At a luncheon to mark a thawing of relations between Turkey and Russia this week, the diners were given a particular treat. I’m not talking about Beluga caviar, though it may have been on the menu, but rather the special crockery bearing the image of each country’s presidents set out at each placing. The idea of having Putin and Erdogan beaming at me from ceremonial plates doesn’t appeal hugely, but it seems to have set some of my Turkish colleagues off in raptures. For them the ‘bromance’ is back on. I’m not so sure.
The plates were commissioned to mark a meeting between the two men in June 2015. Since then they had probably been idly collecting dust in the back of some massive Kremlin vault, stored away after Turkey shot down a Russian jet which briefly invaded its airspace a few months later. A quick dust over and they were put on display as a show of unity between two leaders the West deals with, but openly views with suspicion and to varying degrees, disdain.
During Erdogan’s first official foreign trip since the failed-coup in Turkey almost a month ago, there were the expected photo opportunities; Putin breaking into a sly smile as he clasped his hand around that of his counterpart, while Erdogan looked less than happy to be there. Despite the talk of ‘normalising’ relations and renewed plans for a joint venture to build a nuclear station being put back on the table, Erdogan has much reason to be downcast. In a game of chicken between the two men, he most certainly lost.
When Erdogan refused to pick up the phone last year and apologise to Putin for the jet incident, he was attempting to show he was in a position of power and wasn’t going to beg for forgiveness. After all Russia had violated Turkish airspace and this was a matter of principle. Russia wasn’t going to take that lying down. It soon began banning Turkish exports and decreed Russians would no longer holiday in the country. Neither seemed at the time like a particularly big blow, with my Turkish colleagues dismissing the importance of Russia as an ally and a trading partner. It wasn’t until months later that the true impact was felt.
Russians constitute a significant proportion of Turkey’s tourists with numbers falling by 87 per cent this year. Tourism accounts for almost a third of Turkey’s economy and without the Russians many destinations were left empty, even in peak season. When I travelled to the tourist hub of Antalya I found hotels fighting for my custom, while shopkeepers begged me to ‘just look’. When I spoke to them about the decline, they told me they were on the edge of closing up, as without the Russians there was no business. Agriculture makes up another big slice of Turkey’s economy, with exports to Russia dominating the market. Growers saw their profit margins slump, while the mountains of rotting tomatoes, along with other veg, grew.
While Turkey has managed to stave off economic downturn, with growth EU leaders can only dream about right now, the Russian embargo was a disaster and the government was facing an uphill battle. Finally just days before the failed coup, President Erdogan picked up the phone to Putin and uttered the two words which would have spared these two industries such pain. ‘I’m sorry’. Then came the coup offering Putin the chance to be magnanimous. He was straight on the blower offering his unconditional support.
So given this and the warm reception in St Petersburg, why am I not sure the bromance is back on? Firstly, I don’t believe it ever existed. I see Putin and Erdogan’s relationship under the header of ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies even closer’. These are two men cast from similar molds. Both are ruthless politicians who take out those who are in their way. They are autocratic, with a vision of restoring their country’s glorious pasts, as well as expanding their borders and influence. These are two men who are so similar, they are keenly aware what the other is capable of. They work to their own interests and not that of each others, including being on opposing sides of the Syrian conflict.
Secondly, while the red carpet may have been rolled out, there were more than subtle signs that Putin wanted to humiliate his ‘honoured guest’. The two met in the Greek sitting room of a Tsarist-era palace. An insult given the difficult history Turkey and Greece share. To top it off Putin has only promised to ‘gradually lift restrictions’ when he could have ended the embargo immediately. Not quite the thumping response of a man running back into the arms of his best mate.
For Turkey this meeting was about improving two of its most important industries as well as relations with its dominant neighbour. For Russia this was about unnerving the West. Turkey is a key Nato power which shares an almost 1000km border with Syria. Its relations with the EU and US are currently strained following the botched coup. The EU is openly questioning the methods being used by Ankara to detain and arrest thousands of people, while the US didn’t immediately hand over the man Turkey claims was behind it. So the idea that Russia has allowed Turkey in from the cold and relations are set to become ‘closer than ever’ is setting off alarm bells in the West. And that’s something Putin will be dining off for months.
Rose Asani is a journalist based in Istanbul.