Turkish pragmatism at Sochi Olympics

In the old days, Turkish-Russian relations were determined by Russia’s desire to have access to the Mediterranean — involving the use of Turkey’s straits as an exit route from the Black Sea — and the struggle for influence in the Caucasus. But times have changed priorities. The main parameters of the relationship nowadays are Russian tourists traveling to the Mediterranean, energy power lines and construction contracts in Russia. The struggle for influence in the Caucasus has declined. Although Turkey to an extent still maintains its competition with Russia over Georgia and Azerbaijan, for the sake of economic relations it has removed the northern Caucasus from its list of priorities.

The construction of the Blue Stream pipeline that started in 1997 overtook Turkey’s deep interest in the northern Caucasus after backing the Chechens in the 1994-96 Chechen-Russian war. In the second Chechen-Russian war that flared up in 2000, Turkey was no longer on theside of the Chechens. The Russian-Georgian war that erupted in 2008 over southern Ossetia compelled Turkey to readjust its foreign policy in the southern Caucasus. Turkey had angered the Russians for supporting and emboldening the Georgian army alongside the United States, its NATO ally.

But by imposing restrictions allowed by the Montreux Treaty on the US naval fleet that wanted to pass to the Black Sea, Turkey was able to cool down the Russian anger. Nevertheless, Russia still made Turkey pay a price by rejecting Turkish agricultural imports on grounds of “infestation.”

The 2008 experience taught Turkey the importance of cooperation with Russia in its trans-Caucasus policy. Turkey’s dispatch of two diplomats to Sohum for a dialogue on Abkhazia, which it considers an integral part of Georgia, was an indication of this balanced policy.

We observed this balanced policy when Turkey gave the green light to Moscow for the South Stream pipeline while simultaneously working on alternatives that would reduce its dependence on Russia. On Dec. 28, 2011, Putin labeled the approval of the South Stream project “a New Year’s present” and said, “Once more, we saw that Turks are reliable partners.”

Turkey now wants to be the facilitator for a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue that arose from Armenian occupation of that land. Although Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on camera, “As much as Nagorno-Karabakh is a problem for Azerbaijan, it is also our problem.” It is known that Erdogan has offered to open the border with Armenia if Armenia evacuates two out of seven districts it occupies. No doubt, strategic relations with Russia play an important part in this flexible attitude.

Circassian diaspora out of equation

Circassian policy in the south is balanced between cooperation and conflicts of interest, while in the north it has been shaped to fully satisfy Russia. Turkey — which tried to play its old cards rapidly on many issues after the collapse of the Soviet empire, especially in the Chechen-Russia war — is now careful not to upset the Russians, even if that offends the sensibilities of the Caucasian diaspora. Assassinations of Chechens on Turkish territory remain unsolved. The latest murder, of Medet Ozlu, the honorary consul of the de facto Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, was covered up, although thesuspects were identified. The person accused of instigating the murder was released following his arrest. Erdogan, by attending the opening of  the Sochi Winter Olympics on Feb. 7, stuck to his line of keeping about 3 million Circassians in the diaspora out of the equation. He did not heed the Circassians  who were mourning the 1864 Grand Exile and who placed advertisements in newspapers saying, “Mr. Prime Minister, please don’t go to Sochi.”

4 million Russian tourists and Sochi partnership

Erdogan’s attitude was best explained with the message of “business partnership” expressed in his joint news conference in Sochi with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Erdogan expressed his satisfaction with the share given to Turkish contractors in building for the Winter Olympics: “I have observed the successful work of Turkish contractors in preparation of these facilities,” and asked for a share for Turkish contractors in the construction work involved for the 2018 World Cup to be held in Russia. Putin issued an open check to Erdogan by saying, “Of course,” and emphasized that the Sochi Winter Olympics was a joint success.

According to the text made available by the Russian Embassy in Ankara, Putin also said, “Turkey is undoubtedly our privileged partner. Last year, four million Russian tourists went to Turkey. That is an amazing number. Since the 1990s, Turkish contractors have been awarded contracts exceeding $50 billion. This is an important figure. I want to express our gratitude to Turkish contractors for their work in Sochi. All our experts were truly pleased with their performance. Turks worked professionally even in their free time to prepare for the Olympics. What we see here is our common achievement.” Turkey’s Anatolian Agency reported this last sentence as “Sochi is our joint strength.”

Although Erdogan may harshly criticize Russia as a game spoiler in Syria for blocking international intervention, he also showed that he will not sacrifice economic relations for just any cause. In their High Level Cooperation Council meeting in St. Petersburg, the two leaders tested each other’s limits. Erdogan then realized that persistence on Syria could negatively affect relations with Russia. In St. Petersburg, the leaders agreed that their volume of trade, now about $35 billion, should reach $100 billion by 2020. Also, Russia’s Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corp. is to build a nuclear power station at Akkuyu, Turkey, for $20 billion, and thus add another dimension to the energy partnership.

In a nutshell, although they are not always in the same camp on international issues, neither Turkey nor Russia is inclined to sacrifice their common economic interests.

The trip Erdogan undertook to Sochi — despite protests — is the latest indicator.