A Conversation with Ali Babacan
New York, N.Y.
BILL DROZDIAK: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. I'm Bill Drozdiak, president of The American Council on Germany. It's a pleasure for me to introduce our special guest tonight, Ali Babacan, the minister of Foreign Affairs from Turkey.
As the -- our title suggests, Turkey is indeed located in a volatile neighborhood, bordering, among other countries, on Georgia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. We look forward to the minister's comments today and an enlightening discussion about all these hotspots.
Just briefly -- you have his CV in front of you, but I would note he knows the United States quite well, having earned an MBA degree from the Kellogg School of Management and then immediately started doing financial consulting to executives of leading banks in the United States. And I think we could use your help right now -- (laughter) -- at this stage, in case you want to add that to your portfolio.
Later on he ran the family textile business, and then entered politics, becoming a founding member of the Justice and Development Party, which is now governing Turkey. He became initially the minister of State in charge of the economy, and now as Foreign Affairs minister he is conducting negotiations in a number of interesting areas that we will discuss. I'd also point out he led Turkey's negotiations with the European Union and the prospects for membership, which is also another subject that we look forward to hearing.
So with that, we will start our conversation, our evening with a presentation by the minister, and then we will follow with Q and Q for the rest of the hour.
Let me just dispense with the housekeeping details: Please turn off your cell phones and make sure that all other electronic devices are off so that it doesn't interfere with the sound system.
And with that, Minister Babacan, we welcome you here to the Council on Foreign Relations. (Applause.)
FOREIGN MINISTER ALI BABACAN: Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, I would like first of all to express my appreciation to the Council on Foreign Relations for organizing this event. This esteemed institution continues to make unique contributions to the deliberations on the major foreign policy issues of our time. I am happy to be here with you today.
There is no doubt that the international system nowadays is in a state of transition. Last month as the Olympics got off to a grand start in Beijing and all eyes turned to China, the drastic developments in the Caucasus remind us all once again that we do live in volatile times.
To many academicians who study geopolitics, the diverse regions surrounding Turkey are all fascinating case studies. For us, they are a fact of daily life where, unfortunately, there is never a dull moment. The Caucasus, the Balkans, Italy, Central Asia, North Africa -- these are regions with their distinct dynamics and intractable issues. This is why Turkish foreign policy is endeavoring to find feasible solutions to the many regional disputes and (frozen ?) conflicts we are today faced with.
We do this not just because it is in our interest, promotes security in our immediate vicinity, but also because, as experience shows, the cost of inaction is almost always much higher. With this understanding, immediately after the hostilities began in Georgia, we started a round of intense shuttle diplomacy with Moscow and Tbilisi, as well as the other major actors. Our goal was to bring an end to the hostilities as soon as possible and get the parties to start talking to each other in a meaningful manner and not through megaphone diplomacy.
Our goal was to bring an end to the hostilities as soon as possible and get the parties to start talking to each other in a meaningful manner and not through other means. During our contacts we emphasized the importance we attribute to the need for -- (inaudible) -- stability in the Caucasus, ending all hostilities and adhering to the twin principles of nonuse of force and resolving existing disputes through peaceful means. While doing this we were very careful in staying on the message about the need to preserve the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia and not getting into a blame game. During our efforts we stayed in close coordination with the United States, the United Nations and the European Union, and also with other influential players.
In our contacts, which were conducted at the highest levels in Moscow, Tbilisi, Baku and Yerevan, we proposed an offer to create a regional -- (inaudible) -- for cooperation and stability, and we thought that this would cover the countries in the Caucasus. This new initiative, which we called the Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform, aims to bring a new impetus and a functional process to the region.
Recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by the Russian federation changed the parameters and made the situation much more complicated. Now we must all work together to find a way forward in the southern Caucasus. Clearly there will be no quick fixes, and the solutions may involve making some hard choices.
Ladies and Gentlemen, sometimes opportunities present themselves based on chance, and it's incumbent on us to take the big leap forward. Just two weeks ago I accompanied my president -- (inaudible) -- to Yerevan to watch together with the Armenian president and foreign minister the World Cup soccer qualifier between Turkey and Armenia. This trip allowed for a significant exchange of views on the issues affecting both bilateral relations as well as regional security. We hope to be able to build on the dialogue we have started with Armenia. There is no doubt that the path ahead will have its fair share of challenges, and it will be difficult to overcome some of the historical baggage that continues to haunt us all in the region. But working together with all the nations in the Caucasus, we can bring about positive change for today and for future generations.
