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Iskender Okyay

In 2012, former US National Security Adviser Stephan J. Hadley said, “Turkey has become one of the five or six most important countries in the world.” He went on to say; “It’s ironic… if you look at economic performance, you wonder whether Turkey ought to join the EU or the EU ought to join Turkey.”

Iskender Okyay is the current as well as the first ever Ambassador of the Turkish Republic to Sri Lanka. A career diplomat who joined the Ministry in 1988 after studying International Relations in University, he talked to me in very candid mode. He has a fresh perspective, a new insight into old issues which needs to be communicated.

Q- Diplomats are not usually very frank. They can be evasive. How frank can you be with me? Can I ask you leading questions?
Sure you can. I can be very frank.

Q- As a majority Muslim country-with a non-religious democratic political system-how do you see yourself?  As a European country? A Middle Eastern country? An Islamic Nation?
All of them.

Q- You would call it an Islamic Nation?
The majority of the Nation believes in Islam, yes. But in today’s world ‘Islamic Nation’ recalls different things.

You interfere anyway for your own interest not for the sake of the other’s interest. The one being told should bear that in mind. There is a German saying about dealing at eye level. You should not look up or look down. Because of her colonial past Sri Lanka may have difficulties with this. Once she masters it, she should be fine

Q- Negative connotations?
Yes. A country or a state can’t be religious. Religion is very much between the believer and his God. It’s not only Moslems in Turkey. So, if a State takes any side it can be quite dangerous.

Q- How important is multiculturalism in defining the identity of a Nation? I remember a German Chancellor who said words to the effect that multiculturalism has failed as a model in Germany.

The identity of a Nation is a mosaic. We call ourselves Turks. The problem comes when you ask, what is the prototype Turk? Then you say someone who speaks Turkish, who feels bound to the Nation, the soil of Turkey is Turkish. Even our citizenship law does not refer to blood relationship as a factor in becoming Turkish. I don’t think multiculturalism has failed in Germany. They have a multi-ethnic and multi- national society. Only when it comes to integration, what Turkey did in the beginning of the last millennium, Germany is doing now. Diversity has its benefits and brings its own problems as well. Learning to handle them is the challenge.

Q- For the 1st decade of the 21st century Turkey has been one of the fastest growing economies in the world. In 2012, Turkey ranked as the 17th-largest economy in the world. There are predictions that by 2023 it could become one of the world’s top 10 economies. How has this happened?
I would not over-estimate either the potential or the level Turkey has reached. First of all, we have a very strategic location in the world. That is a definite plus. More than any other country you can imagine in the world, we reach different markets. We are at a crossroads. This makes Turkey unique.

We have a population of more than 80 million which makes us bigger than a mid-sized market which can support many sectors. Also we have a young population, which is an important factor in development. Since the proclamation of the republic, we have had a good education system. Being at a crossroads Turkish people have learnt how to trade.

Q- Your economic prosperity is not only due to trade with the European Union. Other markets have also played a role?
I’d say other markets have played a bigger role than the EU. We reach a huge market of the ex-Soviet Republics. Russia itself is quite a big market. We are close to Africa and next to the Middle Eastern countries of the Gulf region.

Q- The Indian Ocean region has been described of as one of the epicenters of the 21st century. Do you agree?
It’s a little bit too early to say that. We will see. India is a big power, but it has its own problems.

Q- What they say is that the Indian Ocean is no longer the Ocean of India and that no one can remain a world power without paying enough attention to the Indian Ocean.
This is very much true

Q- Sri Lanka has been described as one of the hubs in the Indian Ocean do you agree?
I agree. It’s not for the first time and not only for this century. Sri Lanka has in some way like Turkey a very strategic location. It was always on the main trade routes and sea routes. It’s not something new and can only be increased.

Q-Turkey has recently opened up its 1st embassy in Sri Lanka. Is this part of a larger vision?  Does it reflect a new ambition to play an increasing part in global affairs?
Yes definitely. This was the policy of the last government in Turkey as well. In recent years, we have opened up close to 30 new embassies in Africa alone. We have opened embassies in South America. In this region we have opened in Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Myanmar, etc. A lot of new embassies and new ties. This is the new policy of Turkey.

Q- Talking of common interests and shared experiences between Turkey and Sri Lanka, Universal suffrage has applied in Turkey since the 1930s. This is the identical case in Sri Lanka. Both countries have long standing democratic traditions. But they have been challenged by internal challenges to National Security and Territorial Integrity. I am talking about terrorism and separatism and the associated human rights issues that plague both countries.
I have to definitely state my personal belief here. I would not like to hide it in any way. Terrorism is the worst thing you can face today. If you have anyone in your family who has been victimized through terrorism you become more sensitive to this issue. Terrorism unfortunately can’t be fought with other means. You have to be harsh. You have to erase. You have to eradicate.

Then, only then, you may go to the reasons, the roots of terrorism. The first task of a government should be to end terrorism. That is what has been done in Sri Lanka. It can be discussed afterwards whether it was enough or not whether something different could have been done. But there’s no discussion I’d like to join about whether Sri Lanka has been successful in eradicating terrorism. You were definitely successful and it was the right of the people of this island.

Q- In my article about your warship TCG Gediz I quoted you as saying, “We understand your problems, because we have many of the same issues.”
I was referring very much to terrorism.  We have the same ethnic-based terrorism in Turkey, the PKK as you had the Tamil Tigers.

