Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Putin wins a round

Erdogan’s attempt to paper over the spat with Russia has gotten nowhere, making an official apology for downing a Russian military jet inevitable, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Al-Ahram Weekly

A familiar sight in Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, until the autumn of 2015, were queues of Russians at check-in counters. Their trolleys were stacked high with overstuffed suitcases filled with textiles, leather goods, accessories and other articles they had purchased from Istanbul’s historic markets.

A large number of these travellers were “suitcase merchants” who annually injected millions of dollars into the Turkish arts and crafts, textiles and garment industries. These travelling traders eased considerable weight from the shoulders of the government in Ankara.

They helped stem unemployment and stimulated production as various trades and industries competed to innovate and produce new products to attract clients hailing from the Northern Caucasus, from Volga and the Urals to Siberia in the Far East. Moreover, this bustling commercial activity was not limited to Istanbul. It extended across the north of Turkey, along the towns and cities of the Black Sea, which are closer to Russian territorial space.

Russian tourism to Turkey, at that time, was at its peak. Airline companies and travel agencies vied one another to offer the most attractive deals and packages to draw a greater share of the hundreds of thousands of Russian tourists who headed to Turkish tourist destinations all year around. In fact, some tourist resorts on Anatolia’s Mediterranean coast relied almost entirely on tourists from the vast Russian Federation.

Then, on 24 November, Turkey shot down the Russian Su-24 bomber, supposedly in Turkish airspace, according to Ankara’s version, and everything changed overnight. Russian tourism, the “suitcase” commerce and even export trade plunged drastically.

Initially, government officials, obeying instructions from on high in the Ak Saray presidential palace in Ankara, opted for bravado. Moscow’s attempt to punish us won’t work, they said. The Turkish economy is strong and resilient, and there are alternatives.

But it was not long before a crisis surfaced in the form of no rubles coming in and limited alternatives (in large part thanks to the Erdoganic flare for alienating even his country’s closest allies, but also due to the decline in tourism to Turkey in general due to the rise in terrorist attacks).

As the situation grew bleaker, pressure mounted on Turkey’s decision-maker. Anxieties and grievances from the business and commercial sectors were growing louder, fiscal sectors were warning of trouble ahead, and industrial and business associations were getting restless. One of these, the Independent Industrialists and Businessmen Association (MÜSİAD), reputedly an Islamist-oriented NGO, called on the government to come up with some solutions, even if that entailed a more flexible policy toward the Kremlin.

Ankara made some diplomatic overtures to end the freeze, but to no avail. With every step forward the situation moved two steps backwards, with the leaders of the two countries exchanging accusations and recriminations. At one point, Iran stepped in.

Even though Ankara’s relations with Tehran have had their ups and mostly downs against the backdrop of the Syrian crisis and rivalry over influence in Iraq, Tehran remains grateful for the position that Ankara took during the international blockade on Iran. Therefore, it agreed to Ankara’s request (or so the pro-government media claims) to help bridge the gap between Erdogan and Vladimir Putin.

Some reports (credit for which is due to special sources connected with higher-ups in the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP) say that it was the Qatari Embassy in Ankara that volunteered to speak with the Iranians on Ankara’s behalf to convince them to use their good offices with the Russians to persuade them to ease up on economic sanctions against Turkey and loosen some of the restrictions on Turkish economic sectors operating in Russia.

In all events, the subject came up during former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s visit to Tehran in March, and again during President Hassan Rouhani’s meeting with his Turkish counterpart in Ankara following the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation summit of 14 and 15 April. Iranian officials are said to have responded with amicable promises to try to mollify the Russians.

But May passed with no sign of a thaw and anxiety in Turkey deepened. Then Erdogan wrote a letter to congratulate Putin on the occasion of Russian national day and expressed his hopes that “relations between Russia and Turkey reach the level they deserve in the near future”. His newly appointed prime minister, Binali Yildirim, dashed off a similar greeting to Moscow.

Then, to underscore how sincere the AKP government’s sentiments were, Deputy Prime Minister and government spokesman Numan Kurtulmus said, “I hope that with the letters of Mr President and Mr Prime Minister, a major step will be taken in this normalisation process.”

Then Ankara held its breath. Some observers were optimistic. This step, if successful, could lead to similar thaws with other countries, especially Egypt and Iraq, they thought.

But clearly folks in Moscow were not going to let the powers-that-be in Ankara get off that easily. Erdogan’s message contained no “substance” and did not depart from ordinary “protocol practice”, said a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson. “After what happened, any normalisation of ties does not look possible before Ankara has taken the necessary steps.”

The message was crystal clear: words alone will not do. Ankara has to take concrete measures, and it knows what they are: an official apology for downing the Russian jet and payment of compensation. Until then, Moscow’s door will remain shut.

The opposition, which had warned the AKP government against the folly of its one-upmanship with the Kremlin, took the opportunity of Erdogan’s attempted ingratiation ploy to criticise a foreign policy that jeopardised Turkey’s higher interests.

Perhaps the most outspoken voice in this regard was Cumhuriyet newspaper, a voice that the Erdogan regime has not yet managed to stifle. It wondered, sarcastically, whether Erdogan’s next step would be to send a congratulatory message to Bashar Al-Assad on Syrian national day.

The newspaper pointed out that even Erdogan’s gesture to Putin did not occur until the Turkish tourism sector was hit with its worst crisis in half a century due to the boycott by Russian tourists, with the resort area of Antalya experience a 90 per cent drop in Russian tourists in the first four months of this year compared with the same period last year.

Cumhuriyet suspects that Erdogan, in an attempt to save face in this particular predicament, will probably blame former Prime Minister Davutoglu for the downing of the jet. In the end, however, Erdogan will still have to apologise, and this is only a matter of time.

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