Distinguished guests, the events in the Caucasus have shown to all how complicated Turkey's neighborhood is, but it has also brought home once again the importance of our traditional ties. The enduring bonds between Turkey and the United States have always been characterized by friendship, alliance and mutual trust. Our two countries share the same set of values, like democracy, fundamental rights, freedoms, rule of law, free market economy, and these basic tenets underpin our strategic partnership. The long and diverse list of issues we are cooperating on speaks for itself: for example, ensuring secure energy supply into Western markets, fighting terrorism on a global scale, ensuring stability in the Balkans and Caucasus, stabilizing Afghanistan, bringing security and stability to Iraq, supporting Pakistan in its efforts to find internal harmony, safeguarding the political transition in Lebanon, working for the success of the Middle East process, preventing a new arms race in the region. These are all matters which are crucial to both the United States and Turkey. These are crucial for our national interests and for regional and international stability.
Today I met my counterpart, Condoleezza Rice, and when we look at the top foreign policy issues of Turkey and the top foreign policy issues of the United States, you would find them -- you will find that out of 10, at least seven or eight are identical issues. And what's more, when you look at the many issues on our agenda, we see a broad consensus between Turkey and the United States on the ideas and objectives related to both regional and global issues. We also see a common resolve to move forward on the critical issues we are all faced with, with a renewed sense of solidarity in a productive and forward-looking manner. The commonality of vision and resolve give us confidence today and reinforces our strategic partnership as we look at the future together.
Ladies and gentlemen, Turkey believes that quest for peace, security and stability in the Middle East is a noble and necessary endeavor. The region is faced with many challenges, and the grievances in some cases are centuries old. We are in need of lasting solutions to the problems which today have largely become interrelated. There must be a final solution to the Palestinian problem based on two states living side by side with recognized and secure borders in accordance with the relevant U.N. Security resolutions. The roadmap and peace initiative are crucial to us in this regard, and the continued support of the political process started at Annapolis and the belief that it must succeed against all odds. The rift among Palestinians is as harmful to both the Palestinian cause and the peace process, and must be bridged as an indispensable part of the peace agreement and must also be given priority.
The Middle East peace process will be incomplete without agreements in other tracks. We therefore attribute special importance to the Israeli-Syrian indirect peace talks which have started under Turkey's auspices after an eight-year -- (inaudible). We commend the two countries for taking the courageous step in an attempt to settle their problems through negotiation. There is goodwill on both sides, and we are hopeful for a successful outcome at the end of this process.
We have noted with (affection ?) the recent post -- (inaudible) -- developments in Lebanon. We expect the Doha agreement to be fully implemented, and we believe that the international community must fulfill its commitments for (civility ?) in Lebanon. Turkey's contributions to the reconstruction of Lebanon and -- (inaudible) -- by its troops are complete manifestations of our resolve in this regard. We welcome the recent contacts between Syria and Lebanon and the decision to establish diplomatic relations as an important step in the right direction.
Turkey is committed to peace and security in the Middle East, and we will continue to do our best to help achieve this. In this context we have continued our -- we have continued to expand our -- (inaudible) -- across different -- (inaudible) -- regions during the last year.
At this juncture -- (inaudible) -- facing many challenges and threats, the only way to overcome the interrelated and multinational problems is through collective response. If we are going to counter these challenges to success, the -- (inaudible) -- of the region need to join their capabilities and -- (inaudible) -- and cooperation with the ultimate aim of establishing a common area of peace, security, stability and prosperity. History stands as a testament that problems in a region are best addressed by the countries of that very region through their own institutions. The OSCE in Europe and CICA in Asia are prime examples. We could try to replicate this notion in the Middle East as well. In this regard we believe that it is time for us to establish a system which will contribute to not only the peaceful settlement of existing disputes and crises but also the prevention of the emergence of new ones. We will pursue the issue in consultation with our partners in the Middle East.
Let me also say at this point that our relations with Israel continue to flourish on their own merits, and we will continue to develop our cooperation where and when possible.
Distinguished guests, civility in the Middle East cannot be attained without civility in Iraq. In light of the present conditions in Iraq, I can say that we are reaching a critical turning point. At this critical stage we should think and act in a realistic way. We should concentrate our efforts on building on the -- (inaudible) -- in the field of security and the Iraqis ongoing political process. An essential prerequisite for the success of this process is national reconciliation among all the components of the Iraqi society. We need to do our best to ensure that this reconciliation is based on a common understanding with regard to the future of Iraq. This should include a fair solution to the problem of the -- (inaudible) -- that does not victimize any indigenous group.
