The Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) group was formed on June 25, 1992, as a multilateral political and economic initiative for peace, stability and prosperity in the region.
It has 12 members -- Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Turkey and Ukraine. Turkey currently chairs the organization.
Speaking at a ceremony in Istanbul to mark the 25th anniversary of the organization, Erdogan focused on the need for further cooperation among member states.
“Together, we all need to do more than we currently do for the Black Sea, which always gives us more than it takes from us,” he said.
“We may have political and even major problems among us but we should make sure we keep our organization away from those problems. Only then we will be able to work efficiently and, in fact, we should do even more.”
The president said the most important accomplishment of the organization was in bringing people and countries together to meet their most pressing challenges.
“As member states, we may have different languages, cultures, political stances or economic levels. But at the end of the day, we have a common denominator that is the Black Sea, which brings us all together,” he said.
Erdogan underlined the need for the organization to be used as an instrument to solve problems by avoiding unfruitful political discussions.
He said workers in different parts of the Black Sea face common problems.
“The workers, who are working at the ports of Odessa, Novorossiysk, Varna, Constanta, Batumi have common problems which are almost the same as those in Samsun, Trabzon and Zonguldak ports in Turkey,” he said.
“If the tea producers in Rize of Turkey have a good season, likewise on the other side of the coast the tea producers in Sochi of Russia enjoy the same thing.”
Erdogan called on all member countries to follow the shared goals of peace, stability and welfare.
“It is up to us, the member states, to make efforts to reinforce our cooperation under this umbrella,” he told delegates. “Here in Anatolia, we have a saying: a neighbor needs even the ash of another neighbor.”
The president said the current trade and investment volume among member states had not met its potential.
“We need to work more on projects that will make a difference in the daily lives of our people such as the Black Sea Ring Highway project -- Turkey completed its part in that project 10 years ago,” he said.
“If other countries complete similar projects then we will have an established transportation network that can bring our people together around the Black Sea.”
He also spoke about the steps taken by Turkey to remove visa barriers in recent years and urged further visa-free travel.
In his remarks at the day-long ceremony, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim also called for further cooperation among members.
Focusing on the importance of fostering economic cooperation and commercial ties, he said: “The population of the Black Sea basin is 350 million. The region is getting stronger, its economy is growing.
“The total gross domestic product of member states has reached $2.7 trillion today while it was $658 billion in 1992.”
Tourism had been boosted by visa-free travel among some members and improved infrastructure, Yildirim added.
The number of Turkish tourists who visited Black Sea states was 3.5 million last year while 10.5 million tourists came to Turkey from these countries.
Yildirim said economic cooperation meant more trade, investment, employment and good ties.
“There might be political problems among our countries from time to time,” he added. “These are temporary problems that we should not get stuck in. Close cooperation should continue.”
Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev later described the Black Sea region as a “commonwealth”.
He told the BSEC meeting that the group had created an “environment of trust”.
Greater foreign investment would reverse declining levels of trade between member states, he said, and boasted of Russia’s $1 million donation to promote overseas investments and enhance small- and medium-sized businesses.
Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos said stronger cooperation would “ease tension and help find solutions to problems that exist between Greece and Turkey.”
Igor Dodon, president of Moldova, welcomed the success of Turkey’s chairmanship and said Moldovan trade with BSEC members accounted for 48 percent of its total exports.
“The countries here constitute almost half of our foreign trade volume in both import and export,” he said.
Dimitry Kumsishvili, Georgia’s vice president and first vice prime minister, called for the lifting of trade barriers to develop the export market for less developed members.
“Members of the BSEC must support each other for total development,” he said. “Leaders must take the initiative and responsibility to establish links.”
Azerbaijani Parliamentary Speaker Ogtay Asadov called for “mutual respect, humanity, tolerance… for a future where the Black Sea region has prosperity.”
Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said the organization should focus more on economic cooperation and less on political issues. The BSEC could “make a difference,” he said.
Stepan Kubiv, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, said cooperation should be strengthened “in light of democratic values and ideals.” He added that there could not be peace in the region while Ukraine remained territorially split.
Romanian Foreign Minister Teodor Melescanu highlighted EU “special initiatives” that favored BSEC members.
Erdogan also criticized Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Ashot Hovakimian for his remarks on Azerbaijan.
“I also agree with the statement saying BSEC should not be a center of political accusation… but you [Hovakimian] have turned almost all of your speeches into a political evaluation.”
His remarks came after Hovakimian at the event accused Azerbaijan of making unfounded statements against Armenia over the Upper Karabakh issue.
Occupied Upper Karabakh is recognized as Azerbaijani territory by the international community but was taken over by Armenian secessionists when the Soviet Union broke up in the late 1980s.
Since the end of war in 1994, Armenia and Azerbaijan have held talks under the supervision of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Minsk Group.
“This duty [to resolve the issue] should be carried out by [Europe’s OSCE] Minsk trio,” Erdogan said adding: “These negotiations have been ongoing for over 20 years -- it should not continue much more. Concluding this issue will have big benefits.”
Despite a 1994 peace deal, border skirmishes are a frequent occurrence. In April 2016, these escalated into the worst outbreak of fighting since the initial conflict, resulting in the deaths of dozens of Azerbaijani troops.