Interview: Presidential candidate Kilicdaroglu’s views on relations with Russia
May I know your general assessment of Turkish-Russian relations?
Turkish-Russian relations have a long history. This long history has not only brought the two nations face to face in wars, but it also became a means of friendship and solidarity during the establishment of the Republic of Turkey and the USSR at the beginning of the twentieth century. Russia's support in our War of Independence, which we won under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, is among the most important examples of this solidarity.
In the period since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Russia has a special position in our bilateral relations. The second half of the twentieth century is the period of the Cold War. There was on the one hand, Turkey, a member of NATO, and on the other hand, the USSR, the largest state of the Warsaw Pact. The two nations have an experience of mutual respect despite being in opposite camps and keeping this respect alive. The contribution of the USSR to the development of the industrial infrastructure and the establishment and growth of the iron-steel and aluminum industry in Turkey is undeniable. A significant portion of Turkey's energy imports comes from Russia. Russian citizens rank first among the foreign tourists who come to Turkey each year. One of the important markets of Turkey's agricultural products is Russia. All these make it possible for the two countries to live together in a shared geography. Sometimes, for peace and stability to prevail in this shared geography, cooperation based on a common understanding happens. This is what matters! For example, the Montreux Convention has been implemented for many years without any problems. It is in the interest of both parties to maintain relations based on mutual respect and trust without interfering in each other's internal affairs. I look at Turkish-Russian relations based on this understanding, and I give importance to a long-term, stable policy based on non-sporadic and consistent policies in relations with Russia.
Today, there are criticisms that the relationship between President Putin and President Erdogan is being carried out within the framework of a personal relationship and understanding between the leaders, rather than using the institutional structures and capacity of either country. If you are elected President, will we see a change in the processes related to the conduct of the diplomatic relationship between the two countries?
Of course, just as institutions play an important role in international diplomacy, so too do senior figures. However, as you emphasized in your question, we think that the main determinant in international relations should be the institutional mind and experience. In this regard, we have no doubt that the relations between the two countries will proceed smoothly on an institutional basis. Heads of state are the highest-ranking persons who approve agreements reached at the institutional level. They also assist in resolution and reconciliation on issues that are brought to them without having reached a consensus. No changes should be expected in these processes. So long as we approach relations on the basis of mutual trust with the principle that governments are temporary while states are permanent.
The Russian factor is of great importance in our foreign policy, especially in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh. In these regions, we have experienced tumultuous and tense moments with Russia, which sometimes result in cooperation and at times in competition. The Ukraine War seems to have reinforced the delicate character of Turkish-Russian relations. How do you plan to position Russia in line with the expected change in Turkish foreign policy in the new period while keeping global balances in mind?
Russia is an important neighbor in our region and a partner when necessary. While we act together in ensuring regional peace and stability, there may be situations where we think differently. This is a natural consequence of being a sovereign state. The position of Russia in Turkish foreign policy is clear. The same is true for Russia, which has a certain definition of Turkey’s position. On the basis of mutual respect, I do not think there is a reason for this situation to change. On the contrary, I believe that existing positions will be further consolidated rather than facing new challenges.
Considering our collaboration in bilateral relations and our position with regard to third countries, how do you evaluate the current policy of the government in the context of the Ukraine War? Whether there will be a change in our official policy towards the war in Ukraine if you are elected is another matter of debate. In the past week, the Russian media and public have been discussing this. Will there be any change? What are your thoughts on the Western sanctions against Russia?
We do not approve of the military action launched by Russia against Ukraine. The fact that two independent, sovereign, and neighboring countries are at war with each other today especially affects Europe, starting from the Black Sea region. We want the Black Sea basin to be a region of cooperation in peace and stability. For this reason, we have made a persistent effort to implement the rules brought by Montreux and not to erode Montreux since the beginning of this military operation. This situation between the two countries should be improved, peace should be established, and Ukraine's territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence should be respected. We would like to contribute to the solution of the current problem through the use of the diplomatic experience, and not with personal expectations, of the Republic of Turkey. Turkey’s authorized cadres have had and will continue to have the potential to be facilitators in solving problems. Turkey's perspective on sanctions is clear. I believe it would be in accordance with international law to respect every decision made within the framework of the UN Security Council resolutions. With regard to decisions apart from this, of course, the dynamics of the countries themselves come into play.
Today, within the framework of Turkey's attitude in the Russia-Ukraine war and the close friendship between the leaders, there are analyses that indicate that Mr. Putin is throwing his weight behind the current government in the Turkish elections. In particular, financial support from Russia in recent months and Russia's mediation efforts in Syria are cited as evidence for this. Do you think President Putin holds such a stance?
I hear these analyses, but I want to believe that they do not reflect the truth. The most important element of relations between Turkey and Russia should be trust. It is necessary for both sides to not interfere in the other’s internal affairs, and especially not to engage in behavior that could be interpreted as taking a side in matters such as elections. This is our understanding. Russia is also a country that frequently expresses its discomfort with the interventions in the internal affairs of countries and is aware of the gravity of steps in this direction. Any behavior that contradicts this erodes and destroys mutual trust. Grounds for this should not be created.
We too have been advocating for a long time for dialogue between Syria and Turkey. Although it is late in this regard, the time wasted can be quickly overcome with the steps to be taken. Also, we are two neighbors, and we should not need the mediation of third countries to initiate such a dialogue. Turkey and Syria have a historical capital that will allow us to sit down, discuss all our issues mutually, and come to a common understanding. In the last earthquake, Syria was affected as much as Turkey. I also sent a letter expressing my condolences to Syrian President Assad.
A Biography of Kemal Kilicdaroglu
He was born in 1948 in the Nazimiye district of Tunceli. He completed his primary and secondary education in various parts of Anatolia such as Ercis, Tunceli, Genc, and Elazig. He completed his bachelor’s degree at the Ankara Academy of Economics and Commercial Sciences (Gazi University, Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences) in 1971. Upon completing his undergraduate education, he began to work at the Ministry of Finance after passing the Assistant Accountant Exam.
Kilicdaroglu, who later became a junior account specialist, stayed in France for a year. He continued developing his expertise in accounting until 1983, and was appointed to the General Directorate of Revenues in the same year. Here, he first served as the Head of the Department, and later served as the Deputy General Manager of the same institution. Kemal Kilicdaroglu was appointed to Bag-Kur in 1991. Kilicdaroglu, who worked as the general manager here, was transferred to the General Manager of the Social Insurance Institution in 1992.
Afterwards, he served as the Deputy Undersecretary at the Ministry of Labor and Social Security of the Republic of Turkey for a short time. In 1994, he was selected as the "Bureaucrat of the Year" by the Economic Trend Magazine. Kemal Kilicdaroglu retired from the General Directorate of Social Insurance Institution in January 1999 of his own accord.
Kilicdaroglu, who chaired the Informal Economy Specialization Commission as part of the Eighth Five-Year Development Plan, also lectured at Hacettepe University. He later served as a Member of the Board of Directors at Turkey’s Isbank.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu entered parliament as the Republican People's Party (CHP) Istanbul Deputy after the 22nd Term Parliamentary Elections held on November 3, 2002.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who took part in the CHP Central Executive Board, was also elected as the 23rd Term Deputy from Istanbul in the General Elections of July 22, 2007, and served as the CHP Group Deputy Chairman until he announced his candidacy for the General Presidency. He was elected as the Chairman of the Republican People's Party at the 33rd CHP Ordinary Congress held on May 22, 2010. (chp.org.tr)
*This interview was originally published in Turkish here on March 19, 2023.