A decade under Putin makes Russia strategic partner for Turkey

A decade under Putin makes Russia strategic partner for Turkey

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's latest visit to Turkey on Thursday marked Turkey's pledge to support Russia's South Stream gas pipeline.

August 09, 2009, Sunday/ 14:25:00/ MAHIR ZEYNALOV
Vladimir Putin's leadership in Russia over the last decade has marked unprecedented improvement in Turkish-Russian relations. The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted not in competition between the two countries, but instead ever-growing cooperation. Russia and Turkey, possessing similar historical statehood experiences and striving to redefine their role in a broader region has not yet, surprisingly, resulted in competition. Turkey's considerable dependence on Russia has encouraged Turkey not to confront the country and made it consider Russia's national interests in the formulation of its foreign policy. Being a driving force of the Soviet Union, Russia had considered Turkey a threat throughout the Cold War. After the demise of the Soviet Union, Turkey and Russia did not enjoy very good relations until Putin. Both countries had fallen into deep economic recession and domestic obstacles hindered the development of constructive and cooperative foreign policy between two countries.

 Turkey's attempt to create a sphere-of-influence in Turkic countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia contradicted Russia's national interests. Although Russia's relationship with NATO was not as confrontational at the time as it was after Putin took power, Russia and Turkey were still unable to build good relations. Geopolitical competition, however, did not halt their developing economic cooperation. Turkey's increasing trade with Russia marked one of the few cases in the world of cooperation between two regional leaders. Russia, in fact, considered the introduction of Western values a threat to its economic and political interests in its neighborhood. As a result, Russia took advantage of any available method to strengthen its economy. Turkey became a promising partner for Russia.

 Before Putin's rise to power in 1999, succeeding pro-Western Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the man who put an end to the Soviet Union, Turkey and Russia did not exchange many significant top-level visits. A notable exception was then-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's visit to Turkey in 1997. Following this visit, a series of high-level visits created fertile ground for cooperation and partnership between Turkey and Russia. Another remarkable visit from the Turkish side was then-Turkish Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit's visit to Russia in 1999. This was a turning point for the Russian-Turkish partnership. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan paid a historical visit to Moscow in 2002, right after his party's election in a landslide victory. A year later, Turkish-American relations worsened due to Turkey's rejection of a package that would have allowed the US military to use Turkish soil to launch an operation in northern Iraq. The shaken relations between Turkey and the US for the first time in five decades marked a turning point in Turkish-Russian relations. Hardliner Putin regarded Turkey as a trustworthy partner in securing itself against American expansion. One year later, Putin visited Turkey, the first visit of a Russian head of state in 32 years. Then-Soviet Union Chairman Nikolay Podgorny's visit in 1973 had been the last of its kind. Two months later, Prime Minister Erdoğan organized a one-day visit to Russia. Turkish-Russian relations achieved unprecedented growth in the first half of 2009 as five top level visits have occurred in the last six months.

 Russia's massive trade surplus with Turkey was also unprecedented. The annual trade volume between Turkey and Russia has reached nearly $40 billion. Russia is Turkey's biggest trade partner, and Turkey is Russia's fifth-largest trade partner. Turkey imports 67 percent of its energy from Russia. Nearly 3 million Russian tourists visit Turkey annually out of a total of 17 million tourists that come to the country.

 Russian-Turkish relations did not deteriorate during the Georgian-Russian war one year ago. Subsequent to the crisis last August between Georgia and Russia over the disputed territory of South Ossetia, a Georgian territory currently controlled by Russian military forces, Russia became the subject of harsh attacks from the international community and in particular from the US. Russia has been found guilty of ignoring international norms and standards and using disproportionate force against its neighbors. In an effort to respond to all of these concerns and to try to redefine its role in the world, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev delivered a speech outlining Russia's role in the world in late August 2008.

 The so-called Medvedev Doctrine embodied the claims that Russia respects international law and principles; that the world is not unipolar but multipolar; that Russia will not isolate itself from the world and will instead build favorable relations with other countries, including the US; that Russia will support its citizens and business interests wherever they are; and that Russia has privileged relations with former Soviet republics. In this context, Russia's relations with Turkey are also noteworthy. Being a close ally of both Russia and Georgia, Turkey's stance during the August crisis satisfied Russia. Medvedev expressed this during Erdoğan's visit to Moscow. Russia thanked Turkey for maintaining balance during the conflict.

 Trying to position itself and contribute to the balance of power in the South Caucasus, Turkey proposed the Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform, including Russia. Turkey believes that the project will be a platform for cooperation, which will eventually lead to stability in the region. Azerbaijan was opposed to the platform due to Armenia's inclusion, and Russia also did not want to be involved as Georgia was expected to be a member.

 In an interview with Sunday's Zaman, Turgut Gür, honorary chair of the Russian-Turkish Business Council, said, “Putin visited Turkey in December 2004, and a protocol on bilateral relations was signed between the two countries.” Emphasizing the considerable increase in relations since then, Gür said, “Four-and-a-half years have passed, and Turkish-Russian relations have become a multi-dimensional partnership today.” Russian Prime Minister Putin's visit to Ankara was also a reshuffling in terms of Turkey's agreement to participate in the South Stream gas pipeline, which has been seen as a rival of the Nabucco pipeline, which Turkey is heavily involved in. Turkey's desire to help Russia guarantee its southern energy sphere is a new phase that will bolster increasing Turkish-Russian relations.

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