Our northern neighbour Russia

Published 30.10.2019 18:36
Updated 20.12.2019 01:20

We live next to the Russian Federation. At one point in time, Turkey was one of two NATO countries (together with Norway) that shared a common frontier with the Soviet Union. All of Ottoman history, starting from the 18th century, is made up of different battles and wars against the Russian Empire.

In just over 150 years, the Ottomans lost all their territories around the Black Sea and most of the Balkans, Crimea was submitted to Russian rule, the Caucasus was cleansed from Muslim populations — mostly Circassians and Georgians of Muslim faith — and both Istanbul’s suburban district of Yeşilköy (Agia Stephanos) and eastern province of Kars were invaded by Russian troops. It would not be misleading to say that the rise of the Russian Empire as a major European power has been done mostly through the demise of the Ottoman system.

This has left deep scars in the public’s memory. The “Muscovite” has always been seen by the archenemy and anything originating from Russia (including the Soviet-type socialist system) never encountered much support and sympathy in Turkey.

Moreover, late Turkish nationalism was mainly the intellectual product of Turkish philosophers and politicians who were originally from the Turkish populations of the Russian Empire, mainly from Kazan and Crimea.

İsmail Gaspıralı (Gasprisky), Yusuf Akçura, Ahmet Ağaoğlu (Agayef) are the most salient figures of this new, nascent “Turkish nationalism.” It would not be erroneous to say that Turkish nationalism has been created as a reaction to Russian expansion, but the latter has played a very important role in shaping this nationalism.

The existence of large Orthodox minorities within the empire has helped the Russians interfere easily in the internal problems within the Ottoman territory, especially the Balkans. This has also created a deep-going resentment vis-a-vis the Orthodox population of the Balkans. This is very tangible in the novels of Ömer Seyfettin, whose work is still very popular among young generations.

The Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the Kemalist revolution in Turkey changed this equation. Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky supported the Turkish forces fighting in Anatolia by sending them ammunition and gold together with few military advisers.

The Soviet leadership continued to support Kemalist forces in spite of the fact that the whole Politburo of the Turkish Communist Party was assassinated in Trabzon by the henchmen used by the Kemalist movement (Later on, the leader of this gang, Topal Osman, revolted against the government in Ankara, creating almost a street war, before being killed).

The Turkish Republic, like the five-year development plans, accepted some of the Soviet-type development systems. Other than that, the model was not seen as implementable in Turkey and even before declaring the foundation of the Turkish Republic, the Turkish government organized in İzmir at a Congress of Economics where Turkish authorities declared to opt for a liberal, capitalistic regime, respectful of the right to own property.

On the other hand, the young Turkish Republic had to accept to pay back the loans of the Ottoman Empire, whilst the Bolshevik government plainly refused to pay back the Russian Empire’s debts. The choices made by Russian and Turkish revolutions divided the path of these two countries for good. The relations remained more or less friendly until World War II.

After the war, Joseph Stalin voiced demands of territory in Kars and Ardahan, invoking Armenian massacres, while the Truman doctrine encompassed both Turkey and Greece within the Western sphere of domination.

In the bipolar world, Turkey remained staunchly anti-communist and served as the most exposed NATO country. This did not prevent some good realpolitik steps, like purchasing steel mill industrial technology from the Soviets.

However, political relations remained at best dormant for decades. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Turkey wanted to establish close relations with the Turkish republics of Central Asia, but the initiative remained highly symbolic and disappeared over time.

In the meantime, Russian diplomacy, loyal to Soviet traditions, never professed any enmity against Turkey but did everything to prevent Turkey’s influence from getting stronger.

During the Annan Plan, Greek Cypriot public opinion was evenly divided, Russia’s influence over the almighty Cypriot Communist Party AKEL changed the situation. With a loyal electorate of around 30%, AKEL’s volte-face created a huge opposition to the Annan Plan which was rejected by almost three-fourths of the votes cast, while the Turkish side overwhelmingly supported the reunification of the island.

We now see the implications of a reunited island over Turkey and Russia’s external relations. It is a huge disadvantage for Turkey, as much as it is an advantage and gain for Russia.

Russia, which never openly confronted Turkey (the downing of the jet over Syria was an exception), will continue its long-lasting strategy to always keep alive Turkish problems. When Abdullah Öcalan flew from Syria in 1998, he went to Moscow.

Establishing closer relations with Russia is not a bad idea. As the saying goes, keep your friends close and your enemies even closer. Nevertheless, thinking that a long-lasting commercial and military alliance can be forged between Russia and Turkey sounds more like a bad sci-fi film than reality.

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