Turkey may soon play a greater role in the foreign trade and economic policies of Russia, especially given Russia’s weakening relationship with the West.

A man reads a newspaper in central Istanbul, Turkey, on Aug. 11, 2014. Photo: AP

The election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan on August 10 as president of Turkey could change the dynamics of the Russian-Turkish relationship. That’s because Erdogan has chosen a radical, if not revolutionary, path of reformation for Turkey: Having been elected as president, he is now considering a move to transform Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential republic.

If this move is successful, Turkey’s new leader would receive the same powers that were exercised by his distant predecessor Kemal Ataturk – the famous Turkish leader who liked to say that he was running Turkey, the parliament and the cabinet single-handedly.

Impact of Turkey’s presidential election on Russia

So how will these changes in the Turkish political arena affect Turkey’s foreign policy towards Russia?

Major changes cannot be expected, since the same people will remain in authority, to whom can be attributed the activities that have led to the current high level of Russian-Turkish relations. The new political elite, which was brought to power by Erdogan, has undertaken a path of new political and economic cooperation. One of these new vectors was Russia, with which the volume of trade since 1999 has increased 30 times over, and now stands at more than $30 billion.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (who, after the inauguration of Erdogan, is one of the main candidates for the post of prime minister) was the author of the foreign policy concept known as zero problems with neighbors.” According to this concept, Ankara was primarily to work on developing and maintaining neighborly relations with all bordering countries, including Russia. Moscow was able to provide Turkey with an uninterrupted supply of essential hydrocarbons, as well as fill the country’s resorts with tourists. Thus, already by 2008, Russia had become Turkey’s top partner in terms of bilateral trade.

Now on the agenda is the implementation of strategic projects such as construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant (Akkuyu NPP) on Turkey’s southern coast, the laying of the South Stream (a gas pipeline between Russia and the European countries that will run through the Black Sea), as well as the implementation of a number of major joint infrastructure projects.

There are no political contradictions that could force Turkish business to reduce the level of mutually beneficial cooperation. In the period 2011-2013, Russian-Turkish relations weathered the crisis in Syria, in which the parties were supporting opposing sides in the bloody conflict. However, these differences did not affect the overall level of interaction, the symbol of which was the introduction of a visa-free regime between Russia and Turkey in April 2011.

Now, after the defeat of the “Arab Spring” and the relative normalization of the situation in Syria, there are opinions being sounded about the misguided policies of the Turkish authorities in support of radical revolutions in the Middle East.

The capture by Islamists of the Turkish consulate in Mosul was the last straw, forcing the Turkish leadership to seriously reconsider their views on supporting extremists. Most likely, the Turkish cabinet will now think about returning to the already tried and true. That means a return to a new form of the “zero problems” policy. As a result, Turkey will pursue a more balanced game in the Middle East, which would be undoubtedly beneficial for Russia.

Of course, Ankara will not reduce the level of its traditional cooperation with Washington and Brussels. However, now all people in Turkey understand that no one is waiting for them in the EU. On the contrary, maintaining a certain distance in relations with the West has allowed Turkey to pursue its own policy of developing relations with both Russia and Iran, without regard to the opinions of the United States and the EU.

The news of Moscow implementing an embargo against food products from the EU, U.S., Canada and Australia has caused a real storm in the Turkish market. Businessmen from Turkey, at a meeting with representatives of Rosselkhoznadzor (Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance) in Ankara, promised to increase the supply of agricultural products to Russia by 100 percent, surpassing the $1 billion mark. Turkey, to a great degree, can cover the needs of Russia for vegetables, fruits, fish, and for products not previously shipped to the Russian market – eggs, meat and dairy products.

Against the background of the conflict with Ukraine (a major transit country for Russian natural gas supplies to Europe), the role of the Blue Stream gas pipeline between Russia and Turkey, laid under the Black Sea in 1997, has gained in importance. Should deliveries through Ukraine be terminated, then Europe’s gas can be partially sent through Turkey. This will be a lot more expensive, but will help southern Europe to survive the coming cold winter. With the introduction already in 2015 of the South Stream, the energy security of Europe can be fully achieved, regardless of the situation in Ukraine.

Turkey in the Eurasian Union?  

Of course, not everything in Russian-Turkish economic relations is as smooth as the nations’ top leaders would like. For example, domestic experts love to mention such achievements as Turkey having agreed to move to using national currencies in its trade settlements with Russia and the country’s expressed interest in entering the Customs Union.

