The Russo-Turkish Dance

Romanov-Osmon Ball Photo

The great Romanov-Osman ball took place at the Russian Consulate in Istanbul. In the hall of mirrors, bewigged, liveried servants bowed as Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna, a pretender to the Imperial Russian throne, and Prince Osman Selahaddin Osmanoglu, her Ottoman counterpart, emerged before the assembled guests.  The food was Russian, the chandeliers centuries old, and the Cossack dancers, balalaikas and elegant women with oriental fans and peacock feathers in their hair gave the impression of a venerable and grand imperial alliance.

This spectacle, which occurred in December, was the first Romanov-Osman ball in history – a remarkable feat given that such balls were once common between aristocratic houses.  The Imperial Russian and Ottoman families were in fact such bitter enemies for the greater part of two centuries that they, even after being disinherited, had had little social contact until this anachronistic event.  The ball was ostensibly organized as a charity event to commemorate the 210th birthday of Alexander Pushkin, though its effect in Europe was to cause many to wonder if there might be a more substantive and relevant alliance in the making.

Experts in the EU and U.S. point out that both Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan share humble beginnings, a willingness to fight to gain power, and an authoritarian streak.  Both are pushing for more political and economic dominance in their near-abroad regions, and both encourage strong-party political systems.  Both at times feel slighted by Europe and seem as comfortable dealing with dictators as democratic leaders.

Erdogan’s January 13 trip to Moscow accentuated many of these concerns.  While in Moscow, Erdogan said that Russo-Turkish “relations are developing and becoming more diversified in the political, military, economic and cultural spheres. What is exciting for me is that both sides have a positive will” to strengthen ties.  On the question of visa requirements, Erdogan said “The Prime Minister has just given us the good news that efforts to mutually abolish the visa requirements will go forward as planned.”  Turkish officials in Moscow also signed a host of measures that signal closer energy cooperation between the two countries in the future. These included a memorandum for Russia to build nuclear power plants in Turkey and the go-ahead for the Turkish section of Russia’s South Stream gas pipeline.  Upon his return to Istanbul, Erdogan announced that he would also host a Russo-Turkish strategic cooperation council meeting during President Medvedev’s planned May visit.  Finally, in 2008 Russia became Turkey’s most significant trading partner, and trade volume between the two countries is expected to balloon to $100 billion in the next five years.

Adding to speculations about a new Russo-Turkish axis is the reshuffling of Turkey’s regional alliances under Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s “zero-problem” policy with Turkey’s neighbors. The ongoing row between Turkey and Israel, two states previously united by secular nationalism in a sea of untrustworthy enemies, is an interesting case in point. That began in earnest following the 2009 Gaza war and was punctuated by Erdogan walking out of a meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum.  Tempers again flared last month after Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon humiliated Turkish ambassador Ahmet Oguz Celikkol by seating him on a lower chair during a meeting.  These developments, along with Erdogan’s outspoken criticisms of Israel in recent years, have brought the two countries to the brink of a cessation of diplomatic relations.  Considering that Turkey is the only Muslim country to have maintained an embassy in Israel for the last 61 years, and that in the late 1990’s Turkey was arguably one of the three or four closest allies of Israel, this is a serious development.  Meanwhile, Turkey has scrapped visa requirements for Lebanon, Jordan and Syria and gone a long way to strengthening ties with Armenia, Iraq and Iran.  Erdogan is a devout Muslim, and reacts in a visceral, emotional manner to the plight of the Palestinians.  As a result of these developments, Israel is no longer the cornerstone of Turkey’s policy in the region.

Yet does Turkey’s shift from an old and trusted alliance towards new partnerships signal that a significant Russo-Turkish axis may be in the making?  Probably not.  There are serious structural and popular limits to the relationship between Moscow and Ankara.  Turkey is firmly ensconced in NATO, and despite ongoing frustrations with Brussels, still wants to join the European Union.  The limits of Russian-Turkish cooperation can be seen in the inability of the two to agree on major issues such as Cyprus and Kosovo, as well as steps towards a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.  Also, there is little if any real popular connection between Russians and Turks. Russia has no soft power to speak of, and the 2008 Russo-Georgian war did little to promote the image of a benign northern neighbor in Turkish minds.  Turkish overtures to Russia should therefore be seen within the sphere of Turkey’s zero-problem policy, and the desire of a rapidly developing economy to open up new markets.

Turkey is Russia’s Germany in the Middle East. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has allowed Russia to bypass Poland with the planned Nord Stream gas pipeline, just as Erdogan will likely allow Russia to bypass Ukraine with the South Stream gas pipeline. If Europe is uncomfortable with Russian-Turkish ties, it should make a more concerted push for the building of the Nabucco gas pipeline.  This would to some extent free Turkey from complete energy dependence on Russia.  Yet apart from that, the EU should recognize that Turkey deals with Russia in much the same manner as do many EU states.  Business interests reign supreme, and the energy sector is the basis for economic relations. There is little real evidence that Turkey desires much more than economic and energy cooperation from Russia.

The Romanov-Osman ball demonstrated this point.  As Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna looked out over the assembled guests at the Russian Consulate, she, attired in a Turkish silk gown, gave a singular set of opening remarks to commence the ceremonies.  To the surprise of one correspondent in attendance, her speech consisted of dutifully reading through the list of the ball’s sponsors – mostly Russian firms.  Everything from the champagne to the orchestra had been flown in from Moscow, and one by one, she thanked those who had made the night possible. That business plug out of the way, the ball was able to begin.  The orchestra struck up a waltz, and the charade of Russo-Turkish friendship danced along with Romanovs and Osmans arm in arm.

Nicholas Siegel is an assistant director of the Transatlantic Relations Program at the Atlantic Council. Photo credit:  Hurriyet.

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