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February - 2005

Embracing the new European role

Looking to follow in the footsteps of Romania into the European Union, while hoping to avoid its pratfalls, new Turkish ambassador Ahmet Okcun talks to Michael Bird about Europe, business and the demands of the job

Romania is having a tough time negotiating its entry into the European Union. It has taken longer to close its preaccession chapters than any other candidate country and the list of provisions, caveats, conditions and safeguard clauses for this closure seems to constitute an appendix the size of an Inuit translation of James Joyce's Ulysses.
It could be viewed as a study in the difficulties of integration, and Turkey's new ambassador Ahmet Okcun will be viewing the nation's progress with interest, as he anticipates his own country's joining-up in a later wave of European integration. In December 2003, Turkey was given a date to start negotiations to join theEU- 3 October 2005. “Turkey showed some flexibility, the EU showed some flexibility and compromise was the winner of the day,” says Okcun. “The European Union has adopted a historical decision because so many thought it was a Christian club. This move has proved the world is not divided into two groups, Christian and Muslim.”
But parts of Europe are against the decision, Austria, for example, and the German opposition party, the Christian Democratic Union, have voiced a preference for a 'privileged partnership' for Turkey as opposed to full entry terms, but Okcun claims this is what the eastern European country already enjoys.
Also the experience of Romania and Poland's late fulfilment of entry terms has arguably given the European Union a stricter list of conditions for
incorporating larger countries into the club.
Another problem is the question of whether Turkey will recognise the Greek Cypriot Government, and if an 'indirect recognition' of the Government will be a condition of joining.
“I am sure some kind of solution will be realised on this issue before 3 October,” says Okcun.
This, together with the toughest-ever list of conditions and possibilities for suspension of integration, have led some analysts to argue whether this was a dictation of terms as opposed to a negotiation.
Such a mixed reaction to Turkish integration from Europe has, Okcun argues, led some of the Turkish public to have second thoughts about the efficacy of joining the EU club. “Turkish public opinion has realised that whatever reforms are expected of us, they are not to satisfy the EU, but for our own good.”
Nevertheless, Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has argued that Turkey should join up by 2012, while Okcun believes a timeframe could come even closer. “Personally, I think it could happen as of 2010,” he says.
Amodest and educated career diplomat with a passion for nineteenth century art, Ahmet Okcun hopes that such an ambition is inevitable and part of his mandate is to keep an eye on Romania's rocky road to accession over the next couple of years.
“What I amexpected to do is to observe how Romania is dealing with the accession process,” says Okcun, “what they do right and, if they do it, what they do wrong… there are lots of lessons to learn from this, one of the last examples left to study.”
As for improving relations between his country's Black Sea neighbour, that is not his primary concern. “There's not very much I can do there,” he says. “Our relations have reached a very satisfying level.”
But this is a man with a tough history of negotiating in trouble-spots as an ambassador to Iraq and, recently, in the redevelopment of Afghanistan, where Turkish firms have seen great opportunities in investment and construction.
Bilateral trade between Romania and Turkey for 2004 now stands at 3.5 billion USD. This is a figure Okcun calls “particularly satisfying” especially as the total number of imports and exports are“well-balanced”.
So far foreign direct investment stands at one billion USD, but Okcun points out that actual figure may be higher because Turkish companies use other countries as a base in which to enter the Romanian market.
Many large, medium and small companies from Turkey utilise the European Union and the Netherlands in particular, to enter Romania because it is less costly for tax reasons. At the end of August 2004, the number of registered Turkish companies in Romania had reached 8,660, but Okcun does not know how many others are registered as EU companies.
The Turkish business community is now 15,000-strong, with some living in Romania and others working during the week and then jetting back home for the weekend on the 45-minute flight to Istanbul. It is a similar set-up to the Italian community with its semidetached integration into Romanian society.
The Turkish Anchor Group has managed to construct two large and popular malls in Bucharest and Finansbank has also gained a strong foothold on the local market. Meanwhile food product manufacturers Rompak and wood processors Prolemn constitute the largest direct foreign investments, with both firms owned byTurkey.

