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WSJ - Erdogan, Putin Work to Patch Ties as Economies Flag

08 August 2016

Erdogan, Putin Work to Patch Ties as Economies Flag

wsj.com By Aug. 7, 2016 2:44 p.m. ET

MOSCOW—In his first trip abroad since a failed coup last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan plans to meet with President Vladimir Putin in Russia on Tuesday to cement a sharp turnaround in relations.

Mr. Erdogan’s visit comes amid tension with the U.S. and the European Union over his government’s mass arrests of suspected coup plotters, and brings together two leaders whose ties with the West are frayed.

The two are also struggling with flagging economies and the trip is expected to focus as much on business as geopolitics, according to Turkish officials.

Bilateral relations became acrimonious after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane along the Turkish-Syrian border last November, killing two pilots.

Until little more than a month ago, Mr. Putin was accusing the Turkish president of financing terrorism; Turkey was accusing Russia of bombing hospitals in Syria.

But Mr. Erdogan at the end of June sent a letter expressing regret to the Kremlin over the shootdown, which led to a phone call between the two leaders.

Mr. Putin offered public condolences after the June 28 terrorist attack at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport. Russia has also dispatched food-hygiene and air-safety specialists to Turkey, signaling it might be willing to roll back economic sanctions it had imposed on food imports, tourism and construction.

The move toward rapprochement predated the coup attempt, and coincided with a restoration of diplomatic ties with Israel as Turkey sought to end its isolation in the region.

In the wake of last month’s attempted military coup, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at a mass rally in Istanbul on Sunday that he would vote to reinstate the death penalty if the parliament approves the measure. Photo: REUTERS

But the trip also allows Ankara to send a message to the U.S. and European Union about what it views as the West’s lack of empathy over the coup attempt, said Sinan Ulgen, the chairman of Istanbul-based foreign-policy think tank Edam. “Turkey could indeed go in a more anti-West direction by seeking now to accelerate the normalization and eventual rapprochement with Russia,” Mr. Ulgen said. “So there is a real signal Erdogan is trying to give beyond the concrete talks on trade, energy and Syria.”

Some of Turkey’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies have expressed concern about Mr. Erdogan’s dramatic post-coup purges of the military and civil service and media crackdown, warning him to respect the rule of law.

U.S. officials also have balked at Mr. Erdogan’s demand to hand over a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania, Fethullah Gulen, whom he accuses of masterminding the failed putsch. U.S. officials have told The Wall Street Journal the evidence presented so far wasn’t convincing.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Turkey was “heartbroken” over the U.S. position. Turkish officials, however, say that the trip to Moscow is more about economic realities than strategic alliances. Russia has long backed of one of the main threats to Turkey’s national security—the Kurdish armed separatist movement that wants to carve out an independent homeland from parts of Turkey, Iraq and Syria.

Turkey has no intention of replacing its NATO-affiliated foreign policy with Russia, these officials say. Russian and Turkish officials said the meeting would focus on bolstering once-flourishing economic links and discussing the conflict in Syria, where the two are backing opposing sides. Kremlin foreign-policy adviser Yury Ushakov said Friday that the issue of reparations from Turkey for the downing of the Russian warplane “will probably also be discussed,” according to the state news agency TASS.

The restrictions on tour operators have hit a key driver of Turkey’s economy, with a 40% drop in tourists in June. About four million Russians usually visit Turkey each year, making them the second-largest group after Germans. Moscow, however, may not move as quickly to lift them as Ankara hopes.

“It is likely that some sanctions will remain in place to maintain leverage on Ankara in the future,” said Alexander Vasiliev, an expert on Russian-Turkish ties at Moscow’s Institute for Oriental Studies. Discussions on Syria are likely to be tough, analysts say, although both sides in the past managed to prevent disputes from damaging economic ties. Russia intervened militarily in Syria last year to buttress the forces of President Bashar al-Assad.

Nearly a year later, Russian air support has been crucial in some of the most strategic battles of the war, including the regime’s current offensive against the rebel-held part of Aleppo. Turkey, which is supporting some opposition groups in Syria, has given no indication it is ready to change its position that Mr. Assad must leave power.

“It is impossible to talk of a political transition in Syria as long as Bashar al-Assad remains in power,” Turkey’s presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said in an interview with TASS on Thursday.

“Assad’s stay in power means a continuation of clashes in Syria.” Warmer ties could also revive talks on a natural gas pipeline to Turkey that could boost Ankara’s long-held ambition of becoming a hub for gas heading to Europe. Mr. Putin announced plans for the pipeline, known as Turkish Stream, during a trip to the country in December 2014.

The pipeline was intended to meet growing demand in Turkey and replace a canceled project to carry gas into the EU via the Black Sea, which had been thwarted by EU antitrust regulations. Russia has sought to establish routes that would avoid Ukraine, where disputes between Moscow and Kiev have cut gas flows twice in the last decade.

Poland, among other countries, has objected to Moscow’s bid to expand a pipeline known as Nord Stream under the Baltic Sea to Germany, which could boost Turkish Stream’s chances. “We need to ease our reliance on Ukrainian gas pipelines and since Poland is not very happy over the construction of a pipeline through the Baltic Sea, the southern route is gaining crucial importance,” said Ruslan Pukhov of defense and geopolitical think tank CAST, which is researching Turkish-Russian relations. —Margaret Coker contributed to this article.

Write to Thomas Grove at thomas.grove@wsj.com