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PUTIN'S VISIT TO ANKARA; RUSSIAN-TURKISH RELATIONS IN PERSPECTIVE

Paper No. 1101                                                                                               27/08/2004

by K. Gajendra Singh

The two day State visit to Ankara from 2 September by Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, three decades after the last visit by Soviet Union's President Nikolay Podgorny in 1973, underlines the reshuffling of strategic perceptions by major players in the region. This comes after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan's recent visit to Tehran which capped warming relations between Turkey and Iran and their efforts to put aside deep-rooted historical and ideological differences, because of the developments in the region. Clearly Turkey is moving away from its Nato ally USA and its good regional friend Israel.

Even the 1973 Podgorny visit, when the author was first posted at Ankara was Turkey's show of anger at Washington's warnings that it should not use US arms in its dispute over Cyprus with Greece, also a Nato member. Of course that was at the peak of the Cold war and that visit was an expression of frustration. But now we are in post cold war era after the collapse of the Soviet Union, 9/11  attacks, US led invasion of Iraq and the deteriorating security situation and daily bloodbath there. March 2003 was a watershed when the Turkish Parliament rejected the government motion (with 2/3rd majority in the Parliament) to allow ally USA's troops to open a second front against Iraq from the Turkish soil. 

Perhaps for the first time in history after centuries; since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey and Russia no longer share a border. But strategic interests of Turkey and Russia still overlap in "near abroad" i.e. in the Caucasus and Central Asia, where some degree of geopolitical competition is inevitable. As an expert put it "Turkish-Russian interactions highlight how the relationship between key regional powers in the post-Cold War context can be characterized by significant cooperation and conflict at the same time." In the short term the security problems appear to be manageable, but they will always remain a major long-term concern. For the time being the magnitude of Turkish-Russian trade (based on large-scale energy imports to Turkey) and the need for coexistence at the political level works against more competitive policies. 

Growth of Bilateral Economic Relations

Perhaps the most positive development in Russian-Turkish relations in recent years has been 15%-20% annual growth in trade. Bilateral trade between Turkey and Russia, which was just 200 million U.S. dollars 15 years ago, has reached US$ 8 billion. In 2003 Turkey exported $1.3 billion worth of goods to Russia, while its imports were $5.4 billion. Till early 1990s trade was balanced. Russia is now second only to Germany as Turkey's trading partner. Turkish Vestel company invested $15 million and started production of TV sets in Russia. Koc and Enka group's Ramstore opened more supermarket chain stores totaling a score. Turks are also very active in the construction business.

While Turkish entrepreneurs and traders were active in Russia, Russian entrepreneurs have also become active in the privatization of Turkish companies, specifically, Tatneft, which won a tender for Turkey's largest petrochemical company, and Europe's fourth largest. Russia also wants to sell helicopters for Turkish armed forces. In mid -1990s Turkey became the first Nato country to buy arms, rifles, helicopters etc for use against Kurdish rebels from Russia as western nations refused to sell them. The number of Russian tourists to Turkey is also on the rise. In 2003, some 1.2 million Russians visited Turkey. This number is expected to rise to 1.7 million by the end of 2004. ''Blue Stream'' natural gas pipeline forms the basis of higher trade and closer economic relations, increasing Turkish reliance on Russia. In 1986, Turkey had signed an agreement with Russia (for 25 years) for 6 billion cubic meters of natural gas .A similar agreement was signed in 1998 for 8 billion cubic meters of "Turusgaz." Moscow wants to extend the pipeline to Israel. In 2003, the problems of supply of Russian natural gas through Blue Stream were resolved during the visit of Erdogan to Russia, as the leader of Justice and Development Party (AK Party). Russian Gazprom company agreed to a lower gas price and the amount of natural gas to be purchased by Turkey.

Russian project for oil pipeline via Turkey

Now Russia is keen on a Trans-Thracian pipeline, which would allow its oil to reach the Mediterranean from the Black Sea without passing through the congested Bosporus Straits. Oil traffic through the Straits has risen by 30 percent to about 2.8 million barrels per day in the last two years, mainly from the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk. This figure would increase, as exports to the Black Sea via the Caspian pipeline from Kazakhstan are set to grow to 67 million tons per year. 

