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August 9, 2016

Erdogan resets relations with Russia

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

On Tuesday, August 9, 2016, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in St. Petersburg to hold talks with the Russian President Vladimir Putin. This was Erdogan’s first foreign visit since the July 15 abortive coup against his elected government. St. Petersburg is Putin's hometown.

Addressing a joint press conference after the talk, Putin said: "I believe that we have all the necessary prerequisites and opportunities for restoring our relations between our two countries to the full extent and Russia is ready and willing to do that." 

On his part, Erdogan said: “As a result of the negotiation we had today, political, cultural and economic relations between Russia and Turkey can finally be restored to the appropriate level we used to enjoy before the crisis."

Ties between the two countries have been acrimonious since November last year when Turkey, citing a brief violation of its airspace along Turkey's border with Syria, shot down a Russian military aircraft. Russia's President Vladimir Putting ordered punishing economic sanctions, imposed a travel ban on Russian tourists visiting Turkey and suspended all government-to-government relations.

Unable to ignore the damage, Erdogan conveyed regrets to Putin; the regrets were accepted which paved the way for August 9 meeting. Interestingly, the two Turkish Air Force pilots linked to the downing of the Russian Su-24 bomber have been detained in connection with the recent failed coup attempt in Turkey, according to Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag.

Areas of cooperation

Turkey wants to bring ties with Russia to pre-crisis levels with cooperation in the defense industry sector and energy projects including the Turkish Stream gas pipeline and the Akkuyu nuclear plant, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at the press conference.

As a result of the negotiation we had today, political, cultural and economic relations between Russia and Turkey can finally be restored to the appropriate level we used to enjoy before the crisis," Erdogan said.

Erdogan also outlined a list of areas of cooperation where Ankara is eager to engage in cooperation.

"I would like to emphasize that we are willing to provide strategic investment status to the Akkuyu project, and we have just reached an understanding on this issue with President Putin. We also intend to promote cooperation in the area of defense industry and defense production," he stressed.

The Turkish head of state additionally pledged to implement the Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline project, vowing to ensure a route for Russian gas exports heading toward Europe.

Russia will gradually lift the restrictions it had imposed against Turkish companies, Russian President Vladimir Putin said during the press conference.

"After the press conference, we shall have an opportunity to speak to the heads of large companies from both Russia and Turkey. I mean the gradual lifting of the special economic measures, restrictions introduced earlier against Turkish companies," Putin told a press conference after the meeting.

Did not discuss the Syrian issue

Ironically, Erdagon and Putin did not discuss the thorny Syrian issue. "During today negotiations we didn't discuss situation in Syria," Recep Tayyip Erdogan said answering the question from journalists.

Vladimir Putin has also confirmed, that the Syrian crisis will be discussed later. "We believe that the Syrian crisis can be resolved only through diplomatic decision," he noted. "We have experienced many challenges in our relations recently, but we should restore our relations on pre-crisis level for citizens' sake," President Putin said in conclusion.

Russia sides with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while Turkey, like US and other European nations, want to topple Assad.  They support rebel groups, including the so-called Islamist ones, who are fighting Assad. But the Syrian leader remains firmly in power more than five years after the civil war began.

According to Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, there was room for the two sides to move closer together on options for a political transition to end the five-year civil war and on the shape of a new constitution for the country.

However, Russia’s TASS news agency quoted Erdogan's spokesman Ibrahim Kalin "in cooperation with Russia, we would like to facilitate a political transition in Syria as soon as possible." But he repeated Turkey's long-held stand that such a move would only be possible with Assad's departure.

TurkStream gas pipeline

While the timing of Erdogan's Russia trip could be interpreted as a signal to the West, Faruk Logoglu, a former Turkish ambassador to Washington,  doubted it meant a full Turkish embrace of Russia or lasting damage to U.S. ties.

"The Turkish-American relationship is like a catholic marriage: there is no divorce. Both sides need each other," he said. "It has experienced severe tests in the past and I think it will weather this one as well."

However, closer ties between Ankara and Moscow could be more troublesome for Europe, which sees a plan for a gas pipeline from Russia to Turkey, a project known as TurkStream, as a complication in its efforts to cut dependence on Russian energy.

"Gas cooperation between Russia and Turkey could be scary for the European Union," said Akin Unver, assistant professor of international relations at Kadir Has university in Istanbul and an expert in regional energy.

"The EU wants to diversify suppliers and link eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe in the long run ... if Russia bypasses all that with TurkStream that would not help. But the EU is in no position to bargain. Politically, it is very weak."

EU officials fear that TurkStream will be expanded to bypass Ukraine as a transit route for supplies to Europe, increasing dependence on Russian gas export monopoly Gazprom and shutting in alternative supplies from the Caspian region.

Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak has said Turkey will "play a large role as a transit country" to supply Europe - the very prospect which worries EU officials. Brussels is instead promoting a chain of pipelines known as the Southern Gas Corridor to transport gas from the Shah Deniz field in Azerbaijan to European markets by 2020.

Erdogan to West: 'Mind your own business'     

President Erdogan’s visit to Russia came at a time when the Turkish government is discontented and displeased with the Western countries not showing support to his elected government but criticizing his government action against the perpetrators of the July 15 abortive coup.

Erdogan said Western leaders who were criticizing the Turkish government's reaction to the July 15 coup attempt should "mind their own business."

He said: "When five to 10 people die in a terror attack, you [Western countries] set the world on fire. But when there is a coup attempt against the president of the Turkish Republic, who always protects the democratic parliamentary system and who was elected with 52 percent of the general vote, instead of siding with the government you side with the perpetrators."

Erdogan also criticized the head of the US general command for suggesting that crackdowns in the Turkish military after the failed coup attempt had harmed the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).

"I am concerned that it will impact the level of cooperation and collaboration that we have with Turkey which has been excellent, frankly," General Joseph Votel said, speaking at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, US.

After the failed coup of July 15, more than 8,500 officers and soldiers, including 157 of the 358 generals and admirals in the Turkish military's ranks, were discharged.  Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has announced  that the military's shipyards and weapons factories will be transferred to civilian authority; military high schools and war academies have been shut; military hospitals will be transferred to health ministry; and the gendarmerie, a key force in anti-terror operations, and the coast guard will be tied to the interior ministry.

"Know your place," Erdogan said in response.  “The US general [Joseph Votel] stands on the coup plotters' side with his words. He disclosed himself via his statements," Erdogan said, as he repeated calls for the US to extradite Fethullah Gulen, who is accused of plotting the abortive coup through his followers penetrated in the Turkish civil and military bureaucracy.

Following Erdogan's comments, Votel issued a statement denying he was supporting the coup plotters. "Any reporting that I had anything to do with the recent unsuccessful coup attempt in Turkey is unfortunate and completely inaccurate," Votel said in his statement. "Turkey has been an extraordinary and vital partner in the region for many years. We appreciate Turkey's continuing cooperation and look forward to our future partnership in the counter-ISIL fight."

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