We in Turkey continue to hope that such a common vision will be (enforced ?) as the problems that we have recently seen with regard to the provincial election role and the (hydrocarbon ?) role are resolved. Nevertheless we must take into account the fact that the security situation is fragile. If the provincial elections can be held in a climate of prudence and wisdom, we may be able to see lasting political gains.
Turkey deems it essential that the international community work together to support the genuine steps being taken by the Iraqi government towards strengthening its security forces in order to maintain Iraq's territorial integrity and national unity. For its part, Turkey is determined to continue with its efforts to bolster reconciliation between the Iraqi groups and help with the rebuilding of the country. We in turn expect continued and sincere cooperation from both the central government and the administration in the north of Iraq in the fight against PKK terrorism.
Ladies and gentlemen, the issue of Iran's nuclear program is also one that continues to preoccupy many in the international community as well as in the Middle East. We believe that a solution through diplomacy is achievable. We firmly believe that. Possible solutions should take into account the right to make peaceful use of nuclear energy, but in conformity with the IAEA norms and the NPT publications. In this context, the concerns of the international community regarding the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction should also be addressed. We hope that all parties concerned will seize the opportunity provided by the current negotiation process. However, the differences in views and -- (inaudible) -- seem to be very wide, and a continuing lack of confidence on all sides is hindering the camps reaching a breakthrough. Turkey will continue to do its utmost to contribute to the diplomatic process and help find a way out of this impasse. We are talking with Iranians rather frequently, as well as the six countries which have proposed the recent message to Iran.
Distinguished guests, while dealing with all the difficult crises around us, we are also moving forward with our longstanding goal of full European Union membership. The comprehensive process of reforms in Turkey to meet the E.U. criteria for membership is ongoing, and we are passing ahead with our accession negotiations. While the political will to accelerate these efforts and bring it to a conclusion exists in Turkey, we feel that the European Union is not always showing the determination that it did in the last round of enlargements. There may be some explanations for this, but ultimately if the European Union wants to be a truly global player with a healthy and vibrant economy, it must include Turkey among its strengths. At a time when drastic developments are taking shape in the regions surrounding Europe and Turkey, and our collective security, stability and cohesion are once again in doubt, the European Union is certainly not doing itself any long-term strategic favors by keeping Turkey at arm's length. We believe that we have much to contribute, and we will continue our drive for full membership to the European Union.
Ladies and gentlemen, I would also like to say a few words about Cyprus, as the days, weeks and months ahead will be critically important in the -- (inaudible) -- to find a just and viable settlement to this issue. As we have shown during the past several years and particularly in 2004, Turkey is committed to maintaining its constructive approach towards a settlement, and we believe that the year of 2008 offers a -- (inaudible) -- for achieving this. That's why we have supported the -- (inaudible) -- approach by the Turkish Cypriot side to start full-fledged negotiations as soon as possible. The two leaders had initiated a -- (inaudible) -- process in March, and finally on September 3rd, the comprehensive negotiations have been launched under the good auspices of the U.N. secretary general. We welcome this wholeheartedly. As a result of the negotiations, we hope that a new partnership state will be established by the two constituent states of equal status on the basis of U.N. -- (inaudible) -- and political culture of the two sides where the 1960 guarantee system would be reserved. On the other hand, the 40-year-long (adulations ?) imposed on the Turkish Cypriots are still in place. We expect the international community to act in conformity with the position of the former U.N. secretary general, who in his report to the Security Council made a call to the removal of all restrictions on the Turkish Cypriots.
Ladies and gentlemen, Turkey is much aware of the developments and potentials beyond its immediate vicinity. Africa is one of them. We are further developing our relations with the African continent. The African Union has recently announced Turkey as one of its very few strategic partners. We also became a member of the African Development Bank. We recently held the very first Turkey-Africa summit, which was attended by 20 presidents, vice presidents, prime ministers, and 60 ministers from 53 countries. And TIKA, the Turkish cooperation agency, is now active in 37 African countries for development and mentoring purposes. We have decided to open 15 embassies in sub-Saharan African countries.
By the same token, we are in full throttle to establish four new consul generals in India -- (inaudible) -- in our relations with this country has just started.
We are also paying particular attention to the challenges faced by Pacific island states in the light of emerging environmental -- (inaudible). This year we hosted the very first foreign ministers meeting in Istanbul for every single foreign minister of the Pacific island states. That was their very first time in Turkey, but also their very first time in Europe as well. And we are going to be paying more attention to these countries for development purposes, and also make them more inspired by the reforms -- the political and economic reforms that we were able to make during the last five, six years.
Last but not the least, we recently held a high-level meeting between Turkey and Caribbean island states in Istanbul to further increase the level of our cooperation with these countries as well.
