The Warming of Turkish-Russian Relations: Motives and Implications

By Warhola, James W.; Mitchell, William A. | Demokratizatsiya, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Warming of Turkish-Russian Relations: Motives and Implications


Warhola, James W., Mitchell, William A., Demokratizatsiya


Relations between Turkey and Russia have taken significant turns for the better in the past several years, culminating in the visit of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Moscow in December 2004, and followed by Russian President Vladimir Putin's reciprocal trip to Ankara in January 2005. This was the first time a Russian chief of state had paid an official visit to Turkey.1 The latter meeting was timed, perhaps not coincidentally, to occur just before the European Union summit meeting in Brussels, which included the perennial matter of Turkish membership on its agenda. Although those visits are significant in their own right, they are emblematic of a larger significant shift in each country's disposition to the other, and in some respects are symptomatic of shifting political orientations in their domestic and international politics. As Shireen T. Hunter asserts, "Turkish and Russian officials increasingly refer to their respective countries as two great Eurasian powers, indicating that the Turkish and Russian versions of Eurasianism need not be competitive. Rather, they can be complementary."2 This article explores the contours of this changing landscape with an eye toward identifying and critically analyzing alternative interpretations of the reasons for the emergence of a more cooperative set of relations between Turkey and Russia. It also does so from the perspective of the implications for democracy in each of these countries and the region more generally.

This remarkable turn toward greater cooperation between Russia and Turkey calls for commentary on several grounds, not least of which is the long history of suspicion, studied alienation, and overt military conflict between the two countries. As Lesser notes, "[djespite the fact that Turkey no longer shares a border with Russia, Ankara still continues to view Russia with concern. A long tradition of Russo-Turkish competition contributes to Turkish unease, and reinforces more modern worries about Moscow as a geopolitical competitor and a source of regional risk."3 That unease, however, appears to be giving way to substantial change. Improved relations between these two significant powers will certainly shape the contours of domestic and foreign politics in Eurasia well beyond each country's current regime.4 This is already evident in terms of rapidly expanding trade (from an estimated $4 billion in 2002 to approximately $10 billion in 2004, and projections of $25 billion by 2007),5 something akin to a military detente (if not rapprochement), an increasing measure of regional cooperation in attempted conflict resolution, and perhaps most demonstrably, diplomatic exchange. The last is perhaps most significant in that it may set the stage for expanded cooperation in economic and military domains as well as open doors in other aspects of bilateral and multilateral regional cooperation.

Historically, relations between the Ottoman Turkish and Russian empires were never particularly good or close, and were punctuated by armed conflict.6 Chronic conflict between the Ottoman Empire and a continually expanding Muscovy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was capped by Peter the Great's victory in capturing the fortress of Azov in 1696.

In 1715, Peter renamed Muscovy the Russian Empire, but with that redesignation came no change in long-term relations with the Ottoman neighbor to the south. There were wars fought in 1710, 1736, 1768-74, 1787, 1806-12,1828-29, 1854-56, and 1877-78. During World War I, Russian imperial forces occupied eastern portions of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. This, along with the postwar occupation of western Anatolia by Allied forces, led the founders of the modern Turkish Republic to dub the confusing mass of conflicts during and after World War I as Turkey's "War of Independence" (Kurtulus Savas). Although the early Turkish regime of Mustafa Kemal Atatiirk has been interpreted as having sought to base its principles on the ideals of both the American and Russian Bolshevik revolutions,7 Turkey took a decisively pro-Western and anti-Soviet orientation after World War II. …

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