NEW YORK — Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, speaking to Al-Monitor during his visit to New York for this week’s UN General Assembly session, addressed his country’s stance on the upcoming independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, EU-Turkey ties, Ankara’s expanding cooperation with Russia and concerns about the Gulen movement’s influence within the US judiciary.
Cavusoglu, a founding member of the ruling Justice and Development Party, maintained Turkey’s opposition to the independence referendum scheduled for Sept. 25. The referendum “will not bring stability or more rights to the Kurds in Iraq,” he said, calling the proposed plebiscite a “big mistake.”
He argued that if the issue at hand is constitutional rights for Iraq’s Kurds, Ankara is willing to help. “Together we can be mediators, we can even be guarantors of their rights,” he said. He called on the United Nations to stop the referendum, saying that in this regard, “The UN Security Council can play an important role."
Cavusoglu, who previously served as the chief negotiator for Turkish accession to the European Union (EU), claimed recent tensions with the bloc resulted from a rise in Islamophobia and xenophobia, as well as concerns related to upcoming elections in Europe. He stressed that Turkey has been very helpful toward the EU when it comes to migration issues and contributing to the security of the continent, and Ankara is “ready to open any chapter” of negotiations, in reference to the 35 chapters necessary to complete the accession process. He warned, however, that “if the EU wants to be a global power, the EU should be more inclusive," and that “the EU should understand that [it] is no longer the boss.”
The foreign minister also decried alleged influence held by the movement of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen — referred to in Turkey as FETO, or the Fethullah Gulen Terror Organization — saying the US indictment of former Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan was “very much politically motivated.”
He added, “These people — FETO people — are very active in the US, and they have been spending a lot of money.”
A transcript of the interview, conducted by Al-Monitor’s managing editor, slightly edited for clarity, follows below.
Al-Monitor: President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and President [Donald] Trump have agreed to meet face to face here in New York on the sidelines of the General Assembly [session]. What will be the main items on their agenda?
Cavusoglu: Bilateral relations — Syria, Iraq, the referendum in Iraq — and other bilateral issues. President Trump and Erdogan have been getting along very well since Trump was elected, and they speak on the phone quite often. They met in Hamburg [during the G-20 summit in July], and they were on the phone recently. And we were in Astana. They agreed on the phone to meet here. On Thursday, they are meeting. So the US is our ally on many bilateral issues, and such meetings are very helpful.
Al-Monitor: Speaking of the referendum, Ankara has recently hardened its opposition to the Iraqi Kurdistan referendum due to take place Sept. 25. Recently, Prime Minister [Binali] Yildirim said the United Nations may get involved in the controversy over the vote. What did he mean by this?
Cavusoglu: He actually meant that the UN, as the umbrella organization, should stop this referendum. And the UN Security Council can play an important role. As Turkey and as the P5 countries [the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany] and European countries — the international community — we are all against this referendum, and we all support the territorial integrity of the country first.
Second, such referendum will not bring stability or more rights to the Kurds in Iraq, and it might even cause a civil war and other turbulences and instability in the country and in the region. So this is a very sensitive issue. We have been asking the KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] authorities to stop this process, and if their constitutional rights are the problem, we can help them to guarantee their constitutional right. This is the message that we have been giving to Baghdad as well, and this is the message I gave during my visit to Baghdad and during the press conference.
So Turkey and other countries that the KRG can name, together we can be mediators, we can even be guarantors of their rights.
And this referendum is against the constitution in Iraq.
Al-Monitor: Commenting on the referendum this past Thursday, you said that “Turkey does not hesitate to use its power if needed,” and that President Erdogan recently moved the country's national security meeting from Sept. 27 to Sept. 22, so the referendum can be added to the agenda. Can Ankara afford to disrupt its good relations with Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani?
