The Ankara leg of our visit was a little bit afflicted for me by jet lag. Four flights and 28 hours after I checked in at Brisbane airport, I arrived at the hotel in Ankara, along with the rest of the delegation, about 11am.
Ankara is a large sprawling city of several million people. Attractive is not a word which comes to mind when thinking of ways to describe it. However, the history of the region is quite extraordinary. We spent a couple of hours in the afternoon at the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations. History has never been my strong point, although I do find it interesting and this visit was full of references to eras, civilisations, people and rulers I had vaguely heard of but knew little about, all of whom had lived in the lands now covered by the modern state of Turkey. There are numerous historical sites going back thousands of years throughout the area and the museum provided a wide representation of them.
The Sunday night involved dinner at the Ambassador’s residence, getting briefings from Embassy officials on a range of current issues for the region and (where relevant) Australia’s role or perspective on them. It was also spent trying not to fall asleep at the dinner table, and we managed to get back to the hotel reasonably early at 9pm.
Monday was to be full of meetings, preceded by an official wreath laying ceremony on the mausoleum of Ataturk – the founder and first President of the Republic of Turkey. This is a huge, imposing and very impressive structure on a hilltop in Ankara. As an official visiting delegation from the Australian Parliament, we walked down the very long ceremonial avenue, preceded by Turkish military carrying the wreath. Our delegation leader, Senator Alan Ferguson, laid the wreath before the massive tomb, and we then got a brief tour of the Ataturk museum at the site. This included a detailed representation of the Gallipoli battle, where Ataturk was one of the key commanders.
The meetings followed – with members of the Parliament’s External Relations Committee; the Industry, Trade and Energy Committee; the Turkish-Australian Parliamentary Friendship Group and the Ankara Chamber of Commerce.
In the evening there was another function at the Ambassador’s residence. This was an informal reception with a wide range of local people from politics, media, industry and NGOs. I found this most useful, as we could talk to people who most suited our interests. Given my fascination for migration issues, I was pleasantly surprised when I met someone working with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) on people trafficking and other issues to do with irregular migration. I could have spent the whole night listening to her explanation of various migration issues for the region – although I doubt that would have been her idea of a productive evening – but there were some other interesting people there as well. The person who is taking up the position of Ambassador to Australia at the end of the year was there, and the editor of one of the major local dailies also had some interesting views on regional issues, including what was happening in Iraq.
We had two more meetings on Tuesday morning, one with the Minister for Environment and Forestry, and one with the Deputy UnderSecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (who had just been announced as Turkey’s new Ambassador to the USA). It was pretty clear after listening to him just how many things Turkey is at the epicentre of and just how pivotal acceptance into the EU will be. It will be an immensely positive thing if it happens, and potentially quite a negative one for the wider region if it doesn’t.
After that, it was off to the airport for a flight to Istanbul and straight from the airport to another meeting, this time with the Deputy Governor of the city. Istanbul is huge – between 12 and 15 million people (depending on what area you start counting from) – and its traffic problems are noticeable. We had a police escort around town, which does help in pushing through the traffic, but gridlock is gridlock and a few flashing sirens doesn’t change that. The history, heritage and culture of Istanbul would take a book to describe. We get a day to look at that on Friday, but at this stage, we just had time for another meeting over dinner with some local people involved in arts, culture and history. In the morning we hit the road again to drive to Gallipoli.