Ph.D in Political Science, Expert on International Affairs and Russia–Turkey Relations, RIAC expert
The results of the parliamentary elections held on 7 June 2015 set a kind of benchmark for the new realities on the Turkish domestic and foreign policy scene which may force a reassessment of Ankara’s relations with regional and global players. The increased political risks accompanied on the one hand by a rapidly changing political situation and on the other by Russia’s strategic interests and Moscow’s updated energy policy, are making their mark on the implementation of the Turkish Stream pipeline.
The results of the parliamentary elections held on 7 June 2015 set a kind of benchmark for the new realities on the Turkish domestic and foreign policy scene which may force a reassessment of Ankara’s relations with regional and global players. Following the election of a Speaker for the parliament the negotiating process between the parties on forming a coalition government will begin very soon. In this context the trend that has seen Russia and Turkey move closer together over the last 10 years may experience a slowdown. The increased political risks accompanied on the one hand by a rapidly changing political situation and on the other by Russia’s strategic interests and Moscow’s updated energy policy, are making their mark on the implementation of the Turkish Stream pipeline. It may therefore be helpful to classify the main political risks for Ankara under the headings of “internal” and “external”.
The election results ensured that a coalition would come to power and put an end to the 13-year one-party rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which was the main architect of the policy that brought Russia and Turkey closer together after the collapse of the USSR. Such a change in a state’s internal political life undoubtedly means firstly that it will take longer to get through the negotiating process and to take decisions on long-term and strategic projects, including energy projects.
The coalition government may not have a long life, which would lead to political uncertainty within the country.
The Republican People’s Party (CHP), which like the AKP broke through the ten per cent barrier, entered Parliament having already announced at the pre-election stage that it intended to reassess the construction by Russia of the Akkuyu nuclear power station in Mersin and later possibly cancelling it. Obviously, if CHP members end up in the government, the Turkish Stream project may become the second target, and it won’t get the green light immediately.
If the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which also got into Parliament, becomes involved in the coalition it will probably embark on a course of moving closer, primarily, to states in the so-called Turkic world and of toughening its stance on the claims over the “Armenian genocide”, which would distance Ankara farther from Moscow, which has a strategic relationship with Yerevan, the more so since the relations between the two states grew even warmer at the end of April 2015, when Vladimir Putin visited Armenia. Moreover, the MHP’s election manifesto includes the idea of creating a Turkic World Energy Council.
Turkish Parliamentary Elections: The Fall of
the “Electoral Caliphate”
The People’s Democratic Party (HDP) is the last of the four parties that gained enough votes to get into Parliament. It positions itself as the representative of the Kurdish people and has organic links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is recognised as a terrorist organisation in Turkey and the EU, and also in the USA. Russia, however, does not take this view and does not list the PKK as such.
At the same the destabilisation of neighbouring Syria and Iraq is proving the best possible way of increasing support for the PKK in the Kurdish regions of these states and for the possibility of consolidating their position there in order to create an autonomous region, in view of which the main goal facing the HDP will probably be to do whatever it can to secure the “legalisation” of the PKK in other countries. Thus the establishment of strong links with the West and the EU could give the PKK great freedom of action in the region. In that case, it will not be possible to count on strong support for the Turkish Stream, which the USA and the EU are against.
Secondly, the coalition government may not have a long life, which would lead to political uncertainty within the country. The short-term nature of the coalition government is primarily explained by the fact that all the parties that have got into Parliament have fundamental disagreements on many internal and external political issues. Early elections at the end of 2015 or the beginning of 2016 therefore cannot be ruled out. This effectively means that no government that comes to power will be able to sign a final agreement on building the pipeline, which has a strong impact on Turkey’s regional energy policy.
The increased activity of ISIS right on Turkey’s borders are forcing the government to move closer to its western partners.
Thirdly, the main objective for any coalition government will be to normalise the internal situation, reduce social polarisation and also get the economic situation into good shape. This is mainly explained by the complex internal political situation which has emerged in the last two years (beginning with the events in Gezi Park) and the unfolding corruption scandal at the end of 2013, together with the subsequent steps taken by the state’s leadership in the legal sphere. The decline in foreign investment and the slowdown in GDP growth, together with the level of the country’s foreign debt, which reached its historic maximum at 392.8 billion US dollars, are becoming one of the most tangible economic problems in Turkey. This will obviously lead to the possibility of the state’s policy moving into an “introverted phase”, while the process of taking decisions on the Turkish pipeline and other regional projects may be delayed.
