Russia, Turkey rediscovering each other

Ayhan Simsek - The New Anatolian / Ankara 28.06.06

After centuries of very controversial competition, Russia and Turkey are rediscovering each other and working to build a new multifaceted partnership, said Russian Ambassador Petr Vladimirovic Stegniy ahead of a key visit by Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer to Moscow today.

"What's going on in relations now reflects new domestic, regional and maybe global realities," Stegniy told The New Anatolian in an exclusive interview at his official residence. "For the first time during the five centuries of Turkish-Russian history, the pyramid of relations is based on solid common economic benefits and political dialogue and is stronger than ever.

"We're discussing all the hot potatoes that we avoided in the past. We can agree or disagree, but we speak openly. That's what I call partnership."

The Russian ambassador described this week's visit of Sezer as a step forward in the goal of establishing a multifaceted partnership and said it also reflects a new stage in bilateral cooperation.

Stegniy, who has spent almost 40 years of his career in the Middle East region, praised Turkey's increasingly active role in finding a diplomatic solution to the Iran crisis, as well as its efforts after January's Hamas victory in Palestinian elections, saying they reflect Turkey's regional and global responsibility.

Dismissing Western and Israeli criticisms of Ankara's decision in February to hold direct talks with Hamas, Stegniy stressed: "Such situations are always a team job. We have to have a level of trust towards each other to find different approaches for a more effective solution."

Here's what Russian Ambassador Stegniy had to tell us:

TNA: Increasing high-level contacts between Turkey and Russia will continue with the Turkish President Sezer's visit to Moscow starting Wednesday (today). This follows recent close cooperation of the two countries on important regional and global issues, including Black Sea security, the Iranian nuclear issue, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Can you tell us how Moscow views President Sezer's visit and what the expectations are?

STEGNIY: The visit of President Sezer is a response to the visit of President Putin to Turkey in December 2004. It's very important; the dialogue on the level of heads of state doesn't need additional explanation. Putin and Sezer signed two years ago a political declaration on deepening the relationship, what we call "the multifaceted partnership" between Turkey and Russia. I hope the visit will be a new step towards this goal. Always such visits of heads of states reflect a new stage in bilateral cooperation and that's why I'm looking forward to talks between our presidents. In Moscow there's a lot of optimism, and I think what's been done during recent years is a very positive starting point to further deepen our relations.

What's going on in our relations now reflects new domestic, regional and maybe also global realities. For the first time during the five centuries of Turkish-Russian history the pyramid of relations is based on solid common economic benefits and political dialogue is stronger than ever.

When we look at the figures of trade, it exceeds $15 billion, and we foresee in the near future an increase to $25 billion. This is very significant. In 1972, when the head of state of the Soviet Union visited Turkey, at that time our economic and trade relations were around $80 million. That shows an increase now almost 200 times bigger. This is one of the wonders of the market economy and a success of Russian and Turkish businessmen.

This is a new quality in relations which constitutes a strong base and positively affects all aspects and dimensions of our relationship. And then we have stronger people-to-people relations. We're rediscovering each other after centuries of very controversial competition. When they ask me why for a majority of Russians Turkey is the most popular foreign country for vocations, I have a standard answer: We have this strong human dimension and also the psychological compatibility. We laugh at the same jokes, we understand and appreciate your way of life, you come easier then most others with the peculiarities of the Russian way of life. Russian tourists feel here at home.

If we look from the bottom to the top of the pyramid we have stronger political dialogue. We're very sincerely trying to narrow the space of possible misunderstandings on regional issues of interest, while widening the possible fields of interaction. What for? To create an atmosphere of stability in the region and in our countries, to try to help the peoples of countries to help reach welfare. In principle if you want to understand the mentality of the current Russian foreign policy we want stability around our borders. Our economy is currently functioning well, but we have to keep this trend continuing. That's why we need the atmosphere of stability and wider cooperation around our borders. Eurasia and our southern neighborhood is extremely important for us because it's a relatively new sphere of wider international and regional cooperation. New geopolitical realities are established in the region. And it looks like Turkey and Russia, as the biggest countries of Eurasia, are adopting themselves faster than some others.

TNA: One of the widely discussed issues in the press nowadays is competition on the Black Sea. The U.S. has shown interest in more involvement in this region - militarily, politically and economically -- but we've seen reservations mainly by Russia and Turkey. What is your policy concerning the U.S. seeking more involvement in this region?

STEGNIY: We fully respect the legitimate economic and trade interests of a number of non-littoral countries. We were very positive about the U.S. joining the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) with an observer status. We hope that the U.S. business will come to the region. But concerning security, we see a common understanding that it's an absolute priority of littoral countries to develop a sustainable reliable network of security to face new challenges of threats, like terrorism, trafficking and so on. If we rely on foreign assistance, this leads us nowhere. We have to become an active region of cooperation, first of all the regional players. We're very cautious about modifying the acting legal system covering the Black Sea area, you know the Montreux Convention. Montreux is a result of a centuries-long historical experience. We prefer the existing legislation covering security of the system continues and should continue.

'We're trying to avoid confrontation scenarios'

TNA: The U.S. recently got new military facilities in Bulgaria and Romania, and in the Turkish press we had stories published during last year on the U.S. seeking military bases on Turkish coasts of the Black Sea. There are also reports on discussions for more NATO involvement in the Black Sea. How do you see these moves by the U.S. and Ankara's policy concerning the Black Sea?

