Ioana Bercean: Turkey matters for Romania primarily in the context of the Black Sea
Ioana Constantin-Bercean is a professional in international affairs. In 2022 she graduated with a PhD in International Relations from UBB – Cluj-Napoca, with a thesis on nuclear negotiations with Iran. She is also currently completing her second PhD thesis, in Sociology, at the University of Bucharest, on the influence of religion and Persian nationalism on Iranian foreign policy. She is the recipient of a postdoctoral fellowship, with a project on Turkey’s foreign policy in the Erdogan era, and is the author of numerous articles in scholarly publications dealing with Middle East issues, and the Islamic Republic of Iran in particular, as well as nuclear non-proliferation. She has studied or collaborated on various projects as a research associate at various Western institutions: International Institute for Peace (Vienna, Austria), Diplomatische Akademie Wien (Austria), Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (Austria) and Hudson Institute, Washington, D.C. (USA). She is fluent in English, French and Spanish and speaks Farsi, Arabic and Italian at a conversational level.
The interview was taken on 2 February 2023, before the late March decision of the Turkish parliament to approve Finland’s accession to NATO.
Ms Bercean, we are talking in the context of a recently published book on Turkey written by Romanian experts. What’s new in this book? What does this book offer? You are co-editor, so you can perhaps also describe the topics and perhaps some of the theses of the Romanian experts when it comes to Turkey as a subject of international relations or politics.
Hello and thank you for the invitation. Yes indeed, yesterday we launched the book “Turkey at the Centenary. Quo Vadis” which I had the pleasure and honour to coordinate together with my colleague Matei Blănaru. And it is the first volume of its kind in Romania dedicated to the centenary of the Turkish Republic.
I think that the volume is very welcome, in the context in which Romania and the Turkish Republic have diplomatic and economic relations, and a very broad level of communication between the two countries. For many years, in fact since the establishment of the Turkish Republic, there have been links between Romania and the government in Ankara, but also in the business environment, which have accentuated the need for collaboration in the region.
The volume brings together 17 very good experts in their fields and we have analyses, essays or simply accounts of diplomatic events. We have articles on the issue of feminism in Turkey, on the emergence of religion in Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his party since 2002. We have articles describing certain diplomatic events. We have some very good studies on the positioning of Turkey in the context of the war in Ukraine. Also, an analysis describing the relationship between Turkey and Syria, in the context of the less cordial relations between Damascus and Ankara, as well as in the context where we have a very large number of refugees.
In short, it is a very welcome volume, it is addressed to both academics and I think it will be a very good study material for both students and masters and doctoral students, but also for the general population, who want to understand what Turkey means after 100 years as a republic, what the transition from empire to republic meant, what Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, meant and what this Centenary moment means when Turkey is led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in forming a certain picture through some very educated and informed accounts. I dare say, perhaps by some of the best experts in the field.
At the launch of this book at the House of Scientists in Bucharest, on the first of March 2023, it was said, I believe several times, that this book was written in such a way as to demonstrate Romanian national interests. What is the key way Romania looks at Turkey in the context of this research or this book? How can Romanian national interests be summed up with regard to Turkey?
Indeed, during that debate, the speakers referred to what we generically call Romania’s national interest. But before I answer your question, I would like to point out that this project was initiated about a year ago and the book entered the final editing and printing process a few weeks before the earthquakes that brought so much disaster and loss of life in Turkey. So, together with my colleague and Director of the Institute of Political Science and International Relations, Professor Dan Dungaciu, we decided to dedicate this book to the victims of the earthquake in Turkey. So it is a book dedicated to the Turkish people and we wish Turkey a speedy and healthy recovery.
As far as the link between Romania and Turkey is concerned, the first thing we can think of is the Black Sea region. We are talking here about two states bordering the Black Sea, and as we can see, especially in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this region is becoming a very important point on the political map, not only of Europe, but of the whole world. It is becoming a strategic point, the Black Sea has become a geopolitical point that everyone is talking about.
We also have a legislative proposal in the American Congress, whereby American decision-makers want a more intense, more visible involvement in the Black Sea region. Now, as we know very well, the Black Sea is under the umbrella of the Montreal Convention, and there Turkey has some advantages and almost decides everything that happens in this area.
Romania has a strategic security interest. It is very important to cooperate as well as possible with Turkey in this area, both from a security and economic point of view. From a security point of view, of course, we are talking about a more militarily advanced presence in the Black Sea, and this cannot happen without the agreement of the Ankara government, through what I mentioned earlier, the Montreal Convention. And from an economic point of view, the Black Sea is after all also a channel, a means of transport for various products. So, of course, it is in the interest of Bucharest and Ankara to have a dialogue, to have common points and to find, if you like, in this whole grey area of international relations, the best position.
