Ersin Erçin, posted to Brazil as ambassador in 2009, says he felt a special sense of mission and set out to make a swift improvement in relations with the giant country as they had been neglected for far too long. Furthermore, when Mustafa Kapucu was assigned as consul general in Sao Paulo in 2010, the relations that grew in the political arena extended to the commercial and cultural spheres as well. Ambassador Erçin assessed the present situation and the future of Turkish-Brazilian relations for Sunday’s Zaman.
Despite beginning in the 1850s, why did our relations with Brazil stall?
Since the visit of Emperor Pedro II and his wife to İstanbul in the mid-19th century, there have been positive feelings towards Turkey. However, relations were limited to small-scale economic exchanges. Although Turkey opened an embassy in Rio de Janeiro in 1929 and Brazil one in Ankara in 1936, there was no serious development in relations between the two countries.
So what revived these limited relations suddenly?
As part of the new world order following the end of the Cold War, Turkey decided to expand its political and commercial relations network so that it would cover new geographical areas such as Africa and Latin America. Turkey found ways to establish closer relations with countries in the Latin America and Caribbean region by preparing the Action Plan for Latin America and the Caribbean (LAK) in 1998. And so Brazil also became a topic on Turkey’s agenda.
Due to the circumstances of that period, Turkey needed to move its diplomatic relations out of conventional countries and regions and enter new markets in terms of commerce and economy. During those years, Brazil ranked among the rising economies with its natural resources and multinational firms, which were active in mining and aircraft manufacturing as well as in the oil and natural gas sectors. In a multi-polar world that was shaped more clearly in the first decade, newly emerging power centers needed new friends from which they could gain support and with which they would cooperate against conventional economic and political powers when necessary. In the meantime, especially in the last decade, a new period began in international politics. Classical power centers began to fall behind while dealing with a wide range of global challenges, ranging from regional clashes that threatened security to terrorism, climate change and financial crises. They started to express their need for help.
Do you mean the conditions were already ripe for the developments that started in 2009?
Yes. Then the visit of President Lula da Silva, who went to our country as the guest of our revered president, became a historic milestone. In this first presidential-level visit, Lula declared Turkey Brazil’s anchor state in the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and our president declared Brazil Turkey’s anchor state in South America. As a result, the foundations were laid for a strategic partnership that aimed at actual cooperation in all fields between Brazil and Turkey due to the strength of the two countries: Turkey is a NATO member and a country that is in negotiations for EU membership as well as increasing its sphere of influence beyond its region due to its economic and foreign policies. On the other hand, we have a rising Brazil, a country that has a traditional and conservative leftist stance [in foreign policy], and had [in the past] backed Greek Cyprus’ stance [on how the island nation should be governed]. A decision has been taken to reinforce and cement this partnership through annual high-level visits.
You were named ambassador to Brazil in the same year?
In the course of that visit our honorable president introduced me to President Lula as Turkey’s new ambassador. And seven agreements were signed between the two countries in the course of our honorable prime minister’s visit to Brazil as part of the Alliance of Civilizations meeting [in May 2010].
What were these agreements about?
The Strategic Partnership Action Plan, which assisted us in our aim to create a strategic partnership based on our desire to enter into a strategic partnership with Brazil on a common ground, was drafted. According to a comprehensive analysis of this document, it is the most concrete and comprehensive roadmap for a strategic partnership plan that Brazil has ever signed and will be built on a wide range of fields, from politics to the economy and trade, from defense to energy and from scientific research to academic collaboration.
What is the meaning of having a strategic partnership with us for Brazil?
With its vast land area, rich sources of raw materials and a fast growing economy, Brazil has started to list itself among the most important countries in the world, and rightly so. It made clear its aim of becoming effective in international politics, and of becoming a global figure. Along with the significant aid it donated to countries situated in its region, Brazil also contributes to balancing anti-West/US sentiments. The country tries to secure its position in the international system, and with regards to this issue it tries to keep its traditional connections and close contact with African and Asian countries.
Besides being determined to acquire the status of permanent member of the UN Security Council, it focused on trying to find a solution to the serious problems in the Middle East. Brazil legitimizes its intervention in this issue by referring to its more than 10 million citizens of Arab origin, who migrated to Brazil on an Ottoman passport 100 years ago.
Actually, it is no coincidence that Brazil picked Turkey as a trustworthy partner to work with, towards figuring out complex problems in the Middle East and making meaningful contributions to them. Also, the country will use the partnership to expand its network of relations in the region as well as in the commercial, economic and political fields. Due to Turkey’s position as the most stable country in its region, its commitment to universal values such as democracy, human rights and the supremacy of law, Turkey is the only country that Brazil can cooperate with. Therefore, having a strategic partnership with Turkey is a historic development that supports and strengthens Brazil’s future plans.
Though indirectly, we witnessed this wish of Brazil with regard to the Iranian issue. But today we have the problem of Syria, and Brazil remains silent.
Turkey and Brazil want the clashes to be dealt with peacefully. Some groups in the country believe that Brazil needs to have a more active foreign policy in order to have a more effective role in terms of the problems in the Middle East and the solution of the crisis in Syria. Today there is an exchange of views about the Syria issue between Turkey and Brazil.
Why are they hesitant?
