Normalization with Russia: Not that easy
It was actually a routine congratulatory message for Russia Day, which has been sent by the Turkish president and prime minister every year, similar to the messages sent to other countries on their national days.
But this year it had a different meaning. Sending the message was not guaranteed option because of the crisis in Turkish-Russian relations after Turkey’s downing of the Russian Su-24 fighter jet with two pilots aboard on Nov. 24, 2015, over violations of the Syria-Turkey border.
Not more than 10 days before that incident, President Tayyip Erdoğan had met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin during the G-20 Summit in the Mediterranean resort town of Antalya – not knowing that it would be their last meeting for a long time. But even in that meeting Erdoğan had raised the issue of Russian jets violating Turkish airspace from their base in Latakia in support of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.
Ironically enough, the sudden deterioration in relations with Russia hit the Turkish city of Antalya the most.
Antalya had been receiving some 3 million Russian tourists every summer in recent years. But in 2016 Antalya lost more than 90 percent of its tourists from Russia. Not only has the tourism sector been hit, as one of Turkey’s major fresh fruit and vegetable exporters, Antalya farmers have also been suffering a lot from the embargo of Russia, their major client.
Until the Syria civil war separated the ways of Russia and Turkey, the two presidents were getting along well. Even the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine by Russia did not affect their political and commercial relations, which ranged from building a nuclear power plant in Turkey to undertaking giant construction work in Russia.
Both Ankara and Moscow have been saying they would like to see relations return to normal. Putin made it clear that there was one condition for this: An apology from the Turkish side and compensation for the pilots.
Erdoğan also made it clear that Turkey would not apologize for defending its borders, especially after giving insistent warnings. But he has also said he could not believe that his good friend Putin reacted so strongly to a “mistake” by a pilot. After news agencies interpreted this vague sentence as meaning the mistake of a Turkish pilot hitting the Russian plane, “sources from the presidency” leaked to the Turkish media that Erdoğan meant the Russian pilot. But it did not turn into an official statement.
There is now a stalemate situation where both countries were losing. The Turkish Foreign Ministry has advised both the president’s and the prime minister that Turkey should send its official Russia Day messages as usual, as a gesture of their will to get relations back on track. So Erdoğan wrote to Putin and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım wrote to his counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, the messages which were announced on June 14.
On June 15, the Kremlin said it also wanted relations to return to normal, but first Turkey had to take some steps; (obviously Moscow was implying the apology and compensation). It was also announced that Russian Ambassador to Ankara Andrey Karlov would accept the invitation of Erdoğan to attend an iftar dinner (to break his fast) with the diplomatic corps on June 15.
These are perhaps mutual gestures to break the ice between them, but there is still no sign of a softening political stance by either Turkey or Russia. An apology by Erdoğan would not be easy.
Since the downing of the plane, the Turkish Air Force has not been able to carry out operations in Syrian air space against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or other forces that it regards as terrorists, because of the possibility of Russian retaliation. Would Russia now like to see Turkey back in the Syrian theater, against its ally al-Assad? This is especially worth asking at a time when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned Russia that his country’s patience over the tolerance shown to al-Assad was wearing thin. What’s more, NATO (which Turkey is a part of) is also calling on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine, amid a growing military pileup in both the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.
Amid this uncertainty, normalization in Turkish-Russian relations should not be expected any time soon, unless there are radical policy changes in Ankara, Moscow, or both.