Distinguished guests, as we approach to the end of the first decade of the 21st century, it is clear that when it comes to international relations and what the foreseeable future holds, there are more questions than we do have answers. The dynamics at play are more complicated, multifaceted and intertwined than ever before. This new reality in a new century requires new thinking, flexible approaches, and collective action. If we cannot adapt to the new strategic environment and take steps to take our own future, history surely will not be kind to us. Such action requires political will, leadership, and also ownership. This is why Turkey is working as a promoter of positive change in so many different domains and trying to create new avenues that will complement existing ones and open the path to more security and stability on an international scale. While many resign themselves to events and await the emergence of a new world order by itself that may never come, we are working day in and day out to effect positive change, address regional problems, and build security, stability, and prosperity from the ground up. We are convinced that by working together we can take ownership of the future and constructively shape events rather than letting events dictate the terms for us.
Thank you for your attention. (Applause.)
DROZDIAK: Before we get started with the question and answer period, I just wanted to affirm that the minister's opening remarks as well as his responses are on the record.
Mr. Minister, let me start by citing a few opinion polls that have come out recently showing that Turkish public support for the United States and its foreign policy is at perhaps the lowest ebb in history. I think the German Marshall Fund poll showed that something like 9 percent of the Turkish people support American leadership, which seems to be at odds with the strong alignment of policies that you'd mentioned with Condoleezza Rice. What -- can you explain a little bit about the mindset of the Turkish people? Is it just resentment and perhaps even anger at the debacle in Iraq and the problems that it's causing for Turkey, or are there other reasons?
BABACAN: Well, actually, we (regret ?) that figure which was the bottom figure, I would say, for many years. It has recovered recently, and it's at 12 to 13 percent or so. (Laughter.) So we have slightly better figures than last year. And this has a lot to do with what is happening in Iraq, basically.
When Turkish people observed the last five years and the (frustration ?) in Iraq, (frustration ?) in (Baghdad ?) -- it's also witnessed by my own eyes, I would say, twice recently -- then they have this emotional attitude, I would say. But on the other hand, Turkish people don't really have a long-lasting attitudes, and it is not very difficult to change their attitudes quite fast by seeing concrete changes on the ground. Once we had very adverse relations with Italy -- they were showing sympathy to one of the leaders of a terrorist organization in Turkey -- and at that time the Italians were boycotted, I would say, and if we had polls back during those days, probably the polls would give you negative results. But then when circumstances changed, the support came back very fast, and nowadays there is no (conflict ?) at all.
So the friendship, the partnership and the alliance between Turkey and the United States is a time-tested one, and it has a long history, and this has proved to be a success for our region. This has proved to be a success also globally.
But on the other hand, knowing the sensitivities of the region, understanding the region and implementing policies accordingly, of course, is very important to make sure that public support goes up there because ultimately it is important how much support is there from the people of that country towards another country and towards the relationship with that country. It is important.
So -- but we are glad that now there's an (improvement in faith ?), especially after we've started the cooperation with the United States against PKK in the north of Iraq. This changed the mood considerably. Especially during the last few years, we were finding PKK terrorists with brand new American weapons in their hands, and this was in the news. And obviously the fact that some of the weapons provided for the Iraqi Army, they say, over there were somewhat directed towards terrorists because there is, of course, lack of control and corruption all around Iraq, and it is not an easy place, I would say. But then there's now a -- (inaudible) -- investigation going on about how this can happen, and especially when we started to share more information and intelligence between Turkey and the United States. And when we started this close cooperation and coordination of our military work between Turkey and the United States, then things have started to improve and I have no doubt that this trend will be on the positive side for some time to come.
DROZDIAK: You mentioned in your remarks that Turkey has played a role in trying to mediate in the conflict between Russia and Georgia, but I wanted to raise the issue of energy security because Turkey plays such a crucial role there. First of all, there's the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, and I understand that Russia has proposed building another pipeline from Sochi to the northern part of Turkey under the Black Sea. Now, one of the motivations for Russia's invasion, according to some experts, has been an effort by Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev to try and ensure Russian domination of gas supplies to the West. What -- can you explain a little bit about Turkey's view on that? Do you think it -- are you willing to go along with that, or do you want to diversify supplies so that Western consumers are not totally dependent on Russian gas?
BABACAN: Well, when we look at the map we will see that almost two-thirds of the world's oil and gas reserves are located in countries which are just in the east or in the southeast of Turkey. On the other hand, we have one of the largest energy markets of the world, called Europe, just on the west of the country. And again, when we talk about diversification and when we talk about not putting all the eggs in one basket about energy policy, then Turkey seems to be a very natural alternative route for oil and for gas from East to Western markets.