We cannot say they are hesitant. The Brazil of President Dilma Rousseff is very anxious about the violence perpetrated against civilians, human rights violations and escalating tension in Syria. Therefore, they voted in the affirmative on a draft resolution concerning Syria that was put forward at the UN General Assembly. On the other hand, they are opposed to a repetition of what happened in Libya and to solving the crisis in Syria via foreign military intervention. Indeed, Turkey also thinks military intervention must be a last ditch effort. But Christian Brazilians of Syrian origin believe that radical Islamists will replace [Bashar al-]Assad if his Alawite regime collapses. They are afraid that such a thing may affect the Christians of Syria negatively. It is assumed that this anxiety also affects Brazil’s Syria policy.
Is the convincing character of this opinion or the vote potential of citizens of Lebanese-Syrian descent the main reason for Brazil’s cautious approach to the situation?
I don’t think concerns over ballots play a role in this issue. Actually, civil uprisings called the Arab Spring brought to the agenda the fear of radical Islamist regimes coming to power in the region. With this in mind, the Muslim Brotherhood seems to be the most organized power to replace a collapsed or resistant regime. I guess some countries, including Brazil, remain unconvinced that this group’s perspective has changed over the past few years. Furthermore, I think that for a country that is physically far from this region, it is not very easy to fully understand important changes in regional dynamics. With regards to the Middle East in general and specifically Syria, the experiences, background knowledge, approaches and ideas of our country, which is situated in the same geographical area and has governed this region for ages, play a big role in terms of understanding the problems clearly and coming up with realistic solutions.
Isn’t this background knowledge and experience enough to gain the trust of Brazil?
There is a mutual trust between Turkey and Brazil. Brazil is one of the first countries that gave support to Turkey’s nomination for temporary membership in the UN Security Council. We expect this country to support our campaign for [permanent] membership [in the UN Security Council] worldwide. So, there is no problem in protecting each other’s regional interests and in strengthening each other’s regional approaches within the frame of a strategic partnership.
A strategic partnership document and excellent political relations was able to be cemented and become a permanent fixture due to the level of economic relations between the two countries, correct? While Korea sells products to Brazil with almost no duty, Turks have to deal with challenging customs obstructions.
You’re right, but there are a couple of reasons for this. South Korea discovered Brazil a lot earlier than we did and did not consider geographical distance a hindrance. Now, it has reached a trade volume that is above $25 billion. It built factories and signed contracts here. Comparatively, Turkey has just entered Brazil. Turkey and Brazil signed more than 10 mutual agreements. We are targeting our total trade volume to initially reach $10 billion. Both countries also signed agreement on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Custom Matters. Turkey ratified this agreement and we expect the Brazilian assembly to do the same this year.
Are you positive that this agreement will be ratified in the assembly this year?
They made a promise on this issue. The continuance of Turkish Airlines (THY) flights to Sao Paulo will depend on the approval of this agreement. A second issue that is also important for us is to enter into a free trade agreement with Brazil. However, since Brazil is a member of the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUL), it cannot sign mutual free trade agreements. Negotiations for such agreements are carried out by MERCOSUL.
How are the negotiations going?
The free trade negotiations started in November 2008, but they were blocked and therefore suspended. If a free trade agreement between Turkey and MERCOSUL is not signed simultaneously with a partnership agreement between MERCOSUL and the EU, MERCOSUL countries will have single-sided advantages in our country. So we are attempting to restart negotiations with MERCOSUL and to conclude them swiftly.
What are your views on investment opportunities?
There is nothing that should cause our businessmen to be hesitant about investing in Brazil. People doing business here already know it. Although China is much farther from Brazil than Turkey, it has become Brazil’s most important trade partner.
What sectors are more attractive?
There are many attractive investment opportunities for Turkish investors. Also, there is a good environment for our construction sector. If Turkish construction firms, by themselves or as a consortium, start working on the series of billion-dollar projects that need to be completed as soon as possible, we can reach our $10 billion target in a short time.
Brazil is expecting heavy visitor traffic in the coming days. What are the goals?
At the end of March a big confederation consisting of officials from the Turkish Ministry of Defense and representatives from the defense sector in Turkey came to Brasilia for a number of meetings. In early May, Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz will come to Brazil and meet Brazilian Defense Minister Celso Amorim. Very big projects are planned to be discussed during the meeting. Also, Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan accompanied by a group of contractors is also expected in Brazil. Also on the agenda is Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s visit to Brazil for a high-level joint commission meeting with his counterpart, Antonio Patriota. Additionally, Fatma Şahin, the minister of family and social policy, is expected in Brazil to meet with Brazil’s state secretary in charge of women policies and to sign a cooperation protocol. Our prime minister, Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan and relevant ministers will attend the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) that will be held June 20-22 in Rio. One of the most important areas of cooperation stated in the Strategic Partnership Action Plan is energy. We hope Taner Yıldız, the minister of energy and natural resources, also comes to Brazil.
What do Brazilians expect from us?
The Brazilians expect mutual trade to increase in a way that will reflect the potential of both countries. They hope for partnerships to be established in Brazil and other countries.
What are your expectations as an ambassador?
As a result of the close relations that we have developed in a short time with Brazil, we have found a trustworthy friend both in political and strategic terms and a perfect partner in commercial and economic terms. The Republic of Turkey is renewing itself fast. I think the private sector should make good use of this renewal and hurry in entering new markets in a more organized and courageous way. Our embassy and consulate general in Sao Paolo are at the service of our businessmen 24 hours a day, seven days a week.