Volkan Bozkir: the First Turkish President of the UN General Assembly

Much ink has been spilled over Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy and involvement in the conflicts in Syria and Libya. With clear indications that Turkey has committed several violations of the UN-imposed arms embargo in Libya and with repeating calls for disengagement of any foreign powers from North Africa being ignored by Turkey, Ankara has attracted much international criticism over the past several years.

Yet Volkan Bozkir was elected on June 17 as President of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), being the first Turk to win this position. Bozkir’s future appointment constitutes a clear message that the alleged Turkish isolation in the international system is nothing more than wishful thinking of its rival countries.

Bozkir’s Background, Past Statements and Relations with AKP

Bozkir graduated in 1971 with a Law Degree from Ankara University. From his very first professional steps, it was evident that he would pursue a career in the field of foreign affairs. Bozkir’s notable past experience in foreign policy includes serving as Turkey’s Consul General in New York, Ambassador in Bucharest, Deputy Director General for EU Political Affairs, Minister of European Union Foreign Affairs for Turkey and Chief Negotiator for the Turkish Accession to the EU.

Bozkir is considered to be a close ally of President Recep Tayyep Erdogan; he was elected as an MP for Istanbul with the Justice and Development Party –Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi or AKP– for three consecutive terms, namely the 24th, 25th and 26th Parliaments of the Republic of Turkey. Erdogan has strongly backed Bozkir’s candidacy for the Presidency of the UNGA; this could be interpreted as an aspect of the Turkish President’s long-term strategic effort to promote Turkish interests and positions abroad through a combination of diplomatic, political and military means.

Bozkir Backs Erdogan

Bozkir himself has openly defended President Erdogan in several instances; last year Bozkir said that the US positions have been irrelevant, unfair and out of the limits with regards to the American reaction over the S-400 dispute. Also there have been numerous cases where Bozkir’s statements have provoked international controversy and disapproval. For example back in 2015, while serving as Minister of EU Affairs, Bozkir personally denounced Pope Francis and the Argentinian people as a whole. The reason was the Pontifex’s reference to the Armenian Genocide, an accusation that Turkey has constantly rejected and downplayed. In another 2016 remark, amidst negotiations around the Turkish EU membership, Bozkir declared that the Turkey-EU migrant deal was facing a very dangerous moment, indirectly blackmailing the European Union with a potential major refugee influx unless Turkish interests were served.

Reaction of Fellow UN Members to Bozkir’s Election

A couple of weeks prior to the vote for the new UNGA President, three UN members submitted a letter to the UNGA to formally complain about Bozkir’s candidacy. The permanent representatives of Armenia, Cyprus and Greece submitted their objections in an attempt to block Turkey from holding such a prominent role in the UN. As stated in the links provided, the three countries stressed the destabilizing role of Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean region and MENA.

Armenia and Cyprus also particularly tackled, in their joint letter, their domestic grievances; Yerevan noted that Turkey not only keeps refuting the Armenian genocide, but also is currently strangling the country financially through imposing a long-term blockade across the land border with Armenia, on the pretext of protesting the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Nicosia, from her side, highlighted the 1974 invasion and unlawful occupation ever since of the northern part of the island, which constitutes the self-proclaimed  — recognized only by Turkey  —  Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

On the other hand, Athens focused on the current Turkish provocations with regards to the Greek territory. H.E. Mrs. Maria Theofili, the Greek Ambassador and Permanent Representative in the UN, mentioned that there have been over 300 violations of Greek airspace by Turkish fighter jets in the last five months alone. The Ambassador also emphasized that the State-owned Turkish Petroleum Corporation published in the Official Gazette several illicit applications for a hydrocarbon exploration license on May 30. The application referred to parts of the Greek continental shelf and specifically, certain areas in the proximity of the Greek islands of Crete, Karpathos, Kassos and Rhodes. It should be noted that all three countries clarified that their complaint was referring to Turkish policy and not to Bozkir personally.

On June 17, Volkan Bozkir was elected head of the UNGA by an overwhelming majority of 178 out of the 192 voting UN member states, after a secret election process. The exact result was 178 votes, 11 abstentions and 3 invalid ballots, probably attributed to Armenia, Cyprus and Greece. Bozkir was the sole candidate for the position. His appointment was silently approved by all the member states back in February 2020, when it was officially confirmed that he would be the only nominee.

Bozkir’s New Position Boost Turkey’s Role Internationally

Bozkir’s election has been received enthusiastically in his home country. Despite the concerns that Turkish aggression has been causing over the last years and Erdogan’s opportunistic policy that has caused Ankara to be perceived as an unreliable and unpredictable partner, this latest development emphasizes that Turkey has indeed emerged as a notable regional player with significant international standing.

Shortly after his election, Bozkir stated that he would contribute to international peace and stability, and would pursue equal representation for all member states. The impact of the first Turkish President being elected in the UN General Assembly remains to be seen; however, I highly doubt that this change will limit the Turkish expansionist aspirations or persuade Turkish policymakers to follow a more moderate policy, in accordance with international law and UN guidance. The most realistic scenario is that Bozkir’s presidency will have exactly the opposite effect.