Also, we have now projects for north-south pipelines, especially to bypass the Bosphorus because now our straits -- Turkish straits, I would say, are very congested by heavy tanker traffic. And now there's a project called Samsun-Ceyhan -- a Black Sea coast-Mediterranean coast pipeline. And also BTC pipeline is important to carry the Caspian oil to a Mediterranean port called Ceyhan. There is also a BTE gas pipeline -- Baku-Tbilisi to Erzurum -- to connect to our network. And also we have now projects to bring gas from Egypt to Turkey through Arab pipeline -- Arab gas pipeline. We have projects to have gas from Iraq to Turkey. There is already an oil pipeline functioning between Iraq and Turkey, bringing Iraqi oil to a Mediterranean port -- to Ceyhan. We have recently opened the interconnector between Turkey and Greece gas pipeline, and this will continue into Italy. So all these show how important Turkey is going to be for years to come.
And now there's this new project for Nabucco to carry gas from east of Turkey, let's say, into Europe, which we are closely talking with the Europeans -- actually I just had a meeting with President Barroso of the European Commission, who said that Nabucco is very important and they want to speed up the process, which is okay. We want to do it.
So the recent crisis in the Caucasus reminded probably people again how crucial it is to diversify. And Turkey is ready to help all of those policies, but on the other hand, Turkey is already having a big business with Russia in terms of gas and oil. We buy 65 percent of our gas from Russia and the rest from Iran and Algeria so far, and some from Azerbaijan through BGE, but the majority of the gas comes from Russia. And for oil -- we buy a quarter of our oil from Russia. So on the other hand -- on one hand, we have all these projects, but on the other hand, we are a close trade partner of Russia. I think Turkey is the fourth largest export market of Russia. And Russia is our number one trading partner now. So what we are doing is also of more of a complementary nature to what is already being done in the region.
DROZDIAK: I see. Turkey has been playing a very important mediation role between Syria and Israel. Now, I understand the latest round, the fifth round last week was postponed at Israel's request, I suppose until they sort out their leadership crisis. Do you think that the next government of Israel will be firmly committed to some kind of an accord on the Golan Heights, and does the United States need to be directly involved in making this happen?
BABACAN: The contacts between Turkey and Israel and also Turkey and Syria have been already there for more than a year for the problems between Syria and Israel. Meetings sometimes took place in Israel, sometimes in Syria, sometimes in Istanbul, but then last May, we made the formal launch of the indirect peace talks and these are continued under Turkish auspices.
Why Turkey? Because a very simple reason, because these two countries maybe don't trust each other that much, I would say. But then Syria has trust Turkey, Israel has trusted Turkey and now we are -- we have already completed four rounds of peace talks. These are taking place in Istanbul. The two delegations stay in different hotels. They don't see each other at all. And my delegation shuttles in between these two hotels. That's how the talks are continuing. And there has been concrete progress. But then the domestic political situation in Israel, especially the decision of Ehud Olmert to leave the leadership of his party, is now going to let all of us watch a process whether a coalition or early elections -- we don't know.
Now, believe me, it's trying to find -- trying to form a new coalition. If she can, she will be able to do it, then, of course, it's going to be the decision of Israel as to how to proceed. So because of this domestic situation in Israel, the talks are not continuing now, but the fifth round is ready on the Syrian side, I would say. On the Israel side, it was already scheduled for 18th and 19th of September, but then because of the authorization problem of the negotiator on the Israeli side, those talks were postponed. But in Israel, not only Likud, but several other parties, as well some institutions of Israel are also supporting this process.
Syria, they are already in a quite good motivation, I would say. They have the strong political will to talk about the issues and, if possible, find a solution. And unless -- I would say, until they have to direct talks, both of the countries say that Turkey should be the only mediator. But then when direct talks start, there could be another country or countries who could be involved, and that is the wish of Israel and Syria. However they want to continue this, they will continue as they like as long as they can agree amongst themselves. But so far, during the indirect talks, both of the countries want only Turkey to be in this process.
I don't want to raise the expectations that high, but the political will from both of the sides seems to be quite strong, and if we can actually achieve this, then it can trigger other tracks as well, like the Israeli-Lebanon track, which could be much easier to resolve if the Syrian-Israeli track is more on a positive trend. So we believe that this could change a lot of things in the region, although the core problem is the Israel-Palestinian one, that's the core track, and without resolving the Israel-Palestinian problems, we don't think that real peace can come to the Middle East. So we will be supporting that track as well.
