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Interview with the Turkish Ambassador to India
Today, I asked a series of questions to His Excellency, Şakir Özkan Torunlar. His Excellency was the Turkish Ambassador to India, Bhutan, Maldives, and Nepal from 2017-2021. HE has also served as Ambassador to the state of Palestine and is also the Holder of the “Star of Jerusalem Order” granted by the President of Palestine.
How was growing up in Mersin? Did you enjoy your time at TED Ankara College?
I was born in Mersin, a beautiful town on the coast of the Mediterranean. However, I was brought up in Ankara, the capital of Turkey and had all my studies in this centrally located, second biggest city of the country. I joined TED Ankara College when I was 10 and studied for seven years in this school. Now, looking back to the 70s, I may easily say that my years in TED Ankara College strongly shaped my character. Boys and girls, together, we learned what solidarity is, the values that every single human should have and friendship. Nearly 45 years after our graduation, still, most of us are in touch with each other and hold reunions at least once a year for those who may attend.
When and how did you realise that diplomacy was the path for you?
I discovered a diplomat's life before I discovered that diplomacy was my way. On my maternal wing of the family, we had diplomats. In the 70s Turkey's toy market was not rich and my uncle, a diplomat, was bringing toys to me from abroad when he was coming back to Turkey on summer vacations. Having seen that, I thought that "if I will become a diplomat, I will not be dependent on relatives to bring me toys and I will buy whatever I want". This is the simple story behind my ambition to become a diplomat. That push made me learn the names of the countries, memorise the flags in atlas books, try to remember the geographically important places when I was still a teenager. When I graduated from TED Ankara College, my only aim was to go to the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University, the school whose graduates join either the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Home or Finance, three pillars of government.
What did you learn at the Ankara University Faculty of Political Science?
In that Faculty, instead of teaching subjects in-depth, the curriculum was constructed to teach us the verticals of law, economy, international relations and public administration. In other words, during four years one learns bits and pieces of every topic which may guide him in public life when he joins the government services.
You began working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1983, What was your first job?
I was one of the 14 out of some 900 who went through one of the most difficult public service exams of the country and found eligible to join the Ministry. On the first day, Human Resources Head guided each of us to 14 different departments. I found myself in the Foreign Minister's cabinet. The first words of the Cabinet Chief are still fresh in my memory: "In this office, you either work hard day and night and when the time comes you will be posted abroad wherever you wish, or you do not meet the expectations of the office. You will again be posted somewhere abroad, but no one knows where it may be"
You have served in many places such as Tripoli, Brussels, Greece, London- could you tell us a bit about your journey to becoming an Ambassador?
True. Before India, I served in eight countries and nine different missions in the past 38 years. In foreign service, one needs to spend almost 25 years to reach the rank of ambassador. Of course, every single rank throughout these years adds a bit of experience, regardless of where you are. In the daily work of an embassy, there is not a big difference between Libya and UK. However, the challenges may vary, depending on the relations between the country you serve in and yours.
Do you enjoy living in different countries and exploring different cultures? Is it hard for your family to move around to different countries?
It's definitely hard to move. Just imagine moving your house in Delhi every 3-4 years. Now, imagine that it's not confined to Delhi, but the globe. Especially when there are kids at school age, it becomes much more difficult and challenging; pack up, move, settle and pack up again after 3-4 years. In the early years of your career, it appears to be a real pain, especially if you're a conservative. If you are an adventurist, interested in other cultures, curious about history, archaeology, nature, different disciplines of arts, then the job becomes your hobby. And if you get the utmost pleasure of your hobby, the job of a diplomat becomes a joy.
You have been assigned to Bangladesh, Palestine, and India as an Ambassador, what was unique about the experience in each of these countries?
Bangladesh was my first posting not only as an ambassador but also in Asia. Bilateral relations with Turkey has always been excellent with Bangladesh. So, the only challenge in front of me as the Turkish ambassador was to explore new and untapped opportunities of cooperation that were not on the table before. my wife and I have built unforgettable friendships in our years in Dhaka. Still today, some of our Bengali friends stay with us when they visit Delhi.
Palestine, by all means, is always a unique experience for any foreign diplomat, of any rank. Just imagine a nation whose lands were forcefully grabbed and made second class people in their own homes. More dramatic than that is the world turns a blind eye to this nation's plight. Turkey has spared no effort to the diplomatic struggle of the Palestinians to be elevated to the "non-member state" status in the UN which ended successfully in November 2012, when I was ambassador in Jerusalem. The new status upgraded Palestine in the UN and paved the way to join all UN organisations the Palestinians wish.
