14.03.04. Turkey, Russia begin to think big S.TASSEVEN, Turkish Daily News

  • Leaving the traces of past problems behind, Turkey and Russia are now committed to a future era of 'multi-dimensional cooperation,' analysts say

While pushing hard to become a European Union member, the Turkish government has recently taken steps to show that it also appreciates the importance of its giant neighbor, Russia. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül's visit to Moscow between Feb. 24 and 26 has established the will of the Turkish government to boost ties with Russia, according to Russian analysts.

The first visit to Russia by a Turkish foreign minister in eight years, gul's trip was meant to overcome the lack of communication which the two countries have long cited as the root cause of many disputes between Russia and Turkey.

gul's talks with top Russian leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, were termed by both sides as a general success. Putin noted that the bilateral ties were developing at a good pace and in a rather positive way. The Russian leader also praised Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's government for bringing a greater sense of stability to what has historically been an often tense relationship.

gul, in an interview with the Russian Itar-Tass news agency during his visit, said he agrees with the Russian leadership's description of the relationship as multi-dimensional. "What is important," he added, "is that we have political will to move further ahead in this direction."

Turkish-Russian ties in the aftermath of gul's visit were at the heart of discussions in Ankara this week, which drew participants from diplomatic, academic and parliamentary circles of Turkey and Russia.

The conference entitled "Cooperation in Eurasia region" and held by the Turkish Democracy Foundation has been a sign of the developing ties between the two countries.

"In previous terms we would not even imagine such a conference being held," said one of the Russian participants at the conference.

The deputy chairman of the Russian Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, Zelimkhan Al. Mutsoev, and the Russian Foreign Ministry's deputy director of information and press, Michail Troyanski, replied to questions from the Turkish Daily News in a brief interview on the first day of the conference in Ankara. Troyanski and Mutsoev drew a very positive portrait of relations in their words, reflecting the tendency of both sides not to bring traditional disputes on the agenda of relations and to focus more on improvement of bilateral ties and enhancing cooperation.

'We have never accused Turkish government officially'

"In fact, Russia has never accused the Turkish government officially. The fact that a few Turkish people have been found in Chechnya does not make us accuse the Turkish government," said Mutsoev when asked about Russia's recent perception of Chechnya-related problems between Turkey and Russia.

Russia has often accused the Turkish government of turning a blind eye to the activities of various NGOs operating in Turkey, which, Russian officials claim, are connected to Chechen separatists.

Prior to the arrival of Foreign Minister gul, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov asserted that most mercenaries killed or captured in Chechnya were Turks. "These circumstances will inevitably have a negative impact on the development of relations with Turkey," Ivanov said. While the issue of Russian concerns over Turkey on the Chechen problem had been expected to dominate the agenda of gul's visit, Russian leaders in Moscow adopted a much softer tone on the issue.

"Ivanov's words reflect his personal opinions, not the policy of the Russian administration. According to the Russian constitution, there are three people having the right to give state declarations on such issues; the president, prime minister and the foreign minister. Therefore, Ivanov's remarks are his own opinions and such personal perceptions do not affect the state's policy."

'We are working on alternative solutions to the Straits problem'

"Unfortunately, this is a problem that still exists in our relations. We have many tankers in our country waiting to pass through the Straits and this affects our economy badly. However, we also understand your concerns. You are experiencing air pollution and other related problems. We are thinking on alternative solutions that will be to the advantage of both sides. There is the Montreaux Convention which envisages free international passage of ships through the Straits. From this point, the procedure is to our advantage. On the other side, the international conciliatory boards considers the current situation and this is to your advantage. However, both of the countries should seek ways to solve this problem. Turkey and Russia agree on that. Alternative routes which would not pass through the Straits are under consideration in Russia."

Turkey imposes restrictions on traffic through the Straits due to safety and pollution concerns, a move criticized by Russia which says that the practice delays Russian oil exports.

The very day gul returned to Ankara from Moscow, Russia's acting deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Kalyuzhny accused Turkish authorities over the restrictions, claiming that the move was politically-motivated rather than being due to a technical problem.

"What the two countries should do is to be in dialogue to develop alternative solutions and this problem could easily be solved. This is not a problem to arrive at a point to affect relations between Turkey and Russia," added Troyanski.

'We are still considering the Georgian proposal'

"We are neither positive nor negative on the Georgian proposal of an alternative pipeline. We are considering the offer. But the details have not yet been clear, details of the plan should first be determined," noted Troyanski.

The new Georgian leadership recently offered Moscow advantageous terms for transit of Russian oil if Russia agreed on construction of an oil-pipeline that will follow a route parallel to the one taken by the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, which is still under construction, instead of being shipped to vessels in the Black Sea outlet of Novorossisk.

gul had noted that Turkey would welcome such a move if decided to be materialized since it would help ease the traffic at the Straits.

'gul's visit a major step in the relations'

Commenting on how gul's recent visit was perceived in Russia, Troyanski said that gul's visit has been a major step forward on behalf of the relations.

Troyanski stated that Turkey was an extremely important southern partner to Russia, adding Russia was willing to forget the past conflicts between the two countries and it only wanted to look further ahead in their relations with Turkey.