Turkey has astonished many observers with dazzling new directions in its foreign policy. Today, Ankara is considering visa-free travel with Syria and Libya and holds frequent cabinet meetings with Damascus and Bagdad. However, the most significant change in Turkey’s foreign relations has taken place just beyond the Black Sea. It is the multi-layered relationship of Russia and Turkey that represents the most significant power shift between Cairo and the Caucasus. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in Moscow in January for extended meetings with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev will visit Turkey next month. In the West, these meetings are often accompanied by speculations of a fresh alliance. Such new bonds would be a matter of concern for countries in the West and in the Middle East. Are these conjectures justified?
What seems to be most visible between Russia and Turkey above all else is: business, contracts and trade. If any country trades with Russia, it ends up buying oil and gas. Hydrocarbons are also the main basis of Turkish-Russian commerce. Turkey’s exports of cars, vegetables, textiles and construction projects are dwarfed by its import of Russian gas. In 2008, Russia was Turkey’s most important trading partner and its main supplier of natural gas. It accounts for roughly two thirds of Turkey’s gas consumption, 50 percent of coal imports and 30 percent of its oil consumption. Turkey is also seen by Russia as a possible hub for its energy exports. In August 2009, Russia and Turkey together with Italy agreed to begin preparations for the construction of the South Stream, a pipeline from Russia crossing the Black Sea to Europe.
What makes this business smoother than others is a second ingredient. A Russian foreign policy advisor explained to me recently: “Being able to trust somebody is vitally important for Erdogan.” Putin, he said, is reliable, can deliver and has helped Turkey out in difficult situations. He referred to the winter of early 2008 when Iran did not supply Turkey with natural gas and Russia jumped in the void. Putin, he continued, treats Erdogan as an equal (implying that the Europeans do not). But there is more. Erdogan and Putin met 10 times in five years for extended personal meetings. They like each other; both tend to have a beefy style in politics and share similar backgrounds. Erdogan comes from a lower class family in the dockland area of Istanbul. He was a football player, always a fighter, imprisoned by the Kemalist judiciary and made it to the top. Likewise, Putin came from the shabby courtyards of St. Petersburg, was often humiliated, became a boxer and later joined the KGB to begin his ascent in the Soviet hierarchy. Shared backgrounds often have an impact on how often leaders meet, how long they meet, how much they trust each other.
To be sure, there are also points of convergence in Turkish and Russian foreign policies. Moscow very much appreciated the motion in the Turkish parliament in 2003, which prevented US forces from entering Iraq via Turkish soil. In the Black Sea, Russia does not want to see a NATO or US presence. Turkey often agrees with Russia, and both countries have worked together to limit the presence of NATO ships in the Black Sea. Further east, Turkey and Russia have moved closer together in the Caucasus. Georgia is clearly Moscow’s adversary in the region, but Turkey also has bones of contention with Tbilisi. In Turkey there is a strong Abkhaz community, which has close ties with the separatist republic of Abkhazia. On Iran, both Russia and Turkey reject a coercive approach to Iran’s nuclear program. They are neighbors as Putin and Erdogan insist. They regularly meet with President Ahmadinejad and help him find his way out of international isolation.
Today, these rather pragmatic relations do not yet look like an alliance directed against third countries. But there are reasons to be attentive to the cozy relations between Turkey and Russia. They could very possibly grow into something more than pragmatic neighborly relations.
Primarily, they could evolve into a natural gas axis of supplier and recipient. Although Turkey sits in the middle of some of the most major oil and gas fields in the world it has entrusted two thirds of its gas consumption to the Russian company Gazprom. With future projects Turkey’s gas imports from Russia will continue to grow. If Russia manages to expand also its share of the Turkish oil market to over 50 percent and builds the first nuclear power station, all of Turkey’s power will come from Russia.
The second possibility is an alliance of the offended. A foreign policy advisor to Erdogan said recently that relations with Russia are also a function of how Turkey is being treated by the West. Both countries have a rich history and culture and at least expect to be treated as equals with other nations in the international arena. Both are also “hurt” countries. How can Turkey be offended? The first answer relates to Iran. As Tehran has rejected many UN proposals to manage its nuclear program in more transparent ways a far more serious conflict with Iran seems to be just around the corner. Turkish elites remember very well that their warnings were disregarded by the former US administration in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003. As a result of this and the Turkish refusal to allow US troops pass into Iraq, relations have turned sour. Today, Turkey is hypersensitive to strong Western pressure on Iran and often finds itself in the same camp as Russia in the same camp. Turkey even hides behind Russia, a veto power in the UN Security Council. A serious confrontation with Iran could push Ankara and Moscow into a coalition against Western policy on Iran.
The third scenario could be the formation of a bloc of the excluded. Turkey is regularly antagonized by the way EU countries have conducted membership negotiations since 2005. These talks are hamstrung by a number of interventions from all sides. France’s president has called Turkey an Asian country and has blocked a handful of chapters based on the fear that they could lead to membership. Germany’s chancellor openly calls for a Privileged Partnership—an obscure way of saying no. This does not escape Russia’s attention; on joint Russian-Turkish conferences advisors close to Prime Minister Putin encourage the Turks to give up on Europe like the Russians did back in the 1990s.
If the Western world is concerned about a Turkish-Russian alliance, three measures are likely to prevent the relationship from developing further. The EU should conduct fair negotiations on Turkey’s future membership. The US must consult Turkey and its Arab neighbors more closely when planning its strategy on Iran. And Arab countries could try to persuade Turkey that the benefits of being an independent player in the region far outweigh the consequences of being too closely allied with any camp, be it Russia or Iran.
Michael Thumann – DIE ZEIT’s Middle East Bureau Chief. While a Bosch Public Policy Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy in Washington, DC, Thumann worked on Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East and Turkish-Russian relations.