Vladimir Avatkov: Russia has at least eight reasons to get closer to its ‘sworn enemy’
From hatred to love: Why Türkiye is so important for Russia today
By Vladimir Avatkov, Doctor of Political Sciences, Professor of the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation
FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) is welcomed by Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) prior to their meeting in Sochi, Russia on August 05, 2022. © Murat Kula/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Relations between Russia and Türkiye have been strained throughout much of history. The 12 wars involving the two countries are a testament to this fact, but Moscow and Ankara have a lot in common today and there is a great deal of cooperation.
Tourism has always been the main and most traditional area of bilateral cooperation. In 2021 alone, Türkiye accounted for 24.6% of all foreign trips by Russian tourists and, according to travel agencies, it was also the destination for 60% of package tours on offer in Russia.
Türkiye is strongly associated with all-inclusive resorts among Russian people. However, tourists are increasingly attracted to historic sites in Istanbul each year. They also visit the seat of power in the capital, Ankara, as well as studying the archaeological heritage of ancient Izmir, or taking in the futuristic landscape of Cappadocia, where trips above the hills in hot air balloons are among the main attractions.
Let’s not forget that the country is now also a transit hub for flights taking Russian travelers to Europe, as most of the continent’s destinations are only accessible to them via Türkiye. In 2022, the share of transit flights through Türkiye amounted to 59%, according to air travel statistics. And given the current difficulties with organizing a ‘Roman holiday’, that figure will grow further in 2023.
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The most popular destinations among business travelers in recent years include Istanbul (which has accounted for 77% of these tourists since the start of 2022), Antalya (14%) and Izmir (5%). It’s no coincidence that Istanbul Airport was Europe’s busiest in 2022. There’s more to come!
Partnership in the energy sector is currently the subject of much focus, with mutually profitable projects forming a solid foundation for relations between Moscow and Ankara. Two Russian gas pipelines are already operating in Türkiye – the Blue Stream and the Turkish Stream. The former was built to supply energy to Türkiye’s domestic market, while the latter was designed for gas exports to southern and southeastern Europe.
A new initiative recently proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin would see Türkiye become an energy hub, which Moscow would use to increase its own export potential. The Turkish hub is expected to not only be a space for handling energy supplies, but also to serve as an impartial gas price regulation center.
As for gas cooperation between the two countries, before new fields were discovered in Türkiye, Russia covered up to 60% of the nation’s natural gas consumption, supplying around 27 billion cubic meters (bcm) per year.
In the sphere of electricity production, the launch of the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) was one of the most significant recent events in Türkiye. It was built in Mersin on the Mediterranean coast with the help of Russian experts, creating 20,000 new jobs. Russia is responsible for the plant’s fuel supply, while Türkiye has committed to selling and distributing the electric power it produces. The two countries’ leaders have also discussed the possibility of constructing a second NPP in the city of Sinop on the Black Sea. It is expected that the two power plants together will be able to cover 20% of Ankara’s electrical power needs.
Let’s look at the numbers. In 2022, Russia supplied over 21 bcm of gas to Türkiye. In monetary terms, energy exports increased by almost 250% from $17 billion to $41 billion.
Turkish construction companies have a special place in the Russian services market. There are around 100 Turkish construction firms in Russia, including Renaissance Construction, Enka Holding, and IC Ictas Insaat. The Ministry of Economic Development reports that the portfolio of executed contracts involving Turkish companies in Russia amounts to around 2,000 projects totaling over $70 billion.
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The Russian footprint in Türkiye includes a joint project between GAZ and Turkish Mersa Otomativ, which teamed up to assemble Gazelle cars in the country.
Turkish construction companies were involved in major projects ahead of both the 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and were largely responsible for the development of sports infrastructure in Sochi.
These infrastructure projects also promoted humanitarian ties between Russia and Türkiye. Take the Akkuyu NPP, where around 20,000 workers were involved in the development. Russia’s Rosatom also launched student and staff exchange programs. In 2022, 24 students from Türkiye, majoring in Nuclear Power Plants: Design, Operation and Engineering, received their degrees and started working at the NPP built in Mersin. Many Russian engineers engaged in the project as an opportunity to establish contacts with engineers from Türkiye and represent Russia in Türkiye and beyond.
Both countries are undergoing an industrial transformation these days, developing their own manufacturing businesses and reducing dependency on foreign imports. Russia was encouraged to adopt such a policy by multiple international sanctions, while in Turkey, this track was chosen by the ruling party in a bid to reduce the nation’s need to rely on external players.
Russia has always been and still remains Türkiye’s reliable and consistent trade partner, importing large quantities of Turkish textiles. In 2022, Türkiye was among the top five suppliers of textiles to Russia.
There has also been an increase in the volume of industrial goods traded between the two countries. In 2022, Türkiye’s imports of Russian chemicals grew by 62%, and imports of timber and wood went up by 134%. In total, industrial goods accounted for about 20% of Türkiye’s Russian imports that year.
Following a series of sanctions imposed on Russia by the West, Türkiye became a major trading platform for Russia’s parallel imports.
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This has boosted trade between the two nations significantly. Compared to 2021, last year saw:
- a 19.5% increase in Russian-Turkish trade volume
- a 17.6% increase in Russian exports to Türkiye
- a 24% increase in Russia’s imports from Türkiye
Q1 2023 saw a 62.8% year-on-year increase in Russia’s imports from Türkiye in monetary terms due to increased purchases of sunflower seeds and fresh produce.
The main imports from Türkiye to Russia in 2022 were:
- fresh and dried tangerines: 10%
- frozen fish: 9.9%
- peaches: 9.2%
- grapes: 6.4%
- other citrus fruits, fresh and dried: 5.9%
Moscow has seen quite a number of deals signed with Turkish businesses, and the total amount of Turkish investments in Russia has grown 400% over the past four years. Russia remains not only one of the key trade partners for Türkiye but also an attractive market for capital investment.
In 2022, Turkish investors launched two new manufacturing sites in Russia: a production plant for sanitary and hygienic products, and a knitted fabric factory. Given Russia’s interest in importing Turkish textiles, the industry is seriously interested in setting up manufacturing sites across Russia’s regions.
Russian businesses are also expanding their presence in Türkiye with a number of metal manufacturing and car assembly projects having been launched there.
The Russian education system has been undergoing serious transformation since 2016. It had been noted to be generally lacking an active and prolific student and faculty exchange component, and that needed to change.
In addition to boosting student and faculty exchange programs, Russia is also working on optimizing the conditions for joint degree programs.
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The Russian Ministry of Education and Science is developing a number of joint education programs for the nuclear industry. The following universities will receive a mandate to award international students bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nuclear science and give them an opportunity to enlist in joint degree programs: Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University, Moscow National Research Nuclear University MEPhI, Istanbul Technical University, and Hacettepe University in Ankara.
2019 was the year of Russian culture and tourism in Türkiye and of Turkish culture and tourism in Russia. The Russian and Turkish culture ministries ran a number of art exhibitions, photo exhibitions, as well as arts and crafts events. The countries also exchanged some of their most popular theater and cinema productions, which are beyond doubt a powerful soft-power instrument that is particularly popular and influential in Türkiye.
Both Moscow and Ankara are committed to promoting their cultural legacy and developing bilateral relations, especially in the sphere of tourism. At the end of the day, relations between the two nations are defined by relationships between individuals, and getting authentic experience of another country’s culture and traditions is the best way to form a lasting bond. Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky has noted on many occasions that Russia and Türkiye need to nurture good, friendly interpersonal relations between their citizens.