One of the most noticeable consequences of the recent UK referendum on withdrawing from the European Union might be the efforts of Turkey’s leaders to normalize relations with Russia and the rapid change in their rhetoric. Realizing that Brussels is going to lose interest in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rapidly reversed his foreign policy. And that U-turn is of definite economic and political value for Ankara.
First of all – economically. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has already set an ambitious goal for Turkish-Russian trade, stating that that the annual exchange of goods between the two countries – valued at $40 billion per year prior to the nosedive in their relations – could expand to $100 billion.
In general, the Turkish media are remaining cautiously optimistic about this matter, recommending a reassessment in 2017. That is when they believe it will be possible to realistically judge the degree to which the Russian-Turkish economic relationship has normalized. «It will take time to get back to the 2014 level of Russian-Turkish cooperation in sectors such as tourism, the export of fruits and vegetables, and contract labor», writes the newspaper Dünya. «But nevertheless, advocates for those industries are glad to see this normalization begin».
The newspaper Milliyet struck a more optimistic note, using the phrase «the breath of a second spring» to describe the current state of Russian-Turkish relations. «The economy stands to gain the most from the likelihood that Turkish-Russian relations will return to their former level. The primary focus is first and foremost on tourism, agricultural exports, and energy», noted the newspaper.
Milliyet also mentioned that Turkey is heavily dependent on Russia for energy, which, of course, was one of the key factors behind Ankara’s latest U-turn. «Energy retains its critically important position among Turkish imports from Russia. Last year, Turkey imported 27 billion cubic meters of natural gas from Russia, which is Turkey’s biggest provider of natural gas. Because such a large percentage of Turkey’s electricity is generated from natural gas, Russian gas plays a critical role…» writes Milliyet. «And neither the TANAP project, which is expected to bring gas from Azerbaijan into Turkey by 2018, nor the Israeli gas that was added to the agenda after progress was made in relations with Israel, will provide an alternative to Russian natural gas anytime soon».
The political dimension of this «warm-up» between Russia and Turkey will directly depend on how the relationships between the top officials of the two states evolve. And this is where the Turks are pushing as hard as they can. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has declared that a meeting between Presidents Erdoğan and Putin could take place as early as late July or early August. Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has also invited his Russian colleague Sergey Lavrov to take part in talks in Antalya. That invitation followed the two diplomats’ negotiations in Sochi. Previously the Turkish minister of foreign affairs had reported that Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had agreed to meet at the G20 summit in China, but that the Turkish president had offered to hold negotiations prior to the trip to China. Nor did Dmitry Peskov, the Russian president’s press secretary, rule out the chance that the heads of state could meet before the «Big Twenty» gather in Hangzhou.
Apparently Turkey has designated regional cooperation as one of its top priorities in its expanding relationship with Russia. This might be the first time that the head of Turkey’s foreign office has so clearly placed Russian-Turkish relations within the context of regional integration, specifically through the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization (BSEC). The BSEC will celebrate its 25th birthday next year (Turkey and Russia were among the founding members of that organization), and thus Ankara feels that this would be a good time to analyze past years, make plans for the future, and explore promising projects.
Of course, the further normalization of Russian-Turkish relations will largely depend on the regional context of their development. But this is where we run into problems. The factors that objectively complicate those bilateral relations – or at least hamper understanding – have not been eliminated. Over the past six months they have, to a certain extent, become even more complex.
The first factor involves the two countries’ profound disagreements in regard to the strategies for resolving the issue of Syria. The mass media in Turkey still see Syria as the frontline in the confrontation between Russia and Turkey, rather than the arena in which the two countries work together to battle terrorism. «The issue is that Russia has taken an unreservedly anti-Turkish position in Syria», emphasizes the newspaper Yeni Şafak.
The second factor is Turkey’s continuing affiliation with NATO’s anti-Russian plans, despite the deterioration of US-Turkish relations. And the Brexit might further bolster this military-political cooperation along the Washington – London – Ankara axis. There’s a reason that Turkish officials, in addition to the local publications that reflect their viewpoint, express a desire that relations with Russia be normalized, while never missing a chance to accuse Moscow of aggression. The newspaper Milli Gazete lists five factors that Ankara finds irritating, and which, in its opinion, «prevent the normalization of Turkish-Russian relations»: «1) Russia’s actions in Turkey’s neighboring countries; 2) the annexation of Crimea; 3) an agenda in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean based on the strategy of laying siege to Turkey from the sea; 4) the «proxy war» that has been launched against Turkey; 5) the factor of Putin and the team of Eurasians that has coalesced around him». Naturally, some of these «factors» fall solely within the purview of Russia’s domestic policy and are in no way, shape, or form open to negotiation, but they are also certainly part of the general tenor of the anti-Russian policies of the US and NATO.
The third factor is Turkey’s determination to continue its pursuit of the neo-Ottomanist geopolitical policy of «strategic depth», despite the resignation of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the chief architect of that policy. The crisis in the relationship between Ankara and the European Union, as well as growing internal discontent, may well goad Turkey’s leaders into opportunistic moves in the Black Sea and the Caucasus, in order to take over the reins of European and global agendas. «After quarrelling with so many of its former regional allies, Turkey is growing more isolated diplomatically», notes the German newspaper Bild. And history teaches that that kind of isolation is dangerous for both the isolated country as well as its neighbors.