And for the Israeli-Syrian track, at the core of the issue there is this peace-for-land understanding, and land, we more or less know the land. But then peace is going to be the real negotiation area. What do we understand by "peace"? How real that peace is is going to be at the core of the negotiations to come. Then the rest is, okay, borders and water issues and security and normalization and so forth, these are all agenda items for the negotiations. But at the core of the issue here is peace-for-land concept.
DROZDIAK: Let's take some questions from the audience now. Please wait for the microphone and stand and state your name and affiliations.
QUESTIONER: My name is David Phillips with Columbia University. Abdullah Gul's visit to Yerevan was a truly historic moment and now there's all kinds of momentum behind progress and reconciliation. If you miss this moment, you could be set back for years. So what specific steps do you envision? What will it take ultimately to open the border between Turkey and Armenia? Do you have to wait for Azerbaijan and their elections? Or are you prepared to move ahead sooner?
BABACAN: Actually, the recent crisis in Georgia urges all the countries in the region to reiterate their policies and also have a stronger feeling of urgency, so I would say. This is, I think, valid for Azerbaijan. This is valid for Armenia. And we thought that this could be a good opportunity. And this football game, you know, is chance, but then we thought it is a good opportunity. And our president and myself, we went to Yerevan not just for the game, which lasts 90 minutes, but before the game we had long discussions and after the game my president left, but I stayed for another two- and-a-half hours, from midnight to 3:00 a.m. or so, to continue our discussions with Foreign Minister Nalbandian.
And they seemed to be quite sincere that they want a solution. They say that they want a solution not only for the problems between Armenia and Turkey, but also for the problems between Armenia and Azerbaijan as well, which is also very important, because Nagorno-Karabakh is another frozen conflict of the Caucuses, and Turkey -- talking about the border, Turkey actually closed the border with Armenia after Armenians started to invade the Azeri territory. That's how it happened actually.
Now, we have been openly discussing the bilateral issues, including the 1915 events. Those tragedies happened during the First World War in different parts of the world, and we offered Armenians that we can have a joint commission of historians, scientists, different people from different disciplines of science who could look into the archives and find out what happened and what did not happen. And we already convinced ourselves that whatever the outcome of that study is, we are ready to face the results, and we offered that back in 2005. So that's also something that we are discussing as well.
And before the game actually, our diplomats were already in touch base with the Armenian diplomats for quite some time. So there was already a communication going on, I would say, between our diplomats. But then after the game, then the discussion has been raised to political levels, so that was probably an important event to put the relations or talks, I would say, into a new phase.
Then around also talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which has been continued for a while, President Sargsyan and President Aliyev met at the beginning of June in St. Petersburg and since then the foreign ministers of two countries have met already several times. And also on the Azeri side, we are observing a willingness for the solution of this trouble. So it is quite an interesting time where in Azerbaijan, in Armenia, and in Turkey there is strong willingness to solve these issues. The political will is there, which is probably very important. And then the rest is details to be discussed and the devil is always in the details, of course.
But then after the elections in Azerbaijan, I would expect a faster process between Azerbaijan and Armenia and between Armenia and Turkey as well. And the problems are interrelated. These are not isolated issues. And when I went to Yerevan, I offered the Foreign Minister Nalbandian that since all these issues are interrelated, why don't we meet as three foreign ministers -- Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan? He accepted. I offered the same thing to my Azeri colleague. He also accepted. And this Friday, we are going to have our very first trilateral meetings -- Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia foreign ministers meeting -- so that we can discuss the issues of our regions altogether among each other.
So if we try to push these only on bilateral level, it seems to be difficult to proceed. But then if we look at the problems from a wider framework and look at the problems of the region as a whole, it could be easier to progress on both sides. And there could be synergies, so to say, and I think we have reasons to be hopeful, and we will be doing our best to find a way out because it's extremely important for the future stability and security and also, of course, prosperity of the Caucuses if we can proceed on all of these fronts.
And the good thing is, again, the other countries are supporting this. The United States, they are supporting. Russia, I think they're supporting both of the processes. The EU already made strong comments. So as long as the international community's also behind us and as long as there's political will, then I think we have reasons to be hopeful.
DROZDIAK: You'll be meeting with them this week?
BABACAN: Friday here in New York, yes -- the very first trilateral meeting because, as I said, the problems are interrelated and they are not isolated.
DROZDIAK: And it's received more impulse from the Russia-Georgia conflict, which is interesting. Well, thank you.
Next question. Yes?
QUESTIONER: Thank you. My name is Joanna Weschler with Security Council Report. I want to ask you a question which you will probably hear a lot this week at the U.N. Your country is running for an elected seat of the Security Council of the United Nations. If you get elected, could you say what -- how will you want to use these two short years? What are your priorities for this period?
