Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Central Asia
     Sep 12, 2008
Page 1 of 2
Russia and Turkey tango in the Black Sea
By M K Bhadrakumar

Amid the flurry of diplomatic activity in Moscow last week over the Caucasus, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took time off for an exceptionally important mission to Turkey, which might prove a turning point in the security and stability of the vast region that the two powers historically shared.

Indeed, Russian diplomacy is swiftly moving even as the troops have begun returning from Georgia to their barracks. Moscow is weaving a complicated new web of regional alliances, drawing deeply into Russia's collective historical memory as a power in the Caucasus and the Black Sea.

German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht would have marveled


at Lavrov's diary, heavily marked with "Caucasian chalk circles" through last week, with intertwining plots and sub-plots - an Extraordinary European Council Meeting taking place in Brussels; a meeting of the foreign ministers of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Moscow; three foreign counterparts to be hosted in Moscow - Karl de Gucht of Belgium, Franco Frattini from Italy and Azerbaijan's Elmar Mamedyarov; visits by the presidents of the newly independent republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia; and consultations with the visiting United Nations secretary general's special representative for Georgia, Johan Verbeke.

Yet, Moscow signaled the highest importance to consultations with Turkey. Lavrov summarily dropped all business at home and hurried to Istanbul on Tuesday on a working visit, essentially aimed at catching a few hours' urgent confidential conversation with his counterpart, Ali Babacan. Lavrov's mission underscored Russia's acute sense of its priorities in the current regional crisis in the Caucasus and the Black Sea.

Historical rivals becoming allies
Almost inevitably, there is great historical poignancy when Russia and Turkey discuss the Black Sea. During the year-long siege of the Russian fortress naval base Sevastopol in 1854-55 by the British and French, Tzarist Russia realized one or two home truths. One, that Turkey's role could be critical for the safety of its Black Sea fleet, and, two, without the Black Sea fleet, Russia's penetration into the Mediterranean would not be feasible. Most important, Russia learned that the original ground of a war may be lost, but the protagonists could continue with hostilities.

When peace finally came with the Congress of Paris in 1856, the Black Sea clauses came at a tremendous disadvantage to Russia - so much so that within the year the tzar conspired with Germany's Otto von Bismarck, denounced the accord and proceeded with re-establishing a fleet in the Black Sea.

The timing of Lavrov's consultations in Turkey was noteworthy. US Vice President Dick Cheney happened to be in the region, visiting Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Georgia, drumming up anti-Russia animus. Turkey didn't figure in his itinerary. Moscow shrewdly estimated the need of political dynamism with regard to Turkey.

Moscow has taken careful note that unlike the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union, Turkey's reaction to the conflict in the Caucasus has been manifestly subdued. Ankara briefly expressed its anxiety over the developments, but almost in pro-forma terms without taking sides. On the one hand, Turkey is a NATO member country and it aspires to join the EU. It was a close Cold War ally of the US. Turkey will be the net beneficiary as an energy hub if any of the West's grandiose plans to bypass Russian territory and access Caspian energy materialize. It is the entrepot of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline.

On the other hand, Russia is poised to be Turkey's number one trading partner, with annual trade already nearing US$40 billion. Invisible trade is also substantial, with 2.5 million Russian tourists visiting Turkey annually and Turkish companies extensively involved in Russia's services sector. And, Russia supplies 70% of Turkey's needs of natural gas.

Thus, Turkey has ingeniously come up with the idea of a "Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Pact", whose main virtue would be, to quote Turkish commentator Semih Idiz, to "provide Turkey with the option of remaining relatively neutral in this dispute, even if this was not to everyone's satisfaction in Washington". Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Moscow on August 12 to discuss the proposal with the Kremlin. Idiz adds, "Put another way, Ankara is not in a position to take sides in this dispute, at a time when a new 'East-West divide' is in the offing, even if it is a member of NATO."

Conventional wisdom is that Moscow abhors encroachments into its "sphere of influence" in the Caucasus by outside powers. However, in the present case, the Kremlin promptly welcomed the Turkish proposal and agreed to have consultations on building up bilateral and multilateral dialogue on all aspects of the Caucasus problem. The Russian approach is pragmatic.

Primarily, it was imperative to engage Turkey, an important regional power, which helped mitigate Russia's regional isolation in the crisis. Second, it paid to involve Turkey on Russia's side, as it does not form part of the EU peace initiative.

Turkey's influence in Southern Caucasus is undeniable. Turkey's annual trade with Georgia amounts to $1 billion, a considerable volume by the latter's yardstick. Turkish investment in Georgia is in excess of half a billion dollars. Turkey also supplied weapons and provided training to the Georgian military. Turkey's ties with Azerbaijan have been traditionally close, too.

Thus, Moscow took the perspective that the Turkish proposal could provide the basis to work out mechanisms for limiting the conflict potential of the region and enhancing regional stability and act as a counterweight to the West's intrusive moves directed against Russian interests.

Lavrov told Babacan that while "it is necessary at this stage to create appropriate conditions" for Ankara's peace initiative, "including elimination of the consequences of the aggression against South Ossetia", "we absolutely agree with our Turkish partners that the groundwork for that interaction can and must be laid now".

