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Ukrainian-Turkish relations in the light of Russian-Turkish partnership

Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Petro Poroshenko, Photo: newvz.ru

The scandal caused by the new Ukrainian law “On Education,” the protests expressed by Hungary and Romania and PACE’s urge to amend the law have ruined the Kiev regime’s concept that “the whole world supports Ukraine.” The fact is that the worldwide support expressed for Ukraine right after the Euromaidan has been fiddled away and now only the Baltics are still supportive of Kiev’s policies.

Among the other allies are the EU’s Eastern Partners and Turkey, whose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Kiev in early Oct so as to open the 4th meeting of the Turkish-Ukrainian Cooperation Council. The release and return of members of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis Ahmet Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov to Kiev was also a pretext for discussing Ukrainian-Turkish relations. For the Turks, their contacts with Ukraine depend on their contacts with Russia.

The Ukrainian-Turkish “honeymoon” was in late 2015-summer 2016, when Turkey was at daggers drawn with Russia. During that period, the sides exchanged visits, organized joint maneuvers and discussed joint energy and space projects. The Turks were actively equipping the Crimean Tatar Noman Celebicihan Battalion (officially, they provided the unit with five mobile hospitals and equipment worth $810,000). But when the Turks restored their contacts with the Russians and ratified Turkish Stream (a gas pipeline that may lose Ukraine some 32 billion cubic meter of transit gas), they became less active in Ukraine.

But Kiev is still their big economic partner - one of the five biggest importers. In Mar 2017, Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman and Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim set an ambitious goal to enlarge the Ukrainian-Turkish trade turnover to $20 billion. And even though during his last visit to Kiev, Erdogan mentioned a much lower figure - $10 billion (in 2015 the index was $3.6 billion, in 2016, it was $3.1 billion, in 2012-2013, it was $5.6 billion), the sides continue talks to create a free trade area (even though it is not yet clear if the area will cover agricultural produce – 42% of the Ukrainian exports) and have reached agreements to intensify their ferry and air connections. Earlier, they signed an agreement allowing their citizens to stay in their territories without visas for 90 days within half a year using just their ID cards.

The Crimean Tatars are a special issue in Turkish-Ukrainian relations. Turkey regards them as part of the “Turkic World” and back up the Crimean Tatar Mejlis: Erdogan met with Refat Chubarov and Mustafa Dzhemilev (who are also members of the Supreme Rada’s Petro Poroshenko Bloc-Solidarity faction) during the Mejlis’s congresses in Turkey and told them that he was not going to recognize Crimea’s reunification with Russia. The Kremlin does not need this - especially as the Turks have certain business interests in Crimea - but it cannot endure their support for Crimean Tatar extremist organizations.

In any case, for Erdogan, Ukraine, Crimea and the Crimean Tatars are instruments he can use in his haggle with the Russians (after his visit to Kiev, Turkey stopped receiving ships from Crimean ports). It seems that the Turkish President does not want to be too dependent on Russia and seeks to show that he has enough room for foreign political maneuver.

Today, Turkey is playing a big role in the Syrian peace process and is a big economic partner for Russia: joint energy projects (the Turkish Stream, Akkuyu NPP), a contract to buy Russian S-400 systems, in Jan-July 2017, the Turkish-Russian trade turnover grew by 31.5% to $11.1 billion.

In the meantime, during his Oct visit to Moscow, CE Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland urged Russia to be more active at the CE despite the latter’s attitude towards the problems of Crimea and the Crimean Tatars: in Oct 2016, PACE adopted resolutions entitled “Political consequences of the Russian aggression in Ukraine” and "Legal Remedies for Human Rights Violations on the Ukrainian Territories outside the Control of the Ukrainian Authorities."

With all this in view, the Oct 25 news that Russian President Vladimir Putin pardoned Chiygoz and Umerov (the latter has a Russian passport even though Russian passports are not recognized in Ukraine) and they were sent though Turkey (where they met with Erdogan) to Kiev is not a big sensation. This just means that Erdogan has acted as an intermediator between Kiev and Moscow.

Recently, we received one more news that Chairman of Rosneft’s Board, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has appeared as a mediator in the talks with the Turkish authorities concerning arrested human rights activist Peter Steudtner. According to Der Spiegel, Schroeder met with Erdogan on the request of German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel and with the consent of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Does this mean that Russia, Turkey and Berlin have managed to reach mutually beneficial agreements? Their further steps will show if they have.

The return of Chiygoz and Umerov to Kiev may be Russia’s tactics to lower its tensions with Ukraine, to settle the conflict in Donbass and to restore its contacts with the EU. By having set those two men free, the Kremlin has shown that it is ready to set free and exchange people beyond the framework of the Minsk Process. All depends on who is the negotiator/the mediator: in Erdogan’s case, Putin has shown that he is ready to negotiate only with people whom he considers equal to himself and worthy of being negotiated with. Theoretically, this role may be played by the leaders of some post-Soviet republics as well as President of Finland Sauli Niinistö, one of the few European politicians who Putin trusts, or Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, who has visited Russia a dozen of times.

One more important fact is that responsible for exchange of POWs in Ukraine is Viktor Medvedchuk, the only Ukrainian politicians trusted by both Kiev and Moscow. It was Medvedchuk who developed a legal formula for setting free Nadezhda Savchenko, a Ukrainian politician sentenced to as many as 22 years in jail in Russia. Medvedchuk was in Putin’s workroom when the Russian President signed the decree to pardon Savchenko. Medvedchuk is also one of the most efficient mediators in the Minsk Process. He has mediated the release of more than 400 Ukrainian POWs in Donbass, particularly, the exchange of Volodymyr Zhemchugov and Yuri Suprun for four Donbass representatives. The exchange took place in Schastye, Lugansk Oblast, in Sept 2016, in the presence of OSCE observers, in line with point 6 of the Minsk Protocol “Ensure release and exchange of all hostages and unlawfully detained persons, based on the principle ‘all for all.’”

Thus, we can say that relations among Kiev, Ankara and Moscow are an equation with lots of variables. The current state of affairs in Ukrainian-Turkish and Russian-Turkish relations prompts the sides to be carefully optimistic. But let’s wait and see how this political story develops.

Denis Gayevsky, Kiev

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