Transitions

The Tsar Meets the Sultan

These days, Turkey's Erdogan looks more and more like Putin. Now, the two are teaming up to lash out at Europe.

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Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan — perhaps the least popular Western leaders — met in Ankara on Dec. 1 for the Turkey-Russia High-Level Cooperation Meeting. The two outspoken, know-it-all presidents set aside their major differences on Syria, Ukraine, and Cyprus, and instead sought new ways to deepen the cooperation between Russia and Turkey.

Naturally, Putin chose this moment to declare a gas war with Europe. At a joint press conference with Erdogan, the Russian president said that Moscow will stop pursuing plans to build its a gas pipeline to Europe, the controversial South Stream pipeline, and instead draw up plans for a new link to Turkey. On Monday, as Russia carved the headstone for the South Stream gas pipeline, Moscow and Ankara signed a memorandum of understanding to build a new hub.

Putin blames the shift on resistance from the European Union. “Russian gas will reach other world markets in the form of liquefied natural gas. The EU will not benefit from Russian gas any more,” Putin said at the press conference. “That is their choice.” Putin also said that anyone who needs Russian gas will have to buy it through Turkey.

For Turkey, the new alliance seems to correspond with Erdogan’s recent re-evaluation of relations with the EU. In a TV interview last year, he stated that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a security partnership between Russia, China, and several post-Soviet states, is “better and more powerful than the EU.” Turks are, as usual, divided in their response to the comment.

The announcement came just after the NATO secretary general urged Turkey to join the EU in imposing sanctions on Russia. But that topic barely figured in the agenda of the Turkish and Russian leaders. Instead, they pledged to triple the volume of trade between the two countries from the current figure of $33 billion to $100 billion by the end of this decade. Turkey is already the second-biggest market for Russian gas exports outside of the former Soviet Union, and at this meeting, the leaders also agreed on a natural gas discount to deepen that relationship. At the joint press conference, Putin also announced that Russia will discount the price of natural gas sent to Turkey by 6 percent as of Jan. 1, 2015, and that it will increase the existing capacity of the Blue Stream Natural Gas Pipeline by 3 billion cubic meters. He added that he can offer an even better deal if the two countries reach an agreement on deeper energy cooperation.

In return, Putin would like to see progress on Rosatom’s $20 billion project to build Turkey’s first nuclear power station at Akkuyu, near the port city of Mersin. Turkey is poised to do just that. Turkey’s Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning approved a controversial environmental assessment report of Turkey’s first nuclear power plant ahead of Putin’s visit to the country. According to the media, environmental activists and organizations like Greenpeace warned about the effects of dangerous radioactive waste, and said that they will bring the issue to the courts.

To be sure, Putin and Erdogan disagree on countless issues — especially when it comes to foreign policy. But neither let these differences overshadow the Ankara meeting. Erdogan criticizes his NATO allies for their weakness in Syria on an almost weekly basis, but he was quite soft on Putin, one of Bashar al-Assad’s biggest supporters. Even though both sides repeated their stances, they ultimately buried the hatchet in order to go after a common enemy: the West.

Western critics often liken Erdogan’s autocratic tendencies to Putin’s, and question whether Erdogan is modeling his presidency on the Russian strongman’s. The German magazine Focus likened Putin’s recent meeting with Erdogan to a “tsar meeting with a sultan.” The two indeed have much in common. Both embrace the legacy of their imperial pasts. Both have strong support at home, though they are accused of being autocrats, or even dictators, abroad. Both have tinkered with their country’s constitutions to extend their political life spans. Both have shifted between presidential and prime ministerial posts, altering the balance of power in the process. Both have used the judicial system to crack down on their political opponents. Both have crushed popular protest movements. Both use conspiracy theories to foster nationalism. Both mask their true ideologies under the guise of democracy. Both have a problematic approach to women’s rights … and the list goes on.

And Erdogan does, indeed, seem to be copying Putin by positioning himself against the West. The Turkish president’s image in the West is deteriorating by the day. In fact, just a few days before Putin’s visit, Erdogan delivered a speech at the Standing Committee for Economic and Commercial Cooperation of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (COMCEC) in Istanbul and said: “I speak openly: Foreigners love oil, gold, diamonds, and the cheap labor force of the Islamic world. They like the conflicts, fights, and quarrels of the Middle East. Believe me, they don’t like us. They look like friends, but they want us dead, they like seeing our children die. How long will we stand that fact?” He also said that Middle Eastern countries could solve their problems by themselves without any help from the West.

Erdogan is not naive; he must realize that his alliance with Russia is not a strategic partnership, but a pragmatic one. But while Turkey may enjoy short-term benefits with this new agreement, he has to ask how it will affect the country’s long-term interests. Developing strong relations with Putin may make life more difficult for the EU and the United States, but neither Ankara nor Moscow would be thrilled if Europe pushes for alternative underwater pipelines, such as one that would connect Italy-Greece-Cyprus-Israel.

The Turkish president’s comments have led some in Washington, in private meetings, to question if Erdogan has completely lost his mind. It is perfectly normal for Turkey to have differences with the West from time to time to protect its own national interests, but if Ankara wishes to remain in the NATO alliance, Erdogan, they say, will have to change his rhetoric soon.

Berivan Orucoglu is the Turkey blogger for Transitions and a fellow at the McCain Institute’s Next Generation Leaders Program. She tweets @beribo, and you can read the rest of her posts here.

BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

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