Erdoğan sends letter to Putin, celebrates Russia Day in first contact since jet crisis

YUNUS PAKSOY @yunuspaksoy
ISTANBUL
Published 14.06.2016 14:28
Updated 14.06.2016 17:27

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin to celebrate Russia Day, the national holiday of the Russian Federation, which has been celebrated annually on June 12 since 1992. The letter is considered to be an important step toward normalizing the broken ties between the two countries following Turkey's downing of a Russian fighter jet in November.

Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım also sent a similar letter to the Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev.

Erdoğan and Putin have been exchanging messages recently, calling on each other to take a step and try to better ties. "Russia wants to restore relations with Turkey, we still don't understand why our plane was shot down," Putin told a press conference in Athens in late May, signaling a desire to normalize ties.

In response to Putin's positive stance on a possible thaw between Turkey and Russia, Erdoğan said in early June that just because the Russian pilots "made a mistake" that led to an incident should not affect ties.

A Russian pilot on a bombing mission in Syria last November had briefly strayed into Turkish airspace and refused to withdraw despite repeated warnings.

"Both parties have been signaling the beginning of a normalization process," Middle East Technical University (METU) Professor Dr. Oktay Tanrısever, an expert on Russia and Central Asian republics, told Daily Sabah. Tanrısever also said that Erdoğan's letter is a crucial step and he expects some concrete steps to be taken in the near future.

In the beginning, Erdoğan and Putin exchanged harsh criticism and ultimatums in the wake of the jet crisis. The Kremlin directed accusations at Ankara and imposed sanctions that continue to deal a heavy blow to Turkey's tourism sector.

Russia's sanctions hit itself as well. Due to sanctions imposed on Turkish goods, vegetable and fruit prices in Russia have risen.

"In my opinion, the process started with Putin's message in Athens," Sevil Nuriyeva, a columnist for the Star daily specialized in Turkish-Russian relations told Daily Sabah. "Upon Putin's call, even the Russian media, which has been conducting a smear campaign against Turkey, sought ways to normalize ties," she said.

"It is important that the leaders soften their tones," Tanrısever said, adding that diplomats can carry out the normalization process better in this way.

Ankara and Moscow are firm in their positions. They both want one another to acknowledge the accusations directed at each other. While Ankara says the Russian jet it shot down strayed into its airspace, Russia vehemently denies it.

"Turkey and Russia will agree to disagree on some issues," Tanrısever contended. "Turkey has reservations about Russia's presence in Syria. This, for example, might be a point on which they will agree to disagree," he said.

"Not everything will be solved or handled the way Turkey wants, but the normalization process will speed up after this letter," Nuriyeva contended.

In the fallout after Turkey shot down the Russian jet, Moscow announced several wide-ranging sanctions on Turkey starting in January, including the end of visa-free travel and a ban on Turkish food products. Russia also called for its nationals to boycott Turkey as a tourist destination.

Turkey and Russia have for years differed on policy toward Syria and Ukraine. Ankara has not recognized Russia's 2014 annexation of the Ukraine's Crimea, and has repeatedly accused Moscow of supporting the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria.

Tanrısever presumes that the two countries can return to the times when relations were better. "The situation between the two parties is now lose-lose rather than win-win. It damages both Ankara and the Kremlin," he added.

"Erdoğan extended an olive branch to Putin following his first message in Athens. Now that the letter has been sent, its repercussions can be seen in many Russian media outlets," Nuriyeva said.

Apart from his affirmative messages about the normalization process between Turkey and Russia, Putin also expressed support for the recent Turkish-Israeli law.

"The fewer problems between governments, the better," Putin said last week after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to the TASS state news agency, adding that he views reconciliation between Turkey and Israel "exclusively positive."

Turkey and Israel have been holding talks to mend ties, which deteriorated sharply over the situation in the Gaza Strip. Israeli media outlets have said the meeting between Putin and Netanyahu was important for moving the talks forward.

Turkey was angered by Israel's offensive on the Gaza Strip in early 2009. The next year, nine Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American died when Israeli commandos raided the Mavi Marmara aid flotilla trying to break the Gaza blockade, sending relations into a tailspin. In 2013, Netanyahu expressed regret over the loss of life.

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