Turkey and Russia try to find common ground
ISTANBUL - Long-time rivals Turkey and Russia are putting aside differences concerning the Syrian conflict and other issues to concentrate on a field in which both countries can expect huge economic and political benefits: energy cooperation.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the June 13th opening ceremony of the European Games in Azerbaijan.
Posing for photographers before going into 90 minutes of talks with the Russian leader, Erdogan said that no EU head of state was attending the opening ceremony of the games, in a reference to a boycott by European leaders protesting Azerbaijan’s human rights record. Putin responded that Turkey, as an EU candidate country, represented “the whole of the European Union”.
The remark was more than a jab by a man who had just been snubbed by Group of Seven leaders as they met in Germany without him earlier in June. Putin’s statement underlined the basic Russian assumption that Turkey is a European power Moscow can do business with. Among other things, Erdogan’s Turkey has refused to follow EU sanctions against Russia over the conflict in Ukraine. Instead, Turkey has been seeking to boost its exports to Russia.
Nowhere is the Turkish-Russian convergence of interests larger than in the energy field. Russia is a major supplier of natural gas and oil for Turkey and will build Turkey’s first nuclear reactor for an estimated $20 billion.
The focus of talks between Ankara and Moscow is Turkish Stream, a natural gas pipeline project proposed by Putin during a visit to Turkey in December 2014. The plan includes construction of a 1,100-kilometre pipeline from Russia through the Black Sea to the European part of Turkey, from where gas would be pumped to the rest of Europe.
Turkish Stream would enable Russia to transit gas to the European market without having to use Ukraine, where the government has been fighting pro-Russian rebels. Turkey would get transit revenues, a share of the gas and a boost for its ambition to become an international energy hub. Russia wants the pipeline to be ready by the end of 2016.
Kamer Kasim, an expert on Russia at the International Strategic Research Organisation (USAK) think-tank in Ankara, said there was a “positive atmosphere” and “synergy” between the two countries.
Relations between Turkey and Russia, heirs to former empires competing for superiority in the Black Sea and Caucasus region, are far from problem-free. In April, Erdogan criticised Putin for attending the official commemoration of the Armenian genocide, a characterisation Turkey denies, in the Armenian capital, Yerevan. There is also concern in Ankara about the Crimean Tartars, an ethnic group with links to Turkey that lives on in Crimea, annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014.
Moscow and Ankara also differ on Syria, where Russia is backing President Bashar Assad and Turkey champions the opposition. But those differences have had no effect on good bilateral relations, Kasim said. “Syria is a marginal issue in Turkish-Russian relations,” he said.
Cooperation in energy matters is what keeps Turkish-Russian ties going. Turkey gets about 60% of its natural gas and 10% of oil imports from Russia. Situated between Europe and Asia, Turkey is well-suited for Russia’s efforts to export oil and gas to world markets by avoiding hostile countries such as Ukraine. Blue Stream, an existing gas pipeline through the Black Sea, has been transporting gas from Russia to Turkey since 2005.
Turkish Stream would have enough capacity to pump 63 billion cubic metres of natural gas a year, of which about 16 would be for Turkey while the rest would be sent on to Greece and the rest of Europe. Putin announced the project in Ankara last December after a plan for a pipeline to EU member Bulgaria, called South Stream, fell through because of differences between Russia and the European Union.
Turkey is also involved in the construction of a gas pipeline from the Caspian Sea to the European market, scheduled to start operating in 2019.
Kasim said Russia was pressing for an agreement with Turkey on Turkish Stream by early July. Putin and Erdogan talked about the issue in Baku but did not make any decisions, he added.