The problems facing Turkey today are legion.
With more than 2 million refugees from Syria, its refugee camps are overwhelmed.
The tensions between Russia and Turkey are at an all-time high, and Turks shooting down a Russian plane for violating their airspace last year aggravated their relations for the worse.
Even worse is Russia’s support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, which Turkey opposes.
Terrorism in its cities committed by Kurdish militants and supporters of the Islamic State claim the lives of innocent civilians and tourists.
A drop in its normally booming tourist trade especially due to the economic recession and the spillover from the Syrian crisis has forced the government to help prop up that suffering infrastructure with financial support.
The government’s shift to a new presidential system is viewed by opponents as an unbridled grab for more power by President Tayyip Erdogan.
These are the issues that Turkey’s ambassador to the U.S., Serdar Kilic deals with everyday.
Yet his visit to Atlanta on May 16-17 for the celebration of the daily Turkish Airlines flights launched between Atlanta and Istanbul, Turkey’s commercial center, provided a brief respite from all of the challenges and negative assessments of his country’s future and provided an opportunity for him to promote more positive developments taking place there.
The first flight from Turkey arrived by coincidence on the the day that the Coca-Cola Co. was celebrating the 130th anniversary of the creation of the much ballyhooed Coke formula, providing Muhtar Kent, Coke’s Turkish-American CEO and chairman, with the perfect introduction for greeting the delegation composed of 40 to 50 Turks including company officials, cooks and waiters, at a dinner reception the airline hosted at the Four Seasons Hotel in Midtown.
Mr. Kent spoke of Coke’s billion dollar investments and historic presence in Turkey, calling it a regional hub for its operations. The ambassador underscored this argument more generally.
“Yes, the Coca-Cola Co. provides 3,100 jobs for Turkish citizens and it increases the image of Turkey as a hub for business activities in the region,” he told Global Atlanta. “This is even more important than the jobs created.”
Turkey’s geographic location at the crossroads leading to the oil-rich former Soviet Union and Middle East and Europe positions it as a natural spot for multinationals to set up their regional headquarters as Microsoft, Intel, MasterCard, PepsiCo and many other corporations in addition to Coke have done.
Mr. Kilic added that despite the instability in the region, Japanese banks and companies recently have been active in setting up region headquarters there. Further abetting the country’s dominance as a regional hub will be its Istanbul New Airport that is scheduled to be completed by 2030 at which time it is expected to be able to accommodate 150 million passengers annually, which would allow it to overtake Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
While trade currently is a hot-button, political issue in the U.S., when raised in a Turkish context amidst all of the other issues, it seems rather tame. During an interview with Global Atlanta following his remarks at a World Affairs Council of Atlanta breakfast held downtown, Mr. Kilic seemed proud of the global presence of Turkish companies around the world.
Different regions undergo different economic pressures, he said, explaining the motivation for the extensive Turkish projects in Africa and South America that enable Turkish companies to balance downturns in one region with positive conditions in others.
He also praised Turkish exports to every country in the world, “but two.” He wasn’t certain if the two were Micronesia and Palau, but he was entirely confident that there are only two not receiving Turkish exports.
Concerning free trade agreements, he expressed his government’s view that an agreement needs to be signed with the U.S. “as soon as possible,” especially since the United States is negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union.
Countries with customs agreements with the EU, such as Turkey’s, he said, could face the prospect of opening their markets to American goods, without access for their own goods without a separate agreement with the United States.
He also said that many Turkish companies and other companies in the region would invest in the U.S. once an agreement was reached. The Turkish Airlines flights also would encourage Turkish investment in Georgia and elsewhere in the U.S., he added, as a natural outcome of more “human-to-human” contact and increased ease of travel.
Additionally, the flights will highlight the importance of Turkey’s diaspora communities in the Southeast U.S. and elsewhere in the country. With more than 300,000 Turks in the U.S., he said that each one can develop their roles as “ambassadors” on behalf of the country.
Before the interview was over, he did acknowledge a few criticisms of U.S. news services, especially The New York Times, which, he said, unfairly criticizes his government for not following democratic principles. He pointed to 85 percent voter turnout in Turkey compared to less than 50 percent in the U.S.
“Democracy is vibrant in Turkey,” he added. “The public is participating and making its preferences known.”
He also said he considered the Times’ reporting of press freedom in Turkey was unfair in comparison to its lack of concern about the crackdown on the press in places such as Egypt.
His most severe criticisms of the international coalition fighting ISIS, however, were directed to the lack of a comprehensive strategy to deal with the underlying factors that led to its rise. Otherwise, a new organization will spring up to fill the voice, “and we are going to start from square one.”
He also said the U.S. should play a stronger role militarily.
“I understand the approach which is bluntly defined as ‘No boots on the ground,’ but we need boots on the ground. This should be an international effort, and Turkey should not be expected to deal with the crisis in Syria alone,” he said.
“We have to address the root causes of those problems in Iraq and Syria. This is not what we are doing for the time being,” he also said. “We are just fighting with the mosquitoes, but the swamp is there to generate more and more mosquitoes, so we have to get rid of the swamp in order to deal with the problem.”