After St. Petersburg, what’s next for Turkish-Russian relations?

While the meeting between Turkish President Recep Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Aug 9 produced concrete results in restoring economic ties, the two countries remained divided on the question of Syria. However, they agreed to regularly meet and discuss their respective positions on Syria to reach compromise and solutions acceptable for both sides. The first such meeting is already underway in Moscow.

ISTANBUL – More than eight months after the Russian jet downing incident, it seems clear now that the consequent standoff between Turkey and Russia has benefited no one.

Russian President Putin shakes hands with Turkish President Erdogan during news conference following their meeting in St. Petersburg

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a news conference following their meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, August 9, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

In fact economic sanctions have cost both sides dearly, albeit in an asymmetric way, and the political impasse has not only undermined the bilateral relationship, but also served to further complicate the already spiraling situation in Syria.

This is why Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, said in an interview before this week’s meeting in St. Petersburg between Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin, that by talking to each other, the two presidents were doing the right thing as “efforts to rebuild dialogue and cooperation will be beneficial not only for Turkey and Russia but also to the world politics.”

While it is too early to tell to what extent the St. Petersburg summit will live up to Gorbachev’s expectations, particularly as far as world politics is concerned, one can safely assert that the event marked an important step forward in the normalization between the two countries that has started in June through mutual gestures, letters, phone calls and apologies.

This week, Erdoğan and Putin’s meeting in St. Petersburg showed that while there is consensus on the need to return economic and trade relations back to pre-crisis levels, political progress, especially with respect to regional issues, will be gradual, arduous, and beset with issues that defy simple solutions.

In terms of restoring economic ties, the St. Petersburg summit has produced, as expected, a number of concrete results. The two key energy projects are back on track: The 20-billion-dollar Akkuyu nuclear plant constructed by the Russian company Atomstroyexport near Mersin on Turkey’s eastern Mediterranean coast was declared “strategic investment” by the Turkish government, which means that the Russian company will enjoy a number of tax breaks, other exemptions and subsidies. The Turkish Stream pipeline project, which will carry Russian gas to Turkey, is also to go ahead and the two sides have agreed to finance the project on an equal basis.

In the meantime, as Putin and Erdoğan have announced, there will be a phased lifting of sanctions: restrictions on Turkish companies working in Russia will be gradually lifted, charter flights to Turkey will resume operation, limitations on trade of foodstuff and agricultural products will be eliminated and a joint investment fund will be established.

It appears that both sides are satisfied with these arrangements in the economic field. Russian and Turkish traders in Istanbul’s Laleli district, heart of the informal commerce between the two countries, joyfully claim that while 2016 is a lost year, things will be much better in 2017; tourism agencies in both Russia and Turkey are happy about being back in business; influential Turkish construction companies are looking forward to returning to their projects that were taken on hold. The crisis was a lose-lose situation for both sides; normalization will bring back the win-win state.

In the political realm, however, there is a different picture. Putin’s support for Turkey’s elected government in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt of July 15, which stood in stark contrast with what was perceived as the Western leaders’ lack of empathy, is appreciated and valued by Turks, and it is widely regarded, together with the growing economic ties between the two countries, as a factor pulling Turkey and Russia closer together.

With respect to regional issues, and particularly to the ongoing civil war in Syria, positions of the two sides are hardly reconcilable. While nobody expected a simple and straight solution to emerge from St. Petersburg, everybody wondered what in terms of concrete proposal would emerge from the Erdoğan-Putin meeting.

In an interview with the Russian news agency Tass, Erdoğan said “Russia is fundamentally the key and most important player in establishing peace in Syria. I believe it is necessary to solve this crisis with the help of mutual action by Russia and Turkey.”

These words indicated, on Turkey’s behalf, a willingness to cooperate with Russia in Syria. What came out from Erdoğan’s meeting Putting was the decision to “establish a joint military, intelligence and diplomacy mechanism” meaning that the two sides are to have special delegations with representatives from armed forces, diplomacy and intelligence services that will regularly meet and discuss the developments and their respective positions in Syria in order to reach compromise and solutions that would be acceptable for both sides. At the time of writing, the first of these meetings was already underway in Moscow.

Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who was present during the St. Petersburg meetings, stated that the two governments agreed on introducing a ceasefire, providing humanitarian aid and finding a political solution. In other words, on a subject where they have long used to agree to disagree, Turkey and Russia have taken now one step forward and can agree on what needs to be achieved. The most difficult part, however, remains what is not agreed: how to achieve what needs to be achieved.

Russia would certainly love to have Turkey on board in Syria, and Turkey also makes the case for a participatory solution, as mentioned by Erdoğan in his interview with Tass: “If necessary, we’ll also involve Iran in the effort. We can invite Qatar, Saudi Arabia and America. In this regard, we can form a wide circle of participants.”

Such kinds of coalitions and alliances are likely to have an impact, but they also require a certain level of confidence among the participants. The dialogue mechanism that Russia and Turkey have launched in St. Petersburg aims to re-build and nourish precisely this kind of confidence.

In the following months, while economic ties between Turkey and Russia continue to gain steam toward pre-crisis levels, one can expect more meetings to be held between Turks and Russians through the military-diplomacy-intelligence mechanism brought to life in St. Petersburg, and Erdoğan is likely to meet with Putin more often as well.

Their job will be difficult as the differences between Turkey and Russia over Syria are profound; however, minimizing these differences through well designed mechanisms is perfectly possible, especially as long as the currently positive mood between the two sides prevails.

Dr. Altay Atlı is a research associate at the Asian studies program of Istanbul Policy Center.

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