By Habibe Ozdal
Russian President Putin was in İstanbul on 3 December 2012 to take the chair together with Prime Minister Erdoğan for the third meeting of the Turkey-Russia High-Level Cooperation Council (HLCC) established in 2010. The goal was to develop bilateral relations through various fields in establishing the abovementioned council. In addition, it was also aimed to provide with a platform for exchange of views concerning regional and global developments within the framework of the council which would enable leaders of both countries to meet annually.
Essentially, HLCC meeting was planned to take place in October. It was postponed due to Russian President Putin’s health conditions. Although this delay was commonly associated with the “airplane crisis”, it was declared within the scope of a few days after the crisis that Putin’s visit was to take place on 3 December 2012. Therefore a firm message was conveyed, indicating that a disjuncture in bilateral relations should not be expected.
The matters in question
Before the third HLCC meeting, delegations finalized agreements to be signed focusing on various fields from energy to trade after time taking deliberations as usual. Thus, eleven agreements were signed consequently during the meeting.
Also during the press conference held by the President of Russian Federation Putin and Prime Minister Erdoğan, two leaders primarily emphasized the acceleration gained in bilateral relations. The 30 billion dollars of trade volume between the two countries in 2011 is expected to reach 35 billion dollars by the end of 2012. As underlined by the two leaders at the press conference, Russia is currently the second largest trade partner of Turkey after Germany. Moreover, 3.5 million Russian tourists have visited Turkey in 2012.
HLCC was found to become an efficient mechanism in order to improve bilateral relations and overcome problems – if there are any – before long. It also provides with a suitable platform for evaluating regional and global developments. This being the case, Erdogan-Putin meeting dealt with various issues such as the on-going crisis in Syria, overall situation in the Middle East, and naturally Patriot missiles to be deployed in Turkey.
From the day the uprisings began in Syria it was known that Ankara and Moscow’s fundamental interests were diametrically opposed. Therefore although some analysts interpreted Putin’s initial remarks during a press conference that Russia and Turkey had: “The same goal with regards to Syria’s future but differing views of how to attain this goal” as a moderate approach, one needs to indicate that this wasn’t reflected in concrete policy proposal towards solving the crisis. The leaders of the two countries have expressed that the goal is indeed the same and that the foreign ministries of the two countries would be in an intensive dialogue. On the point of Russia’s approach that the opposition has to sit on the negotiating table, Turkey has to convince the opposition to sit with the representatives of the regime. Such a suggestion constitutes a multiple variable equation and at least gives hope of a draft on which Turkey and Russia could work “together” although they are far from an agreement. Nevertheless the Syria crisis yet again represent Ankara’s and Moscow’s willingness to accept the problems “as they are” out of regard for the exciting economic relations mainly based around energy.
As we wait for Obama’s new term policies with regarding to the missile defense shield NATO is planning to install to protect Europe, the Patriot missiles being installed along the Syrian border was another source of concern for Russia and a topic discussed during the meetings. However NATO missile defense shield is not the topic concerns exclusively Turkey and Russia since it has a significant sway in the relations between Russia and NATO as well as Russia and United States. As for Patriot missiles it seems Russia overcame with its concern. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov made it clear by stating that “We are not trying to interfere with Turkey’s right to defend itself”.
The approach that blurs the picture
The momentum obtained in the bilateral relations, can be presented by taking a historical approach from the 2000’s onwards. This change can be clearly scene from studying certain examples. The main building block of this change in bilateral relations is the “transformation of the mindset” of policy makers. Erdoğan and Putin administrations have brought bilateral relations out of a framework of “competition” into a framework of “cooperation in possible fields”. Through such approach cooperation in various areas from trade to culture, to politics to education became possible. The exemption of visas between the two countries as well as the HLCC can be presented as example of such cooperation.
However it is still important to be able to name the nature of these relations. No matter how good both sides resist acting according to old reflexes and no matter how much both administrations know that the Cold War is over, currently bilateral relations are not at a stage of alliance but rather at a stage of confidence building. Both Erdoğan’s and Putin’s efforts since the 2000’s to increase the different areas of cooperation between the two countries has thus far been successful. Especially the cautious statements made by both sides during times of crisis has displayed at every opportunity that a significant break in Turkish-Russian relations is unlikely. Despite the success obtained at crisis management, there are some shortcomings with regards to information sharing.
The discrepancy over narratives with regards to the equipment find inside a passenger flight from Moscow’s Vnukovo airport, forced to land in Ankara on October as well as the lack of communication between Ankara and Russia over the Turkish explorer jet shot down in Syrian airspace is not appropriate for two countries with such open communication channels. Although the Russian Ambassador in Ankara Vladimir Ivanovski tried to inform the press through organizing a press meeting and thus intending to close the issue prior to the Russian Head of State Putin’s visit to Istanbul, this press conference didn’t succeed in dispelling the doubts.
In conclusion, another routine round of executive meetings has ended with expressions of good will. In an ear where important crises continue to roam in the international arena and despite blindingly obvious foreign policy disagreements the channels of dialogue are effective and open and the executive meeting council has once again succeeded in signing treaties that will open new fields of cooperation. Therefore it is necessary to take into account new parameters while assessing Turkish-Russian relations.
However while it is important to get rid of the Cold War mentality while evaluating the bilateral relations, it is also important to place the relations in the right framework. In fact, such an approach would both deem possible relative foresight in foreign policy and would also allow for a more consistent evaluation.
USAK Center for Eurasian Studies