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Russia, Turkey Reboot Bilateral Relations

Dr Raj Kumar Sharma writes: Good relations with Russia would give President Erdogan some respite in foreign policy matters in order to concentrate on the domestic front where he has a number of challenges as signified by the failed coup.

The recent turn in Russia-Turkey relations is a good example of how fast bilateral relations between two countries can change due to geopolitical upheavals. Their bilateral relations had hit a roadblock in November 2015, when Ankara shot down a Russian fighter jet near Syria Turkey border, alleging that it had violated the Turkish airspace. The incident could have led to NATO-Russia confrontation, as Turkey is a member of NATO but the tensions somehow subsided. Russia demanded that Turkey should apologize for the unfortunate incident but that never happened. But Russian President Vladimir Putin had slapped economic sanctions on Turkey. Import of agricultural products like vegetables and fruits was banned from Turkey while Russia had also banned its tourists from travelling to Turkey. Military cooperation was suspended as Russia closed an emergency hotline between the two sides to share details on Russian strikes in Syria.[1] Turkey is an important tourist destination among Russians and the Russian ban caused problems in Turkish tourism industry. In the first quarter of 2016, the tourism industry declined by more than 16 percent. The summer bookings came down by 40 per cent while the hotel occupancy rates fell by half compared to 2015 rates.[2]

This all changed when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wrote a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin in June 2016 and apologized for the downing of Russian jet. The letter called Russia ‘strategic partner’ of Turkey and said that criminal proceedings had been launched against the person suspected of downing the Russian jet.[3] Following this, President Putin lifted Russian tourism sanctions on Turkey and signaled his desire to normalize the relations. He also called President Erdogan after Turkey’s failed coup and wished that Turkey will soon return to constitutional order. Media reports also suggest that Russia had warned Turkey hours before about the imminent Army coup.[4] The two leaders are set to meet in Russia before August 10 and chalk out a future plan of action. Some critical reasons lay behind President Erdogan’s decision to have better relations with Russia. Turkey’s relations with the European Union and the US have declined in recent times. Turkey’s EU membership is not going to materialize in near future. The failed coup has further complicated the matters, as President Erdogan is mulling to bring back death penalty that was abolished by Turkey in 2004. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already told Turkey that it cannot join EU if it reinstates death penalty.[5] According to Russian expert Fyodor Lukyanov, there are similarities between Russia-EU and Turkey-EU relations. Both Russia and Turkey are ‘great powers connected historically, culturally and geographically to a Europe that never fully accepted them as one of their own’.[6]

Relations with the US are also not in a good state due to differences over the Kurdish issue and Fethullah Gülen, who stays in the US in self-imposed exile. Turkey has blamed Gullen over the failed coup and has demanded his extradition from the US. Turkey’s relations with its neighbors have not been good as well. Its support for Muslim brotherhood has angered Egypt while it wants Assad to exit from Syria. Turkey has tried to avoid isolation at international stage and reset its foreign policy by having better relations with Russia and Israel. Increasing internal security issues and economic problems were the domestic drivers which prompted President Erdogan to take this foreign policy measure. This would also allow Russia and Turkey to reach at some understanding on their respective Syria policies. This would also help Turkey to prop up its economy, as Russian sanction would have cost Turkey USD 3.1 billion this year.[7] Good relations with Russia would give President Erdogan some respite in foreign policy matters in order to concentrate on the domestic front where he has a number of challenges as signified by the failed coup.

Endnotes

[1] Russia imposes sanctions on Turkey over downed plane, The Guardian, 26 November, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/26/hollandes-anti-isis-talks-with-putin-complicated-by-downing-of-russian-jet

[2] Russia ready to lift Turkey tourism ban, Russia Today, 29 June, 2016, https://www.rt.com/business/348877-turkey-russia-restrictions-lift/

[3] Erdogan apologizes to Putin over death of Russian pilot, calls Russia ‘friend & strategic partner’, Russia Today, 27 June, 2016, https://www.rt.com/news/348562-putin-erdogan-turkey-pilot/

[4] Russia warned Turkey of imminent army coup, says Iran’s FNA, July 21, 2016, http://tass.ru/en/world/889638

[5] Merkel tells Erdogan death penalty not compatible with EU membership, Reuters, July 18, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-security-germany-idUSKCN0ZY0YI

[6] People With Big Ambitions: What the Turkish Coup Means for Russia, Moscow Times, July 18, 2016, https://themoscowtimes.com/articles/people-with-big-ambitions-54641

[7] Turkey’s Economy Sees Fallout from Terrorism, Russian Sanctions, January 15, 2016, http://www.voanews.com/content/turkey-economy-terrorism-russian-sanctions/3147900.html

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