Gul held talks with top Russian leaders, including President Vladimir Putin, from February 24-26 in Moscow. Both sides termed the talks a general success, with Putin noting that bilateral ties were "developing at a good pace, and in a rather positive way." The Russian leader went on to praise Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government for bringing a greater sense of stability to what has historically been an often tense relationship.
For his part, Gul, in the exclusive interview with the Russian Itar-Tass news agency, said he agrees with the Russian leadership's description of the relationship as multi-dimensional. "What is important," he added, "is that we have political will to move further ahead in this direction."
Turkish observers point out two main reasons underlying Gul's trip to Moscow, and its specific timing. Amid Ankara's energetic attempts to get the EU to name a starting date for accession talks, a heated domestic debate over the country's foreign policy priorities is continuing. While fully supporting their Muslim nation's ultimate objective of joining the EU, a number of influential Turkish commentators argue that it would be a strategic mistake "to count Russia out."
In the opinion of Sami Kohen, the foreign policy columnist of the Milliyet daily, "Russia should have a particular role as a balancing factor in Turkish diplomacy." Citing sources in the Turkish government, Kohen says that the Erdogan government appears to appreciate the importance of the "Russian dimension of [Turkey's] foreign policy."
Calling Russia a "neighboring giant," the veteran political analyst Mehmet Ali Birand said the ongoing consolidation of political power in Moscow in Putin's hands may well turn Russia into the strongest regional player. Geopolitical concerns simply dictate that Ankara adopt a friendly stance towards Moscow, argues Birand in a commentary published in the Turkish Daily News. Within the geo-strategic context, he says, "Russia is as important for Turkey as the European Union." Significantly, Gul conferred with Putin, the leader of the dominant power in Eurasia, at the same time that Erdogan was receiving German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the head of the EU's dominant power.
There is also an internal dynamic within Turkey's governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) that pushes Ankara to strengthen ties with Moscow, especially in the trade sphere, analysts say. Much of the AKP's financial support comes from fast-growing Anatolia businesses that are avidly eyeing Russia as an emerging market for their goods. Given the upcoming regional elections and the need for campaign funding, "the AKP government cannot afford to ignore the demands of its [funders] to boost the economic ties with Russia," Esra Hatipoglu, the Deputy Director of the Middle East Studies Institute at Marmara University told EurasiaNet.
During Gul's Moscow visit, Russian leaders emphasized both countries' Eurasian identity in an attempt to stress common strategic interests. "Russia and Turkey [are] the two major Eurasian countries," asserted Russian Ambassador to Ankara Piotr Stegniy. In a policy article pegged to Gul's visit and published in the Turkish Daily News on February 23, Stegniy argued that Moscow and Ankara are destined to be "natural partners." The two countries, the Russian diplomat said, "share the bonds of good-neighborliness" and "have common interests both in the Black Sea region and in Eurasia." Meanwhile, in an interview with the Hurriyet daily, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Aleksandr Yakovenko, noted that the Russian-Turkish relationship "had in many ways defined the situation in Eurasia for more than five centuries."
Following the talks, both Russian and Turkish officials said the two states held similar views on a variety of regional issues, including the Iraqi reconstruction process, efforts to promote stability in the Caucasus, and the need to develop ties within the framework of the Joint Action Plan for Cooperation in Eurasia.
Concerning trade ties, Gul told Itar-Tass that all problems related to Turkish imports of natural gas from Russia via the Blue Stream pipeline had been resolved. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. He even promised a "colossal" increase in gas imports up to 30 billion cubic meters by 2008. Putin noted with satisfaction that Russia is Turkey's number two trade partner after Germany. He also pointed out that bilateral trade increased by $1 billion in 2003, reaching $6.5 billion overall.
Discussions on security issues created a few awkward moments during Gul's visit, especially when the topic turned to Chechnya. Russia has often accused the Turkish government of turning a blind eye to the activities of various NGOs operating in Turkey, which, Russian officials claim, are connected to Chechen separatists. Prior to the arrival of the Turkish foreign minister, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov asserted that most mercenaries killed or captured in Chechnya were Turks. "These circumstances will inevitably have a negative impact on the development of relations with Turkey," Ivanov said. During direct discussions with Gul, Russian leaders adopted a much softer tone. Putin specifically expressed appreciation for what he termed Ankara's sensitivity to Russian concerns about "terrorism" (presumably meaning the war in Chechnya).
While Turkey and Russia may have found mutual understanding on most issues, the two merely set aside, but did not ease, tension related to their fierce rivalry over the development of Caspian Basin energy export routes. Turkey is one of the host countries for the US-backed Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which stands to break Russia's existing stranglehold over export routes. Accordingly, Moscow has adopted a cautious approach to the BTC project, which is scheduled to begin pumping oil in 2005. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Turkey and Russia continue to bicker about export routes. The very day Gul returned to Ankara, Russia's acting Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Kalyuzhny accused Turkish authorities of restricting traffic through the Bosphorus and delaying Russian oil exports in order to boost Turkey's own pipeline plans.
"A special alarm is being sounded consistently for political reasons to promote multiple oil pipelines," Kalyuzhny said at an oil and gas conference in Istanbul. "The straits are only at half their transit capacity. Inadequate traffic control is the only problem." Turkey vigorously disputed Kalyuzhny's allegations. "We have to stop seeing the straits as a natural oil pipeline," Turkish Energy Minister Hilmi Guler said at the same Istanbul conference.
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC; a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York; and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey.