The top Estonian diplomat in Ankara has said his country fully supports Turkey's bid to join the European Union and emphasized the bloc is not a geographical entity but rather a union of shared values of which Turkey is very much a part.
In an exclusive interview with Today's Zaman, Aivo Orav, the ambassador of Estonia to Turkey, said, “We feel obligated to endorse Turkish candidacy to join the EU because Turkey supported our bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the past.” Describing the bilateral relations of Turkey with Estonia as “excellent,” Orav said the mutual understanding between the two countries has been enhanced by what he called a geo-strategic similarity, which led to the adoption of similar views and positions on most international issues.
He recalled that the bid to join both NATO and the EU was like a “big dream” for Estonia. “We were not that hopeful to become a member so soon. Thanks to our homework and with the support of our friends we were able to join,” he explained, hinting that Turkey should be patient on the road to membership and not to be distracted by the rhetoric of those who oppose it. “We experienced the same emotional feelings while we were trying to become a member,” he added.
The Estonian ambassador noted that relations with Ankara have always been excellent and there are no outstanding issues hampering the ties between the two countries. As part of NATO operations, Turkey sent two military aircraft to patrol Estonian air space. “We do not have military aircraft because we are small country,” he said, adding that Estonia was very much appreciative of Turkey's help in that regard.
Turkey, which never recognized the Soviet occupation of Estonia, restored diplomatic relations in 1991 and accredited its first ambassador to the country in 1992. Estonia appointed its first ambassador to Turkey in 1996, residing in Estonian capital, Tallinn. It was not, however, until 2001 that the Estonian Embassy was opened in Ankara, then represented at the chargé d'affaires level. The first Estonian ambassador to reside in Ankara, Märt Volmer, arrived in 2004 and served until 2008 when he was replaced by Orav, who presented his credentials to Turkish President Abdullah Gül in September of last year.
There has been a significant increase in the number of high level visits between the two countries in recent years, including at the presidential level. The then-president of Estonia, Arnold Rüütel, visited Ankara in 2005 and his visit was reciprocated last year by Turkish President Abdullah Gül. “The visits on this level signify the culmination of a lot of hard work,” Orav said, stressing that the visits are important not only for diplomats and politicians, but for the people of both countries and the international community as well.
One result of President Gül's state visit to Estonia was the announcement that direct flights between İstanbul and Tallinn would be established. “We got the confirmation from Temel Kotil, the president of Turkish Airlines [THY] as well,” Orav said, adding he expects the flights to start in March 2010. The flights are likely to boost business ties in addition to increasing the number of Estonian tourists coming to Turkey.
Lots of potential for business
On the business front, the numbers between the two countries are not that high. The trade volume was around half a billion dollars in 2008, with a sharp decrease in 2009 because of the economic crisis. According to the Turkish Statistics Institute (TurkStat), Turkey exported goods of $239 million value to Estonia while it imported $261 million worth of goods from Estonia. In the first seven months of 2009, both exports and imports dropped to a little more than one third of 2008 levels during the same period.
The Estonian ambassador laments the low figure but claims that “there is great potential to exploit.” He says the geographical distance between the two countries played a key role in keeping the trade volume low as Estonia is located in the far north of the Europe while Turkey is on the border of Europe in the far south. More importantly, he said, the thinking in the Estonian business community, which had very much focused on countries with a close geographical proximity, has radically changed because of the global economic crisis. “They have now realized that simply trading with countries less than 1,000 kilometers away is not enough to shield you from external shocks,” he underlined, pointing out that investments recently made in Romania and Bulgaria by Estonian companies were successful examples.
“We are looking at Turkey from this newly developed perspective,” Orav noted. Though only 11 Estonian-owned businesses were operating in Turkey according to Treasury statistics as of June 2009, Orav expects this number will increase. The country is looking beyond its traditional trading partners, which are Lithuania, Finland, Germany, Norway and Sweden, to promote trade ties with countries such as Turkey and the Central Asian republics.
