Russia and Turkey Forge New Ties on Security, Trade
Turkish Prime-Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's recent talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin suggest that the two Eurasian countries have found common ground on a number of key regional security issues.
"It's our fourth meeting during the last seven months, and I guess, all of you understand what it means," Erdogan said at a news conference following the July 17-18 negotiations at Putin's posh summer residence in the Russian Black Sea resort town of Sochi. "Our views totally coincide with regard to the situation in the region as well as to the issues concerning the preservation of stability in the world," Interfax news agency quoted Erdogan as saying.
The current Russian-Turkish encounter came after the Kremlin leader's official visit to Ankara in December 2004 and Erdogan's trip to Moscow in January 2005. Last May the Turkish prime minister also attended festivities in the Russian capital commemorating the 60th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
Such a sharp increase in top-level contacts appears to be the result of both countries' wariness toward political turbulence in their overlapping "near abroads" specifically, in the South Caucasus and Central Asia, the regional analysts say.
Both Moscow and Ankara are closely following the geopolitical changes that are taking place in post-Soviet Eurasia in particular, those brought about by the so called "color revolutions." In the South Caucasus, the "frozen conflicts" between Tbilisi and the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the stalemate between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh drive these mutual concerns.
In public, both Russian and Turkish leaders have stressed their commitment to the peaceful settlement of the inter-ethnic conflicts in the Caucasus. However, a number of Turkish and Russian experts argue that Ankara and Moscow seem reluctant to embrace political changes in the Commonwealth of Independent States' southern tier and would rather support the preservation of the status quo.
Even before the Putin-Erdogan meeting in Sochi, some regional analysts suggested there might be joint Russian-Turkish attempts to solve the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. As Armenia's main geopolitical ally, Russia can be expected to mediate between Turkey and Armenia on a number of issues, they say.
Russian media reports confirmed that the Nagorno-Karabakh issue was discussed during the Russian-Turkish talks. The Russian government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta reported on July 19 that Moscow had expressed its readiness to pursue the settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh "more actively," and that Ankara had agreed to cooperate on this issue. Furthermore, according to some Russian and Azerbaijani sources, Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul, who made an official visit to Baku on July 18-21, hinted that Ankara is interested in normalization of relations with Yerevan and discussed with Azerbaijani leadership the prospects of Turkey's participation in the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement.
At the same time, Turkey appears keen to act as a mediator in the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict. Turkey is home to a sizeable Abkhazian community, and Ankara has established friendly ties both with Moscow and Tbilisi, some Turkish commentators note.
"We don't want to live in a world where enmity dominates; we need a world where friendship reigns supreme," Erdogan said in Sochi, referring to the urgent need to settle the South Caucasus's conflicts.
Both leaders, however, appear to share a strong apprehension regarding potential political upheavals on post-Soviet territory. While both Moscow and Ankara understand fully that a huge potential exists for political change in the Caucasus and Central Asia, the Putin administration and Erdogan government are unlikely to welcome the revolutionary transformation of the authoritarian regimes in the region, some Turkish analysts contend.
Azerbaijan's November 2005 parliamentary elections are a case in point, noted Suat Kiniklioglu, head of the Turkish office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. For Russia, securing stability in this energy-rich Caspian state is important within the framework of the Kremlin's strategy of preserving its influence in the Caucasus, Kiniklioglu said. But Turkey, too, wants to see Azerbaijan stable, and keep secure the delivery of crude oil via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan export pipeline, he said in an interview with the Russian Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper.
Similarly, in Central Asia, Turkey and Russia seek to maintain the geopolitical status quo. According to Kiniklioglu, both the Turks and the Russians would prefer to deal with the likes of Uzbek President Islam Karimov and other autocratic regional leaders than face the uncertainty of revolutionary turmoil. A number of Turkish foreign policy experts suggest that Ankara's strategic perspective on Central Asia is much closer to the Russian position than to that of the United States. "Neither Moscow nor Ankara is happy to see US forces in the region," wrote analyst Semih Idiz in the mass circulation Milliyet daily.
The talk of shared security interests extends to economic issues, too. Bilateral trade and energy issues figured prominently during the Sochi meeting. The two leaders said they aim to raise the trade volume between the two countries to $25 billion from the current $11 billion.
The Russian president signaled that Russia would like to increase energy exports to Turkey. Putin set out plans for new gas pipelines through Turkey to supply southern European markets and also raised the possibility of electric power exports to Turkey and Iraq. Erdogan appeared to welcome Moscow's intention to boost gas supplies to Turkey. "There is serious potential for increasing supplies through the Blue Stream pipeline," the Turkish prime minister said. According to Erdogan, the pipeline has a capacity of 16 billion cubic meters per year, but current supplies amount to only 4.7 billion cubic meters. The 1, 213-kilometer Blue Stream gas pipeline under the Black Sea was completed in 2002, but has since been a source of dispute between Russia and Turkey over gas prices.
Most Russian and Turkish commentators give a very positive overall assessment of the Putin-Erdogan meeting's outcome. The rapid rapprochement between the two Eurasian powers could serve as useful leverage for boosting each country's geopolitical stature, they argue.
The strengthening of cooperation between Russia and Turkey "adds significantly to our country's international prestige," noted one Russian commentary posted on the Politcom.ru website. Many Turkish experts seem to agree. Argued Milliyet foreign policy columnist Idiz: "It may be an exaggeration to call our bilateral relations
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC; a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York; and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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