Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan met Russian President Vladimir Putin in an attempt to patch serious difference arising out of the shooting down of a Russian plane over Syria last November. While the meeting was arranged before the failed coup in Turkey, it added significance to the meeting because Putin was among the first world leaders to call Erdogan to condemn the coup and offer support.
Tuesday August 2016, 15:43 DST
Following the much-anticipated meeting in St Petersburg today between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Russian host said that there was still "painstaking work to resuscitate trade and economic cooperation" between the two countries.
The two presidents appeared at a joint press conference following their meeting in an attempt to mend relations between the two countries after a Turkish jet shot down a Russian plane over Syria last November. Putin had described that act as a “stab in the back” and imposed stiff trade sanctions on Turkish goods as well as curtailed Russian tourists from going to Turkey.
Today, however, the Russian leader was in a more conciliatory mood saying the priority for Russia and Turkey was to return the relations to their pre-crisis level. This came about after Erdogan sent a letter of apology over the shooting of the Russian plane and the killing of the pilot to Putin last June. Thereafter, the two leaders also had a telephone conversation and it was agreed that they would meet in August.
An aide to Erdoğan told Turkey’s Hürriyet newspaper that the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and a Turkish businessman with major interests in Russia had played go-between roles to smooth over the bad feelings after the plane incident.
“Ahead of us lies painstaking work to resuscitate trade and economic cooperation. This process has already started but it will take some time,” Putin stated. Trying to put a positive spin on the talks, Erdogan said they have been “comprehensive and beneficial.” The Turkish presidential office meanwhile said the general mood at the talks between the two leaders was “very positive.”
Erdogan also said their countries were trying to reinstate their annual bilateral trade target of US$100 billion. Turkey’s Daily Sabah newspaper reported that as a result of Russian sanctions, Turkish exports had slumped by 60.5% to $737 million.
Two major projects that were put on hold following the shooting of the Russian plane—the TurkStream gas pipeline across the Black Sea and the Akkuyu nuclear plant being built by Russia’s Rosatom in Turkey—are also likely to be resuscitated.
Two political considerations, one positive and other negative, are also impacting relations. Putin was one of the first world leaders to call Erdogan following the failed military coup of July 15. Erdogan not only acknowledged it but appreciated the call.
“Your call straight after the coup was very pleasing for me and our leadership and our people,” said Erdogan, who referred to Putin as “my dear friend”.
Putin responded by saying: “It is our principled position,” in regard to the coup attempt. “We are always categorically opposed to any attempts at anti-constitutional activity. I want to express the hope that under your leadership the Turkish people will deal with this, and justice and legality will prevail.” Putin’s remarks stand in sharp contrast to the breast-beating in Western capitals over the crackdown of Gulenists in the aftermath of the coup.
The main point of friction between them remains over their divergent views on Syria. Putin said it was possible to resolve differences on how to handle the crisis in Syria. “I think it is possible to align our views and approaches,” Putin told reporters in St Petersburg. How long this will take and whether Erdogan would be willing to make serious policy adjustments vis-a-vis remains to be seen.
The fears in Western capitals that Erdogan would abandon Nato or even close the Incirlik air based to Nato planes and troops appear misplaced. Hints of this were given by Turkish foreign minister even before Erdogan’s visit to Russia. Perhaps the Turkish president wants to leverage his renewed relations with Russia to force the US to extradite Fethullah Gulen whose supporters are accused of having masterminded the failed coup. Many people in Turkey also believe that Gulen had the support of the US.