Cavusoglu: We have been supporting the KRG and the KRG authorities, and the peshmerga. We have trained the peshmerga against Daesh [Islamic State], so we don't have any problem with the Kurds in Iraq or with the Kurds in Syria. But our problem is with the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] and the YPG [People's Protection Units], the terrorist organizations.
But the referendum is a serious issue. It's a big mistake, and they don't have any support from the international community. It will further destabilize Iraq and the region.
I was asked a question by a correspondent from France during the press conference with my French counterpart: "Will Turkey use its economic power or other powers [to stop the referendum]?" And that was my answer actually. But the use of any power is not the issue. The stability and the security and the national unity and the territorial integrity of Iraq is the issue here.
Al-Monitor: Given the tough talk on the KRG's referendum, are there any concerns that it will impact Turkish business interests in the region, particularly related to oil and gas?
Cavusoglu: Turkish businessmen have been very active in Iraq, not only in the KRG region — but the country has other problems. And now Turkish companies are very active in Baghdad and other cities. Now, after defeating Daesh, we need to rebuild the country and cities like Mosul. I'm sure Turkish companies will take part. They will undertake many projects, and we will also financially support Iraq to rebuild the country, with other actors from the international community.
The KRG is also very happy with Turkish companies, but since oil prices went down, the country as a whole and the KRG have been suffering. They have been suffering from a lack of budget and financial problems. And even on those difficult days, we supported them financially. So they have difficulties to pay the Turkish companies because of the financial situation, not because they don't want to pay.
Iraq is a neighboring country, and before Daesh, Iraq was one of the main trading partners of Turkey, maybe [among its top] five in the world — more than $13 billion — like three or four years ago. But now [trade activity has decreased] because of the problems the country has been facing.
Al-Monitor: Moving a bit out of the Middle East and focusing a little more on the EU, tensions between Turkey and the EU states, particularly Germany, have been high, with Turkey's chief negotiator for EU membership accusing European states of blackmailing Ankara over its bid to join the European Union. This past week you said EU countries must “change their mindset about Turkey.” What do you mean by this specifically, and how can EU-Ankara ties be improved?
Cavusoglu: We signed the agreement with the EU for full membership. Eventually, when the governments were changed in some countries, particularly in Germany and France — they are the two main powers and the EU was founded on the balance between these two countries. And you know why EU institutions were founded? They were founded to bring France and Germany together, so they wouldn’t fight again. That was the reason.
But now the EU has 28 member states and the criteria are very clear for full membership, and there are 35 chapters to be opened, to be negotiated and closed. If Turkey can meet all the benchmarks, then Turkey can be a full member. There are standards that we committed to reach. This is very simple, and we have no problem there. We have been telling the EU that we are ready to open any chapter and negotiate any chapter to meet the opening and closing of that chapter.
But the problem is political, not technical. Why is Germany opposing [Turkish accession] now? Because they have their elections. Why is Austria opposing Turkey's full membership? Because there is a rise of Islamophobia, xenophobia and racism in Austria, and it's a big internal issue. And the racist parties and the candidates are very — I mean, the racist candidate was about to win the presidential election.
And they canceled that election. So there is a trend in Europe and in major countries that is a source of concern for European societies as well — not only for us. In the middle of the game, you cannot change the rules, first of all, and we don't have any problem with the European Union. We don't have any problem with European values or standards, and we don't have any problem — we shouldn't have any problem — with any EU member state. But the EU should understand that, first, they need to review and revise their policies — enlargement policy, foreign policy, security policy and neighborhood policy. And they all failed.
And the EU should also understand that there can be some differences between the countries — between the EU countries and the candidate countries — but it doesn't mean that they are first class and the others are second class. So the EU should learn how to treat the others.
The EU should also learn how to treat Russia. You like it or not, Russia is one of — Russia is the biggest European country. It is the biggest. I mean, you can disagree with — we also disagree with Russia on many issues — but the EU should understand that [it] is no longer the boss, OK? And there are rising powers and economic powers and political powers, and if the EU wants to be a global power, the EU should be more inclusive. But because of all of these internal issues, there is a lack of vision. This is the problem.
