12:27 GMT18 September 2020
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    On Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is due to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg with aim - as the Turkish leader himself puts it - "to open a new page" in bilateral relations.

    MOSCOW (Sputnik) — The talks between the two leaders are to end a period of frosty climate in bilateral ties after Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet near the Syrian border last November and to restore trade and economic relations, severed by trade sanctions that Moscow imposed on Ankara in retaliation for shooting the plane. Syria conflict is also expected to be high on the agenda.

    The unprecedented chill in relations between the previously close partners had lasted for seven months, the thaw, which came unexpected to many observers, started six weeks ago. In late June, Erdogan wrote a letter to Putin in which he apologized for the downing of the jet and extended his condolences to the family of the pilot killed in the incident.

    Since then Moscow saw a range of visiting high-ranking Turkish officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek, who came to discuss the revival of trade and tourism, overall normalization of relation in attempts to restore the pre-crisis levels and to pave the way for the tete-a-tete meeting of the Russian and Turkish leaders.

    Starting point for the future

    The first encounter between the presidents since the November incident is unlikely to bring imminent results, but will lay a basis for further improvements in many spheres, experts told Sputnik.

    "The best outcome of the forthcoming meeting of President Putin and President Erdogan will be a restart for rebuilding of the mutual trust between the political leadership and elites of both countries on a more constructive and positive agenda once again," Kerim Has, a researcher at the International Strategic Research organization’s Center for Eurasian Studies and an expert on Turkish-Russian relations, said.

    Bulent Aliriza, Director of the CSIS Turkey Project, noted that while the importance of the symbolism of a face to face meeting "cannot be underestimated", whether this meeting would be historic largely depends on contents of bilateral discussions and "their ability to minimize differences, particularly over Syria."

    Since the start of Syrian civil war Turkish leadership had been often criticized for turning a blind eye on smuggling of arms to Islamic State (IS) fighters (banned in Russia) in Syria and illicit oil trade through vast Turkish-Syrian border as well as for allowing individuals from outside the region to enter its territory and join IS in Syria.

    Lately Ankara, that faced numerous terror attacks by IS fighters, has hardened its position towards terrorists. On 1 July, 2016, at the meeting in Russian resort city of Sochi, Turkish and Russian foreign ministers said that the two countries would "coordinate" their policies over Syria, although two weeks later Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that Syrian president Bashar Assad must leaver office before any change in Turkey’s stance regarding Syria.

    The Syrian issue will be the core issue for Tuesday’s negotiations between Erdogan and Putin, Ismail Togrul, an associate professor of the Faculty of International Relations at the TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara, told Sputnik.

    "We won't see any major breakthrough at tomorrow’s negotiations [on Syria], but serious foundation for the solution of this problem is to be laid," the expert said on Monday.

    Any major breakthrough on Syrian issue is quite possible some time later, not during the forthcoming meeting, Kerim Has said, adding that "it is a ‘must’ for both Ankara and Moscow to cooperate more broadly on the Syrian resolution, and Ankara is aware of this."

    Tamas Csiki, an expert on security and defense policy at the Center for Strategic and Defense Studies in Hungary, mentioned that meeting on Tuesday may bring some economic and geopolitical results, but effectiveness of the cooperation in fighting terrorism in the long run largely depends on how the parties will act over Assad's future.

    "Pragmatic cooperation, with primarily economic and geopolitical benefits can be expected from the meeting, with developing cooperation on countering Islamist extremism and terrorism, while mid- to long-term cooperation would depend on the parties’ position regarding the Assad regime, which is currently contradictory," the Hungarian expert assumed.

    Apart from Syria issue, the sides are to discuss wide range of economy topics, including tourism, — the area where experts expect the most concrete achievements.

    Following the suspension of all charter flights to Turkey amid crisis in bilateral relations, Turkey, once a top destination for millions of Russians, saw Russian arrivals down 93 percent in June compared to the same period in 2015.

    "Definitely, the meeting can have short-term effects and positive leverage even in 2016, if travel and visa procedures are normalized, having a positive effect on tourism and the flow of workforce," Tamas Csiki suggested.

    Bilateral trade during the seven-months freeze also was hit hard with a heavy toll on agriculture and construction, as Russia reacted with an import ban on Turkish foods, as well as with putting on ice the construction of the Turkish Stream, gas pipeline across the Black Sea, and the Akkuyu nuclear power plant.

    Now Putin and Erdogan will personally discuss the future of the two energy projects.