In view of the difficult situation that has recently pertained in the region, Ankara’s foremost concern has been ensuring its own security, and this has been shaping the development of the state’s foreign policy. Firstly, the increased activity of ISIS right on Turkey’s borders, specifically in Syria and Iraq, and the existence of a number of economic and political factors are forcing the government to move closer to its western partners. This will obviously have an impact on the development of Turkish–Russian relations and will put Ankara into a difficult position, in which it will have to withstand the pressure being applied by the West and not lose Moscow as a strategic partner.
Secondly, whether the Turkish Stream is built will mainly depend on the future relationship between Moscow and the West as a whole, and not so much on the bilateral relationship between Turkey and the Russian Federation. Ankara in turn is trying to include the EU in the negotiating process and to make it a part of the multi-billion project, but it is too early to start talking about the beginning of a serious energy partnership between Gazprom and the EU. Moreover, the existing “burden of responsibility” of the new government must be taken into account: the new government is hardly going to want to be party one way or another in the near future to direct and indirect changes in the energy map of the regional players, including Turkey and the EU. Nevertheless, the coalition will most likely not start aggravating the relationship with Moscow against the background of the continuing crisis in Ukraine, and will prefer to wait for a reduction in tension between Russia and the West before it starts taking specific decisions on the Turkish Stream project.
Whether the Turkish Stream is built will mainly depend on the future relationship between Moscow and the West as a whole, and not so much on the bilateral relationship between Turkey and the Russian Federation.
Thirdly, Ankara’s relationship with its closest neighbours needs to be taken into account. In this context Greece and Macedonia are transit countries through whose territory it is proposed to lay the pipeline. It is clear that the political and economic situation in Greece and the ethnic and religious risks that have emerged recently in Macedonia could influence the fate of the Turkish Stream. In addition, the fact that the new coalition government and Moscow have differing views of their relations with Athens and differing interpretations of the events in Macedonia cannot be ignored. Thus defining the state position on the new foreign policy, especially with regard to the Balkans, will be an additional factor making the negotiations difficult. It seems that concrete progress may be achieved only on the first string of the pipeline, which is due to bring Russian gas to Turkey from the Trans-Balkan pipeline crossing Ukraine’s territory.
Ankara does not have a clear picture of what plans Moscow is building in connection with the construction of the project. Turkey does not rule out the fact that the Kremlin could possibly move close to the West and resume construction in the near future of the South Stream.
Fourthly, it must be stated that Turkey’s lack of understanding of Moscow’s overall energy strategy and of the Russian position on the question of the proposed gas pipeline and its implementation will substantially complicate the negotiating process. Ankara does not have a clear picture of what plans Moscow is building in connection with the construction of the project. Turkey does not rule out the fact that the Kremlin could possible move close to the West and resume construction in the near future of the South Stream, which many experts in Ankara believe has not been cancelled but suspended. In this situation it seems that Moscow cannot make fully effective use of the levers of “soft power” in joint Turkish–Russian projects. The construction of the nuclear power station in Mersin could be seen as a clear example of this. Moreover, it is impossible to say with any certainty that there is even a positive perception of these projects both in Turkey’s bureaucratic apparatus and in its media and public. This is due to the fact that the oil and gas sphere is already making Ankara dependent on Moscow, and therefore there is a negative perception of the idea of increasing that dependence. There is also a view concerning the vulnerability of the nuclear power station being built by Moscow and the difficulty of ensuring environmental safety at its construction site. If Moscow cannot resort to use of “soft power” on the issue of the Turkish Stream either, it may become more difficult to take specific decisions on the project, and the negotiating process itself may be exacerbated.
Timur Makhmutov, Lyudmila Filippova:
Russian-Turkish Relations in 2014
Fifthly, the interpretation of the very term “threat” could change in its foreign policy sense when the new government comes to power. The regional crises that have occurred in the recent past, namely in Georgia (2008-), Syria (2011-) and Ukraine (2014-), have shown that the existence of diametrically opposed points of view on their causes and on the methods of resolving them should not influence the bilateral relations between Moscow and Ankara. Today it can be stated that the existence of the aforementioned regional crises has demonstrated the need for compartmentalization of relations, when both states have reached an understanding of the importance of pragmatism in their bilateral relationship. The leadership of the Kremlin and of the AKP have relied on this approach. Turkey’s influence in the South Caucasus, in the Black Sea region and in the Middle East is now diminishing in both the economic and the political contexts, This process is recognised not only within the ruling elite but is also very actively discussed at the level of the opposition forces, and that is precisely why the approach outlined above may be reviewed.