This step is beneficial only for Turkey, as the balance in bilateral trade is clearly not in Turkey’s favor (approximately 73 percent to 27 percent) at this time. According to the results of trade settlements for the year, Russia will end up with $16 billion worth of Turkish lira, and spending this amount on the international markets will be quite problematic. The Customs Union is first and foremost interesting for Ankara in terms of the duty-free distribution of its products in member countries. About any further integration, in particular, in the political sphere, the Eurasian Union is out of the question.

If one looks at the structure of Russian-Turkish trade, it turns out that Russia still primarily exports raw materials and imports industrial and agricultural products. Turkish authorities are reluctant to allow Russian companies into their domestic market, for fear of competition in the field of telecommunications and tourism, although there are also some positive examples here. In 2012, Sberbank acquired the fifth largest bank in Turkey – Denizbank, which, incidentally, has greatly facilitated settlements between Russian and Turkish enterprises.

Other aspects of the Russian-Turkish collaboration

Of course, Russian-Turkish rapprochement does not only have economic implications. If all Turkish intellectuals grew up on the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky, Russians are only now beginning to become acquainted with Turkish culture, thanks largely to tourism.

Cooperation is actively being developed in the scientific and university spheres. Conferences and round tables are being held. Turkish cultural centers have been opened in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kazan. According to unofficial sources, more than a hundred thousand Russian women have married Turks. Is this mere coincidence?

Probably not, because no other two countries have travelled along such similar historical paths. Russia and Turkey are the two successors of Rome and Byzantium. These are two proud civilizations, created on the basis of Slavic and Turkic ethnic groups, Orthodox Christianity and Sunni Islam. These are two countries with centuries-old state traditions, subjected to deep European modernization.

Western experts have repeatedly compared Putin and Erdogan – people of the same generation, from the lower classes, who came to power peacefully, but then displaced the old elites. Now, as Turkey will start on the process of transition to a presidential form of government, many will once again compare the two leaders – their biographies, management styles, habits, and conservatism as a unifying ideology. The main thing is that these comparisons do not pass into rivalry, and that the right conclusions are made: Russia and Turkey had often warred against each other in past – and this must not be repeated.

Who will replace Erdogan as Prime Minister?

Currently, experts around the world are scratching their heads over the question of who can take over the post of prime minister of Turkey after the resignation of Erdogan, which will take place on August 27 when he becomes inaugurated as the president.

Generally being considered are the two figures – the current president Abdullah Gul and the foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu. The first option speaks of the more than a decade-long political union between the two leaders, in which Gul has always occupied a subordinate position. Russian experts have drawn a parallel between the situation of the Turkish duo and the Russian tandem of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. However, Gul has often made statements about his retirement from politics after his resignation from the post of president of the country.

The second figure is more charismatic and adds a level of new intrigue to Turkish politics. Davutoglu is a person from the nation’s academic circles, the founder of the Turkish foreign policy concept known as “zero problems with neighbors.”

Ironically, he is the one who also refused to implement his own ideas into life in 2010 with the appearance of the “Arab Spring.” Davutoglu hoped that supporting one obvious victor in the conflict would bring Turkey untold dividends. However, the rejection of the policy of “zero problems” created new tensions on the country’s borders as well as new opponents. This foreign policy swing also had a negative impact on the country’s economy.

Of course, support for radical Middle Eastern revolutionaries was not the idea of Davutoglu alone; rather, here we can sense the hand of Erdogan. However, now to disentangle from this bloody mess brewing in the region will require the efforts of both men. In fact, the creation of a tandem of President Erdogan and Prime Minister Davutoglu might actually be a good idea.

If they carefully analyze their mistakes in foreign and domestic policies, and make appropriate conclusions, then Turkey quite possibly will enter onto a new dynamic path. Moreover, a special hope here lies precisely in Davutoglu. As an academic scholar, he should critically assess his own policies during the period 2010-2013, which have seriously shaken the position of the Turkish leadership, and almost led to the collapse of the government.

The new government will have to solve very many problems, among which the Middle East vector is perhaps the main one. Davutoglu will have to re-establish relations with those countries with which relations were spoiled as a result of the “Arab Spring”: Egypt, Syria, and Iran.

Erdogan’s announcement that he will take part in commemorative events devoted to the Armenian Genocide that will be held in 2015 in Yerevan suggests that Turkey is preparing to continue with its policy of reconciliation with Armenia on the basis of the Zurich Protocols. A return to the policy of “zero problems” should also lead to an improvement of Russian-Turkish relations.