As a result of its geography, Turkey maintains a multi-dimensional and dynamic foreign policy. Turkish foreign policymakers are carefully analyzing their foreign policy options in light of the 9/11 attacks and the war in Iraq. Within this set of complex links, Turkish-Russian relations appear rather perplexing. Historically, there have been many wars between these two states up until the end of WWI. Both countries have imperial legacies and have experienced a post-imperial traumatic loneliness. Great imperial legacies and the feelings of isolation after the collapse of the previous empires are important factors that shape the national memory of these countries.
After Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Turkey in December of last year, Turkey’s prime minister paid a one day official visit to Russia on January 10, 2005. It is relevant to analyze current factors that determine the relations between these two states. Domestic politics in Russia is often the result of competing views of Westerners, anti-Westerners, Eurasianists, ultra-nationalists and nostalgic communists. Russian foreign policy is generally determined along the line of domestic political preferences. There is a symbolic pendulum in Russian foreign policy that vacillates between Europe and Asia depending on the political balances currently at play. Russian foreign policy is today more critical of the West and follows a more Eurasian-oriented path.
For Moscow, the existence of such national memory and geopolitical orientation makes it difficult to determine a fixed and well-functioning foreign policy towards Turkey. Like Russia, Turkey has Caucasian, Balkan, Middle Eastern and European identities and different interests at stake in all of these regions. Another significant factor is that both countries are going through dynamic domestic and economic transformations. The change in the early four years of the current decade is surely dramatic at both societal and state levels.
Issues at Stake
More specifically, the future of Turkish-Russian relations will be a product of bilateral, regional and international developments. High-level mutual visits in the recent period underline a number of important issues between the two states. Although observers seem to have an optimistic perception of the relations both in Moscow and Ankara, there are issues of contention between the two states.
The issues of bilateral relations will be trade, investments by Turkish and Russian businessmen, tourism, natural gas purchases, Russian oil tankers transiting the straits, future pipeline projects that may pass through the Trace or Anatolia, the Chechen question, Russian arms sales, and the actions of Kurdish separatists on Russian soil. A major recent development is the Russian leader’s statement that the Turkish society in Northern Cyprus deserves better treatment from the international community, since the Turkish Cypriots voted in favor of the U.N. plan designed to put an end to the division of the island.
Although there is much talk about the convergence of interests between Turkey and Russia, one should also point out the conflicting ones. Both countries favor improving their current relations and adopting a more pragmatic stance on the international arena. Officials on both sides signed a number of agreements, which will surely facilitate the establishment of constructive relations.
The volume of bilateral trade reached $10 billion in 2004, and both sides aim to increase this volume to $25 billion by 2007. Turkey’s construction sector is active in Moscow and is increasing its market share in Russia. Russian businessmen closely follow Turkey’s privatization process and want to take part in energy projects in Turkey. Another major cooperation area is Russian arms sales to Turkey. Considering the Iraq crisis and potential instability in Iran and Syria, Ankara pays serious attention to military modernization projects and has an interest in Russian arms supplies. Finally, Russian tourists increasingly prefer Turkey’s Mediterranean coast for their vacations.
At another level, the mutual agenda is set around Russia’s energy geopolitics, its near abroad policies, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (B.T.C.) oil pipeline, ethnic secessionist movements in the Caucasus, the reduction of Russian military forces in the region in accordance with international agreements, and the problems emerging after the Iraq war. Russia dislikes the B.T.C. pipeline, which is expected to transit Azeri and Kazak oil to the West. Moscow regards this pipeline as a challenge to its status in the Caspian basin and an obstacle to its oil trade. Although the major conflict surrounding the B.T.C. pipeline was between Russia and a number of former Soviet states, it indirectly influenced Turkish-Russian relations. However, the Blue Stream project — a natural gas pipeline that runs from Russia to Turkey via the Black Sea — and several other Turkish-Russian oil pipeline projects have led to the emergence of a “low profile” policy concerning oil politics on the part of Russia. Although it is speculative at the moment, the head of British Petroleum Company in Azerbaijan recently floated the possibility of carrying Russian oil through the B.T.C.
According to the official Turkish policy line, the Chechen question is a Russian internal problem. Turkish officials frequently declare that Russian security measures should not violate human rights in Chechnya. However, a large Chechen diaspora in Turkey follows a different line and tries its best to assist Chechen guerrillas, creating significant tensions between the Turkish and Russian governments. In return, Turkish officials have expressed discontent about the Kurdistan Workers Party’s — a separatist Kurdish armed movement — activities in Russian territories. For the time being, both sides extend considerable vigor in order not to sever their relations on account of trans-boundary ethnic problems.
Toward a New Geopolitics
Russia has a regional profile and is sensitive about losing its influence in ex-Soviet territories. Since 1991, Turkey has emerged as a significant regional player, pursuing a special relationship with the E.U. and paying serious attention to building good relations in the Caucasus and Central Asia. How closer Turkish-Russian relations will be interpreted in Brussels and Washington is another important question.
The U.S. military deployment in different parts of Eurasia, the pro-Western change in domestic landscapes of Georgia and Ukraine, the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are, among others, the developments that have paved the way for the emergence of a new geopolitics in Eurasia. The European and U.S. expansion into former Soviet territories influences Russian policymakers to seek new alliances in Asia. Russian rapprochement with Iran, China and India are examples of this new policy. In this sense, the new developments in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks are bringing together the policies of not only Russia and other major Asian powers, but also of some critical European states such as France and Germany.
After receiving a negotiation date for E.U. membership, Turkey is emerging as a European actor in the region. However, Turkey’s new orientation was tested during the subsequent domestic transformations of Georgia and Ukraine. Turkey adopted a low-profile attitude toward the Russian policies vis-à-vis Ukraine and Georgia, and sensitively displayed a constructive outlook by pointing to the relevant international norms and agreements as the way to resolve the crises. Ankara tries to avoid taking sides in any “Russia versus the West” struggles, while developing its own relations with Moscow.
One other important area of contention is Turkish-Armenian relations, which are held hostage to historical enmities and Turkey’s pro-Azerbaijan policies in the Caucasus. Currently, Russia is the main ally of Armenia, and possible Russian mediation between Turkey and Armenia on a number of issues can be expected. Following recent positive developments on this front, there may be Russian-Turkish joint attempts to solve the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.
By looking at the current developments, it can be concluded that Turkish-Russian relations will improve in the political, economic and security realms. However, the relations are not free from a number of serious problems that could threaten to derail these growing ties; both countries have converging and conflicting interests in neighboring regions, and this status makes Turkish-Russian relations promising yet difficult. Turkey and Russia are two influential actors in the Eurasian geopolitics and their relations have implications for the whole Eurasian region. Because of this, internal and external players in Eurasian geopolitical gambling will keep an eye on this growing relationship.
Bulent Aras, a Professor of International Relations at Fatih University in Istanbul, is an independent political consultant on Turkish and Middle Eastern affairs.