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Pyotr Stegniy

Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation

Following up the negotiations with Vladimir Putin on March 10, 2017, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a statement that Russia and Turkey had finalized the normalization process in the framework of their meeting in Moscow. Pyotr Stegniy, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation, RIAC member, has told the RIAC editorial staff about Russia-Turkey cooperation potential and possible changes in the Republic of Turkey in terms of the constitutional referendum.

Following up the negotiations with Vladimir Putin on March 10, 2017, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a statement that Russia and Turkey had finalized the normalization process in the framework of their meeting in Moscow. Pyotr Stegniy, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation, RIAC member, has told the RIAC editorial staff about Russia-Turkey cooperation potential and possible changes in the Republic of Turkey in terms of the constitutional referendum.

— In the course of the round table discussion on the current state and prospects of Russia–Turkey relations development, you said that Russia-Turkey relations have inexhaustible potential. What areas of cooperation are most forward-looking in your opinion? Could any of them help the countries avoid reoccurrence of critical situations in the future?

— I was talking about the objective preconditions for Russia-Turkey rapprochement and cooperation in different areas. Since the Justice and Development Party entered the office 12–13 years ago, there has been a number of premises to bring the relations between the countries to a whole new level. Relations between Russia and Turkey were developing in an interesting way in 1990’s, when the traditional parties were holding office. Though in 2003 it became clear that there had been a quality breakthrough evolving in the relations.

The traditional irritants in the relations between the countries are the issue of the Black Sea straits, the Turkish Eastern border issue, and the Kurdish issue, that wasn’t promoting deep mutual understanding. These issues having faded away, new circumstances advanced to the forefront.

At the beginning of the XXI century, Russia and Turkey were two of the few countries on the international stage who were, firstly, clearly upholding the principle of national sovereignty, with all the international fluctuations going on; secondly, had a clear position to develop their own foreign policy course and to find their own place both in economic labour distribution in the world community and in the new architecture of the world order being created after the bloc confrontation ended in 1991.

Pyotr Stegniy

When R. Erdoğan’s party entered office these factors moved to the forefront. Its ambitious program, the top priority of which was to make Turkey the regional leader by the 100th Anniversary of the Turkish War of Independence both in technology development and in political areas, helped the Turkish establishment rise above the old issues. There was a serious upheaval between Russia and Turkey in different areas of cooperation. The pyramid of bilateral relationship was founded on the basis of trade and economic cooperation. And this pyramid had a strong foundation. The business community — both Russian and Turkish — did a lot for the rapprochement and setting a normal interaction algorithm for Turkish and Russian politicians.

Political dialog was atop the pyramid. This cooperation had a unique mechanism that included a High-Level Cooperation Council and regular meetings. The 6th meeting of the High-Level Cooperation Council between Russia and the Republic of Turkey was held not long ago. This cooperation unlocks the true potential that is based on the fact that Russia and Turkey are the largest Eurasian powers who are to become not only a bridge between Europe and Asia in the XXI century, but also a mechanism translating the civilizational peculiarities of the East making them clearer for Europe, and some sort of «interface» — a term I like. This will provide multiple opportunities and combinations so that our cooperation develops naturally, surprising and puzzling foreign observers.

In 2003 trade volume was USD 6.8 bln, then, in just 2-3 years, right after the first meeting between Putin and Erdoğan in December 2004, it grew to USD 20 bln, and then to USD 25 bln. This breakthrough was of great importance to Russia, as at that point Turkey was a school of market economy for Russian businessmen, not without wild forms such as shuttle trade. The advantage of such direct cooperation with Turkey was that it was nourishing the incipient middle class in Russia. When I was appointed to Turkey in 2003 (P.V. Stegniy, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation, in 2003-2007 — editor's note), Evgeny Maksimovich Primakov told me in a conversation that even if I didn't like shuttle trade it should have been left as is, because it was boosting development of the middle class in Russia. I think he was absolutely right.

