Turkey And Russia: Old Rivals, New Partners
The Economist (Link) (August 13, 2009)
Through the long Ottoman era, Turks and Russians fought many bloody wars. In modern times Turkey guarded NATO�s southern flank against Soviet mischief. �The Russians are treacherous� is a popular Turkish adage. But one would hardly have guessed it as the two countries� prime ministers, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, splashily signed a raft of agreements in a ceremony in Ankara on August 6th.
�Treacherous� was in fact the word some applied to the deal with Russia�s Gazprom to use Turkish territorial waters in the Black Sea for a gas pipeline to Europe. The planned South Stream pipeline will bypass Ukraine, through which 80% of Russia�s gas exports to Europe now flow. Russia has repeatedly turned off the taps in disputes with Ukraine, leaving millions of Europeans in the cold. To reduce dependence on Russia, the European Union has long promoted a pipeline to the Caspian, Nabucco, which Turkey also signed up for in July. So whose side is it on?
The answer is simple: Turkey�s. Sitting at the crossroads of the energy-rich Middle East and the former Soviet Union, Turkey has unique leverage as a transit hub for gas. And it is unabashedly using the energy card to promote its membership of the EU. This requires co-operation with Russia. In exchange for backing South Stream, Turkey won Russian support for an oil pipeline from the Black Sea port of Samsun to the Ceyhan terminal on the Mediterranean. It is also said to have cajoled Russia into lowering the price for a nuclear-power station. Nabucco and South Stream are not rivals, they are complementary, insists Turkey�s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu.
The same might be said of Turkey and Russia themselves. With the end of the cold war their interests sometimes coincide. Both backed the war in Afghanistan but were viscerally opposed to America�s invasion of Iraq. Turkey�s image as America�s poodle was erased in March 2003 when its parliament refused to let American troops cross Turkish soil to open a second front against Saddam Hussein.
A bigger test of Turkey�s stance came in the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008. Turkey carefully implemented the Montreux Convention, which governs traffic through the Bosporus, so only a handful of American warships could enter the Black Sea. Neither Turkey nor Russia wants the Americans meddling in their back pond.
What do the Americans think? Ian Lesser, an analyst at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, argues that for now they are not fussed. �The [Obama] administration is far more sensitive to what Turkey does with Iran.� Turkey�s overtures to Russia are seen in the context of a new foreign policy that involves engaging with all its neighbours. Europe can hardly cast stones either, as it remains divided over Russia. Italy�s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, was present in Ankara because ENI, an Italian energy company, is involved in the South Stream deal.
Russia is Turkey�s biggest single trading partner and provides 68% of its gas. Turkish construction firms are active all over Russia. Millions of Russian tourists flock to Turkish resorts every year. Antalya, on the Mediterranean, is home to some 15,000 Russians, many of them women married to Turkish men. They have their own Russian-language newspaper and now want an Orthodox church. �Russian women educated Turkish men in love,� says Ali Ozgenturk, who made �Balalayka�, a film about Russian prostitutes in Turkey.
Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan get on well. Both are macho, sporty and prone to authoritarian instincts. Turkey is also one of the few countries with which today�s Russia feels comfortable, a pole in its preferred multipolar system, in which big countries pursue independent policies. Turkey even appears to have colluded with the Russian patriarch, Kirill, to limit the powers of the Greek Orthodox patriarch in Istanbul, Bartholomew I, usually seen as first among equals in the Orthodox hierarchy.
Yet mutual suspicions linger. Russia is unhappy with Turkey�s indulgence of Chechens. (Tahir Buyukkorukcu, a Muslim preacher, speaks of the �Russian pig� when talking of Chechnya in his television show on the private Kon channel.) Russia has shut schools run by the Muslim fraternity of a Turkish imam, Fethullah Gulen.
For Turkey, Russia�s refusal to label Kurdish rebels of the Kurdistan Workers� Party (PKK) as �terrorists� is a sore point. It is also wary of Russia�s show of wanting to help Armenia and Azerbaijan make peace over Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkish officials say Russia wants to repair the damage to its image caused by its battering of Georgia. More likely, it wants to stop Turkey making peace with Armenia. Many believe that Russian scheming emboldened Azerbaijan to press Turkey into ditching plans to re-establish ties and reopen its border with Armenia. This is now patrolled by Russian soldiers, just as in the cold war.