By Kamer Kasim
The end of the Cold War brought an expectation that Moscow and Ankara would turn over a new leaf in their relations. Indeed, during this period economic relations between the two saw real progress as witnessed in their increasing trade volumes of $4.2 billion in 1997, $28.2 billion in 2007, and $31.2 billion in 2014. Turkey’s energy imports from Russia hold an important share in this augmentation. In 2014, while Turkey’s exports to Russia amounted to $5.9 billion, its imports therefrom amounted to $25.2 billion. The number of Russian tourists who visited Turkey in the 1990s were numbered in the hundreds of thousands while this number has exceed 3.5 million after 2012. Moreover, abolishing visas between two countries has increased mobility. Despite all these developments, Turkey’s trade deficit with Russia continues to be a major problem.
In this context, Turkey has come to expect the removal of obstacles to its exports to Russia while Turkish businesspeople hope to see less bureaucracy-related delays in their bilateral business ventures. These two countries have a lofty objective of attaining a $100 billion trade volume. In line with this objective, in order to accelerate customs procedures, the Simplified Customs Line (SCL) was agreed upon by both countries in 2009. Despite the problems encountered, Turkish-Russian economic relations have achieved significant progress.
However, it is hard to say that the two countries’ political relations have enjoyed the same advancements. The main reason for this is that Turkish-Russian relations have not been able to overcome the Cold War mentality, thus resulting in a significant obstacle especially to bilateral cooperation with regard to regional problems. In this vein, for many years, Russia was suspicious of Turkey’s close relations with the Turkic Republics. Russia also interpreted Turkey’s actions in the Balkans and the Middle East as an indication that “Turkey serves Western interests”. However, on 1 March 2003, the Turkish Grand National Assembly refused to grant permission to the US military to use Turkish territory to launch a ground invasion of Iraq, an act that was perceived by Russia as the dawn of a Turkey that could act independently in the region.
Moreover, while Turkey is enhancing its relations with Russia particularly in the field of energy, Russia’s use of armed force in the region – such as during the intervention in Georgia in August 2008 – has raised several question marks for Turkey. Nevertheless, the US’s request to provide assistance to Georgia via the Dardanelles and Bosporus Straits in August 2008 was refused by Turkey, as the latter emphasized the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits. These case have shown that Turkey has begun to interpret its relations with Russia separately from its other NATO allies. Additionally, Turkey, which has sought to further improve international cooperation in the field of energy, came to an agreement with Russia regarding the construction of the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant in Turkey’s Mersin Province. However, up until now, Russia has not responded to Turkey’s various moves which have opened a window of opportunity for the improvement of bilateral political relations.
Does the Ukraine Crisis represent the dawning of a new era?
Regardless of the fact that the political rapprochement between the two countries at hand has been quite limited following the Cold War, the strained state of relations between the West and Russia due to the Ukraine Crisis may open a new age and set new parameters for Turkish-Russian relations. Given that Russia’s relations with the West and Ukraine have been severely damaged, Russia has needed to rearrange a variety of policies, and particularly its energy policy.
It is obvious that an unstable Ukraine has totally distanced itself from Russia in the aftermath of the latter’s annexation of Crimea. As can be observed from the political dynamics of the country, pro-Russian blocs will not be able to maintain the dominance they once enjoyed in earlier elections. After all, Russia now wants to completely bypass Ukraine when it comes to selling its energy resources to Europe. In this regard, Russia is making plans for the period following 2019, when the gas transit agreement between itself and Ukraine will come to an end. Thinking ahead, Russia has now come to Turkey with the idea of the Turkish Stream after the South Stream project failed.
From the viewpoint of Russia, Turkey, as a regional power which pursues independent policies, is a more reliable partner than other alternatives. Moreover, this reasoning has been supplemented by the fact that Turkey pursued a pragmatic policy when deciding not to partake in the Western sanctions against Russia due to the Ukraine Crisis. In this case, this new form that Turkish-Russian relations has taken on exemplifies Turkey’s position as distinct from the West in particular points, especially in the eyes of Russia. Moreover, the West, with its numerous sanctions against Russia, does not act in an organized and comprehensive manner, and more importantly, it does not share Turkey’s opinion regarding policies toward Russia. Under these circumstances, why would Turkey take joint action with the West and the US and harm its relations with Russia? If Russia takes Turkey’s sensitivity about Crimean Tatars into account, the Ukraine Crisis can actually pave the way for a new form of cooperation in Turkish-Russian relations that will range from the Black Sea to Central Asia.
Turkey should determine its priorities in its relations with Russia and provide the country with clear-cut messages thereon. Here, Caucasian security, Turkey’s relations with the Turkic Republics, and energy may be some of the priorities Turkey would like to emphasize. Cooperation between these two regional powers on issues related to Caucasia and Central Asia would generate mutual benefits. For example, the two could work toward formulating a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh problem, and therewith take an important step in providing Caucasian security. Russia has the necessary tools to pressure Armenia on this issue as Armenia is dependent on Russia not only in terms of security but also economically. The recent Armenian protests against a rise in electricity prices also goes to show that energy is one of the delicate points of the Armenian administration, and in the end, Russia is the one with the loudest voice in this field, particularly in terms of electricity distribution. Yet despite Russia’s ability to exert leverage over Armenia when it comes to solving persistent regional conflicts, Putin went to Yerevan on 24 April and gave a speech which made Turkey feel uncomfortable. In this regard, those in Russia who support closer relations between their country and Turkey contend that the current conjuncture is not a result of inter-state relations between Armenia and Russia but instead due to the activities of the Armenian diaspora within Russia. However, given the fact that Putin maintains powerful leadership in Russia, this explanation remains insufficient. Either Russia does not understand Turkey’s sensitivity to this issue – as a precious regional power – or Turkey has been unable to explain its position to Russia.
If Russia changes its policy towards the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, not only would new avenues of cooperation be opened among Turkey, Russia, and Azerbaijan, but also Turkmenistan could be included in this constellation as a country whose relations with Azerbaijan are swiftly developing. Nonetheless, the conflicts which have become chronic in the Middle East, especially the chaos in Syria, should not be handled as an issue in the realm of Turkish-Russian bilateral relations considering that Syria has become a global issue and should be analyzed multi-dimensionally as such. Moreover, it will be difficult for Russia to change its existing position in Syria in the short-term. And in this respect, Russia’s main concern is in fact those Russian citizens who have gone to the region to fight and the potential security risk that these individuals’ return to Russia poses. Considering this, Russia is trying to minimize such security risks by negotiating with various actors including Saudi Arabia.
Ultimately, both the regional powers at hand will benefit from cooperation in this new era. Turkey could improve its relations with Russia by not joining the Western efforts to isolate it and Russia should engage in joint action with Turkey with regard to delicate subjects such as the Armenian allegations.
*This article was first published in Analist Monthly Journal’s August issue in Turkish language.