The increasing traffic through the straits has been a bone of contention between Russia and Turkey for many years. The Trans-Thracian pipeline, from Turkey's western Black Sea coast, 193 kilometers south to Ibrikbaba on Turkey's Aegean coast, would ease the bottleneck in the straits. The proposed pipeline could transport about 60 million tons per year directly to the Mediterranean The Turkish government supports the idea, but does not want to finance it.'' London-based Center for Global Energy Studies analyst Julian Lee told the Moscow Times recently that ''Turkey doesn't want to fall into the trap which Ukraine did with the Odessa-Brody project, of building a pipeline nobody wants to use. The government (Turkish) would rather see an international consortium take the project forward".

The Trans-Thracian pipeline proposal is to overcome the restrictions imposed by Turkey on the passage of tankers carrying Russian and Kazakhstan oil to the world market through the Bosphorus Straits. In 2003 over 8,000 ships sailed through the Straits compared to 4,000 in 1996, and carried some 150 million tonnes of cargo. About 15 million people live along the shores of the Bosphorus and there have been some blazing accidents.

However, apart from the ecology and safety of the inhabitants of the region, the Turkish authorities want to force oil companies and the governments of the Caspian region to use the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which is now being built. Oil from Azerbaijan is hardly enough to fill the requirements of the new 'line,' whose chief backer is the United States. The shift from tankers would fulfill the political and economic objectives of the pipeline. There is also the problem of an extra 9 million tons of oil per year that could flow through from Ukraine's Druzhba pipeline to the Black Sea. So Turkey remains advantageously placed for transfer of energy from the Caspian basin to the Mediterranean.

Turkey is looking for Russian support on north Cyprus question during Putin's visit. Russia, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, is seen as a sympathizer of orthodox Greek Cypriots, who overwhelmingly voted against a U.N. plan in April at reunification of the island. Greek Cypriots oppose efforts at U.N. and European Union to end international isolation of Turkish Cypriots. Turkey did note that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Turkish Cypriot Prime Minister Mehmet Ali Talat on the sidelines of the mid- June foreign ministers meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in Istanbul. 

Relations with Russian Federation

There was a flurry of visits between Russia and Turkey soon after the collapse of the USSR. These included the visit of Foreign Minister Hikmet Çetin to Moscow on 20-22 January 1992 and a reciprocal visit to Ankara by Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev next month. During Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel official visit to Moscow on 25-26 May 1992, the "Treaty on the Principles of Relations between the Republic of Turkey and the Russian Federation" was signed replacing an earlier but similar treaty bearing the same title. This treaty established the legal basis of the relations between the two countries and also confirmed the willingness to improve their relationship. 

Russian President Boris Yeltsin was in Istanbul on 25 June 1992 for the first summit meeting of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC). Foreign Minister Çetin paid another official visit to Moscow on 1 March 1993, while Prime Minister Tansu Çiller made an official visit on 8-9 September 1993. During the visit, the Joint Transportation Committee and a Working Group in the fields of telecommunications, industry and transfer of high technology were established. 

Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets paid an official visit to Ankara on 15-20 July 1994 and signed two Protocols on bilateral economic relations and debt rescheduling related to the Turkish Eximbank loans extended during the Soviet Union period. Tansu Çiller visiting Moscow on 9 May 1995 for the ceremony to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, held official talks with Russian Premier Chernomyrdin. As President, Demirel visited Moscow on October 25, 1996 to attend the third summit meeting of BSEC. 
Prime Minister Chernomyrdin's visit to Ankara on 15-16 December 1997 was the first visit of a Russian Premier since the collapse of USSR in 1991. Prime Minister Ecevit was in Moscow on 4-6 November 1999.A Joint Declaration on Cooperation in the Struggle against Terrorism, Agreements on Abolition of Visas for Diplomatic Passports, Cooperation in the Veterinary Field and a Protocol on Cooperation in the field of Information were signed during the visit. The Protocol on Joint Economic Commission provided the framework for bilateral economic cooperation. 

During Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov 's visit on 23-25 October 2000 when he was accompanied by Ministers of Energy, Public Property and Industry, Science and Technology and other high ranking officials, agreements including the formation of a Joint Committee on Cooperation in Defense Industry, were signed. During Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov's visit to Ankara on 7-8 June 2001,a Cultural Exchange Program for 2001-2003 was signed. Mr. Ivanov and his counterpart also held consultations on possible areas of cooperation in Eurasia. 

In early 2004, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul visited Moscow after a gap of 8 years. The two sides discussed accusations by the other side of harbouring hostile and terrorist groups, like Chechen and other groups by Turkey and Kurdish groups by Russia. PKK, a Marxist Kurdish rebel group had support from USSR and its proxy Syria, but Syria was forced to shut down its operations in 1999. Russia has also taken some steps against the Kurds. 

But the Chechen led violent actions in Moscow and else where in Russia and terrorist acts in Istanbul have brought realism to their view on international terrorism. This is a major problem worrying Moscow and Ankara. But any agreement after Gul's visit remained unknown. Many Chechen leaders including Akhmed Zakayev, a representative of the so-called president of Ichkeria and Aslan Maskhadov, lived in Turkey. Russians complain that while the activity of the followers of the pan-Islamic, pan-Turkic Nurcular organization, is banned in Turkey, they carry out a wide variety of intelligence service related tasks in Russia.

At a press conference, Gul responded that Moscow had supplied Turkey with 'a list of Turkish citizens involved in terrorist activity' and that it would be thoroughly studied. He agreed that some of the fighters killed in Chechnya might be Turkish citizens and declared: 'Terrorist acts have occurred in Istanbul, and their perpetrators also hold Turkish passports.' As for funds collected for humanitarian purposes in Chechnya they are handled by Turkish Red Crescent, he added. Gul said that Turkey had demanded' that Russia declare PKK, now called Kong La as a terrorist group. 'The Russians had promised to study the question, the minister added.

Contacts at military level have also been established after the signing of the "Framework Agreement on Cooperation in the Military Field and Agreement on Cooperation of Training of Military Personnel" in January 2002 during the visit of General Kvashnin, Chief of Staff of the Russian Federation to Ankara. Chief of Staff of Turkish General Hüseyin Kivrikoglu returned the visit in June 2002. The first meeting of the Joint Military-Technical Cooperation Commission was held in September 2002 in Ankara and the second meeting in November 2003 in Moscow. Relations have also been established at the level of the parliaments. During the visit of the Speaker of the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA) Mustafa Kalemli to Moscow on 14-18 July 1996 a "Protocol on Cooperation between the TGNA and The Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation" was signed.

Competition in Central Asia 

Muslim tribes around the Black Sea and the Caspian and the mountainous Caucasian region which separates Russia and the Middle East and Anatolia, migrated to the Ottoman empire and are now spread all over in the region and beyond and have long established roots. The region has complex linkages and relationships between the people of Turkey and people of Caucasian region which were established when the Empire was shrinking. The contacts between citizens of Turkish republic and the republics in Central Asia are also abiding. 

But after the First World War, the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the creation of the Turkish republic in Anatolia by Kemal Ataturk, the contacts with Muslim people of not only Central Asia but the Caucasian region ceased almost all together. A pan Turkic leader Col. Turkesh told the writer that he met Turks from central Asia first time in New Delhi, when invited by Indira Gandhi to meet delegations from USSR. Even the relations with the Arabs were limited, who according to the Turks had revolted against the Sultan Caliph. Ataturk jettisoned the Arab and Ottoman religious heritage and the Islamic and central Asian baggage. He turned around Turks to look West and become westernized, modern and secular citizens to reach the level of contemporary European civilization

The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Turkey's historical enemy, pleased Turks no end. It opened the floodgates of exchanges and relations between the Turks of Anatolia and the Turkic people of Central Asia and the Caucasus. There were delegations galore, with the two "lost people" hugging each other, with many Central Asian leaders bending down to touch the soil of Turkey with their foreheads on first arrival. The Iranians and the Russians had cut off exchanges and relations between the Ottomans and its ethnic kin in the Caucasus and central Asia, known as Turkistan. 

