Putin’s visit to add vigor to Turkish-Russian ties, but it’s not all roses

 Relations between Turkey and Russia will get a further boost with the arrival of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Turkey for the third edition of the High Level Cooperation Council on Oct. 15, but analysts have said Turkey’s relations with its northern neighbor aren’t all a bed of roses, though they are convinced both countries offer much potential for one another. 

 Describing Putin’s visit as critical and very important, Murat Bilhan, vice chairman of the Turkish-Asian Center for Strategic Studies (TASAM), stated, “Differences in the political stances Turkey and Russia have adopted in recent times are seeming to get bigger.” Bilhan referred in particular to the Syrian crisis, regarding which the two countries have taken positions diametrically opposed to each other.

Trade and energy issues are said to occupy the top of the agenda for Putin’s visit, but analysts believe Syria is also destined to be one of the main topics, particularly with five Turkish citizens having lost their lives and many others being wounded in Şanlıurfa’s Akçakale, a town on the Syrian border, on Wednesday as a result of shellfire from Syrian territory.

The Russian side seems to be even more optimistic about the future of bilateral relations. Andrei Yashlavski, world news editor of the Moskovskiy Komsomolets daily in Moscow, told Sunday’s Zaman that Putin’s visit would serve to consolidate relations between the two countries, which are on their way to building a strategic partnership. Noting that the South Stream Gas Pipeline Project and a nuclear power plant to be built in Mersin by Russia will also be dealt with in the negotiations, he commented, “We need to make use of the potential [in economy and trade] in the best way possible.”

During Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Moscow visit in July, both parties made it clear that they wouldn’t let their disagreement on the Syrian issue adversely affect bilateral relations. Both countries seem to have been capable enough to compartmentalize their differences, given that economic cooperation between the two countries is on the increase, with Russia to build Turkey’s first nuclear power plant in Mersin, providing $20 billion for the its construction, and bilateral economic relations booming.

Sberbank, Russia’s biggest bank, has recently bought, at a cost of $3.6 billion, Dexia’s Denizbank, adding to Russia’s investments in Turkey. Russia is a major energy supplier for Turkey, which buys more than 60 percent of its natural gas from its northern neighbor. In a move expected to further strengthen bilateral ties in the energy sector, Turkey agreed, at the end of last year, to allow the South Stream Gas Pipeline, which is to transfer Russian natural gas to the European Union via Bulgaria, to pass through Turkey’s exclusive economic zone in the Black Sea in exchange for a reduction in the price of the natural gas it receives from Russia. And Turkey’s exports to Russia amounted to $6 billion in 2011, up from $4.7 billion in 2007.

In spite of all that is going on the economic front, Hasan Ali Karasar, a lecturer in the department of international relations at Bilkent University, is of the opinion, like Bilhan, that at the political level relations with Russia are not all that good, though he also conceded that economic and cultural relations with Russia have been getting stronger. “It’s not possible to say bilateral relations are progressing smoothly,” he told Sunday’s Zaman, noting that the occasion of the Syrian crisis is the first time in quite a while that Turkey and Russia have taken such different stances on a regional issue.

Turkey and Russia also take different positions on the Caucasus and Central Asia. However, noting that Russia’s security perception is not the same as Turkey’s, Bilhan remarked, “It’s because the differences in views are not of the kind that would lead to a conflict that the two countries are able to keep their relations in other areas developing at a good pace.”

Turkey and Russia may have differences of opinion on some political issues, but they seem at the same time determined to strengthen their relations. The Turkey-Russia High Level Cooperation Council was established in 2010, and in the meetings of the cooperation council, as will be the case during Putin’s coming visit, some ministers and high-level bureaucrats also participate, which make the gatherings look almost like a lesser version of a joint council of ministers’ meeting between the two countries.

But Alexandr Prohanov, editor-in-chief of the Zavtra (Tomorrow) daily, and one of the leading figures of the Russian nationalist movement, believes the two countries need to be cautious, given that a provocative incident in Syria — the weakest link in bilateral relations — may take place before Putin’s visit. And it in fact has, in Akçakale! Warning that Western powers, and the United States in particular, are making plans for war in the Middle East, Prohanov told Sunday’s Zaman, “Some Western powers are not happy about the flourishing relations between Russia and Turkey.”

In a move expected to give a substantial boost to bilateral relations, the two countries reciprocally abolished visas last year. “This is probably the most revolutionary development [in bilateral relations],” said Karasar, who strongly believes Turkey and Russia have much potential in trade and cultural relations yet to be explored.

The two countries are already good partners in trade, and Putin’s visit is expected to further enhance relations on the business front. Turkey and Russia have a trade volume of $30 billion, $24 billion of which is Russia’s exports, mainly gas, to Turkey. According to data of the Turkish Ministry of Finance, there are nearly 1,400 firms with Russian capital active in Turkey, while more than 2,000 Turkish firms are doing business in Russia. Turkey’s total direct investments in Russia amount to $10 billion, which represents Turkey’s greatest investment abroad, while Turkish construction firms have so far shown a total turnover of $35 billion in projects in Russia. Turkey is also a major destination for Russian tourists, with 3.6 million Russians having visited Turkey in 2011.

In an effort to knit closer ties between the Turkish and Russian peoples, the two countries also established, at the beginning of last year, a Turkey-Russia Social Forum, through which civil society organizations in both countries will collaborate on joint projects. “During Putin’s visit, this social forum is expected to be activated,” Hasan Selim Özertem, an analyst from the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), informed Sunday’s Zaman, adding that he expects the forum to amply contribute to the strengthening of ties between the two peoples. Following Putin’s visit, should Putin and Erdoğan leave together for a meeting in Azerbaijan, as is being claimed by some Turkish media outlets, then it could be interpreted as a sign that the two countries are aiming even higher in bilateral relations.

Faruk Akkan from Moscow contributed to this report

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