We have conducted an elaborate interview with Habibe Özdal, USAK Expert on Russia, over the meeting held between Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov in Istanbul yesterday, on 17 April 2013. Mrs. Özdal shed light on the current context surrounding bilateral relations between the two countries and the detailed outlook of high level cooperation mechanisms from Turkey’s as well as Russia’s respective perspectives.
By Emre Tunç Sakaoglu
For what purposes did the Turkish and Russian Foreign Ministers come together yesterday? Which headlines do you think were given priority in their discussions?
The third meeting of the Joint Strategic Planning Group was held on 17 April 2013 in the framework of the High Level Cooperation Council (HLCC) which was established jointly by Turkey and the Russian Federation on 12 May 2010 under the co-chairmanship Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, and former Russian President Medvedev. The first meeting of the Group chaired by Foreign Ministers of the two countries was held in Istanbul on 20 January 2011.
Under the wider umbrella of HLCC, Turkish and Russian leaders come together once in a year at the levels of Prime Minister and President respectively since 2010. This indicates the high level of institutionalization in bilateral relations in recent years. Every year, plenty of agreements are signed by both parties as a result of the meetings held under the auspices of the Joint Strategic Planning Group. These agreements are delicately prepared for the duration of a year preceding the next meeting; with lots of lower level contacts at several working groups, a systematic mechanism for the exchange of ideas and massive paperwork activity in the background. Therefore we need to consider the preparation process of high level and strategic planning guidelines within such an institutionalized framework.
The abovementioned mechanism also contributes to bilateral relations with concrete gains in addition to their institutionalizing influence as a diplomatic pillar. In the last instance, two powerful regional actors have met once again to exchange ideas, regarding significant developments in their intersecting areas of interest as well as concerning issues which have global repercussions. In addition to covering recent developments in Syria and the Middle East, what we can deduce from the press release is that Davutoglu and Lavrov scrutinized several regional and global issues such as the prominent role of the United Nations in overcoming current tensions intensified around North Korea for once again. Realizing sustained stability in the Balkans, the future of Afghanistan, international developments concerning Iran, leading attempts for regional cooperation and stability around the Black Sea basin were also subjects which were laid considerable stress on.
The important thing we should notice here clearly is that beside the abovementioned headlines over which the two countries are on the same page, they are also able to articulate on controversial subjects such as the Syrian crisis, the future of Cyprus, and Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on a regular and temperate basis. We know that the two parties still pose contrasting arguments on those subjects, but nevertheless, intensified diplomatic contacts serve to maintain utmost transparency. They are also functional for contributing to the solution processes concerning subjects over which both countries mostly converge. In addition, the possibility of preservation of hidden agendas and lack of mutual empathy and dialogue on the part of both parties is substantially minimized through such mechanisms. Thus, bilateral relations are passing through a significant confidence-building threshold as visible.
What can be said regarding the current context surrounding bilateral relations? Do these relations have a firm and consolidated background, or at least can they lay the groundwork today for extended cooperation in the future?
Turkish-Russian relations date back to five centuries past, and are mostly referred as a history of wars. When relations are historically-rooted and complicated over various political phases from centuries past on as such, experiencing some roughnesses and obstacles is unavoidable. And if we add the Cold War era to this picture, we see that social and diplomatic prejudices towards each other are fairly understandable.
But we see here two countries which have put aside their conflictual pasts and which eagerly look forward to adapt rapidly to the novel conditions of the new world order evolving in the aftermath of the Cold War through the contemporary era of globalization. New definitions and refreshed perceptions were adopted by both parties as a necessity of changing times; as evident in the fact that various diplomatic channels are actively, efficiently and regularly utilized today concerning bilateral perspectives.
Today, accelerated improvements in several fields of cooperation pertaining public diplomacy and tourism, energy issues, mutual investments and trade volume constitute the major emphasis in bilateral relations. Modern day efforts and opportunities for maintaining intense diplomatic contact have culminated in some form of abstract weaving industry whereby means of communication and transportation are utilized to the extent that moderate and maturized grounds for continuous dialogue are firmly established. What can be deduced here is that both parties are in favor of regional and worldwide stability, even if issues concerning multilateral impasses are faced, and advanced channels aimed at maintaining a healthy dialogue should be kept open no matter what. Even regarding the Syrian impasse, the two parties have long time “agreed to disagree” and put aside major controversies for the sake of getting along with each other over grey areas whereupon consensus can be built.
Over which concrete subjects or details were the two parties able to reach some sort of a limited consensus recently? What can we deduce from those areas of convergence about Russia’s diplomatic intentions?
