Q&A: Turkish Consul General in Erbil

By Hermione Gee for Insight Kurdistan – 21.5.2013 – ERBIL –  The Turkish Consul General in Erbil, Aydin Selcen, has lauded improved relations between Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), describing Ankara’s position towards Iraqi Kurds as “strategic” and “constant”.

In this exclusive face to face interview with Insight Kurdistan, Selcen commented on a host of topical issues, including trade, oil, energy, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), relations with Iraq and the country’s territorial integrity.

“Turkey’s decision for a new structure of relations with Iraqi Kurdistan is a strategic decision; it’s a constant, it’s not going to change,” Selcen said.

Q: Observers seem to be suggesting that Turkey is going to have to make a choice – is it going to go with Erbil, is it going to go with Baghdad?

Aydin Selcen: That’s an artificial choice. We reject that artificial choice and we embrace Iraq in its entirety. Iraq in general terms is an important economic partner for Turkey. But honestly with the Kurds we have more than that– we are part of the same family because of our common history, common culture, language, for anthropological reasons, for geographic, geo-strategic reasons. One must also bear in mind that we were the ones, way back in 2006 or so, for example, who convinced the Sunni Arabs back into the political process. We also helped facilitate the relations between Mosul and Erbil, for example. Turkey’s decision for a new structure of relations with Iraqi Kurdistan is a strategic decision; it’s a constant, it’s not going to change.

In the last decade our average yearly economic growth rate is around 5.5 per cent. That also translates as a need for an added energy capacity of 5,000 MGWs each year. Like any country, our national interest dictates to us that we need to diversify. We are not a rogue state; we are not stealing anything from anyone. But our public companies and private companies are free to deal with the Kurdistan Regional Government and also they are free to deal with various private actors here. Erbil is 185 kms to the Turkish border, bird’s flight, so it’s just next-door. Our national Turkish petroleum company explores oil fields in Venezuela, in Colombia — 8,000 miles from Turkey — so I think Turkey must be allowed really to do what is necessary here and also, again, it’s not rejecting the fact that we want to be present in the rest of Iraq as well.

Q: Initially Turkey was concerned about an autonomous Kurdish region next door…

Selcen: Turkey had for sure deep and diversified relations with the Kurds. The relations between Kurds and Turks go back 1,000 years. We can talk about a strategic alliance between Kurds and Turks since the early 1500s. The number of Kurds living in Iraq, Iran and Syria combined is equal to the number of Kurds living only in Turkey. Kurds are co-founders together with others of the Republic of Turkey. Today maybe more than 3 million Kurds live in Istanbul. In our government, there are many Kurdish ministers, deputy prime ministers, so on and so forth. Concerning the laws, which may have been perceived as aiming for the assimilation of Kurds, these also changed. Now the last step will be the disarmament and disbanding of the PKK, and at the same time you should bear in mind that we are drafting a new constitution. Furthermore, if Turkey aims at integrating fully socially and economically with Iraq, right across the border it’s Iraqi Kurdistan so we are going to integrate first with IKR and then with Mosul and the north in general.

Q: For a long time Kirkuk was a point of contention between Turkey and the KRG. If there were a referendum whereby Kirkuk voted to join the KRG, would Turkey be willing to accept that?

Selcen: Kirkuk is not part of my area of responsibility. But when it comes to Kirkuk, it’s for the Kirkukis to solve it as an issue. Kirkuk is an Iraqi province. Then it’s up to the Iraqis in general to sort out their issues. Our idea is that Kirkuk must acquire a special status within its existing boundaries. And that, be them Turks [Turkomans], Kurds, Arabs, Christians, they must build a common experience to run their own business for some time so that they can transition to this political dialogue process and then they can decide about the future of their own province. That’s our idea. That might turn Kirkuk into a federal region or not – it’s up to all Iraqis in general and Kirkukis in particular to decide.

Q: In terms of the unity of Iraq, your foreign minister recently said that Turkey is committed to the unity of Iraq – why?

Selcen: We are the champions since more than 10 years of Iraqi territorial integrity and national unity and we are not in the business of redesigning our neighborhood. We would like to see free, democratic and pluralistic countries around us so that we can establish healthy relations with and we can turn our region into a haven of wealth and peace, through free economy, through social and economic integration. We aim at having the same kind of healthy relations with all, not only with Iraqi Kurdistan, with all.