Generally, the big picture of Russia-Turkey relations is quite balanced not least because in the five centuries of history we had roughly 13 wars, though some would say 12. But most of the time we that were neighboring countries, we had good-neighborly relations and peaceful interaction. There is still potential for cooperation, and it will develop further in case we, as participants, don't get lost in the complicated regional and global geopolitics.

— Is it the trade and economic cooperation that could bring Russia-Turkey relations to the pre-crisis level?

— Yes, I suppose that trade and economic cooperation played the locomotive role in our relations. And one should also note the energy factor here —Turkish Stream and cooperation in the energy area. This cooperation is evolving in terms of Turkish Stream-2 and the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant. I think, that the locomotive is gaining power and able to give a new turn to the whole complex of our relations. Though moving forward would have been impossible for this locomotive without political trust and being on the same page, particularly when we observe regional horizons and think of the new world that is being built beneath our eyes with Russia’s and Turkey’s active participation. It’s a multifaceted issue. Though the locomotive power is economics and trade, I think.

— As you know on April 16 Turkey will be holding a referendum on an amendment of the constitution. How important is this constitutional referendum for Turkey? Are the relations between Turkey and the Western countries about to change, should the citizens support constitutional reform in the course of the referendum?

— The Constitutional referendum in Turkey that will be held in April, is a milestone and a very important event for Turkish history. Needless to say, it will be influential for the political stature not only around Turkey, but in the whole Middle East. Turkey is a powerful and important player in regional events. The referendum is not just government model reformation, from parliamentary republic to presidential. It is also in some way a transformation of the political experience that Turkey accumulated in the XXth century. I guess, the post-Kemalism stage will be of major concern. Definitely not the stage of negation and negotiation, but the synthesis of Kemalist ideas of development and the Turkish public’s sentiment towards it. It is crucial as the role and nature of the Justice and Development Party’s activities were connected with the fact that R. Erdoğan’s party brought the Anatolian middle class, as well as remote Turkish regions, into politics. And it was not Ankara or Istanbul that played the key role in politics, but people at large. So I think that this is a progressive advance that is reflected in satisfactory statistics of economic growth and social change.

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Though, it is a painful social process. This is evident from the failed attempt of the coup in July. The situation is still quite complicated, that is why it is too early to predict the consequences region-wise or at a larger scale, this can only be done following the results of the referendum, and I hope the majority will support R. Erdoğan’s course.

— What is the reason of the conflict between Turkey and the Netherlands? Is it possible that this diplomatic row between the two countries will weaken relations between Turkey and the West on migration and anti-terrorism issues?

— This is not the first issue between Turkey and Europe. In 2005, when negotiations on Turkey’s accession to the European Union were restarted, Russia expressed its positive attitude. There were several official statements made that Russia supports rapprochement between Turkey and Europe. Russia and the EU were had a budding relationship at that time. We saw the challenges that the rapidly expanding Greater Europe was facing, but we were relying on common sense and that the impetuses we witnessed at the point of the EU’s creation would gain momentum. When Europe to the Urals or Europe to Vladivostok was the point of conversation, no one implied Russia’s accession to the EU. Though some forms of association on condition of common democratic values and market economy didn't seem like chimeras or dreams, they were a reality to work on, hence the policy of «common space» between Russia and the EU. And Turkey had a similar opinion about it.

The basis for numerous tensions and discord was certain inter-confessional differences and cross-civilizational misunderstanding, caused, I think, by the policy of multiculturalism that is still dominating in European social policy. The fact that the Turkish try to work with the electorate in their own manner can be understood — they have a life-changing decision ahead to take. I think, the reaction of some European leaders is backed by some sort of misunderstanding, hostility, and being unprepared to accept each other’s specificities, assenting that Eastern, Eurasian, countries have a different culture, and, probably, a different way of thinking and behavior. The fact that Europe sees these as non-democratic steps proves that it is just not ready for more diverse forms of democracy. And, I’m afraid, if Europe keeps sticking to this approach, the promotion of democracy, characteristic of Americans and of some Europeans, will look like a new form of colonialism.

Interviewed by Irina Sorokina, RIAC Program Assistant

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