Why is Turkish-Russian normalization progressing at a snail’s pace?

Why is Turkish-Russian normalization progressing at a snail’s pace?

In parallel with increased diplomatic traffic between Ankara and Moscow, relevant mechanisms to provide a better and more efficient civil society dialogue have been re-activated between Turkey and Russia as part of efforts to fully normalize bilateral relations. 

A good example of this effort was observed in Moscow on Dec. 13 as experts, journalists, diplomats, businessmen and prominent figures came together at a meeting initiated by the Eurasian Talks Panel in cooperation with Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC). The theme chosen by the Eurasian Talks - an intellectual discussion platform exploring the economic, political and strategic potential of the Eurasian region - was “Evaluating Turkish-Russian Relations from an Economic Perspective.” 

Readers of the Hürriyet Daily News will hear more about the panel in the coming days, but this column will first try to analyze the state of the normalization process between Ankara and Moscow. 

A process that would bring about normalization between the two countries began after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin in late June expressing Turkey’s regret over the downing of the Russian jet on Nov. 24, 2015, killing a Russian pilot. The first meetings were carried out by the foreign ministers of the two countries in July and the much-anticipated encounter between Erdoğan and Putin took place on Aug. 9 in St. Petersburg. 

Erdoğan and Putin met two more times, in China on the sidelines of a G20 Summit and in Istanbul on the occasion of the World Energy Council. Turkey and Russia held a joint economic council meeting in October and a political planning meeting in late November in Alanya between their two foreign ministers, before Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım visited Moscow in early December for talks with Dimitry Medvedev. 

All eyes have now turned to the upcoming High-Level Cooperation Council meeting to take place either in late January or in February in Russia under the leadership of the two presidents, Erdoğan and Putin.

Apart from bilateral talks, the two countries’ diplomats, military and intelligence officers have also been engaged in intensified efforts to coordinate their respective policies and military actions in Syria. The Russian and Turkish chiefs of general staff have met twice in the past few months, with Erdoğan and Putin agreeing to establish a three-way mechanism between the two countries to oversee developments in war-torn Syria.

One immediate concern that the two countries’ diplomats are working on now is on providing a cease-fire in Aleppo. 

Despite all this intense diplomatic traffic and engagement, expectations for a swift and efficient normalization have yet to be fulfilled. Many of the sanctions put in place after Turkey’s downing of the Russian jet in late 2015 have still not yet been removed, despite the fact that Moscow expresses its intention for reconciliation at almost every bilateral meeting. 

The Russian government removed its restrictions on tourism agencies and allowed charter flights to resume, so Russian nationals can begin again to enjoy Turkish resorts. But sanctions in other fields remain to be implemented. Trade sanctions on Turkish agricultural products remain overwhelmingly in place, while the hardened visa regime is still yet to be loosened. Expectations that visa-free travel to Russia for service passports holders and businessmen would start to be implemented by the beginning of this year have also proven futile. 

Although it is known that the Russian authorities are working on visa issues, the delay in the process is creating frustration among Turkish businessmen and investors. It is believed that steps will be taken in the coming months and be announced by Putin at the upcoming cooperation council meeting. 

There are a number of reasons for this slowed-down normalization process. The first is Moscow’s measures to produce its own agricultural needs over the last few years, especially after the EU imposed sanctions on Russia. The Russian food sector is now trying to produce essential agricultural products for the Russian market, so lifting sanctions at this moment is not planned. 

Syria a potential threat to Ankara-Moscow relationship?

As for issuing working visas to Turkish nationals and allowing companies to recruit Turkish executives, these are also related to the Russian domestic market. In a bid to reserve job opportunities for Russians, Moscow seems to be reluctant to take this step, apart from in the construction field, as Turkish companies have been heavily involved in Russia’s giant construction projects. 

However, all these rational explanations also accompany a lack of mutual confidence between the two countries, especially with regard to ongoing developments in Syria. It should not be forgotten that relations between Ankara and Moscow were cut not because of a bilateral conflict, but because of Syria. Many are concerned that Moscow-Ankara relations could be hurt once again due to unexpected developments in Syria.
An attack on a Turkish military unit near al-Bab in Syria, which killed four Turkish troops, took place on Nov. 24, in an obvious bid to create a provocation. It’s clear that the situation in Syria is very fragile and it will become even more fragile after the Bashar al-Assad regime fully recaptures Aleppo. 

In that regard, the “pragmatic cooperation” between Ankara and Moscow, which allowed the former to conduct a military offensive into Syria to secure its border and allowed the latter to intensify its military actions to help al-Assad’s capture of Aleppo, may come to an end. It’s expected that al-Assad will advance further north to Idlib after Aleppo, and he will thus get closer to Turkish troops near al-Bab. 

As stated explicitly, al-Assad’s main target is to clear out all forms of opposition groups, whether moderate or not, from across Syria. It may therefore launch a new offensive against the Free Syrian Army, Turkey’s main ally in Syria. All these forecasts depict one reality: Syria will continue to pose a potential threat to the Turkish-Russian relationship. Although not voiced loudly, this may be one of the reasons for the very snail-paced normalization process between Ankara and Moscow.