We are not imposing our so-called model on anybody in the region. If anyone is inspired by our democratic experience, they are most welcome. The decisions concerning the administrative structures in our neighbours, like Syria and Iraq, belong to the citizens of, respectively, Syria and Iraq. Definitely, we would like to see armed conflict within our neighbours avoided and, yes, we would like to see their differences sorted out through peaceful political dialogue. We facilitate wherever we can the process of peaceful and political dialogue, sustained dialogue. There shouldn’t be any end to talking. That’s our approach to diplomacy.

Q: So, when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki recently said that Turkey is providing Iraqi Kurdistan with trapping for independence, what would you say?

Selcen: I can only refer you to the PM’s office in Baghdad for clarification.

Q: Baghdad recently suggested the possibility of a Basra-Ceyhan pipeline. Doesn’t that at least suggest that Baghdad is perhaps seeing it as a choice?

Selcen: There is already an existing dual pipeline connecting Kirkuk to Ceyhan. It’s our national policy to turn Ceyhan into a regional hub. You’ll remember that in the 1990s, when we pushed for the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline, that also didn’t have any political backers in the West, but we turned it into reality and now we need even more pipelines. On the other hand, the super-majors, as well as the so-called second tier companies, which are also heavyweights, by only being here, have voted by their feet. They already bought the future of relations between KR of Iraq and Turkey.

Q: But even if you see it as a false dichotomy, by introducing the suggestion of the Basra pipeline, perhaps Baghdad sees it as a choice?

Selcen: For that you have to go and ask the question in Baghdad.

Q: What’s the volume of trade between Turkey and the KRG?

Selcen: Last year, 2012, our export volume to entire Iraq was raised to 11 billion US dollars and import was 4 billion US dollars. Roughly, according to an educated estimate, 70% of our dealings with Iraq are to or through the Kurdistan Region.

Q: The KRG seems to be split, commercially, between Turkey and Iran…

Selcen: I can just point you towards the map: Kurdistan Region has a long border with Turkey and an even longer border with Iran. So they are dealing with their neighbours, trading with their neighbours. Turkey and Iran are two regional powers and both countries have a long state tradition and both have various advantages so to speak. Both countries, Turkey and Iran, enjoy healthy relations with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. I don’t think there is any commercial division, but there can be for sure a healthy competition between different companies but there is even stiffer competition among the Turkish companies themselves and that’s only the nature of trade – I guess.

Q: How would you assess your experience over the last 3 years as Consul General in Erbil?

Selcen: It’s a most challenging but also a most rewarding post. It’s not for me to say it, but obviously it’s one of the most important foreign missions for Turkey in our region. On the other hand, it’s kind of a dream job for any diplomat because of the warm hospitality and logistical support that all of us, all the consular community here, enjoys from the KRG authorities. And I can only be thankful for the support I received from the KRG authorities which goes beyond traditional diplomatic etiquette but turned into a real friendship in time.

Q: What are the biggest changes in the three years you’ve been here?

Selcen: From my own personal perspective, I had set some concrete targets for myself, like banks for example, and now we have 5 banks here. To start Turkish Airlines flights. Already there was AtlasJet, a private Turkish company, and Pegasus, but Turkish Airlines is our national carrier, its symbolic value is important. We have a trade attaché office here. I also wanted a cultural center and our consulate has been allocated a historic mansion located in the Citadel and hopefully we are going to have a cultural center in Sulaymaniyah as well.

I am happy to see the increased number of students going to both Ishik schools and Bilkent schools. I’m grateful to Ishik schools because they’ve been here since 1994. I’m happy to see more Turkish hospitals, health centers, and such like. And there’s also Divan hotel here and there will be more Turkish hotels coming, like Dedeman. Buses started to Istanbul and now there are eight buses to Turkey every day.

Then I am also happy to have the honour to host our PM here in Erbil, for cutting the ribbon at the airport and also here at the consulate. And I’m happy of course to have received visits by our various ministers and to have the honour to accompany the KRG President [Massoud Barzani] and Prime Minister [Nechirvan Barzani] numerous times to Ankara and to Istanbul. I’m happy to see again that we have now such robust dialogue with our partners here in Iraqi Kurdistan; we can talk about any subject. There are no taboo subjects between us. All different tracks are open. On certain tracks there is fast paced development, on others there is less development, but we can talk about all the issues and we can follow all different files together and that’s based on mutual interest and mutual trust and sincerity. And mutual trust is based on sincerity. It’s very difficult to build mutual trust but very easy to lose it.