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Exclusive: Controversial Turkish president Erdogan will visit Australia next year

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Ahead of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's visit to Australia next year, Turkey's Ambassador to Australia says the two nations have now "overcome" an "unpleasant period" of diplomacy.

With Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan set to visit Australia next year - on a historic trip that could coincide with ANZAC Day commemorations in Canberra - his officials here declare “the Gallipoli spirit will remain” between the two nations despite a series of damaging diplomatic disagreements.

In March, Prime Minister Scott Morrison sensationally declared “all options are on the table” in response to what he described as “highly offensive” and “highly reckless” comments by President Erdoğan’s in the wake of the Christchurch mosque terror attacks.

Mr Erdoğan had said that anyone visiting Turkey with anti-Muslim sentiments would be sent back in coffins, “like their grandfathers were” during the Gallipoli campaign.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
AFP

In his first interview since being summoned to Parliament House to explain these comments, Turkey’s Ambassador to Australia, Korhan Karakoç, has told SBS News that the two nations have now “overcome” an “unpleasant period” of diplomacy.

“It was a very emotional statement by my President and it was open to misunderstanding”, Ambassador Karakoç told said. 

“If I have to clarify, once again, the statement by my President was meant to respond to the sick ideology represented by [Christchurch attack accused] Brenton Tarrant and his manifesto, so that was the only aim of his speech and I made that very clear to the Prime Minister.”

“The Gallipoli spirit will remain the focus of our relationship and we have overcome this, let’s say, ‘unpleasant period’.”

Korhan Karakoç
Turkey’s Ambassador to Australia, Korhan Karakoç, speaks to SBS News.
SBS News

However, the Ambassador concedes “sensitivities” remain, including Australia’s decision to strip Islamic State terrorist Neil Prakash of his citizenship.

“We would love to send Neil Prakash to Australia”, Ambassador Karakoç said.

“It’s a problematic issue, I agree, but on the Neil Prakash case, I’m still optimistic for the Australian government to accept him back.”

“It’s a big problem for Turkey, what to do with so many foreign terrorist fighters on our soil, so we should send them to their source countries.”

Another sore point is Mr Morrison’s controversial and unexpected shift in Middle East policy to recognise West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“We should wait for the two sides to come together,” Ambassador Karakoç said.

“At this stage it’s too early, too premature, to make any moves, especially on a city like Jerusalem.”

“The two-state solution must not be forgotten.”

“I think (Prime Minister Scott Morrison) realised, the Australian Government realised, the sensitivity of the Islamic world”.

The Ambassador has also dismissed US calls for a military coalition to safeguard the Straits of Hormuz and the Bab al-Mandab.

“I don’t believe such measures will help for the stability in the region," he told SBS News.

“It’s not timely to pressurise Iran, to try and corner Iran.

“We need them to solve this crisis in Syria and they are also very important when it comes to the stability in Iraq, so any move towards Iran will hamper all our efforts in those countries as well.”

It has been a decade since the last formal joint economic meeting between Australia and Turkey and Ambassador Karakoç believes it is “high time” the nations “revitalise” their economic relationship - spearheaded by a series of high-profile visits to Canberra.

“We are expecting our Foreign Minister in the coming period,” Ambassador Karakoç told SBS News.

“I am in the hope that the highest level visit by President Erdoğan will happen in the first half of 2020.”

The Ambassador is also actively lobbying for Turkish Airlines to begin direct flights to Australia to help bridge the geographical and economic divide.

“During the forthcoming visit of our President to Australia in 2020, we may also see the very first direct flight from Istanbul to Sydney and Melbourne,” he said.

“Businesspeople really need that direct connection between the two countries, so we have to overcome this distance problem.”

Monday marks the third anniversary of the failed 2016 coup, with supporters of President Erdoğan planning events in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne.

The Ambassador is taking the extraordinary step of using the 15 July anniversary to warn the Australian government to be “vigilant” against supporters of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen, who President Erdoğan blames for the failed attempt to dislodge him.

Fethullah Gülen, who lives in the United States, denies his Gülen movement was behind the bloodshed.

“The priority of the Turkish government is to fight against them for the last three years and this fight will continue, I would say, forever,” Ambassador Karakoç said.

The Ambassador dismissed international condemnation of the “purge” that followed and that has seen Turkey become the world’s largest jailer of journalists.

“It’s a delicate case, I agree on that, but still I believe the legal cases are very much in line with international norms,” he said.

“The cases are very much clear to us.

“In most cases, there is an affiliation with a terrorist organisation.”

Australia received more than 400 applications by Turkish nationals for protection since the failed coup.

“Unfortunately, sometimes I see Australian friends side-by-side with them here in Australia and it really hurts me," Ambassador Karakoç said.

“But I hope in time the Australian government and the Australian people will put a distance to this group here in Australia because they can pose a threat to any country in the world.”

Reporters Without Borders ranks Turkey 157 out of 180 on the scale of press freedom, condemning the nation’s jailing of reporters as well as the acquisition of Turkeys biggest media group by a pro-government conglomerate 

The Ambassador denied that President Erdoğan’s international standing has been “diminished” after his Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost the recent Istanbul election.

President Erdoğan was the face of the AKP campaign and during these election rallies he played video of the Christchurch mosque terror attacks as well as comments from former Australian Senator Fraser Anning.

“You cannot compare the outcome with the general elections”, Ambassador Karakoç told SBS News.

“I find it very wrong to compare the results of the Istanbul elections with the overall popularity or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey.”

It will though be a worry for the President, who famously declared: “whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey”.

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