Turkey Woos Russia As EU Hopes Dim


The National
August 12. 2009 12:25AM

ISTANBUL // As the EU shows little interest in taking Turkey on board
as a new member in the near future, Russia has emerged as a powerful
new partner for Ankara, providing energy and trade deals and sending
a growing number of holidaymakers to Turkey’s sunny coasts.

The ever closer relations between Ankara and Moscow is a sign of
weakened ties between Turkey and the EU, Nihat Ali Ozcan, an analyst
at the Economic Policy Research Foundation, or Tepav, an Ankara-based
think tank, said yesterday.

"If things were better with the EU, Turkey would be part of the
European approach. But because it is outside that approach, it plays
more locally."

Nowhere is that trend more visible than in energy policy. Turkey is
eager to become a major player in international energy matters and
wants to make full use of its unique geostrategic position as a country
between East and West. "Turkey is pursuing its own interests, it is
more independent" than it would be as an EU member, Mr Ozcan said.

"Europeans need to really understand what’s going on in Turkey,
how close it has gotten to Russia as opposed to Europe and the US,"
Zeyno Baran, an energy expert at the US-based Hudson Institute,
told EUobserver.com, an online publication dealing with EU affairs.

During a visit to Ankara last week, Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime
minister, signed a protocol with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip
Erdogan, paving the way for a multibillion dollar gas pipeline from
Russia through the Black Sea to the Balkans.

The agreement on the South Stream pipeline, which would provide Moscow
with a new pathway to deliver gas to Europe, came less than a month
after Turkey and several European partners launched the rival Nabucco
project, which is backed by the EU and designed to lessen European
dependency on Russian gas imports.

Ankara started EU membership talks in late 2005, but negotiations have
proceeded slowly. Turkish officials have repeatedly voiced frustration
about the hostile position taken by high-ranking EU politicians such
as the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who has openly rejected
the Turkish application in spite of the ongoing negotiation process.

The attitude of Mr Sarkozy and other sceptics in the EU has made it
easier for Russia to court Turkey, Mr Ozcan said.

Although the two countries are heirs of rival empires and stood on
opposing sides during the Cold War, relations between Turkey and
Russia have improved significantly in recent years.

They signed 20 different agreements during Mr Putin’s visit. Russia
is also interested in building Turkey’s first nuclear power
plant. According to official figures, trade between the two countries
reached a volume of US$40 billion (Dh147bn) last year. Russia has
become Turkey’s biggest single trading partner, while Turkey is
Russia’s fifth biggest, Mr Erdogan said.

Putting their relations on a new level, Ankara and Moscow agreed
on regular yearly meetings on the prime ministerial level. Other
government ministers from the two countries will meet twice or three
times a year.

Meanwhile, Russian tourists have been flocking to Turkey’s
coasts. "Olga has overtaken Helga," a Turkish newspaper commented
recently, when new official figures indicated that the number of
Russian tourists in the southern coastal city of Antalya had surpassed
that of German holidaymakers for the first time.

Germans have traditionally been the strongest national group among
tourists in Turkey, numbering 4.4 million visitors last year. But the
Russians are catching up fast. Almost three million Russians came to
Turkey last year, and Russian businessmen have invested billions of
dollars in hotels on the Turkish south coast. In an acknowledgement
of the growing number of Russian guests, the buildings of one hotel
look like the Kremlin in Moscow.

Turkey is sending a deliberate message with its new Russian
partnership, Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister, told journalists
after Mr Putin’s visit.

"This is what we want to tell the world: Yes, we have an EU
orientation, and no one should have doubts regarding our Nato
membership, but [Turkey] conducts comprehensive policies with all
global and neighbouring players in accordance with its geographical
region," the minister said.

>From time to time, critics may argue that Turkey is turning away
from the West, while at other times there may be doubts that Turkey
is cutting its ties to the East, Mr Davutoglu added. "We have to
overcome those momentary and temporary ways to look at things."

For Turkey, Russia plays a part in some of its most pressing foreign
policy issues. As a close partner of the Greek part of Cyprus, Moscow
could help to bring about a solution for the divided Mediterranean
island, which would in turn improve Ankara’s EU prospects.

Russia is also an important player in the ongoing dispute between
Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorny-Karabakh, a problem
that has prevented progress in efforts by Turkey to improve ties
with Armenia.

"Turkey is not an EU member country, nor should it be expected
to become one soon," Cagri Erhan, a political scientist at Ankara
University, wrote in the Turkiye newspaper. "There is no rational
reason why Turkey, as a country that is not an EU member yet, should
synchronise its foreign policy with Brussels."

Mr Ozcan of Tepav said this trend was likely to continue, as there was
no sign of a turnaround in Turkish-EU affairs, let alone of a quick
Turkish accession to the EU. Unlike Europeans, who are perceived by
many Turks as endlessly lecturing their country about human rights
and other issues, Russians "do not treat Turkey condescendingly",
Mr Ozcan said.

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