Sunday,17 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)
Sunday,17 February, 2019
Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Erdogan and Putin: The odd couple

A year ago they were not on speaking terms, but the Russian-Turkish relationship has been strengthening despite continuing tensions

Erdogan and Putin:  The odd couple
Erdogan and Putin: The odd couple

The summit meeting held earlier this month between Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan would ordinarily have provoked a shower of media coverage.

Held in a glittering state room in the Kremlin in Moscow, the two leaders presided over the second-ever gathering of the Russia-Turkey High-Level Cooperation Council (HLCC), set up in 2015 and trying to project the image of a close regional partnership bypassing the Western world.

The meeting had a double agenda. One was the restoration of the trade and economic links that are vital to Turkey’s business community, which has been hard hit by Russian sanctions over the last 15 months since a Russian fighter jet was shot down over Turkey in November 2015. The other, which might have been expected to be even more acrimonious, was progress towards a settlement in Syria ahead of the latest peace negotiations in Astana.

A year ago, the two Turkish and Russian leaders were not even on speaking terms, and relations between the two countries were frozen in the wake of the crisis. But eight months after Turkey apologised and the ice between Putin and Erdogan began to melt, things are more than back to normal, at least as far as the Turks are concerned.

“I think we can abandon the word ‘normalisation’ of relations, because we think we have already passed that stage,” Erdogan told reporters after the meeting, wearing the kind of broad smile he had not had after another recent three-hour meeting with UK Prime Minister Theresa May.

Putin pointed to another sign of close cooperation between the two countries, saying that there were “very trusting and efficient contacts” between their military and intelligence establishments.

But international attention to the cordiality of Erdogan’s meeting with Putin and its likely fruit was swept away only a few hours later when Turkey’s relations with Western Europe were engulfed by an acrimonious new crisis over the right of the Turkish president and other senior politicians in the Turkish ruling party to address rallies of Turkish expatriates in Germany and the Netherlands.

With Erdogan calling on international organisations to bring in sanctions against the Netherlands for banning Turkey’s foreign minister from speaking in the country and deporting its minister for the family and social policy, it may well be that the row marks a serious deterioration, perhaps even a lasting breakdown, in Turkey’s dealings with some EU members.

By contrast, the talks in Moscow were good news from Turkey’s point of view, at least on the economic front, giving it the confidence that it has an alternative to Europe. On the eve of the summit meeting, Russia eased restrictions on some Turkish imports of food items, though others are still restricted.

That is not quite the end of the story, however. Back in 2015 and even before the jet-downing incident, Turkish food exports to Russia were lagging disappointingly behind, partly because of Russian concerns about food safety and related quality issues.

Things should be easier on the tourism front, with estimates of the numbers of Russian tourists expected to visit Turkey this year put at three or even five million. That should bring relief to an industry that had a calamitously bad year in 2016 and that has not had its prospects improved by the rows with the Netherlands and Germany.

On the energy front, Russia is ready to work on the construction of Turkey’s long-standing first nuclear power station at Akkuyu and on the Turkish Stream gas pipeline.

All this is solid, though hardly spectacular, progress, but it has been accompanied by a surprisingly strong-sounding Russian and Turkish agreement over Syria. Turkey and Russia have backed opposing sides in the conflict, and troops loyal to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad last week blocked a possible move eastwards by Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield forces with Russian support.

This development was interpreted outside Turkey as a major setback for its hopes of playing a major role in the endgame in the conflict. Inside Turkey, apart from complaints that some Russian soldiers had been apparently stitching Syrian Kurdish badges on their uniforms, there has mostly been silence about the implications of events.

There has also been no detailed information about the outcome of an unprecedented meeting in the Turkish city of Antalya on 5 March between the heads of the American, Russian and Turkish armed forces about future operations in Syria.

Despite warnings from US Senator John McCain about continuing Turkish exasperation at the alliance between US forces and the Syrian Kurds, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim declared the day after the generals met in Antalya that his country would not attack the Syrian city of Manbij, a Syrian Turkish enclave, unilaterally.

Instead, Turkey is probably waiting for the US to remove Syrian Turkish troops from the town after the fall of Raqqa, the Islamic State (IS) group’s de facto capital 135 km to the south, leaving Manbij in Arab hands with the Kurds confined to the east bank of the Euphrates.

Ankara has probably also been offered some assurances that the Syrian Kurdish enclaves will not edge further towards independence but stay inside a nominally reunited Syria.

Inside the Syrian Turkish enclaves themselves, however, stirrings towards greater autonomy continue. The enclaves have taken the name of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria and apparently still hope that Manbij, a predominantly Arab city, will form the Federation’s fourth canton.

Given the friendly contacts between both the US and Russia and the Syrian Kurds, Turkey must be uneasy. Its best hope for retaining a significant role in Syria looks to be keeping on good terms with the Russians and acting as a spokesman and protector of the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups in the north and a guarantor of the ceasefire. The Russian-Turkish agreement in the Kremlin probably amounted to a formal acknowledgement of that.

The third round of Syrian peace talks at Astana will put this to the test. Turkey seems able to accommodate itself to what the Russians are offering, but its allies in the Syrian opposition are much less happy and are laying down conditions for attending.

The writer has worked in Turkey as a journalist and university teacher and writes regularly on Turkish politics and history.

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