The FINANCIAL -- Q. How have economic relations between our two countries changed over the past five years? And in your opinion has there been anything specific of note between the countries in these five years?
A. When you ask me about the past five years, I think it’s actually a 25-year journey and it will be an endless story. We are two neighbouring countries with deep historical links; as well as shared social and cultural interaction. For the last twenty five years the biggest change has been that we now have very structured economic relations. When Georgia gained its independence and then Turkey rediscovered Georgia and the Georgian people, opportunity became where business people see it themselves. The governments were late in responding to many issues, so I think that particularly in these past five years strategic relations have been crowned by not only bilateral investments and trade relations but also the giant projects which Turkey and Georgia, as well as our neighbour Azerbaijan, are involved in. These are projects which have been on the agenda for fifteen years and are now bearing their fruits and I think we are seeing how solid these projects always were. So there is a great future in terms of big infrastructural projects bilaterally as well as regionally.
Our trade volume has now reached almost 1.6 billion. I have statistics which say that it’s more or less 17% of Georgian trade. Georgian exports to Turkey are increasing. The number of Georgian tourists coming to Turkey is increasing as well as the number of Georgians working in Turkey. Turkish investments in Georgia have been steadily increasing in these past five years in sectors such as energy, health, tourism, investment, and hospitality. We have recently integrated a very prominent textiles establishment in Poti. So I’m sure there will be new areas of cooperation which our businessmen will find and develop. And as their embassy we are ready to support them.
Q. What was your first impression of this country as Ambassador of Turkey to Georgia?
A. My first impression of Georgia was of course Tbilisi. And when I walked for the first time through the streets of Tbilisi I told myself “what an inspiring city this is!” It is the pull of history, and not only history, but a creative, young spirit; old traditions on one side and on the other side - a young population with a pulse. There is a vibe in this city. And it truly makes one a part of it. So I did not feel the challenge to be frank, because as the Turkish Ambassador, or like my other Turkish diplomat colleagues serving in Georgia for the joint interests of these two countries, it is a pleasure most of the time.
Let me give you an example. I’ve heard people complaining about traffic, which makes me feel completely at home. Or the way people greet each other in the morning when they are going to work - it’s very similar to our way of living. Thus, being a Turk in Georgia, while serving as Turkish Ambassador in Tbilisi, is a pleasant experience.
Of course we have challenges. They are two distinct countries with distinct identities, but a lot of joint interests. And of course the people are not the same, we are similar but never the same. Even Georgian and Turkish regions differ from each other. This is like having a good range of colours. Even the most beautiful colour in the world will be monotonous if you don’t have shades or different colours to complement it. And definitely this pulse, this feeling of change, transformation and evolution in Tbilisi and in Georgia in general, with people as a central part of it, was a very strong impression.
Q. Medical tourism has definitely been one of the most popular forms of tourism between these two countries for the past 3 or 4 years, and is continuing to grow. What is your opinion on it?
A. When I was received by the Health Minister of Georgia we talked about this. I’ve also spoken with the representatives of companies who are working in the health sector, including pharmaceutical companies, as well as those who are bringing different technologies to Georgia from Turkey, in addition to hospital representatives. I’ve only been here for 2 months, but let me just say upfront that I do not agree with the term “medical tourism.” Tourism is something that is done by people as a form of travel for pleasure. For those who are in need of medical treatment and attention, going to different countries where technology or treatment is available for different reasons, I call that travel for healing. I don’t think tourism is associated with such medical needs.
In Turkey we have managed an important leap in our medical services, not only in terms of how we organized it as a government, but also in terms of the quality of our medicine. Of course this has not happened in the past five or so years, it was a generational issue. It’s about education, it’s about the technology. Many people from Turkey went to study abroad, many people came back and have brought their experience back with them. So I think we lived through a change which Georgia can benefit from. There are many people in Georgia who are going to Turkey for medical treatment and we are only happy to be of help, to find the treatment and help them to regain their health. It’s also very important that we give that know-how to Georgia. And I know that there are many Turkish students in Tbilisi’s medical faculty and vice versa - Georgian students in Turkey. Health cannot be analyzed on a purely economic, commercial basis. It is one of the primary duties of our governments. There should be Georgian know-how, which there is, and I’d be happy to contribute to it as the Turkish Ambassador. Hospital management; post operational care; intensive care; children’s diseases control; epidemic control; and family medicine - these are the points which we will be working on.
Q. Let’s talk about tourism. You mentioned that the number of tourists visiting Turkey is growing. What is the biggest attraction for Turkish tourists in Georgia and vice versa?
A. I think Georgia’s culture and art in particular are very attractive. The nature is very attractive, and I must say that there are many people in Turkey that are of Georgian descent, meaning they are ethnically Georgian or their ancestors came from different part of Georgia to Turkey. This part of historical family genealogy is interesting to people. Therefore they come and see those places with that sort of thing in mind. I don’t want this to be misunderstood. This is not about Turks coming to discover Georgia for invasion, it is not about that. It is actually to bond those cultural ties which were disrupted for a time. This is about positive cultural and historical ties.
