Calling for Restraint in Russian -Turkish Relations

*Source: Reuters/ Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation/ Handout via Reuters ©

Calling for Restraint in Russian -Turkish Relations

Following the downing of a Russian military aircraft by a Turkish F-16 on November 24, 2015, for what was claimed to be a seventeen-second airspace violation, the previously cordial and multi-dimensional relationship between Moscow and Ankara seems to have taken a downward plunge nearing outright hostility. However, despite any transgressions that may have transpired that day, it does not necessarily have to continue along its current trajectory.

Moscow’s seeming resolve to collectively punish a nation of over seventy million people – an unfortunate approach lacking in diplomatic precision – is not conducive to its own long-term goals in the wider region. On the contrary, it has only served to entrench the position of the AKP and dissuade its domestic opponents from criticizing the change in stance toward Russia. The threat of being perceived as reacting too softly toward hostile entities is of particular concern to many in the opposition who have decided it might be better to hold their tongue rather than risk the ire of a national mood wary of terror attacks by the PKK and Islamic extremists.

The impact of these new realities and retaliatory measures on Turkish-Russian trade relations has been swift. According to the figures provided by the Turkish Statistical Institute, or TurkStat, there was a 66 percent drop in Turkish exports to Russia in January 2016 when compared to the same month last year and a 29.5 percent fall in imports from Russia. For 2015, Russia was ranked Turkey’s eleventh most significant export destination and its third largest source of imports.

The decrease in trade relations will most likely lead Turkey to more vigorously pursue the completion of the Shah Deniz Stage Two project, which will supply natural gas from Azerbaijan’s Caspian Sea sources to Europe. This follows the scrapping of the planned natural gas pipeline between Russia’s Gazprom and Turkey, unofficially dubbed “Turk Stream,” in December 2015.

The fate of the Turkish administration’s controversial Akkuyu nuclear plant project, to be constructed, owned, and operated by a Russian state company Rosatom on Turkish territory, remains clouded among obscure reports of unexpected delays. The fact that Russia did not immediately cancel the endeavor however may confirm Moscow’s long-suspected advantage in the bilateral agreement, in which Turkey must buy the power produced by the plant at a price higher than the market rate.

Aside from the deterioration in official ties, many Turkish citizens in Russia have been pressed to leave by local authorities that are also refusing to renew their residence and work permits or student status. This is apparently in disregard of the fact that the majority of Turkish citizens living in Russia who cast absentee ballots to vote in the general elections of November 1 supported opposition parties. The secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) for example received over 42 percent of those votes while the AKP only received around 27 percent.

Russian naval ships firing warning shots toward civilian fishing vessels off Turkey’s Aegean coast or having soldiers on deck aiming rocket launchers at people as they pass through Istanbul’s Bosporus Strait, both regions of Turkey with strong opposition strongholds, are further examples of reactions counter-productive to gaining any sort of goodwill for the road ahead.

In contrast to this, Russia’s post-November 24 condemnations of the numerous terrorist attacks that have killed scores of civilians and injured many more in Turkey, and its expressions of condolences to the Turkish people should be viewed as opportunities for rapprochement by Ankara. The ceasefire in Syria along with the Turkish administration’s recent attempts to repair its long-damaged relations with Iran and Israel should provide hope that a certain degree of pragmatism still exists, or must exist, in the region.

Although Turkey has been struggling to maintain many of its democratic norms over the past decade, it is still composed of a multi-party system in which the voters choose their political representatives. Punishing every portion of its incredibly diverse society for the mistakes of a few current officeholders may obstruct what can otherwise be a bright future for enhanced partnerships in trade and security.

Kerim Kartari

Kartari, Kerim, “Calling for Restraint in Russian-Turkish Relations”, Independent Turkey, 24 March 2016, London: Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey). Original link: http://researchturkey.org/?p=11106

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