Russia and Turkey weaving closer economic ties

Sunday, December 5, 2004

ANKARA, Turkey -- Historic rivals Turkey and Russia have spent centuries vying for influence in central Asia, the Balkans and the Caucasus. Most recently, they bickered over routes to carry energy resources to world markets and traded accusations that each supports the other's militant groups.

But underneath that antagonism, the two have quietly woven a web of economic ties and are eyeing even closer cooperation.

The process will receive an official consecration today, when Russian President Vladimir Putin travels to Ankara in a visit rich in symbolism. Putin will be the first Russian leader ever to pay an official visit to Turkey.

The Russian leader is to meet Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and oversee the signing of six cooperation agreements, including defense, finance and energy accords.

The two-day visit "will be a new boost for Turkish-Russian relations," Sezer spokesman Sermet Atacanli said Friday.

Turkey and Russia have been rivals for centuries.

At the height of their powers, the Ottoman empire and Czarist Russia were locked in a struggle for regional supremacy. Friction between the two precipitated the Crimean War and they were on opposite sides of World War I. More recently, Turkey was NATO's easternmost front during the Cold War.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Turkey and Russia competed for control in Central Asia and the Caucasus, where Turkic states gained independence. Economically more powerful, Russia has in recent years maintained its dominance in the region.

But since the end of the Cold War, Turkey and Russia have also been concentrating on trade. Russia has become Turkey's second largest trading partner, after Germany. Turkey is a major consumer of Russian natural gas, and Turkey's Mediterranean coast is a favorite destination for Russian tourists.

Bilateral trade is expected to exceed a targeted $10 billion this year. Turkey's Trade Minister Kursad Tuzmen said trade will reach $15 billion in coming years.

A 278-mile pipeline that carries the Russian gas beneath the Black Sea has been operational since 2002. Turkish companies are active in Russia in retail, construction and brewing, and investment to date totals $2 billion.

"It is no longer rivalries, but cooperation which dominates relations," said Sinan Ogan, a researcher and Russia expert.

Putin's trip, originally scheduled for September, was postponed after the Beslan school tragedy in which more than 330 people were killed in a siege that Chechen rebels claimed responsibility for.

The Chechnya conflict is expected to feature high on the agenda during Putin's two-day visit. Many Turks trace their ancestry to Chechnya and other parts of the Caucausus, and Turks sympathize with their fellow Muslims in the war-ravaged Russian region.

Russia has called on Turkey to crack down on Turkish charities that it claims channel funds and weapons to Chechen rebels. Earlier this month, Russian officials said their forces in Chechnya killed two Turkish militants who were fighting alongside Chechen separatists.

On Friday, Turkish authorities apprehended 10 suspected Chechen militants and two pro-Chechen Turks in an apparent gesture to Putin.

"Russia's greatest concern is the support from certain Chechen civil organizations inside Turkey to Chechen terrorist movements," said Seyfi Tashan, director of the Ankara-based Foreign Policy Institute.

Turkey has in the past accused Russia of supporting Kurdish rebels who have waged a war for autonomy in Turkey's southeast since 1984. The war has killed some 37,000 people.

Putin and Erdogan are also expected to discuss contentious issues such as the Caucasus, where Turkey is allied with Azerbaijan and Russia is friendly with its rival, Armenia.

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