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Turkey: Is Ankara Trying to Tame the Russian Bear?

There is an odd little detail at the back of a 1928 statue depicting Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, standing in Istanbul's central Taksim Square: found among the adoring crowd of figures surrounding Ataturk, a group dominated by children and peasants, are two stern-faced men with stars on their bronze lapels. They are two Red Army generals Mikhail Frunze and Kliment Voroshilov.

A gesture of gratitude for Bolshevik support during Turkey's independence war, the two stand as a testament to a brief and almost forgotten rapprochement between two former empires and neighbors that spent much of the 19th and early 20th centuries as bitter enemies.

These days, following more than a half century of Cold War confrontation, Russia and Turkey have struck up a friendship so close that some are comparing it the Franco-German turnaround after 1945. Others say it symbolizes Turkey's slow drift away from the West.

The motor for rapprochement this time has been the economy. In 1982, trade turnover between the two states was worth about $1.5 billion. Last year, turnover topped $38 billion, of which roughly 75 percent took the form of Russian gas exports to Turkey. Russia is now Turkey's number one trading partner.

Following Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Ankara on August 6, the ninth high-level summit between the two countries since 2002, trade looks set to increase.

Russia sealed a contract to build Turkey's first nuclear power station and obtained permission to use Turkey's coastal waters to build South Stream, a Europe-bound underwater gas line that would bypass Ukraine. In return, Putin promised support for a Turkish-Italian petrol pipeline linking the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and -- in a response to long-standing Turkish complaints -- an easing of customs restrictions on Turkish goods entering Russia.

What raised eyebrows, however, was the timing of Putin's visit, which came less than three weeks after Turkey signed up for Nabucco, a 3,300 kilometer pipeline project aimed at reducing Russia's stranglehold over European gas supplies.

Turkish officials insist their support for South Stream in no way undermines the feasibility of Nabucco. "Our policy is inclusive, not exclusive", Russian expert and AKP deputy Suat Kiniklioglu told Newsweek Turkiye in early August.

A regional analyst at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, Zeyno Baran is unconvinced. The success of Nabucco depends on persuading Caspian countries that there is the political will to push it through, she says. "With Turkey cooperating with Russia over South Stream, none of them are going to risk sticking their necks out."

What worries her more than gelling Turkish-Russian economic interests is her sense that they have been paralleled by increasingly congruent political visions of the region. For years, Turkish diplomats have expressed unease at what they see as an over-aggressive US policy of attempting to wean former Russian satellites away from Moscow. "If I was Azerbaijan or Georgia, right now I'd be feeling a bit pissed off with Turkey," says Baran.

Sedat Laciner, the head of the Eurasia Strategic Studies Center, an Ankara-based think tank, thinks Turkey has little choice but to cooperate with Russia, the larger and more powerful of the two countries. But he thinks that it is Turkey's vision of the world -- based on soft power rather than threats -- that is likely, in the long-term, to gain the upper hand in the region. "Turkey forms relations with its neighbors on the basis of a promise of greater prosperity, and that is infectious," he says. "Right now, we have a wild bear on our northern flank, but in time that bear could be tamed."

Ilyas Kamalov, a Russian specialist at the Middle East Strategic Studies Center in Ankara, says the political rapprochement is the natural reaction of two former empires unhappy with the role they have been assigned by the West. "They want to be taken more seriously," he says. "Russia is more than a gas pump. Turkey is more than an occasional mediator in the West's Middle Eastern adventures."

Public opinion appears to be helping rapprochement efforts. Polls show 70 percent of Russians to have a positive view of Turkey, a ratio that the influx of Russian tourists into Turkey (2.8 million last year) is likely to bolster. In Turkey, meanwhile, recent Pew Research Center polls show that the replacement of George Bush by Barack Obama has had a negligible impact on anti-Americanism in the country. And while polls still show a majority of Turks supporting the country's struggling European Union accession process, few Turks believe Europe will ever let them in.

A prominent advisor to Vladimir Putin, Sergei Markov shares that opinion. "Turkey won't get into the EU for another 30 years," he said in February, adding that Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Turkey should form an economic union parallel to the EU.

It's a suggestion that raises polite smiles in Ankara. The architect of Turkey's new multilateral foreign policy, Ahmet Davutoglu may appear more at home in the Middle East, but he insists European Union accession remains Turkey's "number one priority."

Interviewed in Newsweek Turkiye, Suat Kiniklioglu struck a slightly more nuanced line. "Turkey has to follow a very carefully balanced foreign policy because we are surrounded by very important and powerful countries," he said. "Turkey is always analyzing B plans, although I don't mean by that that if Turkey doesn't get into the EU it will form a union with Russia."

Some analysts joke that Istanbul's Taksim Square may soon have a new monument to Turkish-Russian cooperation -- a statue of Vladimir Putin and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to complement Ataturk and his Red Army allies.

That seems unlikely. But one thing seems sure: Turkey is much more of a free agent than it was in the days of the Cold War. "The days of the 1990s, when the United States and Turkey were tied on an East-West axis, are over," says Bulent Aliriza, head of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Now, we have a dynamic triangle," Turkey, Russia and the West.

Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.

Turkey: Is Ankara Trying to Tame the Russian Bear?

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