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In view of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Turkey, Eurasia Outlook asked a few of the authors of the paper on Russian-Turkish cooperation what to expect from this visit.
The visit is the fifth annual meeting at the leaders’ level, so under normal circumstances it would be the routine continuation of an ongoing dialogue on growing political, economic and social relations. However this visit comes at a time when the Russian Federation is trying to signal to the United States and the EU that it is developing and deepening partnerships despite the sanctions they have imposed. So the broader “political signaling” of the meeting, beyond the immediate substance of the bilateral dialogue, is critical this time.
The problem is that the two sides have divergent interests regarding the broader perception of the meeting. Russia would prefer a strong signal that the bilateral relationship is thriving and has gained a new momentum despite the confrontation with the United States and the EU. Turkey on the other hand has an interest in giving a more subdued political signal and portraying the visit as a continuation of the regular annual dialogue. Although Turkey has not joined the sanctions against Russia, it is part of the Western alliance and would be averse to alienating its allies.
For these reasons, reports on the outcome of the meeting may be colored by these divergent underlying motivations and need to be filtered carefully for a fair assessment of actual results. The two sides are likely to measure their success as much in terms of shaping and controlling the wider political message as in progress made on the substantive issues at hand.
The substantive economic issues revolve around trade and energy. In trade, the aspirational target of 100 billion dollars volume will be maintained but will remain a distant target. As part of its positive political messaging, and to partially compensate for decreasing imports from Europe, Russia may be more forthcoming than usual about relaxing some of the constraints on exports of Turkish food products and trucking quotas. In energy, the extension of the Blue Stream gas pipeline is a likely outcome. Price re-negotiation for existing gas contracts is also on the table.
The political issues are more complex and less amenable to a bilateral agreement on simple steps toward progress. Syria is the obvious and pressing topic of disagreement. Crimea is the other contentious topic. There is no obvious reason to expect a significant shift in the parties’ positions. However, there may be a surprise outcome, which, again, would be related to the broad global messaging objective. To the extent that Putin values a strong message of deepening partnership with Turkey as part of his immediate positioning vis-a-vis the EU and the United States, he may well make an unexpected political move that will appeal to and engage the Turkish side.
Overall this meeting is as much about messaging and managing perceptions as it is about substance. Of course, that additional motivation in itself could create substantive new momentum toward the reaching of agreements on trade, energy, and even contentious security issues.
From Putin's visit I expect some agreements on the development of economic ties (Turkey does not participate in sanctions) and a dialogue on international issues. Putin will explain Russia's approach toward Ukraine, but the Caucasus topics might be touched upon as well—especially the Karabakh problem, where Moscow is strongly involved in the search for a settlement, and the Abkhazia one. Among other topics—Syria, ISIS, Iraq, the Iraninan nuclear problem and the perspectives for its solution. It would be good if the discussion involves the whole range of topics we defined in the paper.
Presidential exchange is commonplace for two countries which have strategic relations. In the past 25 years, the relationship between Russia and Turkey gained significant momentum in the economic, social, and commercial spheres. Even though the two countries have a strategic relationship, they have their differences on some political issues. For a strategic partnership to be viable, the two countries should support each other on vital issues. The parties do not appear to be at that point yet. It is expected that the presidential exchange will be on regional issues—Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran, as well as Syria. Especially in light of the sharp fall in oil prices, we also believe that Russia will need reliable, long term clients under these different terms.
Russia and Turkey have divergent views on Ukraine and Crimea. Those crises have important implications for the countries affected. There are misgivings about the stability and sovereignty of the Black Sea region. Both Turkey and Russia are deeply concerned about the Islamic State. Their joint operations in tackling this challenge have to be deployed in coordination with the international community. The Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict poses a great risk for the stability and prosperity of the region. Russia should use its leverage more effectively in finding a solution to this crisis.
President Putin’s visit to Turkey is likely to reflect the high degree of pragmatism in Russian-Turkish bilateral relations. Much of the focus of the two countries’ presidents is likely to be on deepening economic partnership at a time when Russia faces tighter sanctions, while Turkey's economy has been hit by instability in countries neighboring it to the south. Both countries may be willing to take further steps to advance their energy cooperation. In the case of natural gas, however, notwithstanding the official rhetoric, the near-term setting may not appear conducive: Turkey has taken major steps to diversify its gas imports, while prospects for exporting Russian gas via Turkey will hinge on how the Kremlin and the West resolve the Ukraine crisis.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Ankara has been upgraded to the level of state visit “on the initiative of the Turkish side.” This reflects both the importance of the bilateral relationship and an intention to continue to follow the model of Putin-Erdoğan dialogue set in earlier years, albeit now as two presidents (the current political system of Turkey as a parliamentary republic gives more political power to the prime-minister than to the president).
The linking of the national leader’s visit to the regular meeting of the High-Level Cooperation Council means both an expanded agenda and a large number of negotiators: on the one hand, negotiations on the level of key ministers and businessmen; on the other, the signing of concrete and complex agreements as opposed to only memoranda of understanding.