What I mean is that the EU should learn how to treat Turkey to get a result from Turkey. We have no problem with the EU or EU member states. Why should I have a problem with Germany? I have more than 3.5 million Turks living in Germany. If Germany is stable, it's good for them. If Germany is stronger in any means, it's good for us because Germany is the No. 1 trade partner of Turkey. So why should I have such bad relations with Germany? For what reason?
And I asked a very simple question to German [leaders] — to President [Frank-Walter] Steinmeier, [Foreign Minister] Sigmar Gabriel and even [Chancellor Angela] Merkel when we had that chat during the mini-NATO summit in Brussels. I asked them to give one example from history when Turkey has had a hostile policy toward Germany or against Germany. They said no. So what do you want from Turkey? What is your problem with Turkey? Turkey-bashing is a very popular trend. Why? For what reason? They said that they need Turkey. Turkey is a kind of insurance [for them], and Turkey is very helpful on migration issues, terrorism, and this and that. Turkey is contributing to the economy and to the security of Europe, and this is our continent, we live together. So why should I have a problem with Europe? A more stable, more prosperous Europe is good for Turkey as well. This is how we see it, and they should also understand this.
Al-Monitor: Keeping the focus on Turkey's foreign relations, you mentioned Russia, and there has been a particularly improved relationship between Turkey and Russia, specifically with the recent purchase of the advanced long-range air and missile defense system. In what other areas is Turkey looking to expand its cooperation with Russia?
Cavusoglu: We used to have — before this crisis of shooting down the jet [when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane on its border with Syria in November 2015] — very good relations with Russia, and during those eight months, NATO allies were advising us to normalize relations with Russia. But when we normalized relations with Russia, the same colleagues questioned us: "Why?" Or they even criticized us.
During one ministers’ dinner — and [former US Secretary of State] John Kerry was there — I pointed out some of the foreign ministers, and I asked them whether they had advised me to normalize relations [with Russia] during those eight months. They said, "Yes." I said, "Why are you questioning [this] now?" And we had better relations before this problem, this crisis.
And so now we normalize the relations. Russia is our second-largest trading partner, and we import oil and gas — more than 50% of the gas that we consume. Now we have the Turkish Straits project, and Russia is building the nuclear energy power station in Turkey — the first one. The second one we will build with Japan and France. And, as I said, Russia is our No. 2 trading partner, and we receive almost 5 million Russian tourists [annually]. We needed to strengthen our air defense system because of the threats coming from the neighborhood — from Syria and other places.
We wanted to buy from our allies, NATO allies, but it didn't work. And we needed to have a technology transfer, and none of the allies were ready. Now we are working together with France and Italy.
So it was an urgent matter for us to buy long-range missiles, and we negotiated with different countries. And, finally, we agreed with Russia. That's it. It's very simple. We needed it, and Russia made the best proposals to Turkey.
Al-Monitor: In terms of future cooperation with Russia, have you been working with them on issues in the Kurdistan Region, the Syrian Kurds … beyond just this missile deal?
Cavusoglu: Not on Iraq, but we have also been working together with Russia since the Aleppo crisis — and first to evacuate people, more than 45,000 people, from Aleppo. It was a big success. Then, since we succeeded with that, we agreed to enlarge the cessation of hostilities in other areas of the conflict in Syria, and that is how our standard process started. And since then, we have made many achievements. Lately we signed another agreement in Astana on de-escalation zones in Idlib.
So now we are focusing on the political solution, and Russia is an actor there. Russia has the presence. Iran is also an actor, whether you like it or not, whether they play a negative or positive role. For us, they have not been that positive. They have different ambitions and an agenda, which we are against, but Iran is also an important actor. So Iran also has to be included.
