Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Business Recorder editorial Aug 10, 2016

Russia-Turkey ties reset Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has embarked on his first trip abroad after the failed coup of July 15. It is logical that his first port of call is Russia, specifically Saint Petersburg, the hometown of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In these salubrious surroundings, Erdogan tried to reset his country’s strained relations with Russia. These relations have historically been anything but straightforward. But after the downing of a Russian fighter by Turkey last November on the Syrian border, relations plunged to an all-time low, with a furious Putin imposing a raft of sanctions on Turkey. Cooperative and strategic projects were put on ice, trade between the two countries plummeted by 43 percent in January-May 2016 to $ 6.1 billion and Russian tourist numbers, on which Turkey’s tourism industry critically depends, plunged 93 percent. The ice was finally broken in June 2016 following a letter of regret over the downing of the Russian plane from Turkey, which Russia accepted as an apology. In their press conference after the meeting, Putin said they had lived through a very complicated moment and want to overcome their difficulties but this would take painstaking work and some time to return to business as usual. Erdogan echoed these sentiments, stressing how important Putin’s support after the coup was. This contrasts sharply with Erdogan’s complaints against the US for ‘harbouring’ his ‘nemesis’, Fethullah Gulen, and against the European Union as well for allegedly showing more concern about Turkey’s post-coup crackdown than the attempted putsch itself. Russia itself has strained relations with the west currently, centred on Ukraine but also differences over Syria. The convergence between Turkey and Russia therefore seems natural, albeit worrying for the west since Turkey is a key NATO ally. Russia and Turkey in the past did not let their rivalry over influence in the Black Sea region and the Middle East (particularly Syria, where they are arraigned on opposite sides) stand in the way of mutually beneficial trade and economic relations. With this visit, these cooperative relations seem poised for revival. One of the first fruits of Turkey’s expression of regret over the downing of the Russian plane and now the visit has been Russia’s lifting the ban on package holidays in Turkey by Russian tourists. Moscow has indicated it will now end measures against Turkish food imports and construction firms. What is likely to follow is the revival of strategic projects such as the TurkStream gas pipeline to Europe and a Russian-built nuclear power station in Turkey. The normalisation of cooperative relations between Turkey and Russia is being viewed in the current climate of strained relations with the west as a zero sum game by western capitals, largely because they have ‘taken on’ Russia since the Ukrainian crisis and its intervention in Syria on the side of Bashar al-Assad. This can only lead to weakening influence and fewer and fewer options or room to manoeuvre for the west in the region and beyond, as the outcome of the west’s proxy interventions in Ukraine and Syria are proving. While the west’s post-cold war triumphalism has translated into trying to prevent Russia’s recovery to its erstwhile superpower status and adventurous attempts to nibble away at its ‘near abroad’, its relations with its ostensible NATO ally Turkey have not panned out well in recent times either. On the one hand, the US is dependent on Turkey’s Incirlik airbase for its air campaign against Islamic State in Syria. On the other hand, Turkey’s policies in the region have clearly, at least until it suffered reverses, been at odds with the west’s. The mess in Syria is one fruit of these ill-considered and divergent policies of the NATO allies. Turkey, in the aftermath of the failed coup, finds more purchase in mending fences with its near or immediate neighbours such as Israel and Russia, rather than keeping faith with a Washington that appears unsympathetic to its present travails, or a Europe not being able to see the wood for the trees, at least in Turkish eyes. This fluid, shifting scenario in the region is reminiscent of similar trends in other parts of the world, where the traditional hegemony of the US-led west is declining and regional actors are reconfiguring their relations in the light of their own perceived interests. Verily, the geopolitical map of the world is undergoing tectonic shifts that may well come to define the shape of a new world order in the not so distant future.

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