Turkey boosts partnership with Russia as relations with West wither

More Turkish-US trouble was possible because Washington had threatened sanctions against Russia.
Sunday 25/11/2018
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the completion ceremony of the TurkStream pipeline project, on November 19. (Kremlin/dpa)
Stabs at the West. Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the completion ceremony of the TurkStream pipeline project, on November 19. (Kremlin/dpa)

ISTANBUL - Russia’s grip on Turkey is growing stronger at a time when Turkey’s relations with the United States and Europe are withering.

Barely three weeks after his last visit to Turkey, Russian President Vladimir Putin returned to the Bosporus to declare that his partnership with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan was stronger than ever.

Erdogan and Putin met in Istanbul on November 19 to celebrate the completion of an important stage in the construction of a natural gas pipeline through the Black Sea that will boost Russia’s role as an energy supplier for Turkey. Both presidents garnished their speeches at the occasion with stabs at the West and praises for their own bilateral cooperation just three years after a major crisis in their relations.

“Countries’ decisions as to how to obtain natural gas in accordance with their own circumstances must be respected. Pressure, which will violate states’ sovereign rights and prevent them from serving their citizens, will benefit no one,” Erdogan said at the meeting with the Russian leader, in a thinly veiled reference to concerns in the West that NATO member Turkey is getting too close to Russia.

“We have never determined our bilateral relations with Russia according to demands or pressure from other countries,” Erdogan said to loud applause.

Putin called the new pipeline “a good example of an ability to stand up for one’s own national interests.” The Russian president said he believed the TurkStream pipeline and the first Turkish nuclear power station, which is being built by Russian companies, would become “clear symbols of the growing development of Russia and Turkey’s multifaceted partnership.”

The ceremony marked the completion of two undersea natural gas lines stretching 930km across the Black Sea from Anapa in Russia to Kiyikoy in Turkey at a depth of some 2km. The first line will be designed for the Turkish market and will meet 35% of Turkey’s natural gas consumption alone. The second is for gas supply to countries in southern and south-eastern Europe. The capacity of each line is 15.75 billion cubic metres of gas per year. The first deliveries are scheduled for the end of 2019.

Gonul Tol, director of Turkish studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said in an analysis the construction of the pipeline was a sign of “Russia’s tightening grip on Turkey at a time when Turkey-US relations remain strained.” Turkey buys more than half of its gas from Russia, Tol pointed out, adding that more Turkish-US trouble was possible because Washington had threatened sanctions against Russia over the construction of gas pipelines to Europe.

The boost for Turkey-Russian relations comes three years after the downing of a Russian warplane by Turkey’s air force at the Turkish-Syrian border sent ties into a deep crisis. Relations got back on track a year later, and Erdogan and Putin have overseen a close cooperation of their countries in economic and security matters as well as in the Syrian conflict ever since. The Turkish president hosted his Russian counterpart as well as the leaders of France and Germany at a Syria summit in Istanbul last month.

Huseyin Alptekin, an analyst at the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, an Ankara-based think-tank that often reflects government thinking, said Turkey had reasons to draw nearer to Moscow. “Today, security threats to Turkey are not coming from Russia; they are coming from the United States,” Alptekin said in an interview.

He named US support for the Peoples’ Protection Units, a Kurdish militia in Syria seen as a terrorist group by Ankara, as one example. Another one was Washington’s refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Turkish cleric accused by the Erdogan government of being behind a coup attempt in 2016 that left 250 people dead. By contrast, Russia did not support the Kurdish Democratic Union Party or the Gulen group, Alptekin added. “Given that picture, Turkey is obliged to work closer with Russia.”

Turkey’s relations with Western Europe are also hitting new stumbling blocks. Both sides agreed to improve ties after a rocky patch in recent years, but European concerns over human rights standards in Turkey, seen as interfering in internal affairs by Ankara, have caused new tensions.

A new row blew up just a day after Erdogan hosted Putin. The European Court of Human Rights ordered Turkey to free Selahattin Demirtas, a former leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) who has been in pre-trial detention since November 2016. The court, whose decisions Turkey is obliged to follow under the rules of the Council of Europe, ruled on November 20 that Demirtas’s detention “pursued the predominant ulterior purpose of stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate, which is at the very core of the concept of a democratic society.”

Sezgin Tanrikulu, an opposition lawmaker and human rights lawyer, tweeted the decision would serve as a precedent for nine other HDP members of parliament currently behind bars. Kati Piri, the Turkey rapporteur of the European Parliament, called on Turkey to release Demirtas. “His detention is of a political, not a criminal nature,” she tweeted.

But Erdogan said the decision was “not binding” for Turkey. His country would take “countermeasures and end this business,” the president said without elaborating.

Erdogan also lashed out at the United States and Europe in a speech on the same day, in which he rejected criticism over the detention of several Turkish academics accused of organising anti-government protests five years ago. “Meddling with Turkey’s affairs is still on your agenda,” Erdogan said.