    "The more substantial consequence of the meeting could be returning to the realization of the Turkish stream pipeline project for which Russia has already invested substantial funds and the construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant in Turkey, a major energy investment in the country," the Hungarian expert said while Kerim Has doubted that the negotiations would cover all four lines, "yet the project has a future with 2 lines at most from the Turkish perspective."

    Initially, the Russian "Gazprom" planned to build four lines of the Turkish Stream with total capacity of 63 billion cubic meters of gas per year. The capacity of each line was expected to reach 15.75 billion cubic meters per year. Later, it was decided to build fewer lines.

    Motives for 180-degree turn

    The Russian-Turkish rapprochement process came on the backdrop of Ankara's deteriorating relations with the West. In late spring, the European Union postponed the accession talks with Ankara and the visa-free regime, promised to Turks in March for country's commitment to help Brussels with migrants.

    After the failed military coup on July 15 things got even worse; the EU leaders daily expressed concerns about the mass detentions of Turks allegedly involved in the coup attempt and worries regarding Erdogan's pledge to reinstate death penalty. Turkish president, in his turn, almost daily hit back, slamming the EU for its lack of support for his government during the coup and criticizing the United States for unwillingness to extradite US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, accused in Ankara of being a coup leader.

    In contrast, Vladimir Putin gave his support to Turkey over the July 15 coup attempt and said he stood by the elected government, offering his condolences to the victims of armed coup attempt.

    "Sure that Turkish leadership’s reconciliatory move towards Russia is partly motivated by the recently worsening relations of Turkey with the West," Kerim Has admitted.

    "Turkey had in fact made the first move towards rapprochement before the coup attempt through a letter from President Erdogan to President Putin at the end of June in which he expressed regret for the November incident. However, it seems clear that the tensions with the United States and other western countries since July 15 have reinforced Ankara’s interest in repairing the relationship with Moscow," Bulent Aliriza agreed.

    Both countries have had geopolitical turbulence in the past years with Russia being engaged in conflict with the West over Ukraine and future of the Syrian regime and Turkey's relations with the EU being strained over the refugee crisis while also having differences over the Syrian future with regional powers, Tamas Csiki reminded.

    "The relative isolation of the two powers became complementary after shooting down the Russian aircraft and temporarily narrowing Turkish room for strategic maneuvering even more. After consolidating his power following the coup attempt of July 15, President Erdogan needs both to break out of partial isolation and to show a successful step in foreign policy, a sign of control and strength," the Hungarian experts said.

    Ismail Togrul, on the contrary, said that prior motivation for the improvement of relations with Russia lies in the recent change of the government and thus the change in approaches towards Russia and nor somehow linked with Ankara's deteriorated relations with the West.

    "I don't think that that Turkey is improving its relations with Russia in opposition to the US or the EU. Turkey enjoys serious friendly relations with the US, though currently there is a crisis. Turkey is a NATO member and a candidate for the EU membership. It is impossible to cut off everything at once and go to the other side. Crises happen, they are to be solved," the expert concluded.

    Another motivation that accelerated the pace of the normalization process steps towards Russia, in experts opinions, lies in economic sphere with sanctions damaging both sides though to different extents.

    "Turkish economy and tourism sector suffered enough (more than $10 billion) in the first half of 2016 that encouraged Ankara to move with a diplomatic maneuver professionally shaped in the letter," the researcher at the International Strategic Research organization said.

    He added that the Russian side also showed "cautious but highly optimistic and cardinally different attitude with respect to Ankara after a small letter move" which was motivated by damages of sanctions for Russian economy as well as a need for cooperation with Turkey on the Syrian resolution. "So it can be said that the mutual needs (though the sizes differ) played a key role in rapprochement process for both sides," Kerim Has concluded.

    From the Russian point of view, according to Tamas Csiki, restoring normal cooperation with Turkey has long-term importance primarily for economic reasons with cooperation on regional security issues – mainly countering Islamist extremism and terrorism – being "more ad hoc in nature, depending on other issues of interest, like Syria, even though this is a shared challenge".

    Prior to Purin-Erdogan meeting, Moscow and Ankara took some practical steps to pave the way for restoring the economic level seen before November 24.

    On July 22, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree on the restoring of the Russian-Turkish economic cooperation commission's work, saying that Moscow was bringing back the talks with Turkey regarding a program of bilateral cooperation until 2020.

    Consultations on the agricultural ban have so far been successful with Turkish Agriculture Minister Faruk Celik calling the first round of talks on the issue "mostly positive even if not all existing problems could be solved immediately".

    The negotiations on fully resuming the charter flights to Turkey are also underway.

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.


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