ISTANBUL // As the EU shows little interest in taking Turkey on board as a new member in the near future, Russia has emerged as a powerful new partner for Ankara, providing energy and trade deals and sending a growing number of holidaymakers to Turkey's sunny coasts.
The ever closer relations between Ankara and Moscow is a sign of weakened ties between Turkey and the EU, Nihat Ali Ozcan, an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation, or Tepav, an Ankara-based think tank, said yesterday. "If things were better with the EU, Turkey would be part of the European approach. But because it is outside that approach, it plays more locally." Nowhere is that trend more visible than in energy policy. Turkey is eager to become a major player in international energy matters and wants to make full use of its unique geostrategic position as a country between East and West. "Turkey is pursuing its own interests, it is more independent" than it would be as an EU member, Mr Ozcan said.
"Europeans need to really understand what's going on in Turkey, how close it has gotten to Russia as opposed to Europe and the US," Zeyno Baran, an energy expert at the US-based Hudson Institute, told EUobserver.com, an online publication dealing with EU affairs. During a visit to Ankara last week, Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, signed a protocol with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, paving the way for a multibillion dollar gas pipeline from Russia through the Black Sea to the Balkans. The agreement on the South Stream pipeline, which would provide Moscow with a new pathway to deliver gas to Europe, came less than a month after Turkey and several European partners launched the rival Nabucco project, which is backed by the EU and designed to lessen European dependency on Russian gas imports.
Ankara started EU membership talks in late 2005, but negotiations have proceeded slowly. Turkish officials have repeatedly voiced frustration about the hostile position taken by high-ranking EU politicians such as the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who has openly rejected the Turkish application in spite of the ongoing negotiation process. The attitude of Mr Sarkozy and other sceptics in the EU has made it easier for Russia to court Turkey, Mr Ozcan said.
Although the two countries are heirs of rival empires and stood on opposing sides during the Cold War, relations between Turkey and Russia have improved significantly in recent years. They signed 20 different agreements during Mr Putin's visit. Russia is also interested in building Turkey's first nuclear power plant. According to official figures, trade between the two countries reached a volume of US$40 billion (Dh147bn) last year. Russia has become Turkey's biggest single trading partner, while Turkey is Russia's fifth biggest, Mr Erdogan said.
Putting their relations on a new level, Ankara and Moscow agreed on regular yearly meetings on the prime ministerial level. Other government ministers from the two countries will meet twice or three times a year. Meanwhile, Russian tourists have been flocking to Turkey's coasts. "Olga has overtaken Helga," a Turkish newspaper commented recently, when new official figures indicated that the number of Russian tourists in the southern coastal city of Antalya had surpassed that of German holidaymakers for the first time.
Germans have traditionally been the strongest national group among tourists in Turkey, numbering 4.4 million visitors last year. But the Russians are catching up fast. Almost three million Russians came to Turkey last year, and Russian businessmen have invested billions of dollars in hotels on the Turkish south coast. In an acknowledgement of the growing number of Russian guests, the buildings of one hotel look like the Kremlin in Moscow.
Turkey is sending a deliberate message with its new Russian partnership, Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister, told journalists after Mr Putin's visit. "This is what we want to tell the world: Yes, we have an EU orientation, and no one should have doubts regarding our Nato membership, but [Turkey] conducts comprehensive policies with all global and neighbouring players in accordance with its geographical region," the minister said.
From time to time, critics may argue that Turkey is turning away from the West, while at other times there may be doubts that Turkey is cutting its ties to the East, Mr Davutoglu added. "We have to overcome those momentary and temporary ways to look at things." For Turkey, Russia plays a part in some of its most pressing foreign policy issues. As a close partner of the Greek part of Cyprus, Moscow could help to bring about a solution for the divided Mediterranean island, which would in turn improve Ankara's EU prospects. Russia is also an important player in the ongoing dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorny-Karabakh, a problem that has prevented progress in efforts by Turkey to improve ties with Armenia.
"Turkey is not an EU member country, nor should it be expected to become one soon," Cagri Erhan, a political scientist at Ankara University, wrote in the Turkiye newspaper. "There is no rational reason why Turkey, as a country that is not an EU member yet, should synchronise its foreign policy with Brussels." Mr Ozcan of Tepav said this trend was likely to continue, as there was no sign of a turnaround in Turkish-EU affairs, let alone of a quick Turkish accession to the EU. Unlike Europeans, who are perceived by many Turks as endlessly lecturing their country about human rights and other issues, Russians "do not treat Turkey condescendingly", Mr Ozcan said.