Friday,24 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1307, (11- 17 August 2016)
Friday,24 November, 2017
Issue 1307, (11- 17 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Erdogan pivots to Russia

Erdogan’s U-turn on Russia is bold, even for him. But how will he accommodate competing interests in Syria, asks Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Al-Ahram Weekly

How boldly those fireballs of vituperation blazed through the air in those autumnal days of late November 2015, soaring faster than a Russian Su-24 can score — an alleged seven second warning blip on some Turkish radar screen on a tiny sliver of Turkish territory that butted into northern Syria where the Russians were fighting terrorists and wreaking havoc on their supply routes. And how rapidly those fusillades fizzled out in the Russian winter that would inflict blights of frostbite on important segments of the Turkish economy. Then it took every ounce of his resources and no small degree of artifice to conceal his pique at Putin for not answering his persistent phone calls and to camouflage his behind-the-scenes wheedling as he sustained his steadfast resistance to Moscow’s demand that he apologise for wrongfully downing its plane and as the Turkish economy nosedived into a withering spring.

But the West, too, came into his crosshairs. They were stingy with their support for Turkey, a fellow NATO member, while NATO, for its part, found itself in something of a quandary, torn between standing up for one it its own, even it if was wrong, and a certain understanding for the position of the Russian bear which, in all events, was doing a good job of fighting terrorism in Syria. Of course, as Western powers could not say any of this outright, they confined themselves to a diplomatic appeal to “both sides” to exercise self-control.

At the time, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the face of government in Ankara, was also in a tough spot. He had little choice but to echo the boss in the Presidential Palace while bearing the heat of the rising murmurs of discontent as the Turkish people began to feel the crunch of the Russian measures against their economy, which was already strained. When the figures of the disastrous plunge in tourism became too ominous to bear, Ankara’s policy rudder began to shift. The first signs of this were Erdogan and his prime minister’s messages to Putin and Medvedev to congratulate them on the occasion of Russia’s national day. Then, after a little more coaxing from Putin’s part, there followed the — albeit grudging — Erdogan apology for downing the Russian jet, about which Turks had to learn through foreign news sources.

Be that as it may, Moscow accepted and the ice finally thawed. That thaw was crowned in what Erdogan described as his “historic” visit to Russia in the hopes of opening a new page in Turkish-Russian relations with his talks with “my friend Vladimir”, as he was quoted as saying by TASS. “I believe our two countries have a lot we can do together,” the Turkish strongman added.

And so talks resumed between the two sides on trade and on the billions of dollars-worth of deals that had been put on hold. The Turkish garments, clothing accessories and tourist crafts industries breathed a huge sigh of relief after having reeling under the blow delivered by the drop in Russian tourists and in Russian “suitcase” merchants for whom much of the production was tailored. The Turkish tourist sector is now looking forward to the next winter season, which could hardly be worse than the one that just past. True, regularly scheduled flights have yet to resume, but Russian charters have begun to reappear bearing Russian tourists — a trickle so far, but one that promises to turn into a flow. The construction section, also hard hit, breathed a sigh of relief as well, now that Turkish contractors resident in Russia can resume their projects. The Turkish fruit and vegetable sector has also perked up as huge vans bearing Turkish produce prepare to resume their trips to Russian markets.

There are even hopes pinned on visa-free travel between the two countries — a project put on hold about seven months ago.

As for the political dimension, as far apart as Moscow and Ankara have been on the question of Syria, which Erdogan envisioned as a realm to exercise his brotherly hegemony, it is impossible to rule out one of the Turkish president’s signature U-turns. A sign of this possibility came with his statement to the effect that it will be impossible to solve that dilemma without Russian participation.

Naturally, there is another context that informed what was Erdogan’s first visit abroad since the aborted “coup attempt”: the EU and the Turkish accession question and, before that, visa-free entry for Turkish citizens into the Schengen zone. Is this visit another form of pressuring the EU on that score? Is it a sign of a real Turkish pivot toward Russia or just the familiar playing-both-ends against the middle game?

As for Turkish public opinion, if not entirely kept in the dark at least kept at the edge of their seats in anticipation of Erdogan’s next about-face, few are those who will venture criticism of their leader these days and even fewer whose voices would be heard if they so ventured. But surely many who imagined that their country’s relationship with its northern neighbour was on the rocks permanently must be wondering why he had acted that so impetuously toward the Kremlin, only going to back down 100 per cent in the end.

It also appears that Erdogan, in his eagerness for Moscow to rescue him from the treacheries and “conspiracies” of the West, has allowed another of his cardinal principles to slip from his mind: his support for the Syrian opposition factions that his “friend” Putin regards as terrorists. How will the Turkish president square that one?

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