From the Romanian perspective, it is important that these channels of communication remain open, because any misunderstanding between the states bordering the Black Sea only makes the region more vulnerable. And when we already have a border war, I believe that this must be managed diplomatically, wisely, patiently and in the best sense for all the riparian states, not just Turkey and Romania, because we are also talking about Bulgaria. However, I repeat, what Ankara is doing and what it is proposing as a strategy for the Black Sea must also be carefully analysed by the decision-makers in Bucharest, and the most appropriate and best cooperation solutions must be found in order to build bridges and not walls, in order to find the most appropriate solutions that will benefit both Turkey and Romania and, of course, Bulgaria.
You mentioned the disaster of these earthquakes in Turkey. What do these earthquakes change when it comes to international policy towards Turkey?
It has been very interesting to follow during this period a phenomenon that I call disaster diplomacy. It’s a fairly new concept. In fact, it was first used in 2012 by analyst, political scientist and writer Ilan Kelman, who also wrote a book then, Disaster Diplomacy: How Disaster Affects Peace and Conflict. That is, how this disaster diplomacy affects the peace process or can worsen some already existing conflicts.
Of course, disaster diplomacy is not just about earthquakes. We are not talking about other natural phenomena. The author also refers to climate change, but also to other disasters, not volcanic eruptions, perhaps even incidents, not necessarily natural, nuclear incidents, such as the one in Japan or Chernobyl, but there was no such concept then. It is interesting to follow this process, because if we look at this concept, disaster diplomacy, we see that it brings together two terms that we would normally say are in antithesis. Diplomacy is the process of negotiation, goodwill, mutual goodwill, whereas disaster is defined by the Oxford Dictionary itself as a sudden accident or natural disaster causing damage and loss of life.
But if we look back a little, for example, in 1999, when that earthquake occurred in the Izmir region, when more than 17 000 lives were lost, Greece was a country which, if you like, we could say was in a kind of regional ‘cold war’, a small cold war with Turkey. It was one of the first countries to offer humanitarian assistance and financial aid to Turkey, including sending teams to rescue and search for victims from under the rubble and the ruins that emerged from the earthquake. There have been similar examples of disaster diplomacy, including between the US and Iran, where again they do not have a good relationship. By the way, the relationship is really very difficult, and after the earthquake of 6 February this year, we have reached a death toll of over 50 000.
Of course, in the case of the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, we are also talking about Syria, which is also affected, and the problems there are even more serious, because we also have a civil war, and this northern part of Syria is not controlled by the rebels, and access for humanitarian troops is a little more complicated in the case of Turkey. And again we have seen even countries like Greece, which again, as in 1999, immediately came to Turkey’s aid. But even more interesting and closely watched was the example of Armenia’s aid. We all know the not-so-gentle and rather complicated history, if we refer to its past, for example the Armenian genocide. But aid came from all these countries and, of course, also from Western countries. They have also come from the Arab world. Aid has come including from Iran to Turkey and to Syria, from Israel. Israel, I think, was one of the first countries to send aid, including to Syria.
And then we can talk about a phenomenon which, once things have calmed down and people are beginning to return to a certain degree of normality, can form the basis for the resumption of dialogue, of discussions and can even lead to the improvement of a certain kind of relationship which now seems to be more tense. But, of course, it is a long process, but it is very good that this is happening, if you like, in a very cynical and very painful way, nature shows us that even in the aftermath of a disaster, if we are wise enough and treat things with patience and care, we can get some good out of it if it happens. But, of course, it is a long process and success is not guaranteed.
Southern European countries like Romania and Bulgaria have strong economic relations with Turkey, including Turkish trade and investment. But, on the other hand, we are part of NATO and the European Union, which means a certain loyalty to democratic values that Turkey is criticised for not respecting lately. What does this dilemma look like when it comes to Romania? How likely is a situation in which Romania will have to choose between values or belonging to the Western space and more friendly, economic and human relations with Turkey?
Now, if we speak at the political level, at the diplomatic level, Romania has very good relations with Turkey. Your question, I understand, perhaps refers to Turkey’s leadership, which for some researchers and for part of the population, for the feminist movement, of course, raises certain questions and we can analyse and discuss this at length. However, I repeat, at international diplomatic level, Turkey has relations not only with Romania, but also with the major Western powers, the United States, France, Germany and the United Kingdom.
