Do tomatoes dictate Turkey’s policy on Russia?

Do tomatoes dictate Turkey’s policy on Russia?

“There’s never a dull moment in Turkey”: A cliché sentence I have heard so often from a newcomer to Turkey. Indeed, it’s a cliché, but it also reflects the truth.

Not only does Turkey itself keep entering tectonic turbulences, but it sits in a region that is in constant turbulence. Today, where should we focus? The crises in Syria and Iraq in the east and south? The crisis in Ukraine in the north? (We are, by the way, deeply grateful to Greece for keeping its crisis limited to the economy.)

Currently, the Russia/Ukraine crisis appears not to look too high on Turkey’s agenda. As the press largely follows the priorities of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, this is obviously a reflection of the low profile approach the government has endorsed on the issue. This low profile approach seems to surprise some of Turkey’s Western allies, to the point of asking, “Does Turkey not feel part of NATO?”

This is not the first time that Turkey’s views have diverged from that of the majority in NATO. But the question requires another answer, which should start with a “before and after the AKP.”

Turkey’s public and a majority of its state establishment have always been wary of European institutions. That Turkey is suspicious of anything foreign is not new. Public opinion polls conducted in Turkey repeatedly show how Turks remain parochial, while the state tries to keep up with globalization.

Yet there is a difference as far as the old and new establishment is concerned. The old establishment was also suspicious of NATO, but was also more pragmatic in understanding its importance as an asset to Turkey’s foreign and security policy. Their views reflected the reflexes that come with Turkey’s own historical baggage. The new establishment, however, has a Third-Worldist attitude that juxtaposes the West against the East, Christian against Muslim. That’s why Turkey’s “AKP’fied” civil bureaucracy is much more suspicious of NATO than its predecessors, and much more delusional regarding Turkey’s capabilities as a regional power.

However, the government’s stance on the Russia/Ukraine crisis is not shaped by its positioning within NATO. Turkey feels that it has higher stakes with Russia, and it wants to avoid antagonizing it. “What is Turkey afraid of? Russia cannot cut its gas,” said one Western diplomat.

The point is that there won’t be any problem with gas. This is one area that will remain immune to political issues as long as Turkey is largely dependent on Russia. And Russia will not use gas as a tool against Turkey. But Turkey’s Western allies should still not forget the nuisance value of Russia. It has other tools that it could use if it wanted to give a message to Turkey. After tremendous problems regarding trade routes with Syria, Iraq and Iran, the last thing Turkey would like to see is some disruption in the trade routes to the north.

“It’s already hugely difficult to sell tomatoes to Russia,” I said to the Western diplomat, to which they asked, “Would Turkey let tomatoes dictate its foreign policy?”

“Isn’t it tomatoes - in the case of Turkey, lucrative businesses such as the third bridge and the third airport - that dictate the foreign policy of Western countries, and which make them remain largely silent to the government’s anti-democratic steps?” I replied.

Russia is under no obligation to fulfill the EU’s Copenhagen criteria, while Turkey is.

By the way, if the West looks to have taken a tough stance on Russia, viewed from Turkey it does not look like that at all.