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Russia and Turkey in harm's way

The recent tensions between Turkey and Russia have once again changed the equilibrium in the Middle East. This situation that is regarded to be one of the unwanted consequences of the current ongoing war in the neighboring Syria set off an intense reaction in Russia. Russia imposed a series of sanctions in its economic relations with Turkey. This embargo has not only affected sectors like tourism, construction, and export-import, but also caused diplomatic strain between the two countries.  It is beginning to greatly hurt the Russian people as well.  

As one will recall, the EU and the US had imposed various sanctions on the Russian economy in the wake of Russia’s interventions in Crimea and the Donetsk Basin region of Ukraine. The continually decreasing price of oil has also weakened the Russian economy. 

During such a difficult time period for Russia, Turkey continued to be a strong trade partner with Russia and indeed, prior to the current crisis, the volume of trade between the two countries amounted to $31 billion.  Yet, the greater part of this income comes from natural gas and oil sales. Since Russia does not implement any sanctions on these two commodities, the remaining part amounts to approximately $2.5 billion. Amongst these items, food imports are worth $1.1 billion. As a result, Turkish trucks were made to wait a long time at the borders and many of food products from Turkey, are still not allowed inside Russia. Faced with the risk of their products passing their expiry dates, Turkish exporters began to search for new markets. Removing Turkey from the list of the few countries that could export foodstuffs to Russia, it is getting harder for Russia to access inexpensive and clean vegetable and fruits. 

Another industry hit by the sanctions has been tourism. The second most popular tourist destination for Russians after Egypt had always been Turkey, and tour operators arranging tourist visits to Turkey had been reporting incomes of $600 million annually. However, with strained relations, Russian tourists will most likely choose more costly destinations due to longer traveling times that are farther afield than Turkey such as Cyprus, Tunisia, Morocco or Middle East. It is clear that the damage done is not limited to material losses. Indeed the people of Russia and Turkey have lived side by side for quite a long time, with friendly ties. The sanctions in the tourism sector have inflicted the biggest damage on the good relations between these two friendly countries. 

The construction industry is also sounding alarms bells. The construction activities carried out by Turks in Russia, is valued at $1.5 billion, and is about to come to a complete standstill. Additionally, Turks currently have about $10 billion dollars worth of investments in Russia's real estate industry. 

To sum up, the people of both countries are hurting due to the current tension. It is entirely possible to end the crisis rather than escalating it. Turkish officials have proved on many occasions that they prefer to de-escalate the crisis with a diplomatic tone and there are sensible voices on the Russian side, as well. For instance, Prof. Dr. Vladimir Stonikov of the Moscow East Sciences Institute, has been calling the Russian media to common sense since the first day of the crisis. Sotnikov believes that both parties should make an urgent effort to end the current situation: “Many things were said about this saddening incident. What needs to be done now is thinking about ways of restoring our relations. A great responsibility falls on the leaders of both countries. I could give you a hundred reasons why it is so crucial. First of all, we are neighbors, we have a common history. We are carrying out great economic projects together. It is important that new generations do not suffer as a result. For this reason, it is imperative that the administrators of today take action to make sure that the future generations enjoy good relations.”  

A similar call came from the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Touching upon the subject during his annual ‘call to the nation’ speech, Nazarbayev urged Moscow and Ankara to find common ground and not ruin a relationship that has been built over many years. 

It is important that leaders of both countries use a conciliatory tone in terms of returning to the friendly atmosphere that took many years and meticulous efforts to build. President Erdogan said at the beginning of the unexpected crisis that they were saddened by the incident and that they harbored no ill feelings towards any country. Erdogan responded to a question whether Turkey would reciprocate if Russia were to deport Turkish citizens from the country as follows:

“It is out of the question for us not to respect the rights of Russians living in Turkey since Turkey cannot conduct itself emotionally by repatriating Russians who have come to our country, purchased apartments and settled here. I would never approve of such an act; that would not befit us.” 

Prime Minister Davutoglu also sought to soothe the situation: ‘I would like to reiterate one more time that we have a strong political consensus to return to our previous favorable relations with Russia, which were strained recently. We are ready to engage in talks, and meetings with Russia.’ 

Russian President Putin also used a calm language when he gave the following important message during a recent press conference: “We can’t say we see Turkey as a hostile country. Yes, our relations have been impaired; I don't know how we can get out of this situation. We see the Turkish people as our friends and we wouldn’t want our relations with the Turkish people to be impaired.”

Russian and Turkish leaders can act with love, friendship and common-sense to overcome these difficult days. When this crisis ends, the people of both countries will benefit from it and the most important duty in this respect falls upon the leaders of these countries. It is crucial that in order for the people to maintain and strengthen their ties, their leaders must act with sound judgment and put aside harsh rhetoric. 

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