PN Member Joost Lagendijk Comments on Turkey-Russia Relations

Joost Lagendijk
August 19, 2014

PN Member Joost Lagendijk comments on the current relationship between Turkey and Russia for Today's Zaman:

Does Turkey really want to gain the reputation of being an underseller, a country that deliberately dodges and undermines international sanctions against rogue states?

The question is pertinent bearing in mind the role of Turkish banks, companies and, as the Dec. 17 corruption allegations suggested, politicians and officials in circumventing the broad economic sanctions against Iran.

Despite all efforts by the ruling party to bury the dossier and stop further investigations, those lucrative but at least partly illegal actions have not been forgotten by the political and legal authorities in Washington and might pop up any time.

On top of having busted the Iran sanctions in the past, Turkey now seems to be readying itself for another round of measures that will taint its reputation in the international arena -- this time especially in Brussels and other European capitals that have entered into a trade war with Russia that might be long lasting.

Tensions between Russia and the EU have been building up for months since Putin shamelessly grabbed Crimea from Ukraine this spring and started a campaign of destabilizing the new pro-Western government in Kiev by actively supporting pro-Russian rebels in the eastern parts of Ukraine. The downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in July, which killed all 300 passengers, and the refusal of the rebels and their masters in Moscow to cooperate properly with the subsequent inquiries were the straw that broke the camel's back.

The EU decided to impose tough sanctions against the Russian Federation that target broad sectors of the Russian economy, including oil companies and banks. In retaliation, Moscow has banned the imports of fruit, vegetables and dairy products from the EU.

Until recently, Turkey kept a low profile in this conflict. Ankara supported the territorial integrity of Ukraine and bravely said it would protect the rights of the Crimean Tatars, but in real terms abstained from any act that could endanger its relations with Russia. Now, however, things have become more complicated.

Last week, Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci announced that Turkey is ready to fill the gap, replace the banned EU agricultural products and increase its food exports to Russia. It was exactly the kind of reaction the EU hoped Turkey would not give. Brussels already heightened diplomatic pressure on Latin American nations and on countries like Egypt not to try to take advantage of Moscow's food embargo.

Last Friday, EU foreign ministers directly called on Serbia and Turkey to respect and not undercut EU's policy: “In order to ensure the unity of the international community and to uphold international law, the EU expects third and candidate countries to refrain from measures which are aimed at exploiting new trading opportunities arising from the introduction of these measures [punishing Russia].”

The choice is now up to Turkey. I am sure many Turks, including several Cabinet ministers, are not interested in Brussels' warnings and feel that Turkey can do whatever is in its best interests. Why show solidarity with a union that does not seem very interested in Turkey's opinions on other issues anyway? That feeling is understandable but focusing solely on Turkey's short-term economic interests might be a problem for two reasons.

One is the long-term fallout of Ankara's defiance in Brussels and Washington. Let's not forget Turkey is desperately trying to get involved directly in the current transatlantic trade talks, which are of immense importance for the future of the Turkish economy. Stubbornly insisting now on Turkey's right to raise its exports to Russia, could become a classic example of the famous saying “penny wise, pound foolish.”

But there is a moral and political side to the present dispute as well, and that is the perception of Turkey applying double standards. For good reasons, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly accused Western countries of acting immorally with regard to the military coup in Egypt or the moderate opposition in Syria. Those appropriate rebukes don't make much sense when, at the same time, Turkey is being perceived as prioritizing trade over moral judgment in the case of Russia.

After the downing of MH17, it was Erdoğan who bluntly stated the missile was fired by Russia. At an iftar dinner in Bursa on July 19 he spoke out strongly against the mentality behind the attack and warned that those who downed the plane will pay the price for it.

That leads us to the following question: Is Turkey, finally, willing to confront Russia after its many wrongdoings in Ukraine or will it go without scruples, like the other countries it has vilified before, for strategic advantage and the quick buck?

PN Member Joost Lagendijk has been Member of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2009. He is now living and working in Turkey as a columnist for the Turkish dailies Zaman and Today's Zaman.

Originally published on Today's Zaman

Photo courtesy of galblue