Eurasian vector in Russian-Turkish relations

With increased violence and instability in the Middle East in the aftermath of the Arab Spring Turkish foreign policy has been a hot topic in the international media and forums. In the last two years Turkey’s role in regional politics has been increasingly scrutinized in association with activity of yet another rising power. Both Russia and Turkey, whose elites are sharing so many similarities in worldview and approaches to the outside world, act united in their resolution to put their bilateral relations on strategically coherent and rigid foundation.

Conditions for deeper cooperation are right as never before. Both powers are enjoying ambivalent relations with Western partners. Besides, Turkey and Russian, since the end of Cold war, have been trying to diversify their relations and move away from cumbersome dependence on Europe. Against this background the concept of Eurasianism has been long viewed as a long-sough ideational platform that can further cement Russian-Turkish ties and create effective drive for civilizational alliance that would resist Western pressure.

After the end of bipolar global confrontation in the early 1990s Turkey and Russia discovered in each other perspective partners in many areas, especially trade, tourism, construction and energy projects. But it is only in the late 2000s with establishment of the High-Level Cooperation Council in May 2010 Ankara and Moscow could finally overcome residual mistrust and started approaching each other in more strategic issues expanding their experience on Eurasian political space.

Statements by Turkish and Russian officials may serve as a prove that both sides consider expanding bilateral ties into multilateral cooperation focused on Eurasian integration projects. In November 2013, during the bilateral High-Leven Cooperation Council meeting Turkish Prime-Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed[1] an idea of Turkey entering the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and free trade agreements with the Eurasian countries as a way to rebalance unsuccessful membership talks with EU. Signals were later repeatedly sent even after the S-24 jet crisis. In August 2017, after having gain no progress over renewals of terms with the European Customs Union Turkish officials once again pointed[2] at possibility of Turkey seeking alternatives in Eurasian integration projects like the Eurasian Customs Union that unites markets of Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan.

Even though, one may speculate that many statements made by Turkish officials in their essence remain declaration, there are instances where Turkish government undertake practical steps in boosting closer economic ties with Eurasian countries. Since 2008 Turkey has been implementing[3] a number of projects, mainly infrastructural like Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway[4], that aim to prepare integration of Turkish economy in trade projects with China and Central Asian republics within the framework of One Belt One Road Initiative. Meanwhile Moscow tends to make statements that both criticize Western political dominance[5] while singling out Turkey as a non-Western power that would be suitable for cooperation and participation in allegedly Russian-led initiatives[6].

Trend to push bilateral relations into more ideologically refined, Eurasianist framework may have historical rationale. Both Turkey and Russia share experience of imperial past and related longing for a glorious old times. After the collapse of their perspective imperial polities, political process of Russia and Turkey has been defined by efforts of national elites to modernize a nation and carry out reforms that would enable them to compete with European and later Western powers on equal terms. Catch-up modernization projects, though with different trajectories, in Russia and Turkey may have contributed to convergence between Moscow and Ankara during the 20th century, even despite the fierce ideological confrontation.

Turkey and Soviet Union in the 1920s were considering each other perfect partners to overcome dangerous isolation of their newly established political regimes by European power and USA. Rapallo[7] and Sevres[8] syndrome played later a decisive role in attempts of Ankara to seek cooperation and solidarity of Moscow when its own ties with America soured. With waning hostility of the Cold war, Turkey and Soviet Union managed to forge a very sophisticated goods-for-gas agreement in 1984 marking a firm beginning of deeper economic cooperation[9].

But it is not only common historical legacy and similar path of modernization, but also common challenges of today that push Turkey and Russia towards each other. The geopolitical shifts of the post-Cold war order put tremendous pressure on security and foreign policy of both powers. With stabilization of national economies in Russia and Turkey in later 1990s both endeavored to expand their footprint in their close geographical neighbourhood, in regions where historical and cultural legacy would facilitate their penetration. Activism of the 2000s of these new rising powers made some political circles believe that old world is waning under the rising influence of new, Eurasian powers like Russia, Turkey, China and others.

A further force that brought Turkey and Russia together was expansion of democratic freedoms in both countries after 1990s, decline of the democratization efforts and eventual drift toward authoritarianism in the 2010s. Today, political regimes in Turkey[10] and Russia[11] can be described as hybrid regimes with competitive authoritarian features with ostensibly functioning democratic institutions with ruling party or leaders exerting pressure on opposition and control via informal channels but without sliding into an outright authoritarianism that would be neither internationally acceptable nor productive in conditions where national economies depend on the outside world.

Problems with democratic process, rule of law, human rights and freedoms has been long drawing criticism from Europe and United States. Underlying logic behind Western attempts to anchor democratic rule in Turkey and Russia may be expressed by desire to see more predictable, cooperative and ideologically friendly regimes that would further contribute to promotion of these norms and values in their adjacent regions: Middle East, Central Asia, Caucasus, Eastern Europe. On the other hand, Western attempts to secure democratic achievements of the previous years and to support civil society are regarded by ruling political elites today as direct intrusion in domestic affairs[12], yet another foreign policy challenge that unites Turkey and Russia.