India was a dream for both me and my wife dating back to 1992. As a middle-ranking diplomat I asked to be assigned to the Turkish Embassy in Delhi, but the government posted me to another country. After a quarter-century, I landed in Delhi with the highest rank in a diplomat's career.
How has been your time in India, what have been some favourite events or moments here?
From day one, life was exceptional. This is a country sitting on a background of a minimum of five thousand years of history. Blend of cultures, colours, traditions. The largest democracy on earth. Country of 1,3 billion people with smiles. All givens made me and my wife feel at home during the past 4 years and 4 months.
For an ambassador, the most favourite event is the visit of the head of his state to the country he's serving at, or to witness the vice versa. In that sense, I was lucky to be the first-hand witness of the state visit of H.E. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey to India in 2017, upon the invitation of H.E. Pranab Mukherjee, just three months after I assumed office in Delhi. The visit which was realized by a delegation of 400 people including 160 members of the Turkish private sector, gave a strong momentum to the relations between our two nations dating back to 1000 years and two countries. Erdogan, without hyphenating his tour to India with any other country stayed 26 hours in Delhi. The visit proved to be very timely and productive by all means. Bilateral trade which never saw a volume above 6,5 billion US dollars, immediately reached close to 9 billion US dollars in the following 12 months.
What does your weekly schedule look like?
If we put aside the past 14 months, a bracket in the lives of all of us due to pandemic, my entire week including the weekends were pleasantly busy with meetings both with foreign colleagues stationed in Delhi, ministries of the Union Government as well as Indian and Turkish private sector representatives. The number of Indian visitors to Turkey which rose from 67 thousand to 87 thousand in 2017, 147 thousand in 2018 and 230 thousand in 2019 was also the product of our efforts with my colleagues in the Embassy. In the past, Turkey hosted only one Indian destination wedding. After our intensive work, in 2018 this number rose to 22 and in 2019 to 30. So all these were the most exciting parts of my stay in India. Of course, these figures were not achieved overnight. That's the product of patience and teamwork.
How are the current relationships between India and Turkey?
As I touched a bit earlier, relations between two peoples date back to centuries. A thousand years ago, that were the Himalayas separating us. Today, a direct flight -of course, if the Ministry of Civil Aviation re allows like it does with 25 other countries- of less than six hours connects us. Despite many commentaries in the media, I may frankly share with you that two countries have never been as close to each other as they are today.
Do you think Turkey should become a member of the European Union or do you feel that Turkey should strengthen its ties With the Middle East?
The EU and the Middle East are not alternatives to each other. The Middle East, like India, has a thousands of years long history behind it. It's the birthplace of all the three major monotheistic religions. The concept of "Union" in "Europe" was born after the most brutal, most inhumane wars were recorded in the first half of the 20th century. It's the product of post-WWII. The forefathers of the EU designed an excellent union in the 1950s. Unfortunately, the EU which was the focus of attraction as a model of democracies till a decade ago has fallen far away from its own founding values today. Rising xenophobia, antisemitism and Islamophobia have become daily matters in Europe. Defacing of Jewish cemeteries, arson attacks on mosques, pushing back the migrants in the high seas and the official approaches of governments against foreigners are only a few examples of these. Worse than these, member states have real difficulty even in condemning such attacks just because that they take place "within the family". So, answer to your question: yes, Turkey still wants to join the EU if and when it becomes the same one as prescribed in its founding charters and philosophy. If not, Turkish people, with due respect to all these values, such as the supremacy of law, respect to human dignity, equality of all, is able to walk its own path.
What has been the highlight of your career?
To receive the "Star of Jerusalem Order" from H.E. Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the State of Palestine in 2013. I was told that the order was conferred for my contributions to both improving the bilateral relations between two countries and the promotion of the Palestinian cause at the international level.
Where are you going after your posting in New Delhi?
My next station will be the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ankara.
Is a career in diplomacy rewarding? What is one piece of advice you have for aspiring diplomats?
If I would have a second life, I would never hesitate to join the diplomacy again. My humble advice for young friends who may think of joining the foreign service can only be as such: It's an incredible profession. If you compare it with athletics, diplomacy is a marathon. Breath control is as important as a disciplined lifestyle. If you think that you can do it, don't even think a second and join diplomacy.