BACKGROUND: Relations between Turkey and Russia have gone through several stages in the post-Cold war era. The tense relations caused by the war in Chechnya in the mid-1990s were gradually improved as a result of increasing trade, investments, and reciprocal visits. The initial lack of trust between two countries has now long since been overcome.
The economic relationship between the two countries has consistently deepened. Russia has indeed become Turkey’s largest commercial partner, with a trade volume of more than US$38 billion. For its part, Turkey has become Russia’s fifth largest commercial partner. There are a host of Turkish firms doing business in Russia. Turkey exports a significant amount of industrial goods to Russia, and Russians are the second largest consumer group in the Turkish tourism sector. Finally and most importantly, Turkey imports huge amounts of natural gas and petroleum products from Russia.
Turkey’s natural gas imports from Russia – via the “Blue Stream Pipeline Project” that passes under the Black sea and the Western Pipeline that passes through Bulgaria – account for 63 percent of its total natural gas imports. And since more than fifty percent of Turkey’s electricity is produced by natural gas, Turkey’s dependence on Russian gas has important implications. Moreover, the Russian-Turkish energy relationship is set to further develop as Russia is the only country so far to have offered Turkey to construct the country’s first nuclear power plant.
Despite having opposite opinions about the political developments in the Caucasus, the two countries have continued to improve their economic and political relations. Besides, the two countries share similar opinions in the matter of the status of the Black Sea: both seek to maintain the current domination by Ankara and Moscow over matters in the sea, and to prevent a growing influence of external forces, including NATO, to which Turkey is a member. The question of energy pipelines from the former Soviet Union have been a major source of disagreement: while one of Moscow’s main foreign policy priorities is to maintain a monopoly over energy exports from former Soviet states, Turkey has been the preferred transit routes for such pipeline project. The Baku-Ceyhan pipeline was built in 2005, and the Nabucco project, currently under consideration, would fulfill a similar function for natural gas. While these projects have caused controversy and were and continue to be opposed by Moscow, that fact has never provoked any Russian move against Turkey, such as putting bilateral relations on hold. Instead, Russia moved to implement the rivaling South Stream Project just after the Nabucco agreement was signed only weeks ago. The AKP government in Turkey has sought to walk a fine line, both building itself up as an alternative energy route while remaining dependent on Russian energy itself, forcing it to seek cooperative ventures with Moscow in the energy field.
IMPLICATIONS: Russian premier Vladimir Putin’s visit to Turkey on the August 6 marked a new and an important turning point in terms of the relations between the two countries. The visit resulted in the signing of cooperation protocols, including energy issues, scientific matters and space studies. Some Western commentators have interpreted the deepening Turkish-Russians relationship in terms of a Turkish shift away from the West. Indeed, the rapprochement between Turkey and Russia enjoys widespread public support exactly because Turkish opinion has become disenchanted with the European Union and sees relations with countries like Russia as alternatives to the EU.
The timing of Vladimir Putin’s visit, following shortly upon the signing of the Nabucco deal, was obviously no coincidence, and it is worth noting that the visit occurred as a result of a Russian request. Not having been able to prevent the development of the Nabucco project, Russia immediately responded by revitalizing its energy projects with Turkey that had been kept on hold for a long time. Twenty protocols were signed to strengthen the economic, political and cultural cooperation between the two countries.
However, the implementation of the protocols is certain to encounter difficulties. For example, Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yıldız has indicated that Turkey is frustrated over Russia’s refusal to offer a better deal concerning the planned nuclear power plant. On the other hand, the extension of the time of the treaty for natural gas (for five billion cubic meters), the entrance of Gazprom into the Turkish markets, Russia’s participation in the Samsun-Ceyhan line, permissions for seismic research for the South Stream project and certain other issues including trade and cooperation will be easier to cope with. Turkey and Russia have decided to institutionalize the bilateral relationship; regular meetings will be held twice a year,. It can be assumed that these meetings will produce strategic effects in the long run.