The author remembers much to his surprise the romantic vision sold to former Communist states by western leadership and media that with democracy and capitalism prosperity was round the corner. Soon the reality dawned how the western leadership diddled the ex-Communist leadership, making them reliant on western capitalism and institutions. US $ 200 billion were transferred from Russia to the western banks and institutions under the charade of globalisation. 

Many Central Asian leaders to whom power fell like manna from heaven in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union were confused and rudderless. They were cautious and wanted good relations with all. The US encouraged Turkey' efforts as it was afraid that Russia would try to wrest back control of its "near abroad", which it tried in many ways, but the horse had already bolted from the stable. 

Fears that Iran would export its version of fanatic Islam and support anti-US regimes in Central Asia also proved farfetched. After an eight-year long debilitating war with Iraq in the 1980s, in which Iran lost a million young people, there was little energy or money left to spread its message of Shi'ite revolution. Except for the Azeris and some other pockets, most people in Central Asia are Sunni Muslims, closer to the more mystic Sufi way of life. They have a very high level of education and a lifestyle of drinking and good living. With deep-grained nomadic habits, they could not easily be led to Islamic fundamentalism. It were the ill-conceived US, Saudi and Pakistani policies that brought Wahabi Islam to Central Asia. It was further aggravated by former Communists, now ruler's propensity to use fear of Islamic fundamentalism to crush all form of opposition to their dictatorial rule, based on clan and regional linkages only. 

Except for the Caspian basin because of its energy resources and in Kyrgyzstan, the American leadership soon lost interest (except after 11 September). The Caspian basin has between 100 to 200 billion barrels of oil. The US courted Kyrgyz president Askar Akayev, touting him as a democrat and helped his country join the World Trade Organization in 1998. The reason was to have a friendly regime with freedom to base personnel and sensing equipment to monitor China, next door. Akayev has proved no different than leaders of other Central Asian republics in terms of his record on democracy though. 

Early 1990s were an opportune moment for Turkey, which under the dynamic leadership of Turgut Ozal had successfully undergone a decade of economic reforms, opening its economy to the West, especially Europe. The country had many trained managers and experts who, because of ethnic, linguistic and religious similarity, became advisers and even ministers in the new Turkic republics in Central Asia (CARs). Both at state level and in the private sector, Turkey made large investments in Central Asia and Azerbaijan. The Turkish government provided loans amounting to US$750 million to Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Turkish private investment runs into billions of dollars. Turks have established successful industries run hotels, textiles and other businesses. 

Turkey also arranged to train 10,000 students and teachers from the new republics. Turkish as spoken in Turkey has been purified by excluding many Arabic and Persian words. Many European words, especially from French have been added. The Azeri language is quite similar to Turkish, as well as the Turcoman language. The languages spoken by Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and in Kazakhstan are somewhat different. Originally, Soviet Russians prescribed Latin script for the Central Asian languages, but when Ataturk changed to the Latin script from Arabic, the Russians changed to Cyrillic. Many Turks have opened schools in Central Asia, too. Turkey also started beaming Avrasia TV programs to Central Asia, but with uneven results. 

The initiative to bring the new central Asian Turkic countries together was taken up by President Ozal, but unfortunately he died in 1993. But Turkey's efforts to create an area of influence in Central Asia were opposed by the newly independent leadership. A loose organization of Turkic states exists without having achieved much. Cento was reorganized with CARs joining in to create the new Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO). To soothe the Russians, a Black Sea organization was also created, but it remains equally ineffective. Many Turkish leaders complained in mid 1990s that Central Asian governments did not repay Turkish loans, while they paid back Western ones. The author was told that the new CARs leadership would like to establish authoritarian political regimes and try to follow the capitalist system of East Asia. It has certainly succeeded rather well in its first objective. 

