ISTANBUL – On the evening of August 31, the newly built stadium in Antalya on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast will host a soccer match between the national teams of Turkey and Russia.
It is scheduled as a “friendly” match, although relations between the two countries have been far from living up to this adjective over the eight months since the downing of a Russian jet by Turkish aircraft in November last year.
However, with a reconciliation process between the two countries starting in June and gaining significant momentum through the visits of a number of Turkish cabinet members to Moscow last week and an upcoming meeting between the two countries’ presidents, there are sufficient grounds to expect this soccer game to herald the normalization of relations between Ankara and Moscow.
The thawing of ice between the two countries began in late June when Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sent a letter to his counterpart where he expressed regret over the downing of the Russian jet, extended condolences to the family of the Russian pilot who died in the incident using the apologetic expression “may they excuse us.”
Two days after this letter, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin made a phone call to Erdoğan, and said, according to the Kremlin’s website, that the letter “opened the road for overcoming the crisis in bilateral relations.”
This exchange of cordiality resulted in Putin’s lifting of the Russian ban on travel packages to Turkey, which was welcomed by both Russian holiday-makers and Turkish tourism industry alike; and visits made by three Turkish cabinet members—Deputy Prime Ministers Mehmet Şimşek and Nurettin Canikli, as well as the Minister of Economy Nihat Zeybekçi—to Moscow last week, only a few days after the failed coup attempt in Turkey, reveal that reconciliation will proceed faster than expected and economic issues will be in the forefront.
After the visit, Minister Zeybekçi said that 80% of the problems that Turkey had with Russia have been solved.
There are indeed achievements made during the talks in Moscow: charter flights will be resumed between Turkey and Russia, sanctions on food exports from Turkey to Russia will be gradually lifted, the Joint Russian-Turkish Intergovernmental Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation will be reactivated, negotiations will resume on an intergovernmental agreement on trade in services and investment and a mid-term intergovernmental programme of trade, economic, research, technical and cultural cooperation for the period between 2016 and 2019, visa restrictions will be lifted, and a joint Russian-Turkish fund will be established to finance investment projects in both countries.
The two sides have also affirmed their intention to reinstate dialogue on the proposed Turkish Stream pipeline project. In other words, business will be back to normal very soon between Turkey and Russia.
The crisis after the jet incident and the sanctions have cost both sides dearly in economic terms, yet the warming of relations through mutual gestures has created a favorable environment for Ankara and Moscow to dress their economic wounds before these get too deep and incurable. Trade figures, investment projects and tourist numbers may soon get back to normal. However, it is too early to declare the normalization of ties complete, as obstacles remain in the political realm with the two sides yet to solve their differences over the issue of civil war in Syria.
Turkey’s president Erdoğan will travel to St. Petersburg on August 9 to meet Putin, and with economic issues already on track to recovery, the main item on the agenda will be Syria. Moscow continues to back the Assad regime and its allies; while from Ankara’s point of view there can be no solution in Syria unless Assad leaves. These two positions appear to be firmly irreconcilable, however given the emerging political will to that end on both sides, a certain degree of common ground can be achieved in St. Petersburg.
After the failed coup attempt in Turkey, international pundits have been quick to declare that Turkey will drift closer to Russia and away from its allies in NATO. Putin was one of the first to condemn the attempt and declare support for Turkey’s elected government.
Media reports claimed Russian intelligence had actually warned Turkish authorities of an imminent coup although these reports were denied by the Kremlin.
In the meantime, Turks were upset by their Western allies’ rather hesitant stance in the aftermath of the coup attempt, believing that they were not standing firmly against the perpetrators. While this picture of Russia being supportive and the West not much so makes way to a renewed version of Turkey’s “shift of axis” thesis, this is at best a simplistic reading of recent developments.
One month before the coup, around the same time when Erdoğan was sending his letter to the Kremlin, there were strong messages from the government indicating the will for normalizing relations with countries that Turkey had problems with.
“Israel, Syria, Russia, Egypt,” said Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım in an interview with the Turkish press on June 17th, “we cannot have permanent enmity with these countries surrounding the Mediterranean and the Black Sea … We need to look at the big picture. There is no hostility between our peoples. It’s possible to go back to the old days and take our relations even further.”
Only a few days after this statement, a reconciliation agreement was concluded between Turkey and Israel, and the letter to Russia was well received resulting in the lifting on the ban on Russian travel to Turkey.
After a series of failures and mishaps, especially in the country’s near neighborhood, Turkey is making efforts to place its foreign policy on a more pragmatic and constructive basis, possibly bringing an end to its crises, rebuilding relations with neighbors and mutually restoring confidence with allies. This is why the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, is tirelessly playing down Western concerns and stating that Turkey’s relations with Moscow are by no means an alternative to NATO and the European Union.
The failed coup attempt, instead of pushing Turkey away from the West, as many observers outside Turkey have claimed, can actually have the effect of reinforcing the reconciliation efforts and pragmatic drive in Turkish foreign policy. For one thing, the failed coup attempt led to expressions of support for and solidarity with the Turkish people and the country’s democratically elected government from other nations.
At the same time, it has also resulted in a strong common stance shared by all political parties in the parliament that has resonated among all elements of the society. In other words, there exists now, in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt, both a significant degree of solidarity with the Turks from the outside world and an unprecedented level of unity within what is in fact a highly polarized society.
This positive environment, if (and this is a big and vital ‘if’) sustained and further nurtured through right policies strengthening democratic institutions and empowering rule of law, can be the energy behind the reconciliation drive in Turkey’s foreign policy.
During the soccer match between Turkey and Russia in Antalya, which happens to be a major destination for Russian tourists and has also a remarkable number of Russian permanent residents, the stands will be crowded by Turkish and Russian fans.
If the Erdoğan-Putin meeting on August 9 goes well, we might also see the two leaders attending the game together. Turkey and Russia made serious progress in restoring their economic ties, and despite all the difficulties and differences, the meeting in St. Petersburg can produce some form of a common ground over Syria as well. The question for Ankara would be then whether the détente with Russia could be replicated in other problematic areas of foreign policy too.
Dr. Altay Atlı is a scholar and freelance writer based in Istanbul.