If you discount the global economic crisis that took a toll on trade in 2009, the trade potential was visible in the 2007-2008 trade data comparison. According to the embassy Web site, Turkey was ranked as Estonia's 19th largest trade partner in terms of total turnover (with 1 percent of total trade). Compared with other nations, Turkey ranked 13th in exports from Estonia (with 1.8 percent of total exports) and 27th in imports to Estonia (with 0.4 percent). Compared with 2007, trade increased in 2008 by 26 percent, including a nearly 50 percent increase in exports.
Güllüoğlu will invest in Estonia
Ambassador Orav says his paramount interest is facilitating Turkish business investments in Estonia. He disclosed a new investment decision made in the summer by a leading Turkish sweets maker, Güllüoğlu, in Estonia. “They set to open a representative office in Estonia in October and they plan to distribute all their products to the Nordic and Baltic countries from Tallinn,” he said, adding that “if it works well, they intend to build a factory in Estonia as well.”
Orav admits the investment has come at a time when it is very much needed. He hopes this investment scheme will serve as a role model for other Turkish companies as well. “Though we are a small country with only 1.4 million people, you can easily access more than 20 million consumers in the vicinity of Estonia, including the Nordic and Baltic countries,” he pointed out. Estonia can become a gateway for Turkish companies which would like to enter the regional market.
The Estonian diplomat describes the country's investment climate as “very friendly.” All countries in the region are members of the EU with the exception of Norway, which is also tied to the bloc with privileged economic cooperation agreements. Estonia also has direct flights to all countries in the area and is set to launch direct flights with Turkey next year. Apart from residency and work permits, which may delay Turkish investors' plans for the establishment at the outset, the country is very much set up to support foreign investment.
Among 14 agreements currently in place between Turkey and Estonia there many deals promoting trade ties, including the prevention of double taxation, the protection of foreign investments, the easing of customs procedures and cooperation in road and air transportation.
Thanks to its highly developed information technology, the liberal Estonian market has attracted many investors abroad, many coming from neighboring Finland. “We have an electronic government in Estonia,” the ambassador said, “You can make your filings and applications online without waiting in queues in [government] agencies.” Its citizens pay their 21 percent national flat tax online in a matter of minutes, doing away with the cumbersome paper bureaucracy. Estonia owes much of its rapid economic development since it gained independence in 1991 to the adaptive nature of the country.
Ambassador Orav says his country can sell and transfer this IT knowledge to Turkey to help the economy grow further. In line with this, in March of this year the first Estonia-Turkey IT roundtable talks took place in Ankara to discuss what Estonian companies can do for their Turkish counterparts.
Estonian economy battered
The global economic turmoil had a heavy toll on the Estonian economy, which was called a Baltic Tiger because of its fast development in the last decade. It was one of the fastest growing economies in the world until 2006, with growth rates exceeding 10 percent annually, albeit it with soaring inflation. The economy is expected to slide by 15 percent this year and unemployment is growing. Low consumer demand both in the national market and the international markets has led to a contraction in the economy's overall output. Industrial production dropped by 33.7 percent, which was the sharpest decrease in industrial production in the entire EU.
Ambassador Orav argues, however, that Estonia was one of the most responsible countries in dealing with the economic crisis. “We have not taken up any loans and government has cut the budget drastically,” he said, adding inflation dropped to between 4 and 5 percent. The country intends to join the euro zone by 2011 after satisfying the budget deficit criteria of the Maastricht treaty. To achieve this, the Estonian government has slashed budget targets three times already in a bid to keep its total public sector deficit at or below 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) this year.
