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EURASIA > Moscow ‘tries to stop’ the Arab Spring

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The fear of having a ‘Russian spring’, as well as the threat that radical Islamic movements within Russia might be strengthened due to their potential success in the Arab Spring, has led Moscow to attempt to halt the transformational wave in Syria, according to Mitat Çelikpala, a Turkish expert on Russia

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Excluding the Black Sea region, Turkey and Russia do not have high-level cooperation in any security-political issue, says Mitat Çelikpala, from Kadir Has University. DAILY NEWS photo, Hasan ALTINIŞIK

Excluding the Black Sea region, Turkey and Russia do not have high-level cooperation in any security-political issue, says Mitat Çelikpala, from Kadir Has University. DAILY NEWS photo, Hasan ALTINIŞIK

Barçın Yinanç Barçın Yinanç barcin.yinanc@hurriyet.com.tr

Stopping change in Syria has become critical for Russia in attempting to stop the consequences of the Arab Spring reaching its borders, according to an expert on Russia.

Moscow and Ankara have irreconcilable stances on Syria, said Dr. Mitat Çelikpala, adding that Russia did not consider Turkey as an equal interlocutor when it comes to Middle Eastern issues.

The two governments, however, are pragmatic enough not to let differences spoil their relations, the Kadir Has University academic told the Hürriyet Daily News.

What is your analysis on where Turkey and Russia stand on Syria following the recent visit of the Russian foreign minister?

It was confirmed that the two sides’ stances are totally different and irreconcilable. The Russian stance is evolving in a direction that is not the one desired by Turkey. Probably Russuans also got some green light from the U.S.

The two foreign ministers were not shy in showing how they differ totally. What does this tell us?

It is so obvious; there is nothing to hide. There is not one single input that implies they can agree. When you look at the past 15 years in bilateral ties, the two sides have been saying, let’s deal with the glass-half-full part and avoid the glass-half-empty part. They are trying to avoid discussing the issues they differ on but when they do, each side states its position openly. This is the benefit of having institutionalized relations.

You talked about a U.S. green light to Russia on Syria; can you elaborate?

It is the reflection of the U.S.’ reset policy toward Russia. Washington feels like appeasing Russia on certain issues. If Russia is so insistent on Syria and if there is unwillingness [on the part of the U.S.] for military engagement in Syria, then the U.S. feels like trying to reconcile with Russia on that issue. So it seems that the policy is evolving on focusing on a moderate Syrian opposition while keeping [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad on the transition period. I think the U.S.’ position has come closer to that of Russia.

But some thought that the third visit of [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry in a month meant that Turkey had succeeded in getting the U.S. closer to its position.

We can also have an opposite reading: maybe the U.S. is trying to convince Turkey on certain issues.

How do you analyze Russia’s Syria policy?

Russia emphasizes the importance of the international system. It says: if the change in Syria is unavoidable; we need to do it all together and the transformation should not be that quick. Obviously there are other additional factors; they don’t know who will replace al-Assad; there are geostrategic factors like the Russian naval base in Syria. But essentially what they say is that if there is going to be a transformation, it should be under the umbrella of the international community.

But no one says, “Let’s exclude Russia.”

A rhetoric that excludes al-Assad is not something desired by Russia. Russians don’t want a fast regime change. It wants the revolutionary process of the Arab Spring to evolve differently in Syria.
So Russia has a problem with the essence of the Arab Spring.

Definitely. There are discussions about whether there will be a Russian Spring. The Russian opposition is trying to get organized. Russians are saying: “We can’t protect ourselves by abandoning a castle no matter how far away it is. Let’s resist as much as we can.

So Syria has become a barrier to the waves of the Arab Spring?

Syria is a line. If Russia under the Vladimir Putin administration is heading to become a global power, rather than just a regional power, losing Syria will mean Russia is not a big power; if Syria is lost, then it will be the turn of Iran. Interestingly, there has been increased interest this year among Russian academics about talking with their Turkish counterparts on regional issues. They are trying to read the Turkish position and understand why Turkey has become so engaged. But actually, Syria’s future is the last thing Russia wants to discuss with Turkey; they can do that with the U.S. or the big European powers. They don’t see Turkey as their “rival” or “equal interlocutor” when it comes to the Middle East. When it comes to these issues and security issues, Turkey is still, in the eyes of the Russians, an actor used and manipulated by the U.S. Their approach is no different than the ones they had in the 1950s.

So they still look to the world through a Cold War lens?

Especially its bureaucracy. Russians are still uneasy with the Poles, the Baltics. They are still anxious about the policies of the Georgians and the Ukrainians. That does not stem from the individual policies of each sate, it stems from their reading of global affairs.

But are they not wrong to be uneasy about all these countries, as they are not exactly pro-Russian.

Looking from Realpolitik, they might be right, but this makes them fall in contrast with the reading of the transformation of the world. The world system is evolving in a different direction. On the one hand, they are trying to become part of the system, talking about global values and talking about a balanced system, but then they are not happy when the system tries to integrate with them.

What you say is that conditions have changed so the Russians need to change the way they think.

But the Russian decision-makers are still evolving under the tradition of what we call we call the Eurasian mentality: more closed-up, more authoritarian. But on the other hand, civil society is getting stronger, and there is interaction between civil societies all over the world, and Russians are trying to prevent that.

Russia warns against radical Islamic movements. Does it use that as a card against the West, or is it truly scared that these movements might get stronger within Russia?

Both. The threat of fundamentalism has been the most important tool to have as a common rhetoric with the West following Sept. 11. But there is such a threat within Russia as well. As Russia becomes more authoritarian, Muslims [in Russia] are being otherized. Under pressure, these groups have started to found their own networks … There are suspicions that there are cells of extremist movements affiliated with al-Qaeda in Russia. Chechnya is no longer a threat because it is under control, but in the Caucasus, especially in the Dagestan region, there is potential.

Some find it odd that despite political differences, Turkey and Russia enjoy good relations.

We have many problems with the Western world but our relations with Russia have never reached the level of our relations with the West. Excluding the Black Sea region, we do not have high-level cooperation in any security-political issue. Trade and economic relations are developing; on the cultural side there are efforts to know each other. In this framework, the two sides have been looking to see whether there can be cooperation on political issues. It has been partially successful, in that at least they can talk to each other on very critical issues. But of course, there is no result because we have a different outlook. So relations are very pragmatic.

How healthy are relations then?

Looking from the economic dimension, I find them very healthy. They buy from us what they need, and we buy from them what we need. And through that synergy-relations between nations develop. All these things, however, do not lead to big changes in the political arena because of the fundamental differences between Turkey and Russia: Turkey is trying to transform the Eurasian region – slowly, but in conformity with its interests; in this respect, it acts like a Western actor. But Russia’s essential policy is based on not having any transformation in the region.

Who is Mitat Çelikpala ?

Dr. Mitat Çelikpala is associate professor of International Relations at Kadir Has University, Istanbul, where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on Eurasian Security, Turkish Foreign Policy and the Caucasus politics, security and history.

His areas of expertise are the Caucasus, North Caucasian Diaspora, people and security in the Caucasus and Black Sea regions, Turkish-Russian relations, energy security and critical infrastructure protection.

In addition to Kadir Has University, he lectures at the Turkish War College and Turkish National Security and Military academies on Turkish foreign policy, politics, history and security in the Caucasus and Central Asia, as well as Turkish political structure and life. He has several published academic articles and media coverage and analyses on the aforementioned areas.


April/22/2013

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