Prepared for the CEPS/IISS European Security Forum, Brussels, 12 May 2003

Turkey's Strategic Future: A Russian View

By Natalia Oultchenko

In an article with the very symptomatic title "Turkish-Russian relations in the shade of the relations of the two countries with the West", a well known Turkish scholar, Gulten Kazgan, stressed that from the XVIII century up to our days Turkish-Russian relations have stayed under the strong influence of the relations of each country with the leading Western countries. Saying it another way, their mutual relations are derivative from their relations with the West.

As a result, the specific character of the relations of each of the two countries with the West is a determining factor of their bilateral relations. In the same article, Kazgan described some scenarios of the possible development of the Turkish-Russian relations in the first quarter of the 21st century. One of the scenarios is like this: In case of non-efficient development of the relations with her main Western Allies – the USA and the EU countries – and at the same time a friendly policy of Russia, Turkey starts a more active regional policy. As a result, there will be closer political and economic relations between Turkey and Russia while Turkey's cooperation with the USA both in policy and economy will stay less intensive.

For estimating the possibility of some changes in Russian-Turkish relations in the post-war period, one should first realize the latest development the Turkish-American bilateral relations. The reason of contradictions between the two countries is not the difference in the positions of their leadership on the Iraqi problem. The main problem is that the close cooperation with the USA is the question the Turkish society is far from being like-minded on. The new Turkish government formed by the proislamic Party of Justice and Development occurred to be a rather pragmatic one. That is why the government did not hesitate to support the war operation in Iraq.

It is the government who is responsible for the success of the economic policy. That is why the price of the Islamic solidarity could be too high for the new cabinet. The problem is that the government inherited a weak economy showing just very few and dim signs of recovery after the 2001 crisis. As the Turkey State Minister Ali Babacan has recognized, the choice of economic policy for the government is tightly limited by the huge state debt and its servicing. According to Babacan, Turkey is to pay 82 billion dollars in 2003, the main part of which will be re-borrowed both in and out of the country. So any extra financial source means the lightening of the exhausting debt burden.

Before the government's request on sending Turkish troops abroad and stationing foreign troops in Turkey was voted on in the Turkish parliament, the USA had agreed on granting Turkey 6 billion of aid and 24 billion of credit. On the eve of the putting of the inquiry to the vote in the parliament, the leader of the ruling party Redjep Erdogan proclaimed "Those who are against the war today will speak another way after 3 day salary delay". Still the request was rejected by the parliament, which obviously consists mostly of these members of the ruling party for whom justice is the more important part of the party slogan than development. Besides, during the parliament session there were mass anti-war meetings in Ankara.

To understand the active antiwar spirit in Turkish society one should not separate it from the search for independence from the USA and the West in general. This spirit was intensified much during the last crises period when a huge part of Turkish society considered the crises to be the result of the IMF's faulty policy and still, as the people saw the situation, IMF was continuing to substitute the national government.

So the Turkish government is more or less like-minded and realizes clearly the complicated economic situation in the country as well as limited opportunities to improve it. At the same time the Parliament's decision proved the fact the Turkish society was split while thinking about cooperation with the West as a whole and with the USA in particular.

The government did not expect the rejection of the request. After it the Government had to resort to some economic pressure both on the parliament and the society. The leader of the ruling party, Erdogan, was cautious saying that the government could not criticize the will of the parliament and that they respected the hesitation of the deputies and the people on the question. And still he stressed that one should have estimated the situation from all sides and could not solve the problems of the country saying just Yes or No."The choice made by the parliament is an alternative one", stressed Erdogan. That was the way the government was warning about getting ready for response. The fall of the some macroeconomic indicators made the response inevitable. As the Russian newspaper Commersant wrote those days the Turkish parliament had voted for crisis.

The next day the Government proclaimed the package of the new fiscal measures. The government was going to get additional profits both by increasing taxes and rejecting some social programs. So the Turkish press wrote that the government who had lost the American aid was going to take it from the people's pocket.

