Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has met with Vladimir Putin often and known him for a long time, has visited Moscow. It is understandable that they spoke about Syria: Russia and Turkey are key participants in the processes associated with the Syrian crisis. Their approaches to the situation have diverged to such an extent that a compromise is unlikely. However, their differences, though deep-seated, should not affect the basic relations between Russia and Turkey. Apart from a complex intersection of interests in the gas and economic spheres, the two countries also share a conceptual affinity.
Russia and Turkey have a similar history of relations with Europe. They both enjoy long-standing traditions as great powers and have been actively involved in European policy for centuries, yet the main European powers have never regarded them as equals.
Debates inside the two countries have never stopped raging over whether they are part of Europe, and, if so, to what extent. Over recent decades (20 years in the case of Russia and 50 years for Turkey), both countries have on numerous occasions declared their intention to join Europe, one way or another, while at the same time maintaining a pronounced sense of independent identity. But there the similarity ends: Russia is biding its time, while Turkey is beating on the European door.
Turkey’s assertive behavior is understandable given that it has put a much greater stake on the EU than Russia has. It first raised the issue of integration in 1963 and had been working toward it until the end of the 20th century. When Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected prime minister in 2003, he made a concerted effort to promote democracy, although his detractors suspect that his real goal was not European membership, but rather that his democratic reforms were aimed at breaking the back of the political influence of the army generals. On the other hand, these are not mutually exclusive goals.
The more actively Turkey pursued its EU roadmap, the less eager the EU promised it anything. By 2010, it had become clear (even if no one wanted to admit it openly) that the EU was not going to admit Turkey, not for a lack of democracy, but due to the Muslim factor. If Europe could not imagine a Muslim country of 80 million people enjoying the rights and opportunities granted to EU members before, then the growing fear of Islam in Western Europe today has finally put an end to any possibility of this happening. It is difficult to say when Turkey became aware of this, but at a certain point its behavior changed.
Officially Turkey has continued to discuss joining the EU and adapting its sociopolitical system to the European model, while at the same time sharply criticizing Europe for violating human (Muslim) rights, intolerance, and xenophobia, among other things. It is getting its own back. Turkey has suspended official ties with the EU for the duration of the Cyprus presidency and is clearly enjoying the fact that Greece, the historical opponent of Turkey and the patron of Cyprus, is not just in a depressed state but has become a major headache for Europe as a whole.
At the same time, Turkey has increased its activity in the region, positioning itself as a major power pursuing an independent policy and trying to develop equal relations with all countries, including the United States. Turkey’s growing charge has surprised everyone, especially Europe, which cannot decide how to react to it.
On the other hand, despite its economic and political achievements, Turkey is short of resources for going it alone, especially as it plans to move all over the region. Prime Minister Erdogan has pinned his hopes on the cumulative effect, charging in all directions at once to convince everyone of the seriousness of his intentions. But if he overdoes it, he may encounter resistance on all fronts. Turkey has many partners but absolutely no friends: nearly all its neighbors are suspicious of it, although each of them hopes to exploit the situation by moving in Turkey’s wake. In this respect, Turkey is similar to Russia.
There has been no open declaration of vindictiveness toward Europe, but Turkey is clearly trying to make Europe see how much it has lost by refusing it entry. It has also openly challenged Europe in the Middle East by becoming the protector of the “new democracies” in a bid to replace the EU. And lastly, Turkey’s claims to the role of the European hydrocarbon hub, which the EU initially supported to diminish Russia’s influence, could backfire. The EU is unlikely to be pleased if its dependence on the supplier (Russia) is complemented with dependence on a major transit country (Turkey).
In a rapidly and chaotically changing world, the main stability factor for any country is its ability to choose the right priorities and spheres of interests and to achieve a stable identity. Russia and Turkey, which are undergoing fundamental transformation, have only just embarked on this path. It is this factor, rather than the common global and regional problems they face, that will encourage their mutual interest for each other.