Russia-Turkey Reload?
Pyotr ISKENDEROV | 14.11.2015 | OPINION

Russia-Turkey Reload?

The upcoming G20 summit set to take place in Antalya, Turkey, on 15-16 November may be the first such representative international forum at which the new international architecture emerging before our very eyes to the accompaniment of Russian military airstrikes against Islamic State terrorists will really make itself known. The geopolitical alliance being actively formed in the region between Russia, Iran and Syria, with the possible inclusion of other influential players, is believed to be a key element of this architecture. One of these influential players is Turkey, which has been showing noticeable activity in recent weeks.

The Justice and Development Party’s convincing victory in the early parliamentary elections held on 1 November has given President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his supporters the necessary political framework to continue their policy of strengthening Ankara’s role and influence in various regional mechanisms and models. And despite the recent and fairly questionable rhetoric of Erdoğan himself with regard to Russia, such strengthening is impossible without an increase in cooperation between Russia and Turkey. This was clearly demonstrated by a telephone conversation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdoğan that took place immediately after the elections in Turkey.

As well as the situation in Syria, the two presidents discussed pressing issues regarding relations between Russia and Turkey, including preparations for the next meeting of the bilateral High Level Cooperation Council to take place in Russia in December 2015, and confirmed their willingness to continue a political dialogue and further develop mutually beneficial trade and economic cooperation. Their have also agreed to hold a bilateral meeting during the G20 summit in Antalya.

Ankara is interested in developing trade and economic cooperation with Russia. During a meeting with the Russian President in September, Erdoğan announced that he is expecting to achieve a level of trade with Russia amounting to $100 billion by 2023.

In order to assess the magnitude of this task, it should be remembered that between January and September 2014, trade between Russia and Turkey was less than $24 billion, an increase of just 0.5 per cent compared to the same period in 2013. In addition, Russian exports grew by 1.4 per cent and reached $18.7 billion, while imports from Turkey fell by 2.8 per cent to $5 billion. Russia therefore had a positive trade balance of $13.7 billion. Turkey is Russia’s eighth largest trading partner, including fifth in terms of exports and thirteenth in terms of imports. However, this situation does not meet either the potential or the demands of Moscow and particularly Ankara.

The second factor forcing the Turkish authorities to increase their level of cooperation with Russia is the need to tackle energy issues, multiplied by Ankara’s desire as part of its Neo-Ottomanism policy to become a key transit and distribution hub for energy flows at the crossroads of Europe, the Caucasus and the Middle East. Turkey currently imports around 70 per cent of its required energy resources (of which more than half is imported from Russia), and by 2020 the country’s demand for energy resources will grow by another 40 per cent. As a part of its energy strategy, Ankara is actively involved in the development and implementation of various energy projects, even those that sometimes compete with each other. And this, in turn, is forcing the Turkish authorities to cooperate with Russia, especially as previous references to internal political instability and the lack of a strong ruling coalition have become irrelevant following the 1 November elections.

But while the interests of Russia and Turkey are objectively the same or fairly similar when it comes to trade and economic cooperation and the energy sector, the coordination of efforts regarding Syria requires Erdoğan and the ‘new-old’ Turkish government to revise a number of its own former stereotypes of both a Euro-Atlantic and a strictly regional nature. The most important of these stereotypes is relying on the speedy removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.

There is no longer any doubt that Ankara has started to realise how counterproductive and pointless such a demand is in the current circumstances. This is evidenced both by the outcome of the international meeting on Syria held in Vienna at the end of October and the broad hints by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself, including his recent statement that although his country and Russia have differences of opinion on Syria, they could not be referred to as a dispute.

The Turkish media has been saying exactly the same thing, only much more openly. In particular, the Milliyet newspaper has stated that until a formula related to the future of Syria has the support of Russia, it will have almost no chance of materialising. And consequently, the idea suggested previously by the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu that al-Assad ‘resign’ as president and not be involved in the subsequent negotiation process was never ‘realistic’. In the current situation, Ömer Çelik, a member of the Justice and Development Party who is believed to be a close advisor to Erdoğan, is also clearly trying to backtrack from the president’s recent militant, anti-Russian rhetoric. On the subject of relations between Russia and Turkey, he stressed that «there are areas of excellent relations side by side with areas of disagreement, so it’s a complicated relationship».

Ankara has now given up demanding the immediate resignation of al-Assad, for the next few months at least, and, judging by the information available, is willing to make new concessions in an effort to become a key mediator in the political inter-Syrian dialogue agreed to by the parties in Vienna under the auspices of the UN. In addition, unlike other regional players such as Saudi Arabia or Qatar, Turkey traditionally (ever since the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear dossier) adopts a more flexible position with regard to Iran, which also opens up an additional window of opportunity for Ankara. The French publication Le Monde diplomatique captured the essence of Turkey’s policy on Syria rather accurately and linked it to America’s position, emphasising that US President Barack Obama «can be criticised for much in his Syria policy, starting with his weakness in dealing with the Turkish government, the most cynical and manipulative player in the conflict».

The fact that the manipulation of other political players has been at a high level in Ankara since the days of the Ottoman Empire is beyond doubt. However, this fact often allows the desired outcome to be found more quickly than the blatant phobias and hang-ups characteristic of many in Washington and Brussels. As a consequence, a fresh start in relations between Turkey and Russia is not only possible, but also capable of dramatically changing the situation in the vast Eurasian geopolitical space.

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