As for the position of the Government towards the USA, Erdogan pointed out that they wanted the USA to understand how much the regional policy was sensitive for Turkey and to minimize their political demands. At the same time he recalled the deep political roots of the bilateral relationship and the mutual respect as their basis. The USA pointed out both their disappointment and appreciation of the government's readiness for cooperation. That meant that the two sides were ready to restart their negotiations on Iraq.

Just before the beginning of the war, the Turkish parliament voted through the next enquiry on the Turkish air space being used by American armed forces. So the economic pressure by the Turkish government, together with the lowering of the USA's political demands, occurred to be convincing enough for the Turkish parliament.

Just immediately after it the Turkish side started seeking for the discussion of the possible economic aid from the USA. It was quite clear that 6 billion aid was out of question by the moment. But by the end of March, the USA proclaimed their intention to support Turkey with 1 billion aid. U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense P. Wolfowitz convinced the Senate commission on appropriation who considered Turkey had escaped the cooperation: "Indeed Turks were not cooperating as much as we had expected. But it is also wrong to say that they do not cooperate with us. Making use of Turkey's air space is of great importance for us...When the war crisis is over it would be in our interest Turkey will not face economic difficulties. We hope for more cooperation and we consider Turkey to stay our valuable ally".

At the beginning of April U.S. Secretary of State C. Powell paid a short visit to Ankara. As he stressed at his meeting with the press, the USA expected Turkey to support the US military action in Northern Iraq. As C. Powell promised after finishing the visit, in case the USA got the support they hoped for, the Senate would vote through the aid for Turkey.

To calm the debate in Turkey's society just after Powell's leaving from Ankara, the Turkish Republic president Necdet Sezer made his statement where he stressed the importance of the strategic partnership with the USA for Turkey. As he pointed out nothing was going to change in this important relations. Nevertheless he reminded that both the Gulf war in 1991 and the new Iraqi crisis had influenced Turkey negatively and resulted in economic loses for the country. He also emphasized that Turkey understood the demands the USA had made due to the war and was supporting already its ally and would continue the support, but Turkey also hoped for the understanding of her needs. As for the needs of Turkey one could understand them from Sezer's proclamation of the importance of the Iraqi future for Turkey and her readiness to take part in its determination. So the Turkish side was ready to support the USA in Northern Iraq but on terms of getting 1 billion aid and guarantees on Kurdish question as well.

Turkey's worries over Northern Iraq were realized by the USA just from the beginning of the military campaign in the region as the Northern Iraq had become factually independent 12 years ago and it was quite possible that they would try to use the situation for proclaiming their independent status officially. That is why the USA stayed quiet when the Turkish troops were brought into Northern Iraq in spite of the fact there hadn't been such an agreement with the Turkish side. Some days later Chief of Turkish General Staff Hilmi Ozkek commented on the situation, saying that the territorial integrity of Iraq and the Iraqi people's ownership of all oil resources were the main foreign policy principles of Turkey. So Ozkek rejected any links between the presence of the Turkish troops in Iraq and Turkey's possible attempts to revise the Mosul question but at the same time he stressed the fact that Turkey is hardly ready to accept any other territorial changes.

At the beginning of April, the US Congress voted through 1 billion aid to Turkey. The Turkish newspaper Milliyet paid special attention to the speech by one of the members of the Turkey support group Congressman R. Wexler, who said that as Turkey was a democracy she was a model for the Muslim world and cooperation with Turkey cannot be denied as it is high necessity and the condition of stability in the post-war Iraq.

At the same time, American officials proclaimed that they were working together with Turkey to prevent the development in Northern Iraq that could be worrying for Turkey. So the two sides reached a compromise on Iraq.

Summarizing the situation let me focus on some important points:

There is a rather influential lobby in the USA who believes in the strategic importance of the American-Turkish relations as the USA have rather important interests in the region, and who is ready for compromise. That is why there are still not many reasons to talk about crisis in bilateral relations.