Trade and the economy will, as is traditional, be highlighted during the visit. Turkey hasn’t hastened to join the range of states supporting the economic sanctions of the United States and the EU against Russia. On the contrary, the dynamic of bilateral trade demonstrates a tendency toward quantitative growth and qualitative diversification. Turkish goods are gradually intensifying their presence on the Russian food market. Turkish manufacturers of milk products (estimated market capacity accounts for approx. four billion dollars), fish, and confectionery (estimated market capacity accounts for approx. two billion dollars), cereals, and other food stuffs are actively participating in an expansion on Russia’s market. Turkish green goods and fruits manufactures have already received a “green-light” and support: the Russian Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance made an exception for these Turkish goods, allowing them to pass through the territory of Ukraine. Furthermore, Russia, on its side, is also intensifying trade with Turkey (in the last few years Turkey became one of the main importers of Russian wheat).
In the short-term the two countries are unlikely to realize the aim of reaching 100 billion dollars in trade volumes. However the fact that both Erdoğan and Putin (in his interview to Turkish “Anadolu”) constantly repeat this figure as a sort of mantra can be considered a signal that neither side intends to decrease the rate of bilateral cooperation. One possible consequence of the negotiations would be a decision to find a substitute for the U.S. dollar as the exchange currency used in bilateral trade.
Given the fact that 2016 has been declared a cross-year of tourism, a new agreement on the development of Russian-Turkish cooperation in the sphere of tourism is also highly expected. In this sphere Turkey possesses a great advantage over Russia: in 2013 more than 4.1 million Russian tourists visited Turkey, and only 123,000 Turks came to Russia.
Cooperation in the sphere of energy and high-tech will also be a focus of negotiations during the meetings of the High-Level Cooperation Council. One can hardly expect any breakthrough agreements in this sphere, but the retention of the current dynamics would be a very good sign. Thus, in March 2014 the Blue Stream pipeline (most of the natural gas coming from Russia to Turkey moves through this very pipeline) celebrated the circulation of its first 100 billion cubic meters since the project’s launch in 2003 (meanwhile the Russian and Turkish sides have decided to enlarge the circulation volume from 16 billion to 19 billion cubic meters). Additionally, in 2015 Russian Rosatom plans to start the construction of the first nuclear power station in Turkey.
Of course, some negative effect from the recent negotiations between Recep Erdoğan and Josef Biden on November 22nd is to be anticipated and could raise tensions in the Russian-Turkish dialogue. Ankara obviously finds itself under pressure to follow the “mainstream” and join in sanctions against Russia. Possible consequences of this could include a halting of the construction of the nuclear power station in Turkey as well as a reduction of bilateral trade. Public statements by Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu regarding the meeting of the Turkey-Ukraine Group for Strategic Planning on November 10th could also have a negative influence on the atmosphere of Russian-Turkish dialogue. And the effect of rumors of Turkey-U.S. rapprochement, exaggerated in the press on the eve of Biden’s visit, should also be factored in. In connection with this, it is important to note that in a November 27 press conference shortly after negotiations with Biden, Erdoğan accused Washington of “impudence” and “excessive claims.”
However the established model of Russian-Turkish cooperation implies both a certain immunity to the injection of artificial tensions and a constant emphasis on mutual interests. That is why one of the key topics of the negotiations will be practical issues such as how to overcome the imbalance in bilateral trade resulting from Turkey’s import of natural resources from Russia or possible discounts on the price of natural resources imported from Russia.
Moreover, the economic situation in Turkey today is quite complicated (the budget deficit for the first three quarters of 2014 accounted for 5.3 billion dollars, while the rate of economic growth is no longer as high as it was in the first decade of the 2000s) and close cooperation with Russia in the spheres of economics and trade could help Turkey overcome some of its current economic difficulties.
Over the course of Putin’s visit and during negotiations taking place in the framework of the High-Level Cooperation Council issues in the Middle East will be on the agenda, but one can hardly expect any breakthroughs in this sphere. Though President Putin paid great attention to the conflict in Syria in his interview with the Turkish “Anadolu” agency, his comments there resemble those he has made since the beginning of the “Arab Spring” emphasizing the permanence of Russia’s position and attitude. Negotiations will probably focus on security issues about which Moscow and Ankara have a number of common concerns. Apart from Syria and the Islamic State, the two presidents will focus on the complex problems of Iran and Afghanistan. In the context of the forthcoming anniversary of the 1915 tragedy, which may provoke a new wave of tensions between Ankara and Yerevan, the discussion of issues pertaining to Armenia and Azerbaijan would also be logical.
There will also be new dimensions for Turkey to discussions of regional and global. Turkey has succeeded Australia as the chairman of the G20, which will influence the course of Russian-Turkish dialogue. Close cooperation between these two countries which share similar views on some global issues suggests that Russia in the short-term will try to make up for “lost opportunities” that became a feature of the last G20 summit in Brisbane.
Of course Putin’s visit to Ankara will also have symbolic dimensions. The main official ceremony during which the Turkish President will receive his Russian counterpart will reportedly be held in the new Presidential Palace, the subject of acute criticism both from inside Turkey and from abroad. This part of the formalities will serve as another demonstration of the rising mutual understanding between the leaders of Russia and Turkey.
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