Despite the “institutionalisation” of bilateral relations and the creation of mechanisms such as the High-Level Russian-Turkish Cooperation Council, one cannot say that they have had a positive influence on resolving regional crises. This fact may serve as a reason for the coalition government to embark on prolonging the process of taking a final decision on the construction of the Turkish Stream.
The main issues which the sides will discuss in the context of implementing the project will be as follows: Turkey’s dependence on Russian gas, price-setting, Ankara’s role in distributing the gas, the state’s position on the quality of the regional energy hub, and also the clear definition of the Turkish side’s responsibility for ensuring the safety of the Turkish Stream. But the negotiating process between the coalition government and Moscow in resolving regional conflicts in which Russia is directly involved may also influence the fate of the Turkish Stream.
The oil and gas sphere is already making Ankara dependent on Moscow, and therefore there is a negative perception of the idea of increasing that dependence.
Sixthly, there is a possibility of developing regional projects such as TANAP with the aim of reducing Turkey’s dependence on Russian gas from 60 per cent to a level that is less risky for Ankara. The new coalition government may work more closely with Baku on the question of pumping gas in the TANAP project, and may also increase the amount on the local market.
In addition, the energy balance in the region may change following a possible peaceful resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue and talks in the P5+1 format. In this context Turkey is becoming the most favourable route for laying possible future pipelines from Cyprus and Israel to the European markets. Moreover, bearing in mind that the situation in Iraq may stabilise in the near future, Ankara’s role in transporting Iraqi gas to Europe could be discussed in a more positive key. Turkey is currently buying gas from Russia via two pipelines: the Blue Stream on the bed of the Black Sea and the Trans-Balkan pipeline which passes through Ukraine.
It should be notes especially that the quantity of gas purchased by Turkish private energy companies via the Trans-Balkan pipeline is less than that which Ankara gets via the Blue Stream. Moscow assumes that the Trans-Balkan gas will go via one of the four planned strings of the Turkish Stream, while one of the strings will be strictly geared towards the Turkish consumer and the three others towards the European consumer. That will be the point at which the requirements of Moscow and Ankara for implementing the project diverge.
Tthe interpretation of the very term “threat” could change in its foreign policy sense when the new government comes to power.
If Russia does not extend its gas transit contracts with Kiev after 2019 and ceases to pump gas through the pipelines leading to Europe via Ukraine, the Turkish energy companies could obtain gas from other sources. Thus instead of buying gas from the Trans-Balkan pipeline, Turkish private energy companies could obtain gas from other sources, primarily from neighbouring states – Azerbaijan and Iraq. Bearing in mind the high price of Russian gas, Turkish private companies, in view of the availability of a large number of diversified energy resources on the regional market, could take advantage of more favourable offers. The existence of an important factor, the reduction in oil prices on global markets, which leads to a reduction in gas prices, should also be taken into account. Thus the foreign political and financial situation could come together favourably for Turkish private energy companies, turning them towards the East and the South both literally and figuratively.
For this reason, even if Ankara regards the possible suspension of Moscow’s gas transit agreements with Kiev as risky, the consequences of this happening will in any event be overcome. In addition to this it should be noted that despite the continuing confrontation between Moscow and the West on the question of the Ukraine crisis, Ankara still hopes that this will not have a big impact on its energy cooperation with Russia, and it will continue to take Russia gas via the Trans-Balkan pipeline under new possible agreements beyond 2019.
In conclusion it should be stated that although the new political situation in Turkey following the June elections will not cause a critical shift in Turkish–Russian relations of either a positive or negative nature, the election results may lengthen the process if negotiations on joint regional projects, primarily on the Turkish Stream. The decisions taken will mainly be shaped by internal and external political risks. It is also obvious that Moscow needs to diversify its relations with its partners and also pursue an “inclusive” strategy with various political and public figures in Turkey, not focusing exclusively on the highest echelon of power. These, it seems, are the obvious realities which Moscow now needs to take into account in its relationship with Ankara.