Therefore, we have good cooperation with Russia, on Syria, and it has been very fruitful. And we have made a lot of achievements there, too. We will continue such cooperation to bring peace and stability, too. We have other partners of like-minded countries, which will meet here in New York this week, and we have also good cooperation with neighboring countries, Gulf countries and European countries as well — on Syria, I mean.
Al-Monitor: Turkey has been concerned about the US alliance with the Syrian Kurds in its efforts to combat the Islamic State within Syria. Is Turkey ready to cooperate with other Syrian actors to prevent an emergence of an autonomous Kurdish entity in northern Syria?
Cavusoglu: First of all, the YPG is not representing all the Kurds, and the PKK is not representing the Kurds in Turkey. The PKK has a presence in Iraq — in northern Iraq particularly — and they are not representing the Kurds in Iraq. It is Barzani, [former President Jalal] Talabani and the others. They have the political parties. And there is no difference between the YPG and the PKK — even the US admits that there is no difference.
So supporting one terrorist organization, or collaborating with one terrorist organization against another terrorist organization is not a good idea, and it is not good for the future of the country. And the YPG has a different agenda. Their aim is to divide Syria, and we have been asking the US and other allies whether they support the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country or the division of the country. They all say that they are strongly for the territorial integrity of the country, so then why are you supporting the YPG?
And the YPG has actually forced hundreds of thousands of Kurds to leave from Syria. Do you know how many Syrian Kurds we are hosting in Turkey? Three hundred thousand. And there are also thousands of Kurds living in European countries, and 90% of them have been forced by the YPG to leave. So is the YPG representing all the Kurds? No. They follow the Marxist-Communist ideology, which most of the Kurds don't share. Ordinary Kurds are religious and conservatives. They don't share such Marxist-Communist ideology. But the YPG and the PKK have the same ideology. They use the same cards.
The US has also suffered a lot from terrorism. So, you know, collaborating with a terrorist organization is like sleeping with a snake in the same bed. This is a Turkish proverb.
That is why we disagree with the US, and they will understand that they made a big mistake. I hope it will not be too late.
Al-Monitor: Speaking of the PKK, there have been reports that the PKK kidnapped two senior Turkish intelligence officers in northern Iraq and took them to a PKK base in the Qandil Mountains. There are claims that the head of the National Intelligence Organization, Hakan Fidan, may travel to Erbil for talks. How is Ankara working to resolve this issue?
Cavusoglu: The PKK has kidnapped local authorities, ordinary civilians, doctors, policemen and everybody, and so this is a terrorist organization. Of course our institutions have been working to bring back all our citizens that the PKK kidnapped, but our country doesn't — we didn't have any direct contact with the PKK to bring those two persons mentioned back. This is the dirty face of the terrorist organization, and they have been killing many civilians and the Kurds. They kidnapped almost one person from each family in the region. Now our Kurdish citizens are very happy with the ongoing operations against the PKK. Now they enjoy their freedom. Now they can enjoy everything because the PKK has been targeting hospitals, ambulances, doctors, airports, schools and all the infrastructure that we built for our Kurdish citizens. So this is a terrorist organization. What else do you expect?
Al-Monitor: Since the coup attempts last July, there have been growing insinuations that some circles in Washington are plotting against the government. On Thursday, for instance, presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin slammed charges brought against former Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan in the Iran sanctions evasion case, saying that “some” in the United States were using judicial processes in a bid to punish Turkey. In your view, who is this referring to, and what is their motivation?
Cavusoglu: I feel like the indictment is almost the same indictment that these FETO people prepared in 2013 against then-Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan and against Turkey, against us, against our government in December 2013. These people — FETO people — are very active in the US, and they have been spending a lot of money. And they have influence also on judicial fronts. Former US Attorney Preet Bharara was very close to this organization, and he was also — he went to Istanbul. FETO organized this trip for him. So we believe that this case is very much politically motivated and influenced by FETO people, and the so-called fake evidences, and indictment of FETO cannot be accepted here as evidence or indictment. This is the problem.