Tourism during the Covid pandemic, matters of migration and refugees, the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, and of course Czech-Turkey relations – we discussed all of these topics with Ambassador of the Republic of Turkey to Prague, His Excellency, Egemen Bağış.
Turkey is one of the most beautiful travel destinations in the world. How has your tourist trade dealt with the Coronavirus pandemic and which places would you personally recommend to visitors coming from Czechia?
Turkey is involved in many different areas of tourism as a country that has things to offer during every season, and its foothold in the worldwide tourist trade is continuously growing. It has things to offer to tourists no matter the time of year they come to visit. In this sense, our country, which is a force to be reckoned with in the tourist trade, remains a place that can offer a wide array of activities for tourists, including the traditional summer holidays where you get to enjoy the traditional sea, sand, and sun trifecta.
It is no coincidence that UNESCO has added many cultural and natural sights in Turkey to its World Heritage List. As of this day, there are 19 different cultural and natural sights from all parts of Turkey on the List. Medical tourism is a new, quickly developing segment of the tourist trade, which is gaining traction in Turkey. Thanks to investing in healthcare and a number of transformation programs, Turkey is gradually becoming one of the key players in this field. It offers its excellent services to medical tourists in all sorts of areas, ranging from spas, through aesthetic medicine, all the way to specialized care for the elderly and disabled.
Turkey has helped the EU significantly by accepting several million Syrian refugees. You are currently in talks about an increase in funding and aid for the refugees with the EU. What will these funds be used for?
Presently, Turkey is host to the biggest refugee community in the world. As of 2021, this community numbers roughly four million people, of which a large part (3,6 million registered refugees) are Syrian migrants. Turkey uses the funds from the Facility for Refugees in Turkey program to tend to all of the asylum seekers’ socio-economic needs, primarily, it provides housing, protection, healthcare, and access to education. This is where Turkey expects the EU to take a more active part in solving migration-related issues and developing ways of cooperating with Turkey to help safeguard its borders and combat people smugglers and illegal migration.
Turkey is still vying for an EU membership, but that is a matter for many years to come. Should Turkey and the EU sign a free trade agreement?
The current Customs Union between Turkey and the EU was ratified as a placeholder agreement in anticipation of our full membership in the EU. The Customs Union has remained in force longer than expected due to the uncertainty of Turkey’s full membership in the EU, and so has gradually transformed into a sort of partnership that has been causing systemic issues for our country. The technical negotiations with the European Commission regarding the update and modernization of the Customs Union Agreement concluded on April 27, 2015, making the report from these negotiations official. The update of the Customs Union is meant to find solutions to the systemic issues we are facing, and to include new sectors, such as agriculture, public procurement, services, and e-commerce among the preferential trade and business relations with the EU.
The Turkish minority plays a big role in Germany. Representatives of the Turkish minority have made it into the German national football team and even the Parliament. What are your expectations for the new German government?
The fact that there are roughly three million immigrants of Turkish descent in Germany makes our relations with this country much more amenable. Our citizens have been a part of the society for many years and have contributed to Germany’s economic wellbeing. In these times, as we remember the 60th anniversary of the Recruitment Agreement, signed by the then-Western Germany and Turkey in October 1961, the grandsons of Turks who left for Germany as construction workers are now represented in all aspects of political, scientific, and cultural life in the country. As for the new German government, we expect that the coalition that is set to be formed in December 2021 will create and implement policies that will bolster Turkish-German relations and positively impact Turkey’s interest in the EU.
Turkey has a very positive influence in Ukraine in the matters of Crimea. What are your opinions on the Russian occupation of this peninsula, which is the home of the Crimean Tatars?
Turkey’s political views on the matter of Crimea are very clear and unambiguous. Turkey has never acknowledged Russia’s rule over Crimea and it still considers Crimea to be Ukrainian territory. Turkey has and always will support Crimean Turks in this regard no matter what may come.
The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict has reached a point of amelioration after many years of Armenian forces occupying Azerbaijani territory. What role does the Turkish peace corps play in the area now?
Azerbaijan’s rightful victory last year, and the fact that it has been able to reclaim its previously occupied territories, has brought about an opportunity to introduce peace and stability in the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan has initiated a program to renew and revitalize these reclaimed territories, and it has garnered a wave of solidarity and support in Turkey, which is growing in all aspects. The Shusha Declaration, signed by both presidents on June 15, 2021, in Shusha, Azerbaijan, has elevated our mutual relations from a strategic partnership to an alliance, in the spirit of the motto, “One nation, two states.” The Shusha Declaration serves as a plan to develop our relations with Azerbaijan in all matters. Based on the joint announcement signed by representatives of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the Russian Federation on November 9, 2020, Turkey is active in the area as part of the joint Turkish-Russian Center established in the Azerbaijani territory of Agdam, and it plays a key role in the safety and stability of the region as well as the process of building up trust between both parties. Our priorities are the reopening of rail and highway connections in the region, specifically the Zangezur corridor connecting Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan, restoring economic activities, and initiating the complex process of returning to normalcy in the region, including improving relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia and Turkey and Armenia. This process is something we are working very closely on with Azerbaijan.
Czech people have always had good relations with Turkey, and have viewed the role that Kemal Atatürk played in modernizing the country very positively. Conversely, what kind of inspiration and allure does Czechia hold for Turkey?
Besides improving political and economic relations between Turkey and the Czech Republic, we take every chance there is to develop new opportunities for cooperation in the areas of trade, tourism, culture, and education as well as to bolster the connection between both communities. In this regard, the Turkish people’s interest in Czechia takes many different forms.
Firstly, Czechia is the perfect country for Turkish investors in terms of trade. Namely, its strategic location right in the middle of Europe and international trade connections with other EU countries present a very welcome opportunity for Turkish investors. Besides its tourist attractiveness, Czechia also holds a certain allure for the Turks thanks to the presence of traces left by their ancestors throughout history. Traces such as the Turkish cemetery in Pardubice, the fact that a personality such as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was treated in the spas of Karlovy Vary, or that the famous Turkish poet, Nâzım Hikmet, spent a part of his life in Prague. All of the above serves to increase the Turkish people’s interest in Czechia.
Last but not least, your country is one of the favorites among Turkish students when choosing where to go as part of the Erasmus program. The experiences and impressions that Turkish students bring back from their time here serve to subsequently increase Czechia’s popularity in the Turkish community.
Egemen Bağış is the Ambassador of Turkey to the Czech Republic.
He is a former Turkish politician, former Member of the Turkish Parliament, and the former Minister for EU Affairs and chief Negotiator of Turkey in accession talks with the European Union.
He also formerly served as the President of the Federation of Turkish American Associations, the New York-based umbrella organization of Turkish-Americans.
Egemen Bağış was born in Bingöl, Turkey, in 1970. He holds a degree of Bachelor of Arts in Human Resources Management as well as of Master of Public Administration, both from the Baruch College in New York.
He is married and has two children.