24 November 2007

2206) Russia: Convergences And Fractures In Russian-Turkish Relations by Vera Ragone

Moscow and Ankara have not shared a border for almost twenty years.

Throughout the course of history the borderline has been drawn again and again due to the contentions between the Ottoman and Tsarist Empires, the definition of the Turkish State by the Lausanne . . Treaty and the border between Atlantic Turkey and the Soviet Union, under high surveillance throughout the Cold War, which no longer exists on the geographic and political map. Despite this, its historic, political and strategic potential has not elapsed. The heirs of these Empires, historically enemies, continue to articulate and clash with their own strategies on the same issues. These include Central Asia, Caucasus, the Balkans, the Middle East, the handling of minority groups and the construction of Eurasian communications. In a region which is exposed to international interferences, the result is a convergence which is solely apparent.

Politically commercial partners and economic competitors
Russia and Turkey, even if demonstrating some mutual reservations, have shown themselves to be interlocutors. The systemic changes in these years have decreased the reciprocal threat. From a commercial point of view, Russia is Turkey's second partner, after Germany: many Turkish businessmen are searching for investment opportunities in Russia. Turkey is instead in 14th place in the list of Russia's commercial partners. This position should be seen from a historical perspective, marked by the absence of previous commercial relations and a more recent economy: an economic and financial crisis occurred in Turkey in 2001 which made inflation rates rise to 65%. The Turkish market is a significant recipient of Russian exports and this obviously has political implications.

In the last years, Russia and Turkey have shown apparent convergence on some interests. The war in Iraq and the increasing American interference in the Caucasus are prudently regarded by both countries and in the case of Russia, they are regarded with growing irritation.

The Kurds, located in the prominent wealthy Northern part of Iraq, are a pivotal point in the US geopolitical agenda and a source of concern for the internal stability of Turkey. The same instability within the area interrupted the economic and strategic dialogue between Russia and Iraq before the conflict.

The Caucasus is another precariously balanced area. The unresolved Chechnya conflict, Abkhazia's and Ossetia's independence goals in Georgia and the frozen Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan are rich soil for open negotiations which remain unresolved. Both Russia and Turkey are keen to maintain the current climate, to continue with their mediation but US interests in the area throw up difficulties for stability.

However, their common intolerance towards US interference does not indicate the convergence of their foreign policies. First of all, the extent to which the American presence within the area is perceived is different. For Turkey, the US' accommodating stance towards the Kurds is a problem on a regional level and meanwhile positive relations with the US are desired and reinforced. Russia, on the other hand, puts itself forward as a challenger for the US' systemic unipolarity; the clashes within the region hold a certain weight from an international relations point of veiw.

Another useful point from which to analyse Russian-Turkish relations regards the interests at the base of some objectives, which despite appearing common, are in fact opposite. An example of this divergence is in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the Azeran region, now exclusively inhabited by Armenians, which proclaimed its independence from Azerbaijan during the fall of the Soviet Union. It is in both the countries interests to keep the conflict in a state of paralysis, as it has been since 1994. However, Russia primarily sides Armenia, while Turkey supports Azeran's point of view, with which it has a commercial embargo over Armenia. Both Russia and Turkey are members of the Minsk Group, an organization created by Osce to resolve the conflict. Even if Russia has a major influence over the question, no steps have been taken towards cooperation.

Another influential area which has been contended is Central Asia.

There are many historical and cultural links between ancient Turkistan and Turkey. Yet, the ex Soviet Republics of Central Asia still resent the imposed development of colonial inspiration throughout the Communist period and the economic link with the Russian Federation is dominant as regards relations with Turkey.

Turkey has no resources to attract these countries and it doesn't represent an alternative centre for economic development. However, it has assumed the role, in the last years, as an important mediator between Central Asia and the Western World.

The new energy routes
Turkey depends on Russia for more than 65% of its hydrocarbon imports. At the same time, Ankara is putting itself forward as an alternative area for the transit of energetic supplies towards the EU. This is an appropriate role considering its proximity to more than 70% of the worldwide oil and gas resources and it uses this to negotiate its entrance into the EU; its position, between the Caspian and the Middle-Eastern area allows it to coordinate with the EU on its energetic security policy and it constitutes a pivotal point for the diversification of energetic supply.

However, the growing need for resources sows the seeds for dependence on Russia. The Blue Stream gas pipeline, built in 2002 and officially opened in 2005, directly connects Russian Izobilnoye to the port of Samsun and then to Ankara. Its capacity is about 16 billion cubic metres per year and only a quarter of this capacity is currently exploited.

Turkey's desire to diversify its own suppliers and its idea of becoming a preferred area of transit towards the EU are pushing the country to distance itself from Moscow and to promote the development of the energetic supply network from East to West. As a consequence there exists the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline and its twin project for the construction of the South Caucasus Pipeline, under development since 2004. Both of these are meant to be extended on the other side of the Caspian Sea, in Turkmenistan e Kazakhstan. Access will be difficult to obtain without some form of compensation for Russia.

Another route of development has been undertaken by Turkey towards Teheran. Last July a memorandum was signed with Iran regarding the possibility of transporting gas to Europe via Iran and Turkey and allowing Turkish Petroleum to withdraw gas in Iran, casting off American advice and ousting the Russian monopoly.Blue Stream-2, the project conceived for the extension of Blue Stream to Eastern Europe, has failed. The negative response from Turkey has not been an obstacle for Russian projects. Russia has found another way to reach the European core by way of an agreement with Bulgaria, avoiding the congested Bosporus. In this way Turkey has been excluded from a European supply route. The alternative of the Turkish route is clear, but realized only in part. However, there still remains a certain amount of mitigation as to Russia's influence over European energetic security.

The Turkish counterweight to the Russian centripetal force plays a role, even if it is not dominant, with a desire to have a monopoly over resources and Russian energetic transport. The part played by Turkey is advantageous for the UE and it bears a huge weight in the negotiation for its entrance into the EU, something which has been intermittently considered since 1963. As well as this, EU-Russian relations are not affected by its relations with Turkey. The two run along parallel tracks, without interfering with one another.

Quite simply, Russia and Turkey are not heading towards any direct cooperation as to their foreign politics. Both countries have highly competitive policies even if there are no signs of direct confrontation and in some circumstances, important agreements have been reached. The two countries are considered to be on a perfectly level playing field. It is considered a remote possibility that the two will work together in total agreement. However, Turkey does not have the same influence as Russia. It follows an independent strategy in the area whose results are concrete cards in the hands of the Western countries. In this way, Ankara acts in the East and looks towards the West.

Translation by Michela Mogavero
Equilibri.net 22 November 2007