Russian-Turkish relations and the conflicted West
The Turkish-Russian rapprochement after the downing of the Russian jet following its violation of Turkish airspace signals an important turning point in bilateral relations between the two countries. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s trip to St. Petersburg and the daylong meeting between the respective delegations and leaders demonstrated willingness on both sides to fix the shattered relations. Up until the jet incident, the two countries had been experiencing one of their finest periods in bilateral relations, and things look set to return to form after the meeting in St. Petersburg, which has ended the fraught interval between Nov. 24 and Aug. 10. Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in their press conference expressed their intention to jump-start relations and even surpass the pre-crisis levels of economic interaction and trade as ministers from each delegation with their portfolios showed determination resolve all issues as soon as possible.
This meeting raised a lot of questions in Western capitals concerning its nature. It was of course a significant event given the nature of relations between the two countries for the last nine months. It was also important because it was the first time that Erdoğan left the country after last month’s coup attempt. However, there were a lot of analysts who brought up previous arguments about the orientation of Turkey’s foreign policy. For the last 15 years, in each and every one of Turkey’s foreign policy openings, it has become commonplace for certain experts to interpret them as a turning away from the West or an ideological reorientation. Each time the question of who lost Turkey is the most prevalent.
The Russia opening and rapprochement is no exception. The meeting was interpreted as a sign of Turkey’s distancing itself from the West and moving toward Russia instead. There were even those who question Turkey’s NATO membership, and in most of these pieces, even the criticism from the Turkish public and political leaders toward Western governments about their attitudes about the coup attempt was used to strengthen these arguments.
In reality, the rapprochement between Russia and Turkey is just an attempt to normalize relations. The crisis hurt both countries economically and socially in the last few months and both sides are aware of the significant strategic challenges and divergences they face, especially regarding the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine. Both countries have made major efforts for several years now to contain disagreements and prevent them from harming their economic and diplomatic relations. With normalization between Turkey and Russia in progress, we can expect an increase in the volume of trade and number of tourists from both countries. Also, energy cooperation and new routes for Russian gas and oil will be discussed and the building of a nuclear power plant in Turkey will continue in the coming years. The economic sector and public on both sides were relieved by the improvement of relations. Erdoğan and Putin mostly debated the question of Syria behind closed doors, however, and it was continued in private by their deputies.
Concerning the question about the orientation of Turkish foreign policy, it should be understood by now that as a member of NATO and an EU candidate country, Turkey will continue its alliance relations with the Western world while conducting attempts at diversification in its foreign policy. However, it is also important to understand that the Western world revealed to Turkey a distinct unreliability both during and after Turkish democracy came under threat from putschists on July 15. The lack of solidarity from its allies disappointed policy makers and angered the Turkish public, who have shown a strong reaction and, above all, incredulity toward the West even after a month since the coup attempt, as expressions of sympathy and solidarity from Western governments and media remain tellingly lacking.
The dubious public diplomacy shown by Western governments that have failed to convey positive messages of support for Turkey or make visits may have negative effects on Turkish foreign policy. However, whatever the outcome, it will not be a result of reorientation of Turkish foreign policy, but rather a result form abandonment by Western countries of one of its key allies at a critical time in its history. Yet it is not too late, and this impact can be limited with better and more empathetic policies from Western countries.
This article was first published in Daily Sabah on August 13, 2016.