BABACAN: Well, Turkey has been quite active for peace and stability in many parts of the world, and since 1961, we have not been represented at the Security Council -- almost half a century, I would say. And we are in the group of Western Europe and others. Two seats available, three countries competing: Turkey, Austria and Iceland. And we will be -- and the voting will be 16th or 17th of October -- to be determined soon.
So far, it seems okay, but we have to wait until the last moment because it's a secret vote and we have to be very, very careful. Of course, it is a difficult position to be in the Security Council because we will have to take positions on many global issues. So some people called this -- even if you win, then you will be facing the winner's curse. So that is also something which is of concern to us, of course.
But then by playing according to the rules, by being aware of the major global issues of our times, whether you call it proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or whether it is about climate change or it is about a fight against epidemics like AIDS and so forth, there are many issues of global scale which are of utmost concern to us. But what's more probably, Turkey's own experience of what we have done is going to be quite important for many countries. Our economic reforms, our political reforms, the countries which we do interact are quite influenced I would say by what we have done because rather than giving them 100 -- (inaudible) -- I would say, showing them one working good example sometimes works much better.
I talk about Pacific Island states. After the ministerial meeting that I hosted in Istanbul, the minister from New Zealand came to visit me and he said that he got excellent feedback from all those countries and he said that Turkey and New Zealand should be doing more together in the South Pacific. And -- okay we are thousands of miles away, but the way those countries look at Turkey with a fresh look with no negative baggage coming from history or so forth, and being successful in what we have done, the democratization process, the progress in fundamental rights, the economic success that Turkey demonstrated. These are, I think, quite influential to many countries.
And we will be working -- we will be following according to the principles, the main values that we support all around the globe, whether it is about democracy, whether it's about fundamental rights, freedoms, rule of law -- these will be our guidelines, basic guidelines. And Turkey proving more and more of a country being trusted by many countries at the same time, we believe that we are going to do our contribution as a member of the Security Council.
DROZDIAK: Okay, let's go over to this side of the room.
Yes, Ambassador Gelb?
QUESTIONER: You mentioned one of the key issues for Turkey is admission to the European Union. And the three-way split of Turkey in terms of attitudes toward Cyprus seem to be, at least in the minds of many European leaders, crucial to that event taking place. Could you describe the difference in the attitude on solving the Cyprus problem from the military standpoint as compared to the government standpoint? And if there is a third difference on the part of the majority of your public, I would be interested in that as well. Thanks.
BABACAN: Well, actually this is -- this is the rhetoric that we have been hearing more often nowadays: that Turkey has different stances against the Cyprus issue, you know, especially our armed forces allegedly having a different approach and so forth. But I can easily say that these approaches -- this rhetoric, I would say, is not appropriate. It does not really reflect the reality.
Going back to 2004, for example -- (inaudible) -- the meeting, the last meeting we had with Kofi Annan, where the Annan plan was finalized and so forth, we had our government there. Also different units were also there, including the representatives of our armed forces and so forth. And then the solution was a solution which was supported by the Republic of Turkey, without any differences between different units and so forth.
And right now, the process which has recently started between two leaders, between -- (inaudible) -- is also something supported by the Republic of Turkey as one front. But we discussed everything. We discussed many things among ourselves first, but then Turkey takes one united position for all these issues.
But then the -- (inaudible) -- could be using this rhetoric, could be using it if, for example Telat (ph) wants a solution, but Turkey does not want a solution. Maybe the government in Turkey wants it, but the armed forces -- it's not true. And we have proved to be the side willing to see a solution. It is not by words, but also by our deeds in 2004 that we have proved that we want a solution. And the Annan plan, which was taking the referendum, was accepted by Turkish Cypriots. And it's by our active support to the plan and local support to the plan that the referendum was -- it was the result.
But on the Greek Cypriot side of the island, the former leader, Papadopoulos, he followed a negative line after the plan was finalized. He was on TV, making TV programs, very emotional rhetoric, in tears, begging his people to reject this plan in the referendum. And the Europeans were mad. The commissioner Van Huyden, who was in charge of enlargement back then, he made public comments saying that the European Union has been cheated -- he used the words "been cheated" -- by Greek Cypriots because they agreed on the table, but then they went back and started this negative campaign for the plan and to make it reject the referendum and so forth.
