Keep your friends close

Russia and Turkey don't agree on regional politics, pipelines, or Syria, but their economic relationship is too important to squander
| 12-05-2012
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met in Istanbul earlier this week to discuss responses to the Syrian crisis, other issues
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met in Istanbul earlier this week to discuss responses to the Syrian crisis, other issues

(transcribed from an oral interview)

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has been playing an important role in the formation and implementation of Turkey’s foreign policy, which has recently become more proactive and assertive, especially since 2009. The EU membership process has reached a certain stalemate and it is no longer the primary target of Turkish foreign policy. Therefore, the country is working on developing a multidimensional foreign policy and improving relations with its neighbors. It seems the Foreign Minister thinks of the country as a sort of regional hub. Turkey has also been playing a more active role in the Middle East and Eurasia in general.

Relations with Europe have obviously continued. With the United States, they have improved, especially with the development of personal relations between Erdogan and Obama. But Turkey’s orientation is no longer singly focused on the West. The country is pursuing a more independent foreign policy. Whether this is a positive development is another question, but part of this strategy is to develop a strategic partnership with Russia. Overall, the relationship with Russia and the post-Soviet world has dramatically improved, especially in the 2000s with interactions between President Putin and Prime Minister Erdogan.

Turkish foreign policy toward former Soviet states

In a way, Russia has no special role in Turkey’s foreign policy, but at the same time, Russia is one of its most important partners. The two have developed deep economic relations. Turkey is energy-dependent, and it receives a major portion of its energy (including 60 percent of its gas) from Russia. So from the Turkish prospective, Russia is critical and a strategic partner, but not the only one. There are the Eurasian republics and Azerbaijan. Turkey is also working on developing relations with Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia as part of its grand strategy of having zero problems with its neighbors.

Relations with the Central Asian republics have also been critical to Turkey. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Turkey was the first country to recognize Azerbaijan and the new Central Asian nations. Turkey was proactive in the 1990s, and Turkish Airlines connected these countries to the rest of the world. Despite the weakness of the Turkish economy at the time, the country provided multifaceted support to the new post-Soviet states: scholarships for their students at Turkish universities, and tremendous cultural, economic, and diplomatic efforts. I think it reflected Turkey’s desire to build a leadership role for itself in relation to Central Asia. Obviously, that created tension with Russia. Although the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia did not want to lose what it believed was its natural domain. Also, I think the Central Asian countries did not like the idea of having another big brother when they had just been liberated from Russia. Now Turkish policy in the region has become more pragmatic. There is an effort not to become too involved in the areas where Russia is very active, so as to avoid conflict, since the economic relationship between the two is too important.

In general, the Turkish-Russian economic relationship has dramatically improved over the past twenty years. One problem is that when Russia was making its early transition to capitalism, the Russian economy had problems and there was a certain balance in the relationship. Turkey was an energy consumer, and in return it sold consumer goods and construction services to Russia. I think this arrangement continues to some extent, but obviously, since the Putin years began, the Russian economy has improved. Russia’s dependence on Turkish consumer goods has decreased with the development of its own private sector. Turkish dependence on Russia, however, has not decreased, because Turkey is not an energy-producing country.

Recently, Turkey has been placing a great deal of emphasis on nuclear energy as a way to reduce this dependence. I, like many others, am not happy with this development, but the current government is pushing it. The technology is basically bought from Russia. We had a good deal, but in my view, Turkish policymakers underestimated the risks, and I also think it makes Turkey even more dependent on Russia.

Pipeline politics

One of the problems of the pipeline issue was that it brought Turkey and Russia into conflict because while Turkey has supported the South Stream project, it also supported Nabucco. The idea of Nabucco was to cooperate with Europe and provide an alternate route for bringing Azeri and Turkmen gas to the middle of Europe, by way of Anatolia. Russia, obviously, wants to control and monopolize the routes. Also, there were expectations that the gas Nabucco would bring to Europe would help our prospects for EU membership. But for several reasons, I think the Nabucco project is collapsing.  One major reason is a lack of confidence that there will be enough supply from Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan to justify the construction of a pipeline. Also, Turkey wants to include Iran, which Europe and the West oppose. Finally, Europe itself is divided over the issue. Core countries like Germany and France are much more favorable to the idea of a direct route from Russia, which would be shorter and less expensive. Central and Eastern European countries like Poland are more receptive to the idea of an alternate route. Turkey also wants to capitalize on the Nabucco pipeline by claiming a certain part of the revenue, which Europe does not like. So recently, the idea has taken an alternative, more limited form – somewhat of a bilateral agreement between Azerbaijan and Turkey called the Trans-Anatolian Project. At the same time, work on South Stream has also begun.

The Syrian crisis

The most important issue in Turkish foreign policy nowadays is the crisis in Syria. This, of course, has also had direct repercussions on Turkey-Russia relations. I think Turkey over-engaged itself in Syria’s domestic politics, which was a miscalculation. The approach to Syria and the Assad regime brought Russia and Turkey into conflict, and I think the aircraft incident was a manifestation of that. It certainly injected a negative air into the relationship. President Putin, for example, was going to visit Istanbul, but he decided to postpone. I do not think we should exaggerate this, nor should we exaggerate the differences between the two countries’ positions on Syria. In fact, Turkey’s position has become milder and more pragmatic. To be too active in Syria would be costly.

President Putin's recent visit to Turkey indicates that Russia is also acting pragmatically. It shows that both sides see the benefits of the interdependence that has been building up over the past twenty years. The relationship has always had built-in tension, but in my view, never enough to undermine it completely.


onis200.jpg Ziya Öniş is a Professor of International Relations and Director of the Center for Research on Globalization and Democratic Governance (GLODEM) at Koç University in Istanbul, Turkey. He recently returned from Stanford, where he served as a visiting scholar at CREEES and the Mediterranean Studies Forum in conjunction with a new partnership between the two universities.