BACKGROUND: Turkey’s reaction to the Russian annexation of Crimea has been similar to the reactions of the Western countries. Turkey has declared that the referendum that was held in Crimea and which resulted in a yes to Russian rule is illegal and as such unacceptable. Turkey has ethnic and historical and cultural ties with Crimea. The status and fate of the Crimean Tatars, a Turkic people, is a consideration for Turkey. After meeting with Mustafa Cemiloğlu, the representative of the Crimean Tatars, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated that Turkey fully supports them.
The Crimean Tatars were deported from their homeland to Siberia by Soviet leader Josef Stalin after the end of World War II as punishment for their alleged cooperation with the Nazi German occupation. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, around three hundred thousand Tatars have returned to Crimea. The majority of the Crimean Tatars, around one million remain scattered around Central Asia. The economic conditions in Crimea have been an obstacle to their return. However, the Ukrainian authorities have sought to encourage their return in an attempt to balance the Russian domination of the ethnic composition of the Crimean population. Turkey and Ukraine have cooperated since the 1990’s with this in mind. Crimea is the place where the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA) has been most active; the state agency has financed housing projects for returning Tatars and among others projects for the protection of the cultural heritage.
However, Turkey’s ties with the Crimean Tatars and its historical and cultural ties with Crimea which resulted in a cooperation with Ukraine, does not put it at odds with Russia, the new old master the region, on the contrary. Although Turkey has in its official rhetoric joined the international chorus in stating that the Russian takeover is illegal, in practical terms, Ankara’s position is much more ambiguous; indeed, it can be argued that Turkey has de facto accepted Crimea’s absorption by Russia.
On March 7, Prime Minister Erdoğan, speaking to Russian President Vladimir Putin on the phone, underlined that the rights of the Crimean Tatars must be protected together with those of the other ethnic groups. Indeed, the fate of the Tatars is something that is bound to bring about more and not less cooperation – and certainly not confrontation – between Turkey and Russia, just as it was the Crimean Tatar dimension that earlier helped sustain cooperation on the matter between Turkey and Ukraine. The leading Turkish historian Ilber Ortaylı, who is of Crimean Tatar extraction, gave voice to what is the emerging Turkish position when he argued that Turkey must maintain good relations with Russians precisely in order to ensure that the cultural heritage of the Tatars in Crimea is protected, now that Russian power is resurging.
And just as Turkey is likely to establish the same kind of relation with Russia which it enjoyed with Ukraine regarding Crimea, so Russia is interested in being supportive of the Crimean Tatars in order to severe the Ukrainian-Tatar alliance; with this in mind, Russia is offering the Tatars a stronger political representation than what their numerical strength would call for.
IMPLICATIONS: But at the same time, the degree of Turkish interest in the Crimean Tatars should not be exaggerated. Turkic solidarity is not something that the ruling Islamic conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) gives priority in the first place; Crimea would never become an emotional issue for the AKP in the way Islamic causes like Palestine and the Gaza strip has been for the party. Turkic solidarity reverberates most strongly among the supporters of the rightist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), but Turkic nationalism is marginalized both in intellectual and political terms.
However, the Russian takeover of Crimea may still have an ideological effect. The annexation of Crimea has occurred at a time when the ruling AKP has come to distance itself significantly from the West; although judging by the official rhetoric, Turkey would seem to have rallied to the Western point of view, signs below the surface and nuances suggest otherwise.
The events in Ukraine are in fact viewed quite differently by AKP representatives. In this regard, the editorial line of the main pro-AKP daily Yeni Şafak is noteworthy; the editor in chief of the daily has made a point of claiming that the events in Ukraine that led to the crisis were set in motion by Western powers, and he has warned that similar, alleged machinations by Western powers and their intelligence services have been at work in Turkey since the Gezi protests last summer.
Accusing the West of having encouraged protests in Ukraine with an eye to oust its pro-Russian government and pry away the country from Russia fits the narrative of Erdoğan from last summer according to which Western powers are busy trying to destabilize Turkey. It would come naturally for Erdoğan to rally to Putin, who defies the West, and with whom he enjoys better relations than he does with any Western leader since the relation with U.S. President Barack Obama soured since last year.
But notwithstanding this partly ideological, partly emotional backdrop, Turkey’s dependence on Russia in terms of its energy needs, as well as the other, important economic ties between the two countries ensure that Turkey would be hard put to rally to a Western policy of isolation and stronger economic sanctions toward Russia. The importance of the Russian export market keeps growing for Turkish businesses. Russia is also a major country of operation for Turkish construction companies. Russia supplies Turkey with most of its natural gas; sixty percent of its gas import comes from Russia. And over three and a half million Russian tourists visited Turkey in 2013, representing eleven percent of the total of tourists that year.
CONCLUSIONS: Turkey does not incur any costs by its present policy: it is paying lip service to the Western point of view regarding Crimea, while ensuring that the good relations with Russia are nursed. But Turkey is unlikely to join the West if stiffer economic sanctions were to be introduced against Russia. Indeed, if that happens, and pressure on Turkey correspondingly mounts, that will have the side-effect of contributing to the further deterioration of the already tense relations between Turkey and the Western powers, above all with the United States.
What is most risky for Turkey is a possible escalation of the tensions that lead to the military option being put on the agenda. That does not seem likely now, but the eventuality could nonetheless not be ruled out as a risk down the road. If developments were to get hand of hand in this way, Turkey would find it impossible to maintain its current stance of balancing adherence to the Western alliance –in rhetorical terms – and its economic and energy dependence on Russia. In that case, it can be safely assumed that Turkey would line up with the Western alliance.
Kemal Kaya is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
(Image Attribution: kremlin.ru)