So -- and for the north of the island, we still have the same person. Mr. Talat (ph), who was successful in 2004. He is still in power in Turkey. Mr. Erdogan was the prime minister. And we still have the same prime minister, the same leadership in Turkey and also in the north of the island pushing for a resolution. But then we have a new leader in the south of the island who says he wants a solution, but then he has to prove this by his deeds also and his commitment is still to be tested.
So we will see the results altogether, but we are very sincere in this and we are going to push this process until the very end to reach a successful outcome.
DROZDIAK: (Inaudible.) Yes.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. I'm John Brademas. I was a member of Congress for 22 years, and I'm the first Greek-American elected to the Congress of the United States. In 1967, when a group of Army officers overthrew young King Constantine of Greece, I, the only Greek-American in Congress, strongly attacked the coup. I wouldn't go to Greece and I said should we embargo further arms to Greece. A few years later, as you know, there was an invasion by Turkish armed forces of Cyprus. And at that point -- and I made the observation that the Turkish troops were equipped with arms supplied by the United States, which was an illegal use of American weapons.
DROZDIAK: Question please. Question.
QUESTIONER: I know. I'm trying to give him some background. I led the fight that imposed an arms embargo on Turkey. I spoke at Istanbul University recently. I said, I want to say Turkey in Europe, but so long as Turkey militarily occupies another member of the European Union, namely, Cyprus, I think it's impossible. I yield back the balance of my time.
The question is why don't Turkey's troops get out of Cyprus?
BABACAN: Well, you talked about the military coup in Greece, but you omitted to talk about the coup in Cyprus, which was a partnership state between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots. The coup in Cyprus, as you know there was a military regime in Cyprus starting to do many bad things, which I don't want to talk about, to Turkish Cypriots over there. And Turkey was a guarantor country by the 1960 agreement for the island, so we have a guarantor position or an official position for the island to take care of the stability and security over there. And when Turkish Cypriots are in trouble, we have to be there and we will be there as long as it is needed.
If Greek Cypriots accepted the Annan Plan in 2004, according to the plan, the number of Turkish military forces on the island would be reduced already. Also, we should not forget that there are also Greek troops, not Greek Cypriots, but Greek troops right now on the island. We should not forget about those also.
So the Annan Plan of 2004 foresee (sic) a reduction of the troops gradually reaching a target of, as far as I remember, 600 Turkish troops and 900 Greek troops or something like that, and this for the Greek, by Greeks, the Turkish Cypriots like to excuse and so forth. So if the current situation is continuing as an impasse, it is because of the rejection of the Greek Cypriots for the peace plan of the United Nations.
So Turkey is a major player of peace and stability in the region, and Cyprus is important for the stability and peace of the Eastern Mediterranean. And that's why we insist that the guarantee agreements of 1960 should stay there, should be preserved.
DROZDIAK: Okay. Thank you. Last question.
QUESTIONER: Hi. Peggy Hicks, Human Rights Watch.
DROZDIAK: Speak up, please.
QUESTIONER: Sorry. Your government in mid-2007 committed itself to replacing the 1982 constitution with a truly civilian constitution that would look forward to protect fundamental rights and freedoms of Turkish citizens. But there's been little talk about rewrite lately. Could you give us a view on whether your government is still committed to that objective and a timeframe for it?
BABACAN: I think it's no secret that our current constitution -- our current constitution which we are using right now, was not prepared during normal times. And we do think that Turkey does need a constitution which is fully in line with the European criteria because the European Union with all the 27 member states have some basic values, principles, criteria, political criteria and our current constitution is not 100 percent inline with those criteria. So our ultimate target, ultimate aim is aligning our constitution with the criteria of the European Union.
But then in what stages, in what phases and which steps it should take place is something to be debated. It is something to be discussed thoroughly. And we just actually announced our new draft national program which covers the political and economic reforms, also our key related reforms, for the next four years. And this national program foresees constitutional amendments as well.
We open this to discussion now. I sent a copy to 84 different NGOs, also sent a copy to all the opposition parties. I saw the leaders of some opposition parties as well, and we are now expecting their views, comments, criticism. And after we collect them, we are going to finalize our national program for the next four years, which is a quite comprehensive set of reforms, I would say, and then we will start implementing those.
But what's important is that we are now trying to form as large as possible a consensus basis, and also we are trying to make a political reconciliation, I would say, to try to form as strong support as possible behind the reforms that we are foreseeing, and then start moving. Because although we have our majority in the parliament, we have to be also careful about what the opposition thinks, what different sectors of our society, what different segments of our society think, and we want to form as large basis as possible before we move on with the implementation of the new reform program.
DROZDIAK: That's all the time we have for tonight. Please join me in thanking our guest for his sharing of views. (Applause.) Thank you. Thank you very much.
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