The move can be seen as a brazen rebuke to Turkey over a major disagreement between the two countries on how to deal with the embattled Syrian regime headed by President Bashar al-Assad against the 15-month-long uprising. Instead of showing up in İstanbul, Putin decided to make a trip to Israel and Palestine to boost Moscow’s role in the Middle East.
This was in a great contrast to Russian President Putin’s attendance at the 15th anniversary summit of the BSEC held in Istanbul in 2007 when 11 of 12 member states were represented by either heads of government or state. Only the Armenian president was absent from the 2007 event.
Putin resorted to a similar tactic last month when he cancelled a visit to Camp David in the US for the G8 summit at the last minute. He was supposed to have a one-on-one meeting with US President Barack Obama. He decided to attend the G20 meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico, last week, however. His snub of the US was a reaction to alleged American involvement in the unprecedented street protests against Putin.
Not only Putin, but other heads of state and government have decided to skip the summit as well, which may be a sign of further erosion of BSEC status in the eyes of member countries in the region. Ukraine was represented at the deputy prime minister level, while Greece sent its foreign minister to the summit. The lowest level of representation was from Armenia, which sent Deputy Foreign Minister Ashot Hovakimyan to the event.
Since Serbia is co-chairing the İstanbul event, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic attended. Azerbaijani President İlham Aliyev, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov came to İstanbul for the meeting.
“Turkey was quite insistent to see my president or prime minister present for this summit, but we said no because we do not see any real benefit coming out of this ceremonial BSEC meeting. The BSEC is basically a dead organization,” one ambassador in Ankara told Today’s Zaman last week, asking not to be named. “There are too many divergences on a host of issues among BSEC members, and they are not easy to reconcile,” he added.
Though Turkey vows to make the organization a more efficient and effective one with a new reinvigorated vision to be unveiled for the next decade, many see the BSEC as a failing regional organization that has not made tangible progress on many issues. There are a wide array of differences among the 12 member states on sustainable development and growth, environmental protection and climate change issues. The attempt by the Turkish government to transform the BSEC into a more project-based organization has not yet yielded comprehensive results. The 2007 project called the Black Sea Ring Highway and the Motorway of the Seas, often touted as one of the most important projects for BSEC members to support economic integration in the region, has not yet been finalized. Only Turkey and Greece have completed building their sections of the highway in their territories.
On political issues, there are sharp disagreements as well that hinder the BSEC’s potential to take on a greater political role in the region. Russia and Georgia use the platform to trade accusations against each other, rehashing old wounds lingering from the 2008 Georgian war. Azerbaijan and Armenia are locked in an eternal feud over disagreements concerning territorial disputes. Russia and Ukraine are fighting over the close cooperation of the BSEC with the EU on energy matters, with the former blocking any attempt to undermine Russia’s near monopoly on energy in the region, while the latter is focusing on diversification of energy routes and sources. There are also many differences remaining between Turkey and Russia, the only G-20 members in the BSEC, ranging from energy issues to problems in the Caucasus, Balkans and Middle East.