Current Opinion


Russia: Another Pole?


by Bernard KENNEDY


The exchanges between Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s President Putin have brought an “enhanced” if not “strategic” partnership onto the agenda.. Strong economic ties and a decline in tensions over political issues augur well for such a relationship. However, sections of public opinion on either side may still regard it as unnatural. Moreover, the role sought by Russia in Turkey – particularly in the energy sector – may contradict the visions of the US, IMF and EU.



Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's trip to Moscow on January 10-12 has led Turkish commentators to take more seriously the "strategic relationship" proposed by the premier on the occasion of President Vladimir Putin's visit to Ankara on December 5-6.


The Putin sortie was the highest-level visit from Moscow for more than three decades. Indeed, one Turkish business leader described Putin, with only a dash of hyperbole, as the most powerful Russian to visit Turkey in 512 years of diplomatic relations. The accords signed included a five-page partnership agreement aiming to raise the relationship between the two countries to the level of a "multi-dimensional enhanced partnership."


All this was underplayed by the Turkish media, at the time entirely focused on the EU membership bid. Putin did succeed in dominating television news bulletins and holding up the Ankara traffic for a day or so. But the fanfares and security precautions were no match for those which surrounded President Bush's stop-overs in both Ankara and Istanbul on the occasion of the NATO summit six months earlier. In the absence of any “concrete deals”, Erdogan's proposal was politely dismissed as rhetoric.


Erdogan's swift reciprocatory mission to Moscow, on the other hand, could not be ignored. It took place on a grand scale verging on grotesque. The premier was accompanied by at least a tenth of the Turkish parliament, five cabinet ministers and 500 entrepreneurs. Despite the long-standing political, cultural and money-laundering affiliations between Russia and Greek Cyprus, Putin deplored the unfair isolation of the Turkish Cypriot community. Erdogan opened a $60m Turkish shopping mall - only five minutes from the Kremlin, to cite the journalese - and proposed that a "Russian year" should be staged in Turkey and a "Turkish year" in Russia.


Economic foundations


The prospect of Moscow becoming a third strategic pole for Ankara, after the EU and Washington, is intriguing. The rapid growth of economic ties since the natural gas breakthrough of the 1980s is a matter of record. In the first eleven months of 2004 Turkey purchased US$7.8bn worth of goods from Russia - primarily gas and oil - accounting for 9% of its total import bill. Russia was Turkey's second-largest supplier after Germany. For comparison, Turkey's imports from the USA were put at only US$4.2bn. As a market for Turkey's exports during the same period, Russia appeared to lag behind six EU member countries and the USA, purchasing only US$1.7bn worth of Turkish goods compared to US$4.4bn for the USA. However, the figure for exports to Russia excludes some US$3bn worth of informal "suitcase trade" sales.


In addition, 1.6m Russian tourists visited Turkey last year - again putting Russia in second place behind Germany, with almost a tenth of total arrivals. Russian tourists spent around US$1bn in Turkey. Turkish firms have invested an estimated US$12bn in Russia in breweries, factories, supermarkets, hotels and other enterprises. Not for nothing is US retail giant Wal-mart reportedly seeking a back-door entrance into Russia via the Koc Group's Ramstore (Migros). Turkish building contractors, who earned Russian respect by sticking out the 1998 rouble crisis, are still undertaking billions of dollars' worth of contracts in numerous cities. Arguably, the economies are complementary, with Turkey offering consumer goods and services and Russia natural resources, heavy industry and perhaps defence industry know-how.


Political improvements


There are firm enough foundations here on which to upgrade political ties. Political circumstances too may be conducive. The supposed animosities of the Cold War have faded. Moreover, some of the issues which emerged or re-emerged in its wake have de facto been resolved. It is clear that the Central Asian republics have remained broadly within Russia's compass, and that Russia itself is a more important opportunity for Turkey than any of them. Moscow has had to come to terms with the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which will now be operable within months. Potential tensions over the volume of tanker traffic through the Bosphorus can be defused through the construction of a trans-Thrace or trans-Anatolia oil pipeline.


Given the US war on terrorism, the Istanbul bombings of 2002 and the Beslan incident, which caused Putin's visit to Turkey to be postponed from the beginning of last September, Russia may be winning the ideological battle over the portrayal of Chechen nationalism. In the present circumstances and under the present government, Turkey cannot be expected to show the same tolerance towards Chechen militants as in years past. If this is the case, then counter-charges of Russian support for the Kurdish nationalist PKK will disappear of their own accord.


Converging on Iraq?


Instead of playing computer games involving the bombing of Libya, Iran and of course the USSR, tens of thousands of Turks are nowadays reading a cheap novel (Metal Firtina by Orkun Ucar & Burak Tuna, Timas publications) in which Turkey is bombed and invaded by the USA. This popular Turkish antipathy to US policy may have boosted Putin's expectations of Ankara. There is a kind of convergence in the concerns of Moscow and Turkey concerning US foreign policy and its likely impact on their own interests. Russian strategists need allies and may see Turkey as a potential partner in regaining some influence in the Middle East. Turkey is trying to avoid becoming over-committed to the US - especially in military terms. Common calls for a greater role for international organisations serve as a starting point.


All this makes a strategic relationship possible but it does not make it a reality. In public opinion, the image of Russia as a centuries-old enemy of the Ottoman Empire persists at least to some extent. And while many Turks have heard of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky, very few read or listen to them, and it is not Russian serials and trade marks which appear on their TV screens at every hour of the day. A recent survey by a Turco-Russian research group indicated that the Russia was chiefly associated in the Turkish mind with prostitutes. Undoubtedly, the Russians have their own doubts and prejudices. At best, they regard Turkey as a shopping centre and playground; at worst as a potential source of Islamist threats.


Diverging on business?


In some respects, closer relations with Moscow need not upset the West. Neither Turco-Russian military exercises in the Black Sea nor a dialogue between Turkey and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation are likely to draw criticism. But Russian gas sales to Middle East countries via a partly Russian-constructed pipeline across Turkey to Ceylan on the Turkish Mediterranean coast could conflict with US-led plans for the region. And more generally, when it comes to doing business, the West will not want to be side-lined.


The seeds of today's economic relationship with Russia were sown in the 1980s when Turkey started to buy natural gas, and Moscow earmarked business for designated Turkish contractors to help offset the cost. More complex barter arrangements now seem to be on the table, under which – for example - Turkey's natural gas purchase commitments are reduced, and the re-sale of Russian natural gas to third countries is permitted, in return for Russian involvement in oil and gas pipeline construction, in gas storage facilities, trade and distribution, in electricity distribution and in oil refinery operation in Turkey.


A predilection for blurring the distinction between diplomacy and business is one of the many imputed similarities between Erdogan and former president Turgut Ozal. Many Turkish and Russian enterprises see nothing wrong with that. But 15-20 years of liberalisation have gone by. The later gas pipeline deals with Russia, particularly “Blue Stream”, came to be regarded as scandals in Turkey because of the excessive import obligations, the high prices and the award of contracts without competitive tenders.

According to the global model promoted by the World Bank and the EU - and to which Turkey is committed - infrastructure concessions and privatisation awards (not to mention military purchases) should be undertaken individually by the best bidders - not distributed for some greater good by a paternal prime minister.


In short, although Russia has plenty of energy aces, the trade-offs currently being discussed face serious objections. If some of them nevertheless go ahead, this will be a sure sign of Moscow’s magnetism.