On August 9, an extraordinary event took place at the Constantine Palace in the Russian city of St. Petersburg. The event was the meeting of the presidents of Russia and Turkey which took place in the wake of months-long angry rhetoric and the bad blood between the two countries over the downing of a Russian fighter jet in November last year. During the meeting, as the reports suggest, besides discussing various issues of ‘bilateral interest,’ the two leaders stressed the willingness to collaborate on economic and regional issues. The rendezvous between the two leaders is being touted as a big success because “Turkish-Russian relations are important not only for mutual ties, but for solving global issues,” as President Erdogan remarked.
Apparently, it was Erdogans’s anger at the attempted — and failed — coup in Turkey that was compounded by his fury at the failure of the EU and US to give him the backing that led him to see the other way. However, while looking at the situation, one must also take into account the fact that the downing of the Russian jet delivered a big blow to Turkish economy as Turkish exports to Russia in the first half of 2016 fell to $737m recording a slump of 60.5% compared with the same period last year. In fact, Russian sanctions against Turkey in tourism, and fruit and vegetables exports had put the Turkish economy in dire straits and it was important for Erdogan to rehabilitate the Ankara-Moscow friendship. So, it can be asserted that along with its tense relations with US and the EU, it was actually the bad economic situation that compelled Turkish President to mend relationship with Moscow.
Let’s analyze these aspects in detail:
The US & Syria
First of all, when the attempted coup was foiled by the tremendous valiance and bravery of the Turkish people and democracy-lovers, Turkey put the whole blame on the Pennsylvania-based religious cleric and preacher Fetullah Gulen, who — as the Turkish authorities claim — resides under US government’s protec-tion, and immediately called for his extra-dition to Turkey. On the other hand, Washington has refused to hand him over because “Ankara has not presented clear evidence of his involvement.” Moreover, brushing aside the Turkish opposition to the involvement of Kurds in operations against ISIS in Syria, the US backed them and even helped them to launch a fight against the militant group.
Enraged by the American attitude on both these issues, President Erdogan decided to mend ties with Russia. The Syria factor was conspicuous in the meeting between the two presidents as both leaders indicated that they might work together in Syria, where they had, up to now, been at cross-purposes, with Turkey siding with the US against Russia and the Assad regime. Observers also speculate that the Turkish overtures to Russia are coming at a time when Ankara is finding itself increasingly at odds with the United States.
The EU Factor
Before commenting in Erdogan’s recent anger at the European Union, we need to look into the history of their bilateral relations. Historically, Turkey’s relations with the European Union have remained well-established and Ankara has been engaged with its EU accession for more than 50 years now and the ongoing process has become a pillar of various Turkish foreign political initiatives. However, a spate of events in recent months has turned this relationship into the one that is marred by acrimony and bad blood. First of all, Ankara was increasingly upset with the European Union over payments to stem the rising wave of migrants and refugees, mainly from Syria, and granting visa-free status to Turks. The deal stipulated that Turkey would accept back migrants who had crossed into Greece, while the EU would resettle refugees directly from Turkey on a one-for-one basis. Very soon, refugee flows decreased to the point of ceasing completely. But, the deal seems in shambles now.
Moreover, the failed coup in Turkey and the ensuing crackdown have also intensified new tensions in the EU-Turkey relationship. The EU vows not to compromise on its human rights benchmarks, including requiring Ankara to amend its anti-terrorism laws to meet European standards, particularly by narrowing their scope. EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn recently warned Turkey that the bloc would freeze the country’s accession talks if its post-coup crackdown violates EU rule of law norms.
Turkey has angrily rejected EU criticism that its post-putsch purges violate rights norms. Ankara also accuses Western leaders of not showing enough solidarity in the wake of the failed coup. In Europe, the Erdogan-Putin rapprochement has been seen as an attempt by the Turkish leader to demonstrate that Russia can be an alternative to the European Union. Moreover, Kremlin-watchers say that Erdogan’s efforts mend ties with Moscow spell some short-term uncertainties for Nato.
The BBC web site posted a commentary that declared: “In view of the current ‘frost’ in the AKP government’s relations with both the US and the EU, President Erdogan’s decision to choose Russia for his first official visit abroad since the botched coup appears rich in symbolism. And Western leaders will be looking on nervously.”
It’s All About Economy
While patching up a damaging quarrel, the leaders of Russia and Turkey pledged to restore close economic relations. In the foreground of the new rapprochement between the two countries are also economic issues. Traditionally, Russia and Turkey have enjoyed good economic and trade relations. Last year, Moscow and Ankara set the goal of increasing their mutual trade volume to $100 billion by 2023. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, trade between the two countries had increased by nearly 18 percent to over $30 billion between 2010 and 2014. Last year, Russia was the second-largest destination for Turkish exports and the third-largest source of imports.
On the other hand, the EU’s sanctions — imposed in 2014 — and Russia’s counter-measures have continued to impact Russia’s overall economic, financial and industrial development while triggering structural changes of domestic production and imports market. At its start, the process gave an additional boost to Turkish-Russian interaction, but all was put on hold after the jet crisis in November 2015. And, in the first six months of 2016, Turkey’s exports to Russia dropped by 60.5 percent. Moscow also banned package tours and charter flights to Turkey after the November crisis, costing Turkey $840 million in tourism revenue.
However, the situation is expected to change now. Today, the once-flourishing business cooperation has a good potential to be restored to pre-crisis levels, although how soon, remains to be seen. Trade is its major component and Russian natural gas has been a prime item of Turkish imports, while consumer goods and seasonal fruits and vegetables used to account for the largest share of Turkish exports to Russia before the crisis.
It is also noteworthy that President Erdogan reached Moscow with a huge delegation. Following the talks, it was announced that Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, built with the aid of Russia, would be completed, and the Turkish Stream pipeline project, which is to carry Russian gas via the Black Sea and Turkey to south-eastern Europe, would be restarted. Referring to the possibilities of the revival of economic relations, a Turkish daily Sabah wrote:
“The meeting allowed both leaders to discuss ample opportunities of commercial cooperation from tourism and trade to energy and construction. … The normalization process that began just before the coup attempt will the strengthened by Tuesday’s face-to-face meeting between the two presidents and allow the resumption of the already extensive diplomatic and commercial ties to thrive even further. There is no reason why bilateral trade should not immediately return back to $33 billion, which it was before the jet crisis, and even reach the $100 billion objective set out last year.”
Russia and Turkey, through the meeting of the two presidents, which was widely seen as an attempt to improve relations between the two countries, are proceeding toward restoring their “Friendship Axis”. This is indeed a welcome step and it is rational for both countries that the Turkish-Russian friendship and relations rapidly advance. Even though there seems to be general expectation in both Turkey and Russia that “it will not be possible to normalize everything in several days”, the atmosphere between the two political leaders has changed faster than expected.
Indeed, the Turkish-Russian relationship is a typical lesson on reading the spirit of the time, the zeitgeist.