Q- A foreign policy analyst of the Turkish newspaper Milliyet Daily has been quoted as saying “When we look at the current situation, with dozens of journalists in prison, various politically-motivated legal cases, growing pressure on the press, this ‘Turkey model’ loses its meaning, especially in the eyes of intellectuals and many countries in the Middle East…But on the other hand, in terms of its success in economic development, the Turkish model is likely to continue as a strong source of attraction in the eyes of the people of the Middle East”
I don’t think any country can be a model for another country.
Each country is unique, has its own problems and must deal with them in their own way.
Even the USA, the so-called cradle of liberal democracy has failed to become a model of human rights for others to follow. If you take Europe the principles of human rights evolved after many centuries of killing each other and the killing is still going on.
Q- Surely India is a bigger market for you? What do we offer which is so different?
First of all, Sri Lanka is not small. It’s bigger than many countries in Europe and the population makes it a mid-sized Nation. The feeling that Sri Lanka is small comes from constantly comparing yourselves with India. I don’t think you should do that. India has its own problems. Yes, India is a big market, but it’s hard market to penetrate. The Sri Lankan market is more open.

Q- You said to me on board TCG Gediz that even if India is willing to be more involved in the economy and other affairs of Sri Lanka we may not like it because of our ‘special’ relationship with India. You have a similar relationship with Greece you said. Was this a ‘sensitive’ thing to say?
No it’s the historical reality. You have had that kind of relationship with India historically. You wouldn’t traditionally want to be in a position of needing India. Just like Greece wouldn’t like to be in a position of needing Turkey or vice versa. These traditional situations are very common in International Relations. It’s not personal.

Q- Ironically, Turkey is widely described as the China of Europe. Onboard ship we talked of the importance of China. I quoted you as saying “China has a big role to play in the economy of Sri Lanka”.
Yes, I think so. In the future it will remain so. Not only for Sri Lanka, but for the whole region. It’s one of the leading economies of the world. That role will continue. The economic weight has shifted from the West to the East and China leads the East. So I strongly believe that China will continue to have a strong impact on the future of Sri Lanka.

Q- I gather you feel that despite enormous expectations on our part neither the USA nor the EU will be able to satisfy our aspirations or our needs?
I guess so. Specially the EU. It has its own problems now. Therefore I don’t think they will be able to reach not only Sri Lanka, but also other parts of the world. Economically, they will not be in a position to get as close as China to you. This is fact.

Q- We were hoping to receive the EU fishing licenses, but we still have not received them?
It takes time. It’s not only up to you, and it’s not only up to Brussels. It’s a long process in the EU.

Q- So, you think that the EU does not have the same willingness and the capacity as China to underwrite Sri Lanka?
I can’t  know anything about the willingness, but the capacity definitely not.

Q- I heard that you have a special opinion about the EU. Do you feel that it has served its time?
In some ways yes the future of the EU is very questionable. Its original purpose which was to merge the economic interests of France and Germany, has been fulfilled. Unless it goes beyond that and aims bigger, I don’t think it has too long a way to go. We are facing a very limited and selfish vision of the European Union for the time being. If it continues it’s destined to dissolve. We need more visionary politicians in the EU than we have today.
I don’t think that Europe as a whole can have a future without the major countries of this region; without Russia and Turkey. Yes ‘Moslem’. That’s the ‘handicap’ Turkey has and why we could not become a member for the last 50 plus years.

Q- Isn’t it due to Cyprus and the human rights?
No it’s only a story to hide behind. Not the truth. Cyprus is also a problem for Greece. How did Greece become a member? No the reason is the religious difference and based on that the cultural difference.

Q- Do you feel that Turkey represents an opportunity for Sri Lanka?
Yes. We have no hidden agenda for Sri Lanka. This is very clear. Just the opposite. In international fora both countries support each other in many ways. So why not economically too. Turkish Airlines is now flying daily to Colombo. This will bring the people together. There are lots of Turkish industries that can be active in Sri Lanka. But also why not vice versa? Why don’t Sri Lankan industries invest in Turkey?

Q- You are a traditional ally of the USA. So would Turkey feel compelled to follow the USA’s foreign policy regarding Sri Lanka?
In international relations, there are no allies only interests. Turkey has her own foreign policy. She would not need a foreign policy if it was just a matter of following the USA.

Q- Talking of International Relations, it’s your profession. Do you think it’s all right for certain countries to dictate policy, modes of governance or political models to other countries? For example whenever a new US envoy is appointed to Sri Lanka, they feel compelled to declare, this is the model for you, we would like to see a Federal mode for Sri Lanka, we would like to see meaningful devolution, etc. Is this proper practice in diplomacy?
No. I’d say not. There are certain universal values that every country has to aspire to. Apart from these you cannot take another country’s advice. As a person you can’t even advise another person. How do you know that what works for another person would work for you? Unless there is huge injustice, suppression, people in desperate need of assistance, there is no justification.

You interfere anyway for your own interest not for the sake of the other’s interest. The one being told should bear that in mind.

Q- So it’s a complex interplay of lobbying and interests?
It is. International Relations is  a Game of Interests. How you master defending your own interests is up to you. It’s an experience. A challenge.

There is a German saying about dealing at eye level. You should not look up or look down. Because of her colonial past Sri Lanka may have difficulties with this. Once she masters it, she should be fine.

Q-Turkey is a NATO member. She has an important relationship with the EU and is a strategic partner of the USA. Do you think that Turkey could be a door for Sri Lanka to represent her concerns and interests to the West?
I think Sri Lanka can do that herself.

Q- Sri Lanka doesn’t seem to be doing this very well. She is mostly being talked at or…
This has to change

Q- In changing that, can’t we make use of countries like Turkey who have a special relationship with the West?
If the will comes from Sri Lanka why not? This can be easily done. It will be easier for us to understand your sensitivities as well, previously having had more or less the same difficulties.

Q- You were a professional pianist at one time. Would you like to give a concert in Sri Lanka?
I’d love to. I’d need some time to practice.