Another important vector in Turkish foreign policy is the relations with EU. Turkey both from he point of view of policy and economy is still far from reaching EU criteria. It is not the first time Turkey proclaims her intention to decrease inflation to simple figure in three years. Just to reach the purpose she uses IMF credits actively and after another failure she occurs to stay the country with high level of inflation and even heavier indebted. There are a number of unsolved political questions. It was hardly just a coincidence that the European commission renewed so called partnership document, which contains all the membership demands to Turkey including the rights of the national minorities, just after the Turkish troops had been stationed in the Northern Iraq. But taking into consideration the fact that Turkish society is split EU maybe should think about making the European policy more perspective for Turkey. Delays of Turkey's membership results into more influence for those part of the Turkish society who do not support the European-oriented policy. While it is not possible to prevent international integration it is possible to regulate it. The EU membership process means effective control over the economic and political development of the Turkish society. To keep the control means to make Turkey's progress on the way to membership more evident for Turkish society. As the last elections showed a huge part of people in Turkey had begun to think that inefficient policy was the result of the absence of Islam (or traditional values) in policy. In case of failure of the newly elected proislamic party they may start thinking that it was due to the fact that there was not enough Islam in policy. As the democratization process is progressing under EU's pressure Turkey is losing her traditional mechanisms of preventing radical Islam from policy. That is why the attempts to improve Turkey from the point of view of Western criteria system without enough support to the transformation process may result quit unexpectedly to the turning of an old and well-known ally to a new antagonist.

There is the understanding of the interrelationship in the EU. As the professor of the European Institute (Florence) J. Luchiani emphasized, Turkey's European orientation is not a predetermining result of Turkish foreign policy; it is just a strong but not a steady tendency, which needs constant supporting efforts from both Turkey and the EU. That means there are promising prospects. Still the U.S. former Ambassador to Turkey Morton Abramowitz recognized speaking to Defense News magazine: "It is not clear where Turkey is going to move now, is she going to become a country like Iran or Syria or is she going to stay in the Western bloc". But it is not the moment of choice just for Turkey. It is also the moment of choice both for the USA and EU. The Turkish government made a clear answer. Deputy prime minister and Foreign affairs minister Abdullah Gul said that the change of Turkish foreign policy course is out of question. The question is if the majority of the Turkish society will share the conviction of the government. It depends much on the readiness of the Turkey's Western allies to revise the outline of mutual relations.

As there are still no definite changes in the Turkish foreign policy course there are also no serious expectations dealing with Russian-Turkish relations. Besides if there is any balancing in Russian foreign policy it is mostly balancing between the Western policy centers. Like Turkey, Russia is still considering the regional policy the second-rank vector.

From the point of view of short-term interests, Turkey's Western oriented foreign policy is beneficial for Russia because more regional policy of Turkey has been resulting mostly not in more close relations with Russia as a whole but in more close relations with Central Asia and some regions of the Russian Federation where the Turkic population prevails. In spite of the fact the nowadays the bilateral relations are classified not as confrontation but as regulating competition Russia's apprehension of pan-Turkism is still alive. Besides Russia being the main gas supplier for Turkey with the market share of 40% minimum has already had got rather efficient control lever. The former Head of the Russian gas company Gasprom, Rem Vyahirev, was right saying that one who would start the first in Turkey would win. Now Russia's two gas pipelines are preventing from realization the alternative gas projects and keeping the Turkish gas market under control. That is why Russia has some guarantees of Turkey's political loyalty.

From the point of view of long-term interest both Russia and Turkey are losing because of their weak regional policy as they are escaping the chance to become the two leading countries within the new Eurasian center of world policy. Besides that the regional problems are too much under the control of the West that does not always meet their interests.

But as far as the advantages of strategic regional partnership are not realized clearly by the two sides one should not expect any visible changes in Russian-Turkish relations.