Who is a better negotiator: Turkey’s Erdoğan or Russia’s Putin?

Who is a better negotiator: Turkey’s Erdoğan or Russia’s Putin?

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is known to the Turkish public as a tough negotiator. His persuasive prowess can be seen especially when he negotiates deals with the business community, asking them to complete projects much earlier than scheduled.

Yet things take on a different nature when it comes to international dealings. If we look at his international track record of negotiations Erdoğan is not as successful as he is at home.

Let’s recall the huge disappointment Prime Minister Erdoğan felt returning from Tehran last March. Ankara and Tehran’s policies are diametrically opposed on the Syrian crisis. Yet they could not even agree to disagree, as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cancelled a scheduled lunch with Erdoğan.

The prime minister is again preparing for a similar critical meeting as Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is coming to Turkey this weekend.

As part of the pro–Iran trio, along with Iran and China, Russia is the real game changer in Syria. The meeting will be a crucial opportunity for Erdoğan to try to convince Putin to stop obstructing regime change in Syria.

The two leaders will focus on the transition process, according to a Turkish diplomatic source. Moscow wants the old regime not to be totally excluded from the transition process, which contradicts the policy of Turkey who has basically burned its bridges with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Erdoğan and Putin will try to bridge that divide during their meeting. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s recent proposal to have Syrian Vice President Faruq al-Shara replace al-Assad seems to be a step in that direction.

But the gist of the issue seems to be Russia’s increasing concern for a take over by radical Islamists, thus their insistence on a gradual regime change. It will be a real challenge for Erdoğan to soothe Putin’s concerns as Turkish members of Al–Quaeda are known to be fighting in Syria.

“A radical regime in Damascus is against Turkish national interest,” Erdoğan would probably say. “Then how come Turkish Al–Quada members cross the border to fight against the regime,” Putin might volley.
“We are in close contact with the Syrian opposition and advise them to envisage a multi-ethnic, multi-religious democratic future for their country,” Erdoğan might say. “What makes you so confident you can counter balance the influence and sources of Saudi Arabia and Qatar — the two other fervent supporters of the Syrian opposition — when you can’t even get a unified opposition front despite all the support coming from the anti–al-Assad bloc,” Putin might question.

If the two do not manage to bridge their growing divide don’t expect a cool air similar to what was seen in Iran to dominate their public appearances. The two capitals do not have the luxury to jeopardize billion dollars worth projects due to a political disagreement.

What is important for Ankara is not to back down on other issues with the expectation of swaying Russia’s feelings on Syria. For it won’t be a fair give and take. The Russians might give vague promises but they don’t deliver in the end.

Think of what happened with the Samsun–Ceyhan pipeline. In what the Turks thought to be a package deal, Ankara is not only letting Russia build the country’s first nuclear power plant, it also gave the green light to feasibility studies on Turkish territorial waters for the South Stream gas pipeline project with the expectation that Russia would agree to use the Samsun–Ceyhan pipeline to export their oil. While all the Russian projects are advancing, there is no progress on Samsun Ceyhan.

Let’s try to learn from past experience.