After Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet along the Syrian border on Nov. 24, 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned of “serious consequences for Russia's relationship with Turkey.” He described the incident as a “stab in the back,” sending a message to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he saw the downing of the plane as a betrayal. Russia soon slapped economic sanctions on Turkey, and the $38 billion trade volume between the two countries began to shrink. Turkey was seriously hurt, as many sectors of its economy ran into a wall.
Seven months later, on June 27, 2016, Erdogan sent a letter of apology to Putin, setting off the normalization process that would bring the two leaders together in St. Petersburg on Aug. 9. Because the meeting opened a new chapter in bilateral ties, the way in which the two leaders addressed each other escaped no one's attention. While Erdogan repeatedly called Putin “my dear friend” and an “esteemed statesman,” Putin responded only with “Mr. Erdogan.” Similarly, the Turkish leader pledged to “rapidly take relations back to their level before Nov. 24, 2015, and even further,” while Putin said that restoring ties to their pre-crisis level “will take time.”
In remarks to Germany’s ARD television network, Sergei Stepashin, a former head of Russia’s Federal Security Service and a Putin confidant, described the Russian president as someone who “never forgives those who deceive, betray or insult him even once.” In addition, according to retired Turkish Adm. Turker Erturk, the former commander of the Naval Military School, Putin still distrusts Erdogan. “Those who apologize easily betray easily. Putin knows that,” Erturk opined in an article on his personal blog.
Since Turkey's apology, Erdogan and Putin have met three times, and agreements have been signed to restore economic ties. Despite this, little has changed.
In a gesture to Moscow, Ankara accorded it “strategic investment” status for the $22 billion nuclear plant that the Russians are building in Turkey, a privilege that entitles the project to incentives and financial supports worth billions of dollars. Then, in the presence of Putin and Erdogan on the sidelines of the World Energy Congress in Istanbul, the two countries' energy ministers signed an accord for the construction of the $12.5 billion Turkish Stream gas pipeline.
Turkey expedited procedures for the pipeline and issued all the official permits required, allowing Gazprom to announce that the first leg of the project, which will supply gas to Turkey, could become operational in 2019. The fate of the second leg — the one that will carry gas to Europe and the one from which Turkey will earn money — remains uncertain. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said that construction of the second route can begin only after the European Union provides purchase guarantees.
Turkey, after being hit with heavy economic losses, had hoped for a speedy improvement in bilateral ties, but Russia is moving slowly, taking steps over time. Turkish contractors, who have suffered some of the largest losses because of the sanctions, had said in late June that construction projects worth $2 billion were ready for signing, but little progress has been made.
In regard to fresh fruits and vegetables, top Turkish export items to Russia, only citrus exports have thus far received the green light to resume. According to figures by Turkey’s Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Exporters Union, Russia, the sector’s top buyer in 2015, fell to 18th place in October, with exports dropping by 99%.
According to the Turkish Exports Assembly’s October figures, total exports were down 5% compared with 2015. The organization’s chairman, Mehmet Buyukeksi, said the improvement in ties with Russia over the past five months had yet to make an impact on exports.
Disappointment is also gripping the tourism sector after initial optimism over the Putin-Erdogan meeting in August. Russia delayed the resumption of charter flights until October, when tourist season draws to a close. According to October figures, the largest losses in the tourism sector stemmed from the decline in Russian visitors. In the Mediterranean province of Antalya, the favorite Turkish destination of Russian holidaymakers, the number of Russian tourists was down more than 60% from 2015, and the drop in revenue exceeded $5 billion.
Early bookings for next year offer no reason to cheer either. Representatives of the sector describe reservations as "scarcely any" and are already proclaiming 2017 a lost year. Osman Cetin Budak, the deputy chairman of the main opposition Republican People's Party, has warned of deepening trouble for the tourism sector, stressing that Turkey's image abroad — with the state of emergency after the failed coup attempt in July, arrests of journalists and politicians and military operations — is scaring off not only the Russians, but Westerners as well.
Turkey now seems to be considering a second apology to Russia in an attempt to speed up movement on progress. In a Nov. 2 interview with Russian state television, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said he was willing to personally extend an apology to the widow of the Russian pilot killed in the 2015 plane downing and offered financial support to the family. The widow responded that she would meet with the minister to accept the apology.
Turkey’s deep disappointment with the pace of economic fence mending was perhaps best reflected in remarks Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci made earlier this month. Stressing that he had had numerous phone calls with Russian ministers, Zeybekci said, “If it goes on like this, we cannot say that all is fine in our relations with Russia. This could lead us to take measures against each other in economic terms, and we, too, will do what is necessary.”
In a presentation to parliament on the current state of Turkish-Russian economic ties last week, Zeybekci listed ongoing restrictions: visa-free travel remains suspended; restrictions on fresh fruits and vegetables exports continue; Turkish companies remain banned from six sectors; the ban on employing Turkish workers continues; and the number of transit documents for Turkish cargo trucks has been reduced from 9,000 to 2,000.
In sum, Russia continues to move slowly and cautiously in the process that Erdogan’s apology started, while Turkey’s steps have been more substantial and quicker. Moscow expects political, military or economic concessions for every sanction it lifts. As the first anniversary of the plane crisis approaches, it seems that nothing will be the same again.
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