Erdogan giving one of his speeches with his distinctively assertive style. Photo: World Economic Forum on flickr.Economic cooperation between Turkey and Russia has increased steadily in the last couple of years and this could be read as the dawn of a new alliance. Last December, the two governments met in Turkey and signed eleven agreements including an agreement concerning the future of nuclear power plants that are going to be built in Turkey, and investments by companies from both countries in their counterparts’. As Turkey is a major tourist destination for many Russians and a solid market for Russian fossil energy, the level of interconnection between the two nations is higher than ever, even surpassing the times of alliance in the interwar period.
The idea of a possible new alliance seemed even more plausible when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeated an old joke between him and Vladimir Putin that Turkey should be accepted to Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, but in a more serious manner: Turkey’s inclusion to the SCO as a full member was significant. The SCO is an organisation consisting of China, Russia, and four other central Asian countries. India, Iran and Pakistan are among the observer states. Erdogan also voiced his disappointment over the slow pace of the European Union membership process and how much more the SCO countries and Turkey had in common.
This started a hotheaded debate in the foreign affairs services of Turkish media as to whether Erdogan mentioned the SCO as an alternative to the EU or not. Evidently, Turkey’s EU membership process was a stalemate at the time, as for almost two years no steps had been taken for integration. Most of the Turkish foreign affairs experts have read Erdogan’s proposition as a gambit for the EU, expressing his frustration. However, some commentators contested this interpretation.
Soon after his comments concerning the SCO, in his visit to Prague on 4th of February, Erdogan repeated his criticism on the slow-speed of Turkey’s EU integration, putting blame on the hesitancy of the EU. Yet he also underlined that there is no change in the aims of Turkish government to join the EU. Sami Kohen, senior columnist in Turkish daily Milliyet, read Erdogan’s words on the SCO as a way of pressuring the EU to restart the integration process, rather than a gambit. Similarly, Cengiz Candar, senior columnist in daily Radikal offered a similar view. Both columnists also offered views on why a very close relationship with the SCO might be problematic for Turkey in terms of civil and political rights and democratisation. Candar went further ahead and noted that the problems of islamophobia and democratisation may create even more problems between some of the SCO countries than the EU. Another critical point raised by Kohen was how Turkey’s possible inclusion in the SCO would affect its NATO membership.
Vladimir Putin at the World Economic Forum Meeting in Davos. Photo: World Economic Forum on flickr.
Further complications emerged between two countries when the Russian government was vocally unhappy about Turkey’s request for Patriot missile systems from NATO and it considered the installation of these systems as a threat of direct involvement in the conflict in Syria by Turkey. The NATO officials repeatedly spoke over the matter as the Patriot missiles are for the defense of Turkey from possible missile attacks from Syria. The disagreements between Turkey and Russia are not only on the Patriot systems but also on future of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
Relations between Turkey and Syria quickly deteriorated after al-Assad, once a close friend of Erdogan, rejected to loosen its grip on the Syrian people. Soon after demonstrations escalated into full-fledged conflict, Turkey opened it borders to Syrian refugees and meetings of the rebels. As the civil war waged on, the burden on Turkey increased in terms of both money and human life. Apart from the increasing cost of maintaining the refugee camps, several Turkish citizens lost their lives due to cross-border mortar fire. Public uproar in Turkey was directed towards the policies of the foreign affairs minister Ahmet Davutoglu and the Turkish government tried to push NATO to increase its level of involvement in the conflict. However, Davutoglu was unable to get the results he desired, partly to the blame of Russia which staunchly supporting al-Assad. Disagreement over the Syrian conflict was also one of the issues raised in Putin’s visit to Turkey: Both parties accepted their disagreement and continued economic cooperation.
As seen in the Syrian conflict, Turkey still has close political ties to the West rather than Russia. Turkey is one of the major allies of the US, and the Obama government has not put any serious criticism to the policies of the Turkish government.
For Turkey, a possible alliance with Russia may not come true politically and be only at the economic level. The waltzers of Turkey and Russia seem to create new possibilities for Eurasia, but there is still room for the West between the vacillating couple, and the sometime turbulence of the economic and political relationship of the two states does not make the creation of a solid axis likely.