With regard to the prospects of limited convergence; yesterday during the press conference Davutoglu and Lavrov stated that Syrians are to decide the future of their own country and Middle East should also decide its own fate without external interference. However what renders Syrian issue an impasse before Turkey and Russia in terms of building mutual consensus is that the two countries have completely dissimilar approaches toward it. While Turkey emphasizes the number of civilian casualties, the number of immigrants it has received until now, and the humanitarian tragedy hampering basic and democratic liberties; Russia relies its argument on the thesis that all countries are totally sovereign and a regime change should not take place due to foreign interference in any countries under any circumstances no matter what. Priorities are hence different, but what the two countries aim to reach is the same in essence: stability.
Another prominent point which should be made regarding yesterday’s high-level meeting is that the United Nations is persistently being driven forward by the Russian side as a mostly preferable platform for resolving disputes and reaching consensus. For instance according to Moscow disputes between Macedonia and Greece as well as between South Korea and the North, should be brought to the fore before the UN as the most suitable platform. This emphasis is meaningful for Russia. Russia has renewed its foreign policy conceptualization in February 2013. In Russia’s new foreign policy concept which is an updated format of the 2008 version (the third one after 1993 and 2000 versions), the emphasis laid on the UN as the ultimate decision maker and regulator of the international stage attracted most of the attention. It is important to note that from a Russian perspective, having the right to veto in the Security Council and a relative weight in the UN in general qualifies the organization dearly before Russian decision makers, even though the UN was established in line with the realities of the Cold War and it should be modified according to various rising global actors.
Soft power and diplomacy are two means which Russia aims to utilize more in the forthcoming period beside military build-up, which will continue to constitute a major aspect of Russia’s understanding of gaining and exerting power as only a few weeks ago, Russia conducted another extensive naval exercise in the Black Sea.
How would you evaluate the extent to which the ongoing dialogue process succeeded? Did or can the dialogue process contribute dearly to bilateral relations in essence?
Predictability in each other’s eyes and crisis management skills of both parties are the two major gains of the ongoing dialogue process. Against the backdrop of possible misunderstandings, conflicts and disputes over which the two parties may be compelled to confront each other in the future, they are able to receive and soften such crises in a prearranged, calm and disciplined manner through sustained dialogue mechanisms like the Joint Strategic Planning Group meetings now.
In fact, the mere existence of such a dialogue process is in itself much more significant than limited prospects for mutual conciliation at this juncture as demonstrated by the high level bilateral meeting which took place in June 2012. Therefore both parties demonstrate a mature stature of not emphasizing disagreements but keeping them intentionally and consciously aside while maintaining a healthy dialogue. In addition, confidence building and crisis management capabilities will definitely make it harder for disengagements, or “train crashes”, to emerge on the path of developing bilateral relations further. In this manner, we see that a healthier relationship is currently being built on firm grounds. This characteristic of bilateral relations will be consolidated step by step as long as the process of institutionalization of relations is not interrupted diplomatically. Thus, we will probably end up in the short-run with economic and energy cooperation spreading over other fields such as civil society cooperation touristic contacts, diplomacy, mixed marriages and so on.
Over the last year, Turkey and Russia has experienced some crises. However, crisis management proved that the two countries’ leaders do not want such political but relatively minor disagreements to overshadow their pragmatic but substantial cooperation, and common vision. Whenever a crisis occurs, be it bilateral or multilateral, both sides assure each other that they are open to dialogue and bargaining, and against hidden agendas whatsoever. Because it is in neither party’s interest letting a new and unexpected crisis which may well bewilder its counterpart or panic it into ruining all channels for interaction whereby bilateral cooperation has been safely and cumulatively proceeding to emerge.
Today, Russia believes that globalization will evolve hand in hand with regionalization through an intertwined and ongoing process. It believes that regional initiatives are not in contrast with globalization but indeed they are relatively efficient in putting the process in question on the right track by covering and mainstreaming regional differences. In this manner, Russia puts special emphasis on the high-level and bilateral cooperation mechanism established together with Turkey as a major regional actor. Therefore we see enthusiasm toward carrying bilateral relations forward on Russia’s part through the dialogue process in question. Also, both countries have adopted a win-win strategy in overall which is another reason behind the current intensity of relations through institutional as well as unofficial channels. Such intensity is expected to be maintained by many Russian experts thanks to the initiative of both sides aimed at bringing not disagreements but common interests to the forefront.
About the author: JTW
JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).