Osman R. Yavuzalp, the newly appointed Turkish Ambassador to Ethiopia, came from Ankara where he served for three years. He was the deputy director for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and international security. Before thathe was also the deputy director and department head. A carrier diplomat, Yavuzalp believes that Turkey’s economic situation is improving and that the country would qualify to become a member of the European Union (EU) were it not for what he sees as the biased political views of some European countries. Yavuzalp worked at the Turkish Foreign Ministry for 25 years. He joined the Ministry in 1989 at a time of tremendous changes in Europe and across the world, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and end of the Cold War.He served in Berlin, Brussels and various posts in Ankara. The Ambassador stayed in Addis Abeba for four and a half months. He focused mainly on international security and NATO-related issues. He has been dealing with those issues for the past 12 years. He is also accredited to the African Union (AU)and met many ministers and officials. In this interview with BINYAM ALEMAYEHU, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, Yavuzalp discussed issues ranging from Turkey’s delayed accession to the EU, Turkish investment in Ethiopia and labour productivity. Excerpts.
FORTUNE: Turkish investment has been building up in Ethiopia for over a decade now. But it is more concentrated around the textile industry. What hopes are there for diversification?
Osman R. Yavuzalp:Turkish investment in Ethiopia is admittedly focused on textiles. What comes to mind is Ayka Addis and also others.
But efforts for diversification are already underway. There is, for instance, what is known as the BMET. They are focusing on fibre optics cables of all sorts and they have a big factory, which I have personally visited.
There are also others, one of which has signed a contract to build the Awash railroad. The Company is coming here with a huge investment of 1.7 billion dollars. We have other smaller companies. We have, for example, the Nazr, which is located in Addis Abeba and builds furniture. We also have other companies, which are building roads in Ethiopia.
Hence, diversification has begun but it has to be furthered. While we have companies operating in the field of textiles and we also want others to come, we also want to promote the opportunities that Ethiopia is providing to investors. We are promoting this in Turkey where interest is already growing towards Ethiopia.
Q: Mulatu Teshome (PhD), Ethiopia’s current President, was the Ambassador to Turkey for seven years. He is credited with the huge influx of Turkish investment to Ethiopia, following in the footsteps of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Now that he has become the president, do you see any opportunity to further promote Turkish investment in Ethiopia through his good office?
I have to admit the efforts of President Mulatu Teshome (PhD). As you know he was the former Ambassador to Ankara for seven years, he did a tremendous job there and has favourably promoted Ethiopia in Turkey. Ayalew Gobeze, the current Ambassador to Turkey, is following in his footprints and is trying to continue this work.
It is undeniable that having a president who knows Turkey very well is an advantage. However, the president is busy and already has plenty of issues to deal with.
While he is very receptive to Turkish investments, we also work with all the relevant authorities here to promote our investors. Therefore, we have the political blessing of Mulatu as well as the President of Turkey. But, of course, the job is done more at the executive level. However, we are most grateful for his patronage.
We know the importance the President attaches to these issues. Hence, whenever company executives and investors come here, they are received by the president.
During their stay, they explain their projects to him. However, the technical negotiations are done with the relevant Ethiopian ministries and agencies.
Q: One of the reasons why Ethiopia wanted to promote itself to Turkish investors was in the hope of finding a gateway into to European market. This would have been realised had Turkey actually joined the European Union (EU). As it happens now, however, this process has backpedalled. Why the stalemate in Turkish accession to the EU?
The process of Turkey’s integration into the EU has been going on for four years. We do believe that Turkey’s economy is now in a much better state than some members of the EU, and we are supported by figures here. We also believe that we do meet the criteria despite all the criticism.
But the reason why Turkey is not an EU member yet and the process continues is because of some prejudged approaches. It is about the prejudiced views of politicians in some European countries towards Turkey.
Now Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country. Therefore, tangible and concrete programmes like economy or trade or finance or what Turkey could contribute to the European economy are not taken into account.
Instead, issues like religion or cultural differences take priority. I do believe this is wrong because as long as you share the values of the EU and as long as your political and economic weight is sufficient, this should not be a problem.
Q: But some of the criticism levelled against Turkey has to do with human rights issues. The judicial system, according to international human rights organisations such as the Human Rights Watch (HRW), is politicized and authorities continue to engage in arbitrary arrests, hold detainees for lengthy and indefinite periods in pre-trial detention, and conduct extended trials. What concrete actions is Turkey making to take to improve its democratic process?
While we take into account some advice that the EU provides us in various political fields and try to make all these reforms, I have to say that some of the criticisms are ill-founded. I also want to note that we have a very strong and vibrant democracy.