At the core of the Russian thinking lies the preference for a regional approach that excludes outside powers. Lavrov was open about it. He said, "We see the chief value in the Turkish initiative in that it rests on common sense and assumes that countries of any region and, first of all, countries belonging to this region should themselves decide how to conduct affairs there. And others should help, but not dictate their recipes."

Lavrov was hinting at displeasure over the US role. He went on, "Of course, this will be an open scheme, but the initiative role here will belong to the countries of the region. This is about the same thing as ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] in Southeast Asia, which has a lot of partners [10], but the ASEAN members define the work agenda for the region, and the region's life."

The Russian approach is to welcome an "entente cordiale" with Turkey in the Black Sea region, which frustrate US attempts to isolate Russia in its traditional backyard. During Lavrov's visit to Istanbul, the two sides agreed about the "necessity of using more the already available mechanisms - the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization [based in Istanbul] and Blackseafor [regional naval force] - and developing the Turkish idea of Black Sea harmony, which is increasingly acquiring a multilateral and practical character."

Curiously, at the press conference in Istanbul with Babacan by his side, Lavrov made a huge ellipsis in the thought process by linking the Russian-Turkish shared interest in undertaking joint initiatives to two other regional issues - Iraq and Iran. He said, "Essentially from the same positions we also champion what needs to be undertaken for a definitive resolution of the situation in Iraq on the basis of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of that state. Also similar are our approaches to the necessity of a political peaceful settlement to the situation surrounding Iran's nuclear program."

The full import of Lavrov's statement needs careful analysis. Its ramifications are profound. It can be understood against the backdrop of the US's ideas in the past to use the eastern Black Sea coast as a staging post for its military operations in Iraq and a potential strike against Iran - which Ankara firmly rejected, to the great relief of Moscow. Suffice to say, Lavrov has done brilliantly by floating an idea to link Iraq and Iran with a Russo-Turkish regional framework on security and cooperation.

The straits question
But in immediate terms, Moscow has its eyes set on the US's military pressure in the Black Sea. At the root of the present situation lies the so-called "straits question". Briefly, Moscow would like Ankara to continue to resist US attempts to revisit the 1936 Montreux Convention, which vests in Turkish hands control over the Bosphorus Straits and the Dardanelles. The US was not party to the 1936 convention, which severely restricted the passage of warships through the two Turkish straits to the Black Sea and virtually ensured the Black Sea as a Russo-Turkish playpen.

The Montreux Convention is critical to Russia's security. (During World War II, Turkey denied the Axis powers permission to dispatch warships to the Black Sea to attack the Soviet naval fleet based in Sevastopol.)

In the post-Cold War scenario, Washington has been mounting pressure on Turkey to renegotiate the Montreux Convention so as to progressively convert the Black Sea into a preserve of NATO. Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria are NATO countries; the US has military bases in Romania; the US is hoping to induct Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. Therefore, Turkish resistance to the US entreaties regarding renegotiating the Montreux Convention assumes great importance for Moscow. (During the current conflict in the Caucasus, Washington sought to dispatch two massive warships weighing 140,000 tons to the Black Sea ostensibly to provide "aid" to Georgia, but Ankara refused permission on the grounds that such passage through the Bosphorus violated provisions of the Montreux Convention.)

Moscow appreciates the nuance in the Turkish policy. Actually, Moscow and Ankara have a shared interest in maintaining the Black Sea as their joint preserve. Second, Ankara rightly apprehends that any move towards re-opening the Montreux Convention - which Turkey negotiated with great dexterity, statesmanship and foresight by Kemal Ataturk against formidable odds - would open a Pandora's box. It might well turn out to be a step towards reopening the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, the cornerstone which erected the modern Turkish state out of the debris of the Ottoman Empire.

Writing in the liberal Milliyet newspaper recently, prominent Turkish political analyst Tahya Akyol neatly summed up the paradigm:
Anatolia's geography required giving priority to looking towards the West during the Byzantine and Ottoman eras, while never ignoring the Caucasus and the Middle East. Of course, nuances change, depending on events and problems. A Turkey directed towards the West would never ignore Russia, the Black Sea, the Caucasus, the Middle East or the Mediterranean. The symphony of changing and complicated nuances depends on the ability of our foreign policy and the size of our power. There's no such thing as an infallible policy, but Turkey has avoided making huge foreign policy mistakes. Its basic principles are sound.
Moscow has a deep understanding of the quintessential 

Continued 1 2  

A comedy of areas
(Sep 10,'08)

Russia remains a Black Sea power
(Aug 30,'08)

Americans play Monopoly, Russians chess
(Aug 19,'08)

1. Seven years on, three big 9/11 lies

2. Secrets of the Taliban's success

3. US's 'good' war hits Pakistan hard

4. A comedy of areas

5. India throws open a $100bn nuclear bazaar

6. Civilians caught in Sri Lanka's 'clean war'

7. US warned over raids in Pakistan

8. Paulson placates China, Russia for now

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Sep 10, 2008)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110