Caucasus Crisis Turkey Walks a Tightrope Between Russia and the West

Turkey was traditionally adept at maintaining good relations with both Russia and the West -- until the Georgian crisis came along. Now both sides are making demands on Turkey. Has the time come for Ankara to choose sides?

By in Istanbul


Where East meets West, the Bosphorus waterfront in Istanbul. Turkey is walking a tightrope between Russia and the West.
REUTERS

Where East meets West, the Bosphorus waterfront in Istanbul. Turkey is walking a tightrope between Russia and the West.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, 62, is Russia's most flamboyant far-right politician and professes to be big friend of Turkey. "No one loves you the way I love you," the thick-set populist who speaks fluent Turkish, recently sang before a Turkish audience in Istanbul.

Zhirinovsky, a graduate of Oriental studies, visited Turkey for the first time in 1962 as a translator for the Soviet Union's State Committee for Exports. During his visit he was arrested for spreading "communist propaganda" and spent 17 days in jail. Later he wrote a pamphlet about his experiences and recommended that his country annex all Turkic countries because the Russian soldier "must clean his boots in the Indian Ocean."

Now Zhirinovsky's passion for the southern neighbor has been reignited once more. "Learn Russian, don't look to the West, look north," the troublemaker preaches during his regular visits to Turkey. "The EU doesn't want you, but we want you. We'll give you gas, you give us nuts!"

Russia is Turkey's Biggest Trading Partner

It's true that Turkey and Russia have moved closer to each other recently, and not just because of energy resources. Russia is the NATO member country's biggest trading partner. Turkey imports almost 70 percent of its gas requirements and 50 percent of its coal from Russia. On Turkey's riviera, in Antalya and Side, Russian tourists now outnumber Germans.

And whenever the Europeans criticize his government, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan grumbles that Turkey has an alternative and could align itself with another country. There's little doubt he's referring to Russia.

If he were to pursue an alliance with Russia, Erdogan would be turning history on its head, though. The Crimean War of 1853 to 1856 was the ninth war between the two countries. More followed, until eventually the Ottoman Empire lay in ruins after World War I. Then Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, did what he could to shield his country from Stalin's agents. Atatürk's successor later allowed the US to station nuclear missiles in Anatolia, along with whole forests of aerials to eavesdrop on the Soviets.

Turks as Model Europeans

Turkey has always looked westward, an aspect that has been overlooked in Europe in the debate about Turkey's bid to join the EU. The Turkish government in 1999 offered ground troops in the conflict with Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. Turkey, like Europe, maintains good relations with Israel and opposes Iran's nuclear ambitions. Last week Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan signed an agreement with the Arab Gulf states which is aimed at curbing Tehran's influence.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (L) during a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Moscown in August.
AP

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (L) during a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Moscown in August.

And it was the Turks who pushed for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline through which Caspian oil is pumped to Europe, bypassing Russia and Iran. Aside from the Cyprus conflict, the Turks are, in foreign policy terms, model Europeans.

But their balancing act between Europe and Russia has rarely been as difficult as after the Georgian war. Erdogan's government had no choice but to join the EU and US in supporting the territorial integrity of the small republic. The pipeline from the Caspian Sea means there are common interests with Tbilisi. That has led to consequences for Turkey.

In mid-August Russia began to punish Ankara. Since then customs officers at the Georgian-Russian border have been scrutinizing Turkish trucks with unprecedented thoroughness, causing a tailback of several hundred trucks and $500 million in losses. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has promised that the "technically necessary" controls will soon be lifted.

'Welcome to the Lukewarm War'

Russia is also angry about Turkey's stance on the presence of American and European naval ships in the Black Sea, regardless of the fact that those vessels were supposedly delivering aid to the Georgian port city of Poti. Lavrov described the West's ships as a form of "gunboat diplomacy" and called on Turkey to tighten control over the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles straits. Under an international agreement dating back to 1936, naval vessels must spend no longer than 21 days in the Black Sea.

But the US was also angry because the Turks -- referring to the same agreement -- were refusing to allow the passage of further warships, saying they were simply too big.

"Welcome to the lukewarm war," wrote Turkish columnist Cengiz Aktar about the new dilemma facing his country. Ever since the end of the Cold War Turkey has been putting its feelers out in all directions. But now the time had come to set priorities, wrote Aktar. "Do we want to behave like our northern neighbor and create peace by means of war?" he asks. "Or do we want to be like the European Union and conduct policy by peaceful means?"

Flexibility is Turkey's trump card. All doors are open to it. It has always pursued good relations with the US, Europe and Israel. And after the end of the Cold war it extended its sphere of influence among its "Turkic brothers" in Central Asia.

Friend to All

Even the Islamic-Arab world has moved closer to Turkey since the moderately Islamic AKP party of Erdogan came to power. Turkey's move to initiate secret talks between Syria and Israel is regarded as the biggest foreign policy success of the conservative government.

And the Georgia conflict? The Turkish prime minister responded with a suggestion that could have come from German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. He proposed am international forum -- a "Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform" -- in which all states could resolve their differences.

The forum is to include Turkey, Azerbaijan, Russia, Georgia and Armenia -- the country Turkey has been in dispute with for decades over the massacre of Armenians by Ottoman forces in World War I. To this day Ankara refuses to recognize the killings as genocide.

But diplomatic relations between the two countries weren't broken off until 1993 after Armenia seized control of Nagorno-Karabach, an Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan.

Nevertheless, the fact that Turkish President Abdulla Gül flew to the Armenian capital Yerevan last weekend to watch a football match with his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian is being seen as the beginning of a thaw in relations.

And Zhirinovsky? The Russian nationalist recently travelled to Turkey again. He called the NATO an "imperialist club" and once again urged Turkey to forget about Europe and forge an alliance with his country -- the peace-loving Russia.

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