“The first businessmen who came here were small businessmen, the pathfinders,” says Okcun, “and, because some of these grew, then came the second phase where the medium sized investors and businessmen arrived, which is where we are now, approaching the third phase of the big businessmen.”
Making large investments and taking advantage of the privatisation process is where Okcun would like to orient a hungry Turkish business person, rather than purely into the import and export business, as this is not ideal in the longterm.

“Most of the things Romania imports are things they cannot produce,” he says. “Although some they import for price competitiveness. But some time in the future Romania will be producing those items.”
Okcun cites the purchase of Romanian white goods brand Arctic by Turkishbased homewares producer Arcelik as an example of how an investment can pay off for the benefit of both countries, with the firm manufacturing refrigerators and television sets.
“The privatization process is very healthy and I would like to see more Turkish companies taking part in this effort.” Okcun says the energy sector is now offering attractions for Turkish firms.
Part of Okcun's new vocation is also to help represent the resident Turkish population, who have lived in Romania since before Communism. This is nowhere near the size of the minority in Bulgaria of ten per cent, but two distinct groups are present - the Ethnic Turks and the Tatar Turks - who have between 80,000 and 110,000 citizens.
Speaking their ownTurkish dialect, the Tatar Turks hail from Crimea, while the Ethnic Turks's ancestry is from mainland Turkey. A Muslim enclave in Romania, the Turks live around the Black Sea coastal areas and, like other distinctive ethnic groups during Communism, were forbidden to worship. “Now they enjoy every freedom,” says Okcun, “such as their own mosques and schools, where they practice their own language.” Each group also has its own minority parliamentarian in the Chamber of Deputies.
Speaking German, English and Turkish, Okcun is now resident in Romania with his wife, Gulcan, a linguist and diplomat who has served in Bulgaria. Once he was a player for the Turkish national volleyball team, but this is not a
sport he regularly partakes in at present and he and his wife are currently Bridge widows, looking for a likeminded couple with whom to play in the deceitful card game.
Growing up in Istanbul, Okcun went to university in Ankara, where he studied political science for four years, before completing a masters' degree in international relations.
By 1970 a career in the diplomat service beckoned and he has since worked in Germany, Nigeria and the United Kingdom before landing the difficult job of charge d'affaires in Iraq. “I think I am the longest serving diplomat in Iraq,” he says of his sevenear tenure between 1986 and 1993, where he bore witness to the invasion of Kuwait and the Irani-Iraqi war.
Further turbulence followed as he spent four years as ambassador to Albania, witnessing the Balkan nation's tricky transfer from a rigid state-based economy to a measure of liberalisation. But he is optimistic about the chances of Albania making it to the European Union and into NATO. But, when pushed, he cannot estimate a time period.
Before coming to Romania, Okcun was posted further east to Afghanistan, where he co-ordinated theTurkish efforts
to revive the nation, following the takeover by the international coalition and then the transition to leadership under Hamid Karzai, before undertaking a similar role back in the new Iraq.
Around ten per cent of Afghanistan is of Turkish origin and firms from Turkey have seen the nascent democracy as a great opportunity for reconstruction contracts, given out by cash supplied by donor nations, of whichTurkey is one. “From the very beginning we participated in every field of economic reconstruction, security assistance and took a lead nation role in strengthening economic relations,” says Okcun. His job included co-ordinating Turkish construction firms, who now control the majority of the rebuilding market in Afghanistan.
“We build almost every road,” says Okcun, “and we are the number one foreign direct investment in Afghanistan. But at the moment trade is a one way street from Turkey to Afghanistan. Hopefully, one day we can close the gap.”


Ambassador for Turkey to Romania
His Excellency Ahmet Rifat Okcun
Age: 56
Place of birth: Istanbul
Appointed to Romania: Dec 2004

Previous postings: Germany, Nigeria, UK, Charge d'affaires in Iraq, Ambassador to Albania, foreign office co-ordinator in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Extra-curricular interests: Collecting nineteenth century European figurines and landscape paintings from the same period; baroque and early classical music including Mozart and Handel, reading novels, especially Dan Brown.