Europe, Headlines, Middle East & North Africa | Analysis

EUROPE: The Czar Makes Up With the Sultan

ISTANBUL, Aug 12 2009 (IPS) - Once the worst of enemies, involved in 12 wars in three centuries, Turkey and Russia have suddenly become the best of friends, forging strong bonds that could be a counterpoint to the European Union if it freezes Turkey out of full membership.

The countries call their ties “multi-dimensional co-operation,” somewhat short of a “strategic partnership”, but that too may be in the offing.

On an eight-hour visit to Turkish capital Ankara last week, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin signed 20 deals with his counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan. These are mostly commercial contracts in energy, collectively worth some 40 billion dollars.

The two leaders also declared that rival gas pipelines Nabucco and South Stream to bring natural gas to European markets would be “complimentary” rather than “conflicting”.

Nabucco, the 7.9 billion euro project backed by the EU and the United States, would bypass Russia in bringing gas from Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Iraq and potentially also from Iran to Europe via Turkey. It is due to be operational by 2014.

The Russian proposed South Stream, to become operational by 2016, would carry gas from Russia to Europe through Turkey’s territorial waters in the Black Sea and onward to Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, Serbia, Hungary and Slovenia to Austria. Its objective is to bypass Ukraine, currently the conduit for 80 percent of Russian gas pumped to Europe.

In the end, conflicting or complimentary, if both projects are realised, Russia and Turkey would play a major role in meeting Europe’s growing gas needs. For Europe, either an unfriendly Turkey or Russia would endanger energy security – and it would be much worse if both were ever to gang up on the EU together.

There already are signs that Turkey, aware of its critical role as a corridor for EU energy needs, is flexing its muscles, with the rapprochement with Russia seen as a warning to the EU.

“Turkey is not changing its foreign policy. It still gives priority to ties with the West. But the energy issue is giving a new dimension,” writes Sami Kohen, foreign affairs columnist for the daily Milliyet. “The energy equation will make Turkey’s policy more independent.”

That translates into more national, less EU, interest.

“If EU doesn’t want us, we won’t beg,” businessman Hasan Aydemir told IPS. “Europe has to think twice of the implications of Turkey out of its union and allied with Russia. If that happens, why not?”

Yusuf Kanli, chief columnist for the English language daily Hurriyet, says the current Turkish-Russian closeness will in turn bring Turkey closer to EU as Europe becomes more aware of Turkey’s growing importance and critical geopolitical status.

But Turkey within the EU is far off, if ever it will happen. Its aspiration to join the EU as the first Muslim nation is now in the 50th year since the first bid – perhaps the longest engagement on record with no marriage in sight. The accession process is faltering in the face of opposition from EU members such as France, Germany and Austria.

Meanwhile, Turkish-Russian ties are in constant expansion. Russia will ship oil through a pipeline to a southern Turkish port and also deliver gas to Lebanon and Israel via Turkey. A Russian company will be involved in Turkey’s plans to build a nuclear power station.

Culturally, Turkey will open Russian study institutes and cultural centres. Russians are now the second largest group after Germans visiting Turkey; they numbered about three million last year. Signs in Russian accompany those in English in resorts such as Fethiye, Antalya and Alanya. Radio stations broadcast in Russian. And there are now Russian language newspapers in Turkey.

Turkey declared 2007 The Year of Russian Culture, and Russia reciprocated in 2008.

Last year, trade between the two countries reached 38 billion dollars, an eight-fold increase in eight years, making Russia Turkey’s biggest partner. Trade is forecast to reach 100 billion dollars in four years.

The combined diplomatic weight of the two countries may also help find solutions to regional conflicts, including disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Armenia and Turkey. They might even persuade Iran to take a more moderate stand. One or the other has solid relations with most countries involved in opposition to one another.

The closeness may be helped by a similarity between Putin and Erdogan: both come from humble origins; both seem ready to bury historical enmities; both are seen as strong leaders firmly entrenched in power for years to come (they are in their 50s); both are dynamic and sporty (Putin excels in judo and Erdogan is a former soccer player); both are stern and all business.

If there is the touch of a Czar in Putin, there is a Sultan in Erdogan. The Turkish leader has become a regional folk hero for his defence of Palestinians against Israeli strikes when he stormed out of a debate with Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos, Switzerland, in February when the moderator attempted to cut short his anti-Israel oratory.

The closeness contrasts sharply with the history of the two nations. The Czarist Russian and the Ottoman Turkish empires were at each other’s throats from the 17th up to the 20th centuries, when Russia eventually succeeded in wresting the Black Sea and the Balkans from Ottoman domination.

Later, after World War II, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin eyed but failed to control the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits in Turkey for passage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Even as late as the 1980s, Turkey was the West’s bastion against feared Soviet expansionism from the East. If that was seen as the unwelcome Soviet Bear Hug, this now is a mutual embrace.

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