There has never been any criticism towards any election in Turkey. These are fair and transparent elections. Hence, the basis of democracy is already there.
Turkey is a member of various European institutions. I want to cite the Organization for Security & Cooperation (OSC). Turkey is also a founding member of the Council of Europe, which is headquartered in Strasburg. We can also mention NATO and list goes on and on. All these attest to the fact that Turkey is already part and parcel of European institutions.
I want to underline that in our quest to become an EU member we are ready to take constructive criticism. But if it becomes a way to put pressure on Turkey, it will certainly not be acceptable. That is where we stand.
We have very strong and vibrant opposition parties that criticize the government and it has to be like that in a democracy. We have both visual and print media, very strong. Some are against the government and some for it and still some others are neutral.
Q: Are you saying you are content with the status quo?
In terms of human rights, I think for every country, including the EU, there is room for improvement. But as far as Turkey is concerned, some of the accusations are not well documented.
Those who are portrayed as journalists are not always journalists. The criticism that human rights activists are not given free way are completely groundless because if you follow the Turkish media again, there are very strong criticisms against the government as well as support for it.
Q: Turkish companies are licensed to export their products to the outside market. But in times of lower demand for these products in the outside market, they could rely on demand in the local market. The only thing that serves as a hindrance for them to take advantage of this is the license they have acquired which bars them from selling for the local market. Has your Embassy done anything about it in terms of negotiating with the government?
The licenses are negotiated between the companies and the government. What we tell the companies is that we want them to operate here fully in line with the laws of the land. The companies are doing just that.
The local market, like the license, is an issue to be resolved between the government and the companies themselves. However, as far as the Embassy is concerned, we want the Ethiopian people to benefit from those same high quality goods that are being sold abroad.
Our main message to companies is that we are guests in this country and that we have been greeted with open arms. Hence, let us do business but in full conformity with what the host country asks us to do.
Q: But my question is have you, as an Embassy, negotiated this with the government not only because you believe, and rightly so, that the Ethiopian people could benefit, but more because the companies themselves benefit when the outside market is not so reliable?
I have to reaffirm that the issue of licenses remains a cause for negotiation between the government and companies. As much as possible we urge and encourage Turkish companies to work for the benefit of the Ethiopian government and people.
Q: Although rewarded with cheap labour, most foreign companies operating in Ethiopia complain of the low labour productivity, mainly because of the poor working culture in the country. They complain of not getting the efficiency of labourthey are used to.
I must say that I have had a completely different feedback from the companies I visited here in Ethiopia. They say for the most part that the workers are efficient and reliable.
There is productivity, which is provided by the Ethiopian labour, which Turkish companies I know and have visited, say are efficient. In fact, these companies could not have survived and thrived in the market had the workers really been inefficient.
Q: But this has been witnessed by most of the foreign investors, and in fact it remains a subject of complaint for most. So this is supported by research from international organizations, including the World Bank.
I understand that labour productivity could be an issue. But I have not heard it from any of the companies I know and have visited.
Having said that, however, I must say that there is room for improvement. But overall, I have to underline that Turkish companies are here because they are satisfied with what they get from workers as output. Company owners have told me that with some training, the Ethiopian workers can be on a par with their counterparts elsewhere in the globe.
Q: Still on the labour issue, there arecomplaints lodged by employees working in some Turkish companies that they get much less than they expect, and that what they are expected to deliver and what they are paid do not match.
I must emphasize that the rights of the workers must be taken into account. Whatever companies expect them to do must be in line with the International Labour Organization (ILO). This is what I tell companies whenever I visit them.
We are very sensitive about this issue and we want our companies to fully respect the workers and maintain Turkey’s image as high as it should be.
I do believe that our companies adhere to this, although there might be some cases – isolated cases I would say – that I have never heard myself. Should we hear about those, we will ask the companies to remedy them. We attach importance to workers should they feel that they have any problems to raise them with the company.
Q: Another issue still in the arena of labour that has become a source of complaint for companies, not just foreign but Ethiopian as well, is the labour law of the land. Many believe that it is unduly skewed towards the employee, thus drawing grumbles from employers. What is your intake on this?
I do not think I can comment on the law as an Ambassador. It is a law ratified by the Ethiopian Parliament and is working currently. Whatever it may be, if there is a law in the host country, foreign companies have to abide by it.
They can have talks about that law and they may also feel that the law is really not efficient, but they have to respect it.But again to be specific, no such issue has been raised to my Embassy.
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