Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to begin a long-awaited visit to Turkey on Monday amid irreconcilable differences over Syria, but the rift is unlikely to undermine both countries’ resolve to maintain bilateral cooperation.
Putin visits Turkey for the third meeting of the High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council. The Russian leader will be hosted in İstanbul, per Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s request that the meeting take place in İstanbul. As part of his one-day visit to Turkey, Putin will also be meeting with President Abdullah Gül.
After one-on-one as well as delegation meetings, there are to be more than five accords signed, covering the areas of economy, culture and finance. Both Erdoğan and Putin, who will also give a joint press conference, will meet with more than 70 businessmen and CEOs that evening at a dinner given in honor of the purchase of Deniz-bank by the Russian Sberbank.
At the Erdoğan-Putin summit, foreign policy differences that have emerged as a result of differing approaches to both the Arab Spring and the Syria situation will be discussed. The foundation of the visit, though, will lie in steps to be taken in concrete areas such as trade, economy, finance and energy.
The decision to create the High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council -- made during President Putin’s 2009 visit to Turkey -- helped boost the atmosphere of mutual trust needed for a strategic partnership between the two countries. Though relations between Turkey and Russia had been moving forward quite well in the areas of economy, trade, culture, tourism and reciprocal investments, the wave triggered in the region by the Arab Spring has revealed some differences in approach. And so, Ankara and Moscow, previously able to set aside different perspectives on a range of matters such as Nagorno-Karabakh, Cyprus and Kosovo, were finally forced to go head-to-head on the topic of Syria. Some of the more concrete differences that have emerged as a result of the uprising in Syria include the Russian veto in the UN Security Council of sanctions against Syria, Turkey forcing down a plane headed for Damascus from Moscow (and the subsequent confiscation of Russian goods on that plane by Turkey), and the latest decision by Ankara to have Patriot missiles placed along its border with Syria. While Moscow asserted it was made uncomfortable by the actions taken against Russian passengers on the plane forced to land, Ankara insisted that the military cargo posed a threat because it could potentially be used against Turkey and Turkish citizens. According to Kremlin sources, the cargo issue, which has occupied the Russian national agenda for the past two months, will not in fact be a prominent topic at the summit.
In the meantime, Moscow is prepared to keep up a very tough stance at the summit in opposition to the Patriot missiles to be placed at the Turkish border with Syria, claiming that it will lead to a no-fly zone over Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has also declared recently that the increasing military presence in the region is only serving to increase the risk of military clashes. A Russian expert, Igor Koretchenko of the World Arms Trade Analysis Center, insists that Patriot missiles placed along the Turkish border with Syria would indicate preparations for a NATO operation in Syria. According to Vladimir Kudelev of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), the goal is to create a no-fly zone over Syria and to see new leadership formed outside of Syria placed in the north of the country. Ankara is trying to explain to Moscow that there are very basic reasons why it wants the Patriot missiles at its border. Turkish diplomats have relayed to their Russian counterparts that Syria possesses both missiles and bombs, and that these often pass over the border, landing on Turkish soil. And so, Turkey -- the only country in the region that both shares a border with Syria and is a NATO member -- will try to convince the Russian leadership that it has requested the Patriot missiles for its own safety and security.
Russia and Turkey do have shared opinions when it comes to finding non-military solutions to the crisis unfolding in Syria. The only real problem on this front is in connection with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. While Ankara envisions a Syria without Assad, Moscow insists it is the Syrian people themselves who must decide this. It is expected that prior to the Dec. 3 meeting of the High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council, the co-chairmen of the Shared Strategy Planning Group, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and his Russian counterpart Lavrov will have a comprehensive discussion of all the various regional and international problems awaiting solutions. It should also be noted that there could well be some surprise decisions that emerge from the summit in relation to the Syrian crisis.
In such a case, the Patriot systems that are so categorically opposed by Russia may not need to be deployed in Turkish territory. Observers say Moscow may revise its stance now that a Syrian group, which the Russian media say represents a moderate opposition, has made clear that there is no place for Assad in Syria’s future in its talks with Russian officials during a visit last week to Moscow.
Leaving the many international and regional problems aside, the economic underpinnings between Turkey and Russia -- which are also shaping politics -- are getting stronger and stronger. While the more than 3,000 Turkish companies in Russia have investments that now exceed $12 billion, the purchase of Denizbank by Russian Sberbank now means that Russian capital in Turkey has exceeded $12 billion.
Tourism targets set by Turkey and Russia have also been increased following the recent historic step of both countries lifting visa restrictions for short-term visits. With more than 3.5 million Russian tourists visiting Turkey in 2012, the mid-term goal is to see this number increased to 5 million.
In addition, the first Turkish nuclear power plant, Mersin Akkuyu, will include a $20 billion Russian capital stock investment, the first time capital stock will be invested abroad. Akkuyu, which looks set to add a new dimension to relations between the two countries, will be an important subject of discussion at the coming summit, with more clarity brought to questions about when construction will start. Requests made by Turkish companies to be partners in the power plant will also be relayed to the Russian leader.
There is also to be a meeting of a joint economic committee, which is part of High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council itself. The meeting, which will be chaired by Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yıldız and Russian Energy Minister Aleksandr Novak, will clarify the “2012-2015 trade, economic, scientific, and technical cooperation mid-term program” between the two countries, and the agreement will be signed on the same day. It is also expected that focus will be placed on projects aimed at increasing trade volume between Turkey and Russia from the current $30 billion expected by the end of this year to $100 billion.
Renewed agreements on reciprocal restoration of military memorials and bases are expected at the Societal Forum, also a part of ÜDİK. A joint “Work Program” is to be signed at the forum, which will be led by Turkish Parliament Foreign Affairs Commission head and Justice and Development Party (AK Party) İstanbul deputy Volkan Bozkır, and his Russian counterpart Konstantine Kosechev of the Federal Agency of Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation. It is also anticipated that Ankara and Moscow will also be signing off on new agreements regarding the formation of cultural centers in Turkey and Russia.
Russian commitment to ties
Russian diplomats speaking to Sunday’s Zaman have characterized the coming visit as one that “confirms that Russian-Turkish relations have not been affected by this or that event.” And to wit, the fact that this is Putin’s first visit abroad after two months of postponing visits to other countries does confirm to Ankara the importance Russia places on Turkey.
According to Fyodr Lukyanov, the editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs journal, Putin’s visit itself is an important indication of the willingness on the part of the two countries to maintain their bilateral cooperation. “The plane crisis strained the ties, but it did not ruin them. The fact that Putin is going to Turkey shows that this problem has been overcome,” he told Sunday’s Zaman, even though he predicted that the two countries will not manage to find common ground on the question of how to resolve the Syrian crisis. “I think the Russian and Turkish leaders will put this disagreement aside and work towards deepening their multifaceted bilateral ties.”