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Russian-Turkish Gambit 17 octobre 2012

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Russia / Russie, Turkey / Turquie.
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BBC Monitoring Former Soviet Union (UK) Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Source: Rossiyskaya Gazeta website, Moscow, in Russian 17 Oct 12

By Fedor Lukyanov *

« Do you think the incident with the Syrian aircraft will affect Russian-Turkish relations? » my colleague at a major university, who I found myself next to during an international conference in Istanbul three days ago, asked anxiously. « I certainly wouldn’t want it to, for they are so important to us…. » I could only reply that, if Ankara does not inflate this affair itself, Moscow will hardly want to do so. The professor doubtfully shook his head: Quite a few Turkish intellectuals disapprove of the government’s policy, which, instead of bringing « zero problems with the neighbors, » as promised a couple of years ago by foreign policy ideologue Ahmet Davutoglu, has brought sharp complications all around the perimeter. Russia had remained until recently almost the sole exception.

Russian-Turkish relations have experienced a boom since the start of the 21st century. It is a matter not only of large-scale energy projects (although a partnership between a major supplier and the most important transit power appears perfectly natural) and the potential of reciprocal markets and investments. Despite a long history of wars, Russia and Turkey are united by one similarity. The two countries, which were for centuries participants in European history and politics, never found themselves at their nucleus but remained at a distance from those who considered themselves the « real » Europe. This is topical even today: The EU keeps both Moscow and Ankara at a distance, although there was a time when both countries sought (albeit in different ways) to flow institutionally into Europe. In both Russia and Turkey today there has been a sharp increase in Euroskepticism and the secret desire to prove to the Old World how mistaken it was in its disdain.

Hitherto the sides have managed to separate acute disagreements over the Syrian question from the main bulk of relations. However, the incident with the aircraft from Moscow, which was forced to land by the Turkish Air Force, is threatening to become a point after which damage will become inevitable. According to the German magazine Der Spiegel, the information about the freight from Russia, which provided the grounds for the Turkish authorities’ actions, was passed to Ankara by American intelligence. Some commentators perceived a cunning plan in this – to create a situation in which « business as usual » between Russia and Turkey will be impossible. Washington has long been looking without any delight at the way Turkey, which only recently was a superloyal NATO member, is trying to develop its own activeness in all directions, including by arranging special relations with Russia.

In order to avoid anyone’s uncontrolled actions, the Russian authorities themselves must ask the question why a civilian aircraft was conveying at least dual-purpose equipment to a country at war. Even if nothing has been violated formally, since, as the Foreign Ministry rightly maintains, no embargo against Syria has international legal status. As for Ankara’s actions, its sharp galvanization, right down to stopping airliners, is connected with the fact that Turkey has gotten too deeply involved in the Syrian conflict, and the results are not at all what they had been reckoning on.

The Turkish strategists who made recommendations to [Premier] Recep Tayyip Erdogan were wrong with their assessment of the prospects for Bashar al-Asad’s regime: It has proved more stable than they had assumed. It has not been possible to achieve a quick regime change in Damascus, and the lengthy stalemate in the conflict, with a gradual loss of governability, is leading to increased instability and – something of particular concern to Turkey – the growing influence in Syria’s Kurdish areas of the Kurdistan Working Party, the Turkish authorities’ worst enemy going back decades. At the same time, according to public opinion polls, a significant majority of Turkey’s residents do not support the idea of an operation in Syria, but backing down now would mean losing prestige – something that strong leaders of a populist kind, like Erdogan, seek to avoid at any cost.

Russia and Turkey see the causes and consequences of the conflict in Syria quite differently, and there will be no compromise here. But, for all the importance of the Syrian crisis for the situation in the Near and Middle East and also for the global political scenario, it will not continue forever. And the leadership of both countries must now face up to the sole task of preventing the current disagreements from casting a shadow over further cooperation. The interests of Russia and Turkey will never coincide fully: The ambitions of both states with imperial traditions in the past are too great, and their spheres of direct influence intersect. However, in the new world situation, when the former confrontational order has vanished into the past, the role of regional powers is increasing, and countries on a medium scale frequently influence the course of events more than the giants do. The vigorous states that pursue an independent foreign policy (there are not so many of them) need to coordinate their actions.

The qualitative improvement of Russian-Turkish relations is one of the most gratifying results to have been achieved since the end of the cold war. Turkey is a dynamically developing country that, even after measuring its potential against its wishes (a shift toward the latter is clearly to be observed now), will remain a key player at the junction of several very important regions. It must become Moscow’s priority to maintain constructive contacts with it, despite the political situation.

* Chief editor of magazine Russia in Global Affairs. Text of report by the website of government-owned Russian newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta on 17 October

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