Of course the visa free travel regime helps that decision because to be frank, a tourist who’s interested in having a few good days comfortably seeing new places and new cultures can be deterred if made to wait at an embassy’s visa office being asked endless questions about their lives and finally getting a visa for a not-inexpensive price. That hurts tourism, and that’s why Turks do prefer places where they can travel without that hassle. I think that’s also a very productive reason why they enjoy such a beautiful country which is very close and accessible; where they feel comfortable and welcomed. So I think that’s why they come to Georgia. Also, winter tourism is developing and Turkish skiers are discovering Georgia. That wasn’t very well known in Turkey previously. I’ve seen this developing in the past three years. It is increasing, which is very welcome because we do like skiing and we’re hoping to discover new places like Gudauri, Guria and Mestia.
Q. What about the role of Turkish infrastructure in Georgian tourism?
A. we have investors in hotels in Tbilisi, also investors who are building hotels and actually operating them with well-known changes. These are all very welcome developments because I think our experience in the tourism sector for the past 25 years is very much developing in parallel with Georgian independence.
The development in Georgia is very obvious. I know that different segments of tourists would like to have different styles of tourism. There are certain tourists who would like to shop until they drop but there are also those who would like to keep away from crazy crowds. Georgia is also liked for its very good climate, different regions, wine culture, and marvellous food. But I think the hospitality here is like us. We’re very similar to Georgians in that respect - we both like guests. We like hosting guests and being hospitable to them.
Q. Could you please name the top five largest Turkish companies which are represented in Georgia?
A. I can’t single out five. It’s more than that, and I would be reluctant to mention specific names because I might neglect to mention one. But when I walked through Tbilisi’s streets, I saw shops which I enjoy buying from myself. Walking down Rustaveli, Pekini, or other streets of Tbilisi, when I saw those brands I was very happy as it demonstrated to me how many brands there are here that came from Turkey. Beer Efes, LC Waikiki, Koton - all of these are brands that originated in Turkey. We are also happy that there is a Beko and Vestel here. So the things we have in our houses in Turkey are available here in Georgia too. The people who work in these companies are mostly Georgian. So they are not only here as investors, they are here as Georgian companies.
Q. Construction is really one of the biggest parts of Turkish investment in Georgia. Is there going to be any other developments in this regard?
A. It is the Turkish businessmen with their Georgian partners that have made it possible. Therefore the Turkish construction sector and its sub-sectors, like construction materials, are represented here in Tbilisi, which of course encourages healthy competition. Georgian consumers know quality, and want the best. I think that’s part of the reason they like the work done by Turkish contractors, because we provide quality. This is due to the fact that we learned this construction business in Turkey where we had a lot of high-level technology. We started working in different markets where we gained experience. Therefore the Turkish constructors here will of course be interested in projects and not only in terms of buildings but also infrastructure, and I think it’s our job to show the various opportunities that are available.
Q. We have several Turkish restaurants here. In Batumi there are also big restaurants which have Turkish menus and Georgian people are actually some of the most frequent visitors to Turkish restaurants. What are your thoughts on this?
A. The best Turkish food in this town is cooked in my house! I’m joking of course. When I feel like eating in a restaurant or having a Doner, there are a couple of options. I visit the restaurant ‘Ankara’. ‘Mado’ is also a favourite of mine as they make desserts even better than I do! Something very specific to our cuisine is that it’s a mix of centuries’ worth of traditions and regions. The strength of the Turkish cuisine has been a very successful fusion of all the cuisines around. We have some regional preferences of kitchen. I grew up in the southern part where we have to have ‘bulgur’, without it we cannot even last a day! You don’t have bulgur, but it is very similar to the Megrelian corn dish ‘ghomi’. Ajapsandali is also very similar to our cuisine. I can always find something to eat. Georgian cuisine is excellent. It’s something very deep and rich. It’s not only about cheese and wine.
Q. which are your favourite Georgian dishes?
A. I can’t pick just one, but ‘pkhali’ is definitely up there, something that we don’t have in Turkey. I think pkhali is distinctively Georgian. Georgian ‘khachapuri’ is also something very different.
Q. It’s spring at the moment, which is a season that is generally associated with women. I have to ask you for a comment on women who are busy at work while at the same time being good mothers, and good in the kitchen. How do you manage it, and how would you define success for women?
A. It’s such a difficult question. I’m not going to talk about success, because I don’t define success in terms of happiness, in terms of achievements in our careers. As an example, my mother gave up her career to raise the children. She thinks that if I’m successful, then she’s successful. She believes that if I’m happy, than she is even more successful, and the same goes for me and my children. We are not superwomen; we have failures, shortcomings; we have weak moments; and we have our strong sides. So from my personal experience I would recommend young women who are starting their lives in terms of education, to be supportive of each other, and to not give up. Again, success should not be defined neither by the amount of money we make, nor the positions we take. It’s all temporary. I think it’s the friendships and relationships that we build. It’s the good memories we leave. These are the real terms of success
Interviewed by Tako Khelaia, The FINANCIAL