Problems in the Caucasus 

While Russians might have plotted borders of Soviet republics in such a way that there are territorial disputes almost among all neighbouring states, which became independent after the collapse of USSR e.g between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Ossetias in Russia and Georgia and between Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Tajiks in the Ferghana valley, to name only a few of them. But it too was caught in the sudden denouement. I recall Russian Ambassador in Baku, forced to operate his Mission from a suite of rooms in a rundown  tourist hotel, while USA, UK and even Israel had occupied prime property.

To avoid loss of control in the north Muslim Caucasus, i.e. Chechnya, Dagestan etc, which would result in the disintegration of the Russian Federation itself, Russian objectives remain that it maintain military bases and influence in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, deploy Russian troops to guard the external frontiers of the three Trans-Caucasian states, exclusive CIS (i.e. Russian) peacekeeping troops in the region and station more Russian tanks and armoured vehicles in the north Caucasus even though this violates the terms of the CFE Treaty. 

Russia also wants that Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan route their oil and gas exports via Russia. It is thus clear that Russian and Turkish interests (or rather of USA as well) are bound to clash in the Caucasus. 

Therefore, soon after the collapse of USSR, nationalist Russian politicians, ex-communist cadres, ambitious Russian generals, local mafia, Turkish groups and international oil executives all entered the fray to play their part for personal or national gains on the Caucasian chessboard. 

There are ten million inhabitants of Turkey whose families originate from the north Caucasus and the Trans-Caucasus, which were once parts of the Ottoman Empire. It is estimated that there are 25,000 Turkish citizens of Chechen decent alone. Around 50 official Caucasian solidarity associations are active in Turkey. These groups invariably pressurize the Turkish government to oppose Russian involvement in the Trans-Caucasus and against Russian military operations in Chechnya. Even Turkey was put in an embarrassing situation when Azeri president late Heydar Aliyev, accused a Turkish group in 1995 of trying to overthrow him with the help of his opponents in Baku. 

Turkey remains wary of Russian  military bases in Georgia and Armenia as a potential threat. Ankara would also like CIS peacekeeping forces in the South Caucasus to be replaced by international forces, since these peacekeeping troops are mostly Russian. 

At the same time Russia is also unhappy with Turkish military and security officials' cooperation with their counterparts in Georgia and Azerbaijan. In January 2002 in Ankara, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey concluded a tripartite agreement on regional security. Moscow is especially unhappy with Turkish assistance in modernizing the Marneuli airbase near Tbilisi. In October 2002 a Turkish military delegation attended the formal opening of the United Military Academy in Tbilisi, set up and co-staffed by the Turkish armed forces. Speaking at the opening ceremony, Georgian Defense Minister Lieutenant General David Tevzadze stressed that instructions would comply with NATO standards.

Zeyno Baran, director of the Caucasus Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, pointed out recently, "in the past, Georgia had asked the Russians for help against the Ottomans, but today Georgia receives military, economic, and political assistance from Turkey." Turkey has become Georgia's main trading partner, with a flourishing border /shuttle trade. There has been talk of improving railway connection between the two countries but no concrete step have been taken. But as long as Georgia has problems with Russia, it will need Turkey and USA. Apart from strategic reasons Turkey also needs Georgia for its Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. 

It appears that every one is coming to Georgia's aid. "For example, the boots of our soldiers are from Turkey, and their uniforms, worth 9 million euros, are from Italy. The UK, Romania, Bulgaria, Israel and the US also help. We do not conceal this, "said a Georgian press report. The Georgian army will be equipped with Israeli made Tavors instead of the classic Kalashnikov (AK-47). 

But USA remains the main actor and successfully replaced an aging Shevardnadze with a more pliable Georgian leader .The skirmishes or the great game, in spite of USA being embroiled in Iraq goes on. 

 (K Gajendra Singh, served as Indian Ambassador to Turkey and Azerbaijan in 1992-96. Prior to that, he served as ambassador to Jordan (during the 1990-91 Gulf war), Romania and Senegal.  He is currently chairman of the Foundation for Indo-Turkic Studies.  The views expressed here are his own.- Email-Gajendrak@hotmail.com)

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