Turkey and Russia try to find common ground

Friday 19/06/2015
Energy-driven ties

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.