The January 10-12 visit of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Moscow demonstrated a dramatically increased level of Russian-Turkish economic and political relations. As it took place just one month after Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Ankara, the charismatic Turkish leader’s trip appears to underscore the importance his country attaches to the “eastern dimension” of its foreign policy strategy. At the same time, the Kremlin’s desire to intensify geopolitical ties with Turkey is seen as an attempt to compensate for the erosion of Russia’s strategic influence in the Black Sea zone, following its political setbacks in Georgia and Ukraine.
Within the Turkish analytic community, Erdogan’s Moscow visit is widely considered as an apparent sign of Ankara’s policy of positioning Turkey as an important regional power parallel to its European Union bid. On December 17, the EU summit in Brussels finally set a concrete date — October 3, 2005 — to begin accession talks with Turkey. “These efforts [to boost ties with Russia] support Ankara’s EU process in terms of an integrated approach; they should not be regarded as an alternative to Turkey’s EU route,” a source close to the Prime Minister’s office told the Turkish Daily News (January 11). “Turkish-Russian relations carry great importance, and our ties with the EU and the U.S. aren’t obstacles to these relations,” echoes a commentary in the Turkiye daily (January 11).
At the heart of the flourishing Russian-Turkish relationship is a tremendous, growing volume of bilateral trade. Remarkably, among the enormous contingent Erdogan brought with him to Moscow there were 52 Turkish legislators, 90 newsmen, and 500+ business executives. Currently, Russia is Turkey ‘s second largest economic partner after Germany , with trade volume estimated at $10 billion for 2004. As some Turkish analysts enthusiastically note, “Our economic ties with Russia are ripe for growth” because “both sides have a great potential.” Indeed, both Erdogan and Putin agreed that the trade turnover could reach $15 billion “in the near future.” Most Turkish experts believe it is a perfectly achievable goal. The key thing is to keep up intensive economic interaction. In 2003, the analysts note, the bilateral trade volume was half of the 2004 figure. “A 50% increase for 2005, therefore, should not be viewed as an [overly] ambitious target,” argues Yusuf Kanli, editor-in-chief of the Turkish Daily News, “provided that the leaders of the two countries maintain the current political desire for expanding and deepening relations between Ankara and Moscow in all spheres” (January 12). While in Moscow , Erdogan even mentioned that the trade volume between the two countries could reach a breathtaking level of $25 billion by the end of 2007 (Yeni Safak, January 12).
The bulk of this trade volume is made up of Turkish imports of Russian gas via the Blue Stream pipeline. Russia currently provides about two-thirds of Turkey ‘s natural gas needs. Russian and Turkish media reported that during the Moscow talks Russia agreed to expand gas exports to Turkey . The two sides also discussed ways to further deepen energy cooperation, which, in the words of Russia ‘s Industry and Energy Minster Viktor Khristenko, “plays a key role in Russia-Turkey bilateral relations” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 13). For example, Russia appears keen to export electricity to Turkey — either through a cable laid down on the Black Sea floor or through Georgia . According to a report aired January 12 on the private Turkish NTV television channel, another ambitious project discussed in Moscow dealt with the possibility of transporting Russian oil to Western markets through a pipeline from Turkey ‘s Black Sea coast to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan . This scheme, some Turkish experts point out, while providing an alternative route to the overcrowded Turkish Straits, “will make Turkey not only a customer but also a partner for Russia in the field of energy” (Turkish Daily News, January 16).
But Russian-Turkish interaction is not limited to the lucrative trade deals. The logic of the fast-growing economic ties is pushing Moscow and Ankara to expand cooperation into the political sphere. “Improving economic and trade relations will eventually lead to closer political relations,” predicts the influential Turkish journalist Mehmet Ali Birand (Turkish Daily News, January 12).
The Erdogan government, anxious to start accession negotiations with the EU later this year, believes Moscow can facilitate settling two thorny issues — Cyprus and Armenia — which stand in the way of Ankara ‘s European ambitions. As a traditional supporter of Greek Cypriots in the UN Security Council and Armenia ‘s strategic ally, the Kremlin is viewed as an important power broker by Ankara . Remarkably, during his talks with Erdogan, Putin proved to be quite cooperative on both issues. First, he stated that Russia would “do its best” to achieve rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia . ” Russia will act as a mediator and perhaps as a guarantor,” Putin said, adding that Armenia , too, was seeking ways to reach a settlement. Second, and more important, the Kremlin signaled that it could drop its opposition to efforts to end international isolation of the Turkish Cypriots and said it was supporting a settlement in Cyprus based on UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s reunification plan, which collapsed last year because of Greek Cypriot rejection. “We think economic isolation of northern Cyprus is not fair,” Putin said (Vremya novostei, Turkish Daily News, January 12).
For his part, Erdogan pleasantly surprised the Russian leader when he pledged Ankara ‘s full support for Russia ‘s efforts to join the World Trade Organization. Furthermore, the Turkish prime minister — “unexpectedly,” as Putin himself admitted — displayed an interest in establishing trade relations with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Interfax, January 12).
Some Turkish commentators even likened the current Moscow-Ankara relationship to the honeymoon between Russia ‘s Bolsheviks and Turkey ‘s Kemalists in the 1920s and 1930s. “In fact, what is happening now is the revival of the Turkish-Russian rapprochement era,” argues the veteran political analyst Yuksel Soylemez (Turkish Daily News, January 16).
But it would be a mistake to overestimate the geopolitical importance of Turkey ‘s overtures toward Moscow . For the majority of the Turkish political class, the national strategy’s “eastern dimension” is just an auxiliary one designed to strengthen the principal –Western — vector of Turkey ‘s foreign policy. As one commentary has aptly put it, “We have good relations with the [Central Asian] Turkic republics, we are America’s strategic ally, and Russia’s friend . . . So this will make it easier for us to become an EU member” (Turkiye, January 11).