The Estonian diplomat dismisses rumors that the government will devalue the local currency, the kroon, which is pegged to the euro. “People who start these rumors have other motivations and they either do not know how politics work in Estonia or they distort the facts,” he said, adding that only the Parliament has the power to change the value of the kroon after the government submits a proposal. “By then it would certainly leak to the media and people would know about it,” he stressed. The devaluation of the local currency would open a Pandora's Box in the Baltic region and would have ramifications in the euro zone as banks lent money pegged to the euro.
The ambassador believes that eventually joining the euro zone will eliminate these concerns and put the country on more solid footing when it comes to currency fluctuations. “That will provide an added assurance to foreign investors,” he underlined.
Estonians becoming more interested in Turkey
Thanks to its pleasant climate and sunshine, especially in the southern part of the country, more and more Estonians are coming to Turkey for their vacations. In 2007, a little more than 20,000 Estonians visited Turkey. This number rose to 22,000 in 2008. The number only includes those who booked their travel through travel agencies in Estonia. When including the number of Estonians who are believed to have traveled to Turkey independently, the total tops 25,000. Turkey does not require a visa for Estonians coming to Turkey, unlike Estonia which is in the Schengen area.
Thanks to the ski marathons that have taken place in Turkey, a lot of Estonians have learned about Turkey because of the press coverage in his country, says Orav. “I do not want Estonians coming to Turkey and confining themselves to hotels and going back. They need to visit other places like Kayseri as Turkey is a big country with a lot more to offer than simply sunshine and a warm climate,” he said. He is very thankful for the hospitality extended by local families during a soccer match held between Turkey and Estonia. “We were invited to stay in families' homes rather than hotels and that was great experience for me and the embassy staff,” he noted. Turkey defeated Estonia 4-2 at the match in Kayseri on Sept. 5 in the 2010 World Cup Soccer qualifying match.
Ambassador Orav says he would like to see more Turkish students receiving their education in Estonia. At the moment more than 50 Turks are enrolled in Estonian institutions. “I am hoping to increase this number because I know they will be voluntary ambassadors for us once they graduate,” he said.
When asked what he loves most about Turkey, he says the climate, not only in the sense of weather but also in the environment of great hospitality and the delicious Turkish cuisine Turks offer to guests. “Sunshine is not [only] in the heavens, but also in the hearts of the people,” he says, describing the Turkish people. Orav stresses that a diplomat should be objective and needs to shy away from loving or hating the country in which he or she serves. “In Turkey it is difficult create distance, however, as I am much more inclined to love the country,” he adds.
Commenting on the government's initiative for the normalization of the relations with Armenia and the democratization process to solve the long-standing problem with Kurds, the Estonian ambassador says he welcomes both initiatives, expressing his hope for their successful conclusion. “Everything that happens in Caucasus is very important for us and we closely follow what is happening in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia,” says Orav. He is also the ambassador to Azerbaijan and says it is important for Azeri interests be respected. “Misunderstandings with Armenia will be overcome and I am sure the border will be opened as it is beneficial for both countries,” he said. As for the Kurdish initiative, he says his government understands the issue is a very complex one. “Once the details are known, we will make our own assessment as an EU member state,” he underlined.
Blockbuster event in Ağrı
The Estonian Embassy is gearing up for a blockbuster event to be held in the far eastern province of Ağrı next month. It is organizing a joint climb of Estonian and Turkish mountaineers up Mt. Ararat in order to celebrate the 180th anniversary of a climb by Jakob Friedrich Wilhelm Parrot, an Estonian scientist and traveler, who, on Oct. 9, 1829, was the first person to reach the top of the mountain. The climb begins on the Oct. 5 and the climbers plan to reach the top on Oct. 9, exactly 180 years after Parrot reached the top. The Estonian Embassy will also hold an exhibition introducing Parrot's life and work at İshakpaşa Palace in Ağrı. The Estonians consider the climb to be an important date in their history and compare it to the climb up Mt. Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary. This was the day when Estonian scientist Parrot (1792-1841) became the first person to conquer the Mt. Ararat Mountain.
ABDULLAH BOZKURT - ANKARA