Unfortunately, this world of international relations and foreign policy cannot be drawn in black and white. If on a moral level, on a humanity level, of course we position ourselves in a certain way on everything that means human rights, and here we include minority rights, women’s rights, the rights of the LGBTI community and so on, of course the approach is in a certain way. But if we talk about the level at the diplomatic level and at the political level, we see that relations between Ankara and all Western capitals are still on the agenda and there is no discussion or question yet of a certain kind of choices that Romania or any other Western state should make.
Turkey is very important geostrategically, including for the United States. And let’s not forget that Turkey is the second largest contributor militarily to what is meant by capability within the North Atlantic Alliance, i.e. it is a very important member of NATO? Even so, lately we have noticed not a certain reluctance or a certain kind of slightly more blunt rhetoric when it comes to the integration of the two Nordic states. We’re talking about Finland and Sweden, but if we look back a little bit, Turkey has never been so opposed in the long run to any NATO enlargement project or strategy, even if at times it has been a contradictory voice, so to speak. In the end, following the negotiations and following the discussions that took place both bilaterally and multilaterally, Turkey and the Turkish Parliament voted for everything that came as a proposal from NATO. I don’t think we are yet at that point where Bucharest will have to decide about Turkey and Western values.
Turkey is, let’s say, a complicated state. It has never been a democracy in the sense that we Westerners perceive it. It was and still is a Muslim state that has both European, not Western values, but also Eastern values. So it’s a mix that of course has to be managed exactly as it is. And, of course, even when there are times when we may not agree with the decisions of the government in Ankara, diplomatically, I repeat, we will have to position ourselves so that we also pursue our own interests as a country.
Of course, when there are constitutional or human rights slippages, when there are serious slippages, they have to be mentioned and sanctioned, at least at the rhetorical level, because otherwise you cannot. And in research there is, of course, this freedom to address any issue and there, yes, indeed, including in the volume that we launched yesterday there are some articles very critical of the government in Ankara, that is in research. You have this freedom not to address a theme without constraints, if you like, of a political or diplomatic level or nature.
Or here it depends on the decision-maker what he wants to extract from these analyses and to find, of course, the best way to position himself so as not to escape the human rights violations, but also not to alter the relationship between Bucharest and Ankara. It is quite a complicated process. Diplomacy and foreign policy are not very simple fields, and those who practice or have this profession in these fields, of course, day in and day out have quite a complicated task in managing, in administering, if you like, not all these issues that we have been talking about here.
Well, very briefly, let’s end with a small question. Matei Blănaru, the co-editor of the book, said that ISPRI is going to publish several volumes on Romania’s neighbours. To what extent does that mean there will be a volume on Bulgaria and what is known at this stage about such an effort?
Indeed, colleague Matei Blănaru came up with a proposal that I really didn’t know about. I had no idea, but he is a very inspiring and creative researcher, and in the context of that, yes, there has been discussion about Romania’s interest, about regional issues. Colleague Matei came up with this proposal to really write a volume dedicated to each of Romania’s neighbours and, of course, if this project is taken forward and comes to life, there will certainly be a volume addressing the relations between Romania and Bulgaria. And, like Mr Blănaru, I think that such a volume is very welcome because, if we look not so long ago, just a few months ago, when there was this whole discussion about joining the Schengen area, Romania and Bulgaria were involved.
Unfortunately, we have not yet managed to take that step and we see that regional relations are as important as transatlantic partnerships. Of course, we are talking about what concerns us here immediately, because before we get to put our own agenda on the table of the European Union or the North Atlantic Alliance, we ourselves have to create our own security system, our own defense system, our own economic relations, so that when we go forward we have a common voice and show that we are two states. I am talking about Romania and Bulgaria, which do not speak with a unified voice and which, against certain difficulties or perhaps some small temporary misunderstandings, know how to move forward and know how to even build their own agenda. And we Romanians have a saying that where there are many, power grows.
So I think that this can also be applied to the Romania-Bulgaria relationship, which is also a very good relationship and I was very pleased to see, including in this Schengen accession process, that neither Bucharest nor Sofia have dissociated themselves from each other, even if there were some voices from, let’s say, the populist political segment, which perhaps suggested a certain disconnection at the institutional decision-making level, i.e. at the highest level. Nor was there any talk of that. On the contrary, it was insisted that Romania and Bulgaria must move forward together and work, of course, together, to ensure the necessary conditions or to implement strategies that would put both Romania and Bulgaria in a position where certain European states could no longer be criticized. And our accession to Schengen should no longer be questioned.
Photo: The Romanian president Klaus Iohannis and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan (source: screenshot, YouTube)
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