. In addition, I have two children. My daughter works in the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The son works in Kazakhstan, my daughter-in-law and grandson are with him. By the way, my daughter-in-law is Russian. So it turned out that my son worked in Beijing where his spouse-to-be worked, and they got acquainted there. The wedding was in Istanbul. Then they went to Paris, Shanghai and then to Almaty. So we became relatives with Russians. Olga’s mother lives in Russia.

What amazed you in Russia?

I have seen Moscow and Kazan. Your deep history, culture, literature draws my attention — all this is reflected in daily life, even in architecture. I am asked: “Do you like Kazan?” I reply that a pastoral and poetic atmosphere reigns in the city. I think it is linked with the rich history of the city and the locals’ culture. I have been received here very warmly. Talking with you, I feel as if I have been living here for over 10 years. I make myself at home.

What did you know about Tatars and Bashkirs before moving to Russia?

When it was known I would be appointed here, I had some idea of the history of Tatars and Bashkirs. We know that both peoples are close to us: similar languages, culture, common religion. We have more moments that bring us together than those that make us different. I think that I will be received as warmly in Bashkortostan and other regions as I was in Tatarstan. I am excited about these trips.

What Tatars and Bashkirs who live now or lived in the past do people in Turkey know?

They know about representatives of the Tatar intelligentsia quite well. For instance, there is even a monument to Sadri Maksudi in Istanbul Park. Here he is famous as an outstanding politician. We also know the name of Yusuf Akchura. Many are familiar with Gabdulla Tukay. My spouse and I lived in in the district of Emek in Ankara, now my spouse’s parents live there. And the street along the house is named after Tukay. There is a bust of the poet we used to pass by every day. It is a pity that the Tatar classic poet who left a huge legacy died at such a young age. When you look at what he managed to do during his 26 years, you think we just simply spend our lives.

What do people in Turkey know about Zaki Validi-Togan, Bashkiria?

Many know about this scientist. And a lot of people in Turkey are interested in the history of this region (Editor’s Note: Bashkortostan). Due to this, there is a buzz among tourists coming from Turkey to this republic. By the way, more tourists will visit the region thanks to the direct flight from Istanbul to Ufa. One should be ready for it.

A pastoral and poetic atmosphere reigns in the city. I think it is linked with the rich history of the city and the locals’ culture

The consul general’s residency was to be built on the shore of Kaban Lake. What happened to this project in the end?

It is early to talk about this project so far, there is no specificity. I just can say that we are ready to build the Consulate General’s residency in Kazan anyway.

By Timur Rakhmatullin. Photo: Maksim Platonov
BashkortostanTatarstan