By Habibe Ozdal
Turkish-Russian relations have passed through vital thresholds since the beginning of 2000s. The two countries, which were remembered throughout history as two prominent rivals, have entered into a phase of redefining each other thanks to the initiatives of both governments which appeared as a result of the structural transformation within the international system. Ankara became in the eyes of its counterpart an “independent actor” which can stand against Western countries, after the March 1st Memorandum was declined in the Turkish Great National Assembly (TBMM). As a result of the dialogue process which took over ten years, bilateral trade volume has reached 30 billion dollars in 2011 and 3.5 million Russian tourists have decided on Turkey to spend their holidays last year with the realization of visa exemption between the two countries. In addition, there are currently around 2000 companies of Turkish origin which have invested 7 billion dollars in Russia until now.
Political developments need to be added to the above mentioned numbers. The leaders and authorized ministers of the two countries make regular efforts by evaluating the existing situation of bilateral relations, for overcoming existing problems rapidly and intensifying relations in both economic and cultural fields through the High Level Cooperation Council (HLCC) which have been functioning since 2000. Even though it is not possible to say the bilateral relations are flawless, the current state of affairs between Ankara and Moscow should not be overlooked and is marked by high-level visits which became nearly common thanks to HLCC meetings.
Despite the increasing number of occasions for dialogue in the context of political relations on the Ankara-Moscow line as a result of the considerable ascendancy in commercial and touristic activities; it is possible to say that this situation has a limited capacity of influence in resolving regional and global issues that have historical depth. Because Russia, even though presented as a “strategic partner” by the Turkish media, has somewhat different foreign policy preferences regarding the Cyprus and Karabakh issues.
Also on the issue of clashes that have been continuing for the last 16 months in Syria, Ankara and Moscow have considerably different assessments. While the visit paid by PM Erdogan and FM Davutoglu to Russia in a truly critical era – as Russia constitutes one of the most important elements in the equation structured around Syria currently – can be put forward as an important indicator regarding bilateral relations, it may not have a vital influence in terms of its results in resolving the Syrian crisis.
Understanding Syria as Imagined by Russia
The question of “Until when will Russia go along with supporting Assad?” has been usually brought to agenda with the Ba’ath regime resorting to excessive force and the number of civilian casualties reaching 15.000 in recent months.
It was possible to appeal to a couple of factors in explaining the support provided by Moscow to the regime in Syria during the first phase of civil unrest there. Syria being the primary ally of Russia in the Middle East, the Russian base in Tartus being the sole naval base of Russia in the same region, Russia assessing the situation in Syria as an internal matter of the latter from the point of the principle regarding state sovereignty forth, and Russia opposing popular revolts in general were among the primary factors which could be listed to explain the situation.
The importance that the Syrian issue bears has changed dimensions so to speak, where we stand now. While the above mentioned factors are still bearing their respective importance, it has been clearly observed that from now on the Syrian issue has become a matter of challenging the structural basis of the international system. It appears now as the Moscow administration, perceiving colored revolutions and unilateral interventions by the Western countries as contrary to its interests, aims to protect not Assad himself but Russia’s elbow room in Syria and to prevent any external interventions that will bring about regime change.
Russia, while redefining itself as a great power again ever since 2000s and climbing to its knees thanks to the positive effect on its economy of the rising oil prices resulted by the war in Iraq, is trying to demonstrate on the international stage that it is “an actor to be reckoned with”. Besides the possibilities regarding a permanent change in the balances of the Middle East and Russia losing what it has gained before, the possibility of not taking part in the reshaping process of the region also underlies Russia’s concerns.
Observing that Russia does not prioritize supporting Assad but preserving its interests and assesses the situation as a global power struggle, is a crucial element for diplomatic efforts to be initiated regarding the issue of “convincing Russia”. The results of the conference held in Geneva on June 30 suggested not a solution in Syria but the fact that a plan that includes Russia may be carried into effect. Today, the result of common diplomatic efforts initiated by Russia and Western countries is on one side a plan of limited change referred as the “Yemen model” and on the other side the Annan Plan which aims to bringing forth a political solution to the problem and regards both the regime and the armed opposition groups as responsible for the clashes that took place in Syria, as Russia continuously emphasizes. It is obvious that the proposals in question will not bring about a solution to the Syrian issue in the short-term. Another fact that is obviously visible is that in both proposals, Russia’s support is seeked for and elbowroom is left in an endeavor to preserving not Assad himself but Russia’s gains in essence.
The Meaning and Significance of Moscow Visit
The leaders of two countries, which have almost opposite foreign policy implications on the Syrian issue in a critical era, utilizing grounds of dialogue is also as important as the results of Erdogan-Putin talks. From this point on, the meaning that underlies the visit is that the idea of “Russia must be convinced”, which is often preferred to be mentioned by Western countries’ through a consistent discourse in recent months, is also appreciated before Turkey. In this context, PM Erdogan’s message conveyed to the President of Russian Federation Putin affirmative of the idea that Turkey can cooperate with Russia in the region is not a magic formula to bear fruit in the short-term; but this may well render possible gaining Russia’s consent in passing through a post-Assad phase.
As shown by the press conference held by the two leaders after the talks that took nearly two hours, PM Erdogan and President Putin had a meeting which began by emphasizing positive expectations regarding the upcoming period by taking the ascending nature of bilateral relations as a basis. As expected, PM Erdogan pointed to the increasing number of civilian casualties in Syria; and he also shared Russia’s frequently verbalized contention that Syrian people are to decide the future of Syria. On the other side, PM Erdogan’s emphasis on the road map put forward during the Geneva talks indicates that Turkey shows consent to the idea that a process including Russia can be put into force. However, Erdogan also remarked that the ongoing process means further increasing civilian casualties. In this sense, although leaders converged on a common basis of leaving the task of shaping Syria’s future to Syrians, it can be inferred that a critical change regarding the continuation of the process cannot be expected at the present time.
After all, Erdogan-Putin talks were conducted during a critical phase bearing utmost importance regarding Syria. The importance of bilateral relations for both sides, under the influence of commercial relations dominated by energy cooperation, was once again manifested by the statements of the leaders. Despite the divergence of opinions particularly on Syria, the emphasis placed by two countries under the various grounds of cooperation pioneered by the energy sector considerably reduces the risk of Syrian crisis overshadowing bilateral relations.
The talks conducted by the leaders of two countries that have truly opposite policy implementations toward the Syrian issue, was finalized with an emphasis on the implementation of a “transition government” put forward in principle during the Geneva conference. Whereas almost everybody is of the same opinion that the aforesaid plan will not be able to stabilize Syria in the short-term.
USAK Center for Eurasian Studies