Turkey: Ankara's Crimea Conundrum

As the images distributed the other day by the Turkish press of Russian naval vessels steaming through the Bosphorus made clear, Ankara has little choice about being involved in the ongoing crisis surrounding Crimea.

Beyond its geographic proximity to the peninsula in the Black Sea, Turkey also has deep historical ties to Crimea, once an Ottoman province, and strong interests there, especially with regards to the fate of Muslim Crimean Tatars, who make up an estimated 15 percent of the population.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently expressed his concern about how developments in Crimea might impact the Tatars and today his ministry issued a statement calling the upcoming referendum there on whether the region should become part of Russia as a "wrong" move.

But just how much can Ankara do in the face of Moscow's moves in Crimea? The truth is very little. Write the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Soner Cagaptay and James Jeffrey in a brief released this week:

Turkey's dependence on Russia for around half of its natural gas imports and historic Turkish fears of the Russians will temper Ankara's reaction to Moscow's takeover of Crimea. In case of NATO action in the Black Sea, for instance, Turkey would balance its NATO affiliation with its treaty obligations, rooted in the 1936 Montreux Convention, which limits the access of nonlittoral powers into the Black Sea through the Turkish Straits, including the Bosporus. Ankara could adopt a position in the Crimean conflict similar to its stance in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia, another of Ankara's Black Sea neighbors, with Turkey playing a balancing game between NATO and Russia.

The difficult position Turkey has been put in by the situation in Crimea is certainly reminiscent of the conundrum the country faced during the war between Russia and Georgia in 2008, when Ankara found itself forced to dampen its reaction to Moscow's actions in order to not jeapordize trade and energy relations with Russia (for more background, take a look at this archived Eurasianet article). With Turkey importing 55 percent of its gas and 12 percent of its oil from Russia, crossing the Kremlin is not something Ankara can afford to do.

Turkey in recent years has become more involved with the welfare of the Crimean Tatars, with the Turkish development agency, TIKA, late last year signing an agreement with the local Crimean government to work on new projects in the peninsula. There is also a sizable Tatar diaspora living in Turkey, which may ultimately make what happens in Crimea as much of a domestic issue as an international one for Ankara. Writes analyst Semih Idiz in the Al-Monitor website:

The developing situation in the Crimean peninsula also has potential domestic ramifications for Turkey due to the close ties of kinship between Turks and Crimean Tatars. This issue can add fuel to an already tense political environment in Turkey, where the government is fighting serious corruption charges.

The opposition is likely to use the situation in Crimea to hit at the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) by alleging passivity by the government as the tide turns against the Tatars, many of whom have relatives in Turkey.

For now, while the end game in Crimea appears to be heading towards the region becoming one again part of Russia -- a step Turkey has said it opposes -- it appears the most Ankara can do is sit back and count the Russian warships heading up Bosphorus.

[UPDATE - The New Yorker has a good dispatch from Crimea up on its website about the fears and concerns of the region's Tatars. It can be found here.]

Turkey: Ankara's Crimea Conundrum

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