Is Russia Turkey’s alternative to the EU?

Today's Zaman (Link) - Şahin Alpay (August 17, 2009)

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's visit to Ankara on Aug. 6 marked another major step in the growing relations between Turkey and Russia. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Putin signed some 20 agreements in the fields of energy and trade.

Ankara gave its approval to the proposed South Stream gas pipeline from Russia to the European Union under the Black Sea through Turkish territorial waters; Moscow committed Russian crude oil to the planned Samsun-Ceyhan oil pipeline. The agreements even included some concerning Russian participation in the construction of Turkish nuclear energy plants. Putin also signaled an end to restrictions at Russian customs on Turkish export goods.

Moscow attaches great importance to South Stream and Ankara to Nabucco, which will carry Caspian and Central Asian gas to the EU through Turkey, the agreement on which was signed just last month. It is uncertain as to how these two projects, regarded by many as rivals, will affect each other. Some Turkish experts maintain that South Stream is likely to either delay or rule out Nabucco, while others argue that the EU is likely to give priority to the latter. Putin has not, on the other hand, ruled out Russian interest in the Burgas-Alexandropoulos pipeline, regarded by many as a rival to Samsun-Ceyhan, while Russian authorities have expressed doubts about the feasibility of the latter. (Eurasia Daily Monitor, Aug. 7.)

Only time will tell which side will gain the most, but it is already clear that economic globalization and interdependence have brought together Turkey and Russia, traditional adversaries until the Cold War�s end. Since then, trade has grown quickly between the two countries. Russia supplies energy to Turkey, and Turkey supplies Russia with many of its required goods and services. Societal relations are also on the rise. Russian have the largest share among tourists visiting Turkey, and among foreigners marrying Turkish men and settling in the country.

The deepening Turkish-Russian relationship is interpreted, notably by Kemalist circles in Turkey and neocon circles in the US, as an indication of how Turkey, under the �Islamist� Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, is moving away from the West. Others talk about the formation of a Turkish-Russian axis, and Russia becoming for Turkey an alternative to the EU, as its EU hopes fade.

None of these arguments make any sense. Turkey is deeply anchored in the West through its membership in NATO since 1952 and its customs union with the EU since 1995. The accession process to the EU that started 10 years ago has brought about a silent revolution in the liberalization and modernization of Turkey's political and economic systems. Russia may be a good trade partner, but is surely no alternative to the EU for Turkey, which is certain to pursue full membership despite the many obstacles raised by certain EU member states.

The liberal economic and multidimensional foreign policies pursued by the AKP government have substantially contributed to increasing Turkey's economic clout and soft power, enhancing its value for the Western alliance. The Turkish-Russian dialogue is similarly highly valuable, since it contributes to security and stability in the Black Sea and Caucasus, while being likely to contribute to the solution of Turkey-Azerbaijan-Armenia problems.

What may be worrying for Turkey in the Russian rapprochement are its less talked-about aspects. The country may be heading toward starting its adventure in nuclear energy with backward Russian technology and at a very high cost. The AKP government seems to be intent on awarding the nuclear plant tender to the Russian-Turkish joint consortium involving Ciner Holding, which owns the Habert�rk media group. It has already awarded the license to build the Samsun-Ceyhan pipeline to �alık Holding, owner of the Sabah-ATV media group. The AKP government appears to be seeking to secure the political support of the �alık and Ciner media groups in return for awarding them energy projects.

The greatest threat to press freedom in Turkey arises from manipulation by media owners who care more about their non-media commercial interests than their media's democratic responsibilities. For an independent media, so essential for the proper working of a democratic system, it is absolutely necessary that the media be detached from its owner's non-media commercial interests. In order to have an independent media, it is absolutely necessary to adopt legislation that limits the concentration of ownership and bans media owners from participating in public tenders. One of the gravest sins of the AKP government is that in order to enlist political support, it pursues a carrot-and-stick policy toward media owners instead of passing legislation to enhance the independence of the media.