RUSSIA, TURKEY AND THE GREAT GAME: CHANGING TEAMS

APA
02 Feb 2010 01:21

Baku - APA. For all intents and purposes, Turkey has given up on
the European Union, recognizing it as a bastion of Islamophobia and
captive to US dictate, APA reports quoting Al Jazeera. As Switzerland
bans minarets and France moves to outlaw the niqab, the popular
Islamist government in Istanbul moves in the opposite direction
-- supporting the freedom to wear headscarfs, boldly criticizing
Israel and building bridges with Syria. This is nothing less than a
fundamental realignment of Turkish politics towards Turkey's natural
allies -- the Arabs ... and the Russians.

This new alignment with Russia began in 2001 when Turkish and
Russian foreign ministers signed the Eurasia Cooperation Action
Plan. It went into high gear in February 2009, when Turkish President
Abdullah Gul made a state visit to Russia, including a visit to the
Russian Federation's thriving and energy-rich Autonomous Republic of
Tatarstan, populated by a majority of Muslim Turks, with pipelines,
nuclear energy and trade the focus of attention.

In the past, Russia had poor relations with Turkey, which since its
founding as a republic in 1922 was firmly in the Western camp and seen
by Moscow as a springboard for infiltration into the Caucasus and its
Turkic southern republics. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in
1991, Yeltsin's Russia acquiesced to US hegemony in the region, and
as part of this opening to the West, Turkish schools, construction
firms and traders came in great numbers to the ex-Soviet "stans"
(Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan).

9/11 convinced Russian president Vladimir Putin to go so far as
welcoming US military bases in the most strategic "stans". The old
Great Game appeared to be over, lost resoundingly by Russia.

But as the world tired of the US-sponsored "war on terrorism", it
seemed the Great Game was not over after all. A NATO member, Turkey
was soon joined by Bulgaria and Romania, making the Black Sea a de
facto NATO lake, alarming a now resurgent Russia.

Ukraine's Western-backed "Orange Revolution" in 2004 further tilted the
balance away from Russia, with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko
defiantly vowing to join NATO and kick the Russian fleet out of
Crimea. He even armed Georgia in its war with Russia in 2008.

However, not only Russia was fed up with the new pax americana. Over
90 per cent of Turks had an unfavourable view of the US by 2007. It is
no surprise that Turkey began to back away from unconditional support
of NATO and the US, notably, during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, by its
refusal in 2008 to allow US warships through the Bosphorus Strait to
support Georgia, and by its outspoken criticism of Israel following
the invasion of Gaza that year.

In contrast to the US-sponsored colour revolutions in the ex-socialist
bloc, Turkey's "Green Revolution" brought the religious-oriented
Justice and Development Party to power in 2002. Its political direction
has been in search of balance in the region and peaceful relations
with its neighbours, including Armenia and the Kurds. In 2004 Russian
president Vladimir Putin signed a joint declaration of cooperation in
Ankara, updated in February 2009 by Gul and Russian President Dmitri
Medvedev in Moscow. Gul declared, "Russia and Turkey are neighbouring
countries that are developing their relations on the basis of mutual
confidence. I hope this visit will in turn give a new character to
our relations."

Key to this is Turkey's proposal for the establishment of a Caucasus
Stability and Cooperation Platform. Following Gul's visit, Turkish
media even described Turkish-Russian relations as a "strategic
partnership", which no doubt set off alarm bells in Washington.

None of this would be taking place without solid economic interests.

Turkish-Russian economic ties have greatly expanded over the past
decade, with trade reaching $33 billion in 2008, much if it gas and
oil, making Russia Turkey's number one partner. They may soon use
the Turkish lira and the Russian ruble in foreign trade.

This is the context of Medvedev's visit 13 January to Ankara, which
focused primarily on energy cooperation. Russia's AtomStroiExport had
won the tender for the construction of Turkey's first nuclear plant
last year, and Medvedev was eager to get final approval on Turkish
cooperation in Gazprom's South Stream gas pipeline to Europe. Turkey
will soon get up to 80 per cent of its gas from Russia, but this
dependency is no longer viewed as a liability in light of the two
countries' new strategic relations.

Just what will happen to the West's rival Nabucco pipeline, also
intended to transit Turkey, is now a moot point. Nabucco hopes
to bring gas from Iran and Azerbaijan to Europe through Turkey
and Georgia. Given the standoff between the West and Iran and the
instability of Georgia, this alternative to Russia's plans looks
increasingly unattractive. Azerbaijan, shrewdly, has already signed
up with South Stream.

Kommersant quoted Gazprom officials as saying that Turkey could soon
join Italy and Germany as Russia's "strategic partner". Italy's ENI is
co-funding the South Stream project. The other arm of Gazprom's pincer
move around Ukraine is Nord Stream, and Germany late last year gave
its final approval for Nord Stream. A Polish minister compared the
Russia-Germany Nord Stream project to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentropp
pact, because the pipeline allows Russia to deliver gas to Western
Europe and "turn off the taps" to Ukraine in case it stops paying
or starts stealing gas as happened several times under the Orange
revolutionaries.

Turkey is very much a key player in this new Great Game, only it
appears to have changed sides. The Russian and Turkish prime ministers
voiced the hope that their trade would triple by 2015, and announced
plans to for a visa-free regime by May this year. "In the end, without
doubt, [a visa-free regime] will lead to activating cooperation
between our countries," said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan.

The presidential elections now in progress in Ukraine could take some
of the wind out of the sails of South Stream. Its rationale could
be brought into question if the new Ukrainian president succeeds in
convincing Moscow that s/he will make sure no further hanky-panky
takes place. Ukraine, in dire economic straits, needs the transit
fees, which would disappear if current plans go ahead. But the damage
the Orange revolutionaries did to Ukraine's economy and relations
with Russia is already a fait accompli. Says Alexander Rahr at the
German Council on Foreign Relations, "Under every leadership, Ukraine
will try to make use of its geographical position and the Russians
realized this some time ago. This is why they desperately need a way
to circumvent Ukraine."

Even if Ukraine, too, changes teams and rejects NATO expansion plans,
it will still have to thrash out a new role, most likely minus its gas
transit commissions. Contender Viktor Yanukovich has signaled he would
sign up to an economic cooperation agreement with Russia and smooth
over existing political problems like the question of the Russian
fleet and possibly the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Turkey could well follow suit. "If any Western country is going to
recognise the independence of Abkhazia, it will be Turkey because of
a large Abkhazian Diaspora there," says Rahr.

There is no reason why Ukraine couldn't join the budding
Russian-Turkish alliance, founded on regional stability and peace,
unlike the current NATO-led one of confrontation and enmity. This would
leave only the mad Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili quixotically
fighting his windmills, dictator of a rump state -- the very opposite
of his intended role as NATO's valiant knight leading its march
eastward. Even inveterate Turkish foe Armenia seems eager to join
the new line-up, as last year's exchange of ambassadors demonstrated.