Within these conditions, circles led in Russia by Alexander Dugin[13] and by Doğu Perinçek[14] in Turkey while being bestowed by benevolence of the rulers eager to talk about a common idea that would unite Russian and Turkish activism for the sake of their better and firmer resistance to the Western attempts to subdue these nations. Roots of the Eurasian ideology go back to the early 20th century when Russian intellectuals tried to redefine roots of state crisis of the Russian Empire and to assess results of the Bolshevik revolution that gave rise to the new geopolitical colossus, Soviet Union. Eurasianists came to a conclusion that Russia represents not a nation, but a civilization that unites all local nations in the vast territories of Eurasia. In its essence this ideology was a reformulated tradition of Russian Slavic nationalism.

Today (Neo)-Eurasianism tends to describe efforts of states to develop an indigenous framework of cooperation, usually as an alternative to the Western capitalist dominance. Russian and Turkish official circles tend to pay credit Eurasianism as a practical ideological framework for mutual cooperation for several crucial reasons. First of all, Eurasianists by saying that all version of national democracies have right to existence[15], in essence, emphasize idea of sovereignty and vehemently reject interference into domestic affairs. Besides, Eurasianists’ focus on existing alternatives to the Western values and norms of international conduct add legitimacy to Russian and Turkish criticism of Western partners and on a rhetorical level improve their negotiating positions in talks over terms of dialogue with the West.

But looking into real world manifestation of the Eurasianist narrative reveals serious gaps. Tendency to ascribe Eurasianism a driving force behind rapprochement seems to be a myth or alternatively doesn’t seem to be a reliable driving force of bilateral ties that are loaded with hidden competition[16] in the Central Asia, Black Sea, Caucasus and Syria. Moreover, advocates of Eurasianism in Turkey and Russia understand different things under this term[17]: for Russian Eurasianists that means ideology that today is called to legitimize Russian presence in its neighborhood whereas for Turkish Eurasianists it tends to mean a foreign policy strategy that is focused on developing effective tools against Western pressure. Finally, Eurasian rhetoric serves the purpose to mask transactional and situational character of bilateral relations, evidenced by the S-400 deal and cooperation in Syria.

While Russian and Turkish officials show desire to talk about underlying ideological foundation of the rapprochement it nevertheless evident that both countries are more inclined to advance ties with Western world. Volume of trade between Turkey and European Union in 2016 was at the level of USD 145 billion[18], while its Russian-Turkish trade hit a mark of USD 21,6 billion in 2017[19]. Unbalanced trade structure (with Russian energy exports enjoying better positions) and economic relations force Turkey and Russia talk about bilateral ties in more abstract terms by describing their relations as part of bigger Eurasian project. Moreover, in cultural terms population of the both states feel more affiliated with Europe rather than with each other. Both Russia and Turkey have each large community in European countries.

Attempts of Russia and Turkey to dress bilateral relations in more rigid ideational framework are understandable. Still, Turkey and Russia can’t build future of their relations on anti-Western narrative. Paradoxically, it is their common movement towards European community that may advance cooperation: historical process of entering the European civilization established better rules of diplomatic conduct while providing guarantees from braking the laws by the other side. Within this movement each of the both powers feels more secure knowing that all they share common ideas and values like rule of law, democracy and human rights. These commonalities may  further increase tolerance to inter-dependence and compromise in critical areas and help Turkey and Russia to overcome rather than ignore their historical legacy of mistrust.

[1] Bizi Şangay’a alın da şu AB’den kurtulalım, Akşam, November 23, 2013.
[2] Economy Minister: Turkey eyes Eurasian Customs Union, Daily Sabah, August 18, 2017.
[3] Bir Kuşak Bir Yol Girişimi Çerçevesinde Türkiye-Çin İlişkileri, Ankara Kriz ve Siyset Araştırmaları Merkezi, July 15, 2017.
[4] Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railway Line Officially Launched, Radio Free Europe, October 30, 2017.
[5] Official twitter-account of the Embassy of Russia in South Africa, March 16, 2018.
[6] Comment by the Information and Press Department on the sixth meeting of the Joint Strategic Planning Group, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, March 13, 2018.
[7] Treaty of Rapallo, Encyclopædia Britannica, September 24, 2015.
[8] Forget Sykes-Picot. It’s the Treaty of Sèvres That Explains the Modern Middle East, Foreign Policy, August 10, 2015.
[9] Turkey takes a tentative step toward Soviet Union by signing trade agreement, The Christian Science Monitor, December 27, 1984.
[10] Esen, B., & Gumuscu, S. (2016). Rising competitive authoritarianism in Turkey. Third World Quarterly, 37(9), 1581-1606.
[11] Shevtsova, L. F., & Eckert, M. H. (2001). Russia's hybrid regime. Journal of Democracy, 12(4), 65-70.
[12] The Color Revolutions, Foreign Affairs, January/February, 2013.
[13] The One Russian Linking Putin, Erdogan and Trump, Bloomberg, February 3, 2017.
[14] Perinçek, D. (1996). Avrasya seçeneği: Türkiye için bağımsız dış politika. Kaynak Yayınları, 1996.
[15] Averre, D. (2007). " Sovereign Democracy" and Russia's relations with the European Union. Demokratizatsiya, 15(2), 173.
[16] Svarin, D. (2015). Towards a Eurasian axis? Russia and Turkey between cooperation and competition. Global Affairs, 1(4-5), 381-398.
[17] Ergenekoncular ve Avrasyacılık, Anlayış Dergisi.
[18] EU Trade with Turkey, European Commission.
[19] Comment by the Information and Press Department on the sixth meeting of the Joint Strategic Planning Group, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, March 13, 2018.

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