Syrian, Iraqi woes taking sheen off Gaziantep’s success story
Hürriyet Daily News
Turkey’s relations with the EU are mutually benefitial, says Mehmet Aslan, speaking at his office in the center of the city
Long one of Turkey’s biggest economic juggernauts, Gaziantep is increasingly staring trade problems in the face due to issues in nearby Syria and Iraq that have seriously cut into the southeastern border town’s trade, the head of the local chamber of commerce has said.
Ultimately, however, Mehmet Aslan told the Hürriyet Daily News that Turkey would benefit from the Arab Spring in the mid-to-long term.
How do you explain the success of Gaziantep?
This is the city with the largest number of entrepreneurs and the greatest entrepreneurial ethos. When arable land became insufficient, a talent for trade and production was developed. We are trading with 175 countries. If you think how far we are from raw materials, the miracle becomes self-evident.
It is said that the city has already entered the European Union.
We are very close to the EU mentality-wise. We support Turkey’s full membership. The EU is the highest level a region has reached in terms of democratic standards and a liberal market economy. In 1996 we were the first to establish an EU information relay office. We coordinated all the 18 other offices that were opened later on. We have a direct line to Brussels. We service all information from the EU to 22 cities.
You seem to have made the best of Turkey’s efforts to integrate with the world.
Even when Turkey was not so open to the world, we had substantial relations with neighboring cities like Aleppo, Damascus, Baghdad and Mosul. We had a vision of becoming the center of trade and industry in the region. We reached that goal; there is no city in the region with the trade and industry capacity that Gaziantep has. In addition, we are making serious efforts to make the city the center for fairs and tourism and even diplomacy. We opened a Syrian consulate; it is now closed due to the crisis, but it will open again. The Iraqi consulate is open. This will be followed by Iran and Jordan. We want to have a say in Turkey’s future vision with the EU and neighboring countries.
We saw that the way to the region’s development is to develop relations with the neighboring countries. No matter how many incentives you give and try to industrialize [the region], there is no chance for industry to flourish if trade channels are not open and you cannot sell your goods.
If you get raw materials from the West and market them to neighboring countries by playing up the advantages of transportation and culture, demand will arise naturally and industry will develop on its own.
In this case, has your vision overlapped with the government’s “zero problems with neighbors policy?”
Definitely. Gaziantep has encouraged the government in that direction. Even when there were political problems with Syria in the early 1990s, we continued our relations with the chambers of commerce of both Damascus and Aleppo. When Iraq was under embargo, our efforts almost broke the embargo. The development of our trade relations with Iraq, Iran, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon has helped the development of social and political relations.
How have you been affected by the Arab Spring?
We have obviously been negatively affected. After visa [restrictions between Turkey and Syria] were lifted [in 2009], 60,000 Syrians began coming per month to Gaziantep, bringing 1 billion dollars to the city a year. Now the number of [visitors] has gone as low as 1,000. Syria was our transit country to other Arab countries. The troubles facing the transportation sector, the search for other routes and the hike in transportation costs are all negative developments. But we believe this is temporary. There will definitely be a cooling down in the period ahead.
When it comes to the Arab Spring in general, democracy and human rights will prevail over totalitarian administrations. You can’t prevent that. We hope that all the nations will fight their own struggle, and [we] pray that this takes place peacefully without the shedding of blood. We support the people’s demand for democracy but we are against interfering in the internal affairs of [other] countries, as well as military interventions. Each nation should solve its own problems.
In this respect what is Gaziantep’s view on the government’s Syria policy?
We think that, in the beginning, the action was too fast. We thought a more cautious, moderate policy that would have encouraged a transition to a multi-party system in Syria would have been more effective; we still believe that. Obviously, the actions of [President Bashar] al-Assad’s administration cannot be approved; the use of weapons against one’s own nation is something to be condemned. But we think it is much better to insist on policies that will open the way to a peaceful transition through dialogue between the government and the opposition, [leading] to a system where people can elect their own administrators.
What will be the consequences of the Arab Spring?
In the mid and long term, our relations will develop further. Times have changed. It’s impossible for administrations to deprive their people of democracy. These administrations need to change. As a result, democracy and income distribution will improve, leading to the rise in masses with a higher purchasing power. This will be to the advantage of Turkey, and its share in these markets will increase.
How much has Turkey been affected by the European crisis?
It was affected and this will continue. But 48 percent of our trade is still with the EU. But due to the strength in Turkey’s financial system, as well as the rise in the share of trade with neighbors, we were less affected than the EU. But Turkey needs to reach EU standards in terms of democracy, human rights and a liberal market economy. Turkey should never zig zag on the EU; it should never slow down on full membership.
This relationship is based on mutual benefits. Turkey, which is on good terms with its neighbors, is vital for the EU’s general security as well as energy security, as it is at the crossroads of energy suppliers and consumers. Turkey can give vital contributions to the EU in opening to new markets. If the EU’s principal criteria are democracy and human rights, the development of democracy and human rights can become solidified by means of Turkey’s good relations with its neighbors.
What is the situation with northern Iraq?
The presence of the separatist terror organization [PKK] in northern Iraq and the fact that it is launching attacks from there is a huge handicap on our relations with northern Iraq. But we look at our relations not only from within the framework of northern Iraq but from the whole of Iraq. Thirty percent of Turkey’s exports to Iraq are conducted out of Gaziantep, and a big portion of that is with the central government. We have relatives in northern Iraq and have had relations for centuries. If the terror problem is alleviated, it will be possible to establish a network of mutually beneficial relations – be they trade-based or natural gas- or oil-based. Iraq is a vital country for us since it is also on the way to the Gulf.
Instead of policies about internal affairs that says, Sunnis or Shiites or whatever else, if we can continue with policies that are equidistant to all and one that defends territorial integrity and democratic development…
What is your view on the current situation of the Kurdish issue?
If Turkey can have a system where people are sovereign and can acquire all their rights at the highest level through a new constitution, then the problem will be solved naturally. Mistakes were made in the past. All of our citizens should enjoy individual rights and freedoms. Improvements in that direction are important for our unity. The government is expending efforts, but the terror organization is in the position to sabotage [these efforts] because giving Kurds their rights would jeopardize the organization. We should never act according to the terror organization on democratization and openings. Fighting terror is something else. We should never give up on our efforts for a democratic Turkey where individual rights and freedoms are possessed at the highest level.
In your view, what is Turkey’s most important problem?
The political party laws and the election system. Turkey can never become fully democratic until the people are able to elect their own deputies.
WHO IS MEHMET ASLAN?
Born in Nizip, a village in Gaziantep, Mehmet Aslan graduated from Istanbul University’s Economy and Trade Academy. In 1987 he became a member of the Gaziantep Trade Chamber (GTO). In 1992 he became the head of the GTO, and he has now held this position for four terms.
Between 2002 and 2006 Aslan was the deputy head of the Turkey-Iraq Business Council of the Foreign Economic Relations Council (DEİK). He was also deputy head of the Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodities Exchanges (TOBB) from 2005 to 2009.