STEGNIY: As far as Bulgaria and Romania are concerned, they are independent countries and they are building their own perception of national and regional security, on the basis of their understanding of what's going on their neighborhood. There's one point I would like to stress, maybe it would be interesting for you. Let me recall our foreign policy mentality. It's very important to understand that we're trying to avoid wider possible (large) scale confrontation scenarios. The keyword is regional stability. We're becoming partners and friends with Turkey not against somebody but for something. It's quite a new quality in foreign policy planning. For the time being, when we have not lost for a safer security system, for Europe and the whole world, let us work for the sake of the widest possible partnership. Let us join efforts. When you ask me about extension of NATO activities in the Black Sea, and legitimate sensitivities of Russia, there are two aspects here. One is the military, strategic aspect, where we have these sensitivities. And the second aspect is the general political trend. As far as we can see NATO is increasingly developing into a political military organization. If this continues it may offer much wider-scale ground for cooperation for the sake of partnership not in the framework of confrontation.

TNA: Mr. Ambassador, when Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov visited Ankara last month, one of the main topics was the Iranian nuclear issue. We have witnessed similar positions by Ankara and Moscow and efforts to reach a diplomatic solution. How do you see Turkey's role here?

STEGNIY: I think our cooperation on the Iranian nuclear issue is promising. We have a very close vision. We say that a military nuclear program is unacceptable. We stand for continuation of very loose cooperation between Iran and the UN's nuclear agency. At the same time as Russia we're against a military operation and we think it would be extremely counterproductive. That's why we're working very hard for a diplomatic solution. Turkey is an important neighbor of Iran and it's increasingly playing an active role in regional and also European politics.

That is one of very positive traditions of Turkish foreign policy, facilitating processes of searching for solutions for a local crisis. I view this very positively and see it as a reflections of Turkey's global and regional responsibility.

TNA: We also see closer views between Ankara and Moscow on how to deal with the Hamas government. When the Turkish government invited Hamas leaders to Ankara and held talks with the delegation in February, it got a strong backlash from many Western governments and Israel. But we saw Russia also chose a similar policy. How does Moscow look at Turkey's policy here?

STEGNIY: You know I've spent almost 40 years in the Middle East region. And I'm convinced that very different approaches to the solution of problems should be welcomed. You know in fact, if we're promoting multiple opinions in democratic systems, while we're so sensitive about offering different interpretations and visions of the situation at the level of international relations. We also received the elected Hamas delegation after the visit of Ankara, with one and only goal: to talk with them. The Hamas government was elected through democratic ways, that's why we prefer dialogue with them to putting influence. And that's also the only way to avoid double standards which could be extremely dangerous under globalization. The messages that we're trying to convey to Hamas is that they have to recognize geopolitical realities, first of all the existence of Israel. They have to have a dialogue inside the Palestinian autonomy and they have to accept international standards of political behavior, to open the new chances for enlarged interaction for the sake of a solution of the problem. I'm completely convinced that the same messages were given to Hamas by Ankara. I hope it will become much more clear for our partners that such kinds of situations are always a team job. We have to have a level of trust towards each other and try to find different approaches on how to find more effective solution and faster solution which will be for the sake of both Israel and Palestinians and the region.

TNA: Looking at the Iran and Hamas examples, can we say that now there's better coordination between Ankara and Moscow on regional policies?

STEGNIY: Since 2001, we've a joint working group between our foreign ministries. We have up to 10-12 consultation meetings at a year. If you mean exchange of information by coordination, it's practically not limited. Because we discuss all the hot potatoes, all the hot issues that we avoided in the past. We can agree or disagree, but we speak openly. That's what I call partnership. On certain issues we've reached a level where we coordinate our policies. But you know we're moving to a higher level of interaction and everything must go on naturally in the same spirit on different levels of our pyramid of relations. The most important thing is that we're talking and very often we have similar perceptions on regional issues. We coordinate our efforts with larger number of occasions.

TNA: What is the role of the close personal relationship between Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan and Russian President Putin on the current rapprochement?

STEGNIY: We're having increasing level of trust practically at all levels. It includes the contacts of the Russian president and Turkish prime minister, also Russian and Turkish presidents. I think that the personal relations between the leaders is a supporting factor for bilateral relations as a whole. During the last year President Putin and Prime Minister Erdoğan met five times during different occasions.

TNA: Press reports say one of the issues Erdoğan has asked Putin for is a positive move by Russia on the Cyprus issue to contribute to resuming peace talks and putting an end to the isolation of the Turkish Cypriots. What can we expect from Russia in the coming period on the Cyprus issue?

STEGNIY: As the situation in Northern Cyprus is concerned, the development of economic, trade relations on the municipalities level, and tourism, we've done a lot recently. The Chamber of Commerce of Russia visited both communities of the island and we're waiting for the head of the Turkish Cypriot chamber of commerce to visit Moscow soon. As a result of our reaction to the April 24, 2004 referendum (on the Annan plan), we sent a signal that Russian private companies may establish direct contact with Turkish Cypriot partners, of course with respect for EU legislation, international law and resolutions of the UN Security Council. In fact we're ready to follow possible modifications of the EU's trade policy, we're moving one step or a couple of steps behind the EU. If they take the long-awaited decisions on the trade, I think that we will follow. The legal basis of international law is a requirement for all those who are involved in the search for a solution to the Cyprus problem. We're talking extensively on the Cyprus issue with the Turkish Foreign Ministry and I think the direct results of these talks is increased transparency and predictability.

Politically we stand for a viable and lasting solution of Cyprus on the basis of the resolutions of the UN Security Council. The principle of free expression of the will of the people who live on the island is extremely important for us. It's a general principle which characterizes now our approach to ethnic conflicts in different parts of the world. I can also tell you that there is a new positive trend at the United Nations Security Council. All members are much more closely working on modalities to resume the peace process.