Turkish president Abdullah Gul paid a four-day visit to the Russian Federation from February 12 to 15, marking the flourishing multidimensional relations between the two countries. Gul met with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and other officials and also traveled to Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, where he discussed joint investments. Gul was accompanied by Kursad Tuzmen, the state minister responsible for foreign trade, and Minister of Energy Hilmi Guler, as well as a large delegation of Turkish businessmen. Foreign Minister Ali Babacan joined the delegation for part of the trip.
The Russian side elevated Gul’s trip from the previously announced status of an "official visit" to a "state visit," the highest level of state protocol, indicating the value Moscow attaches to Turkey. Gul and Medvedev signed a joint declaration announcing their commitment to deepening mutual friendship and multi-dimensional cooperation. The declaration mirrors a previous "Joint Declaration on the Intensification of Friendship and Multidimensional Partnership," signed during a landmark visit by then-President Putin in 2004 (Today’s Zaman, February 14).
Indeed, Turkish-Russian economic ties have flourished over the past decade, with trade volume reaching $32 billion in 2008, making Russia Turkey’s number one partner. Given this background, bilateral economic ties were quite naturally a major item on Gul’s agenda and both leaders expressed their satisfaction with the growing commerce between their countries.
Cooperation in energy is the major area of mutual economic activity. Turkey’s gas and oil imports from Russia account for most of the trade volume. Russian press reports indicate that the two sides are interested in improving cooperation in energy transportation lines carrying Russian gas to European markets through Turkey (www.cnnturk.com, February 14).
Moreover, Russia is playing a major part in Turkey’s attempts to diversify its energy sources. Cooperation in nuclear energy is particularly important in light of Turkey’s plans to introduce nuclear power. A Russian-led consortium won the tender for the construction of Turkey’s first nuclear plant; but since the price the consortium offered for electricity was above world prices, the future of the project, which is awaiting parliamentary approval, remains unclear (EDM, January 26). Prior to Gul’s visit to Moscow, the Russian consortium submitted a revised offer, reducing the price by 30 percent (www.ntvmsnbc.com.tr, February 14). If this revision is found legal under the tender rules, the positive mood during Gul’s trip may indicate the Turkish government is ready to finally give the go-ahead for the project.
The Russian market also plays a major role for Turkish overseas investments and exports. Russia is one of the main customers for Turkish construction firms and a major destination for Turkish exports. Similarly, millions of Russian tourists bring significant revenues to Turkey every year.
Nonetheless, a huge trade imbalance in Russia’s favor due to Turkey’s heavy dependence on Russian gas and oil continues to be a major concern for the Turkish side. Despite commitments to fix the trade imbalance made during Putin’s 2004 visit, the gap is still there. It remains to be seen whether this trip will produce concrete results on that count, but so far the only news is that the two sides may start to use the Turkish lira and the Russian ruble in foreign trade, which might increase Turkish exports to Russia (Hurriyet, February 15).
Other economic issues causing problems in Turkish-Russian commercial relations were also addressed. Ankara is particularly disturbed by difficulties encountered by Turkish goods at the Russian border. In response to Gul’s request for help on that issue, Medvedev reiterated the Russian position that strict inspection rules on trucks were being applied to all countries and Turkey was not specifically discriminated against. Nonetheless, he suggested the establishment of a joint technical delegation to examine the issue (Anadolu Ajansi, February 13). The parties had already agreed in September to simplify customs procedures and the new delegation might contribute to those efforts.
A large part of Gul’s visit concerned the development of political ties between the two countries. Both leaders repeated the position that, as the two major powers in the area, cooperation between Russia and Turkey was essential to regional peace and stability. Noting he had held fruitful and sincere contacts with his Russian counterparts, Gul said "Russia and Turkey are neighboring countries that are developing their relations on the basis of mutual confidence. I hope this visit will in turn give a new character to our relations" (Hurriyet Daily News, February 13).
For their part, the Russians praised Turkey’s diplomatic initiatives in the region. Medvedev particularly emphasized his satisfaction with Turkey’s actions during the Russian-Georgian war last summer and Turkey’s subsequent proposal for the establishment of a Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform (CSCP). Medvedev said the August crisis had demonstrated not only the need for coordination among regional countries to address local challenges, but also their ability to deal with such problems on their own without the involvement of outside powers (www.cnnturk.com, February 13).
Medvedev was clearly referring to the exclusion of the United States from attempts to solve regional problems. Indeed, the ease with which Turkey went ahead with the CSCP, bypassing Washington and not seeking transatlantic consensus on Russia, prompted international and Turkish observers to question Turkey’s place in the West (EDM, September 2). Since then, attention has been focused on Turkey’s determination to follow an independent foreign policy.
Economic dependence on Russia, however, reduces Ankara’s autonomy and options with regard to Russia in diplomatic affairs. During the Russia-Georgia war, this asymmetric dependence forced Turkey to follow an acquiescent policy toward Moscow. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan acknowledged that dependence on Russia had tied Turkey’s hands (EDM, August 27; Milliyet, September 2).
This dependence apparently did not bother Turkey very much. Following Gul’s visit, some have even described Turkish-Russian relations as a "strategic partnership," a label traditionally used for Turkish-American relations. It remains to be seen how long Ankara can maintain a balancing act between the two major powers when controversial issues such as Russian plans for building a missile shield come onto the agenda.