Ambitious energy projects nevertheless attracted most headlines during the Putin visit. Indeed, agreements were made that furthered both Turkish and Russian interests. Russia received Turkish agreement for the South Stream pipeline to be built in the Turkish Exclusive Economic Zone. Since Russia’s only other option was the Ukrainian zone, and South Stream is intended specifically to bypass Ukraine, that agreement served Russia’s ambition to advance South Stream at Nabucco’s expense. Nevertheless, no one expected Turkey to obstruct South Stream plans by refusing Russia’s request to use its economic zone. On the other hand, Ankara received tentative Russian backing for its own pet project, the Samsun-Ceyhan oil pipeline. Samsun-Ceyhan, a north-south pipeline project to connect Turkey’s Black Sea and Mediterranean coasts, would alleviate the pressure of oil tanker traffic in the Bosporus. But because Russia has instead supported the rival Burgas-Alexandropoulos pipeline that bypasses the Bosporus through Bulgarian and Greek territory to the Aegean, Samsun-Ceyhan has long languished in spite of the involvement of Italian energy major ENI. Russia’s support for Samsun-Ceyhan, if forthcoming, would greatly enhance Turkey’s ambition to make Ceyhan a key energy hub.
While this quid-pro-quo suggests an advantageous deal for Turkey, the fact is that Moscow is primarily concerned about natural gas rather than oil as an instrument of power. Thus, Moscow may be prepared to indulge Turkish ambitions for oil transit if that implies Turkish acquiescence to Russia’s continued domination of the gas trade. Indeed, during the meeting Putin raised the prospects of a second Blue Stream pipeline, but one that would head South to the Mediterranean to possibly be extended to supply Eastern Mediterranean countries. Nevertheless, the sourcing of gas for either Blue Stream Two or South Stream remain murky, given the stagnation of Russia’s gas production.
The development of the Russian-Turkish relationship is not solely due to Russia’s ability to make use of the energy weapon. Neither is the relation restricted to the interaction of the governments, but equally testifies to the lobbying power of businessmen that enjoy close relations with the AKP. Russian participation in the Samsun-Ceyhan project will make the project feasible, and ENI’s Turkish partner in the project is the Çalik group, which is known to entertain close relations with Prime Minister Erdogan.
CONCLUSIONS: The Turkish political establishment does not see the development of a closer cooperation with Russia as being in contradiction with Turkey’s EU membership bid. Turkish officials also assume that gas pipelines passing across Turkey will eventually make Russia dependent on Turkey, balancing the current one-way energy dependence. Turkey also considers that it has nothing to lose from signing up with Russia’s South stream project; on the contrary, Turkey stands to benefit from it just like it would benefit from the realization of the Nabucco project. The attendance of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in the signing ceremony in Ankara was intended to signal that the South Stream project is not viewed as being against the interests of the EU.
The protocols signed during Putin’s visit Putin augurs a new era of relations between Russia and Turkey. The two countries have become inter-connected in various fields. Russia would increase its power in Europe with the realization of South Stream, although uncertainties regarding the feasibility of the project remain. The high level meetings to be held every sixth month will enable Russia and Turkey to establish even closer commercial relations and will furthermore supply a platform for the joint action concerning regional problems. And, if the protocol signed regarding nuclear energy eventually results in a treaty being finalized, Turkey’s long term strategic dependence on Russia will have been firmly established.
Turkey is not displaying any intention to move away from the EU and the U.S. by the signing of the treaties with Russia. Russia, however, is aggressively – and rather effectively – seeking to fill a void left by the West in Turkey. Whether or not Russia ultimately succeeds in its rapprochement policy with Turkey will largely depend on how the European Union and the United States respond to Moscow’s assertiveness. Western negligence to nurture the relationship with Turkey will strengthen opposition within Turkey to the EU and the U.S. and the promoters of Eurasian cooperation as an alternative to Turkey’s western orientation are sure to be emboldened by Russia’s rapprochement policy.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2009. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".