Putin orders revival of bilateral relations with Turkey, lifts restrictions on travel

DAILY SABAH
ISTANBUL
Published 29.06.2016 14:27
Updated 29.06.2016 17:15
rucks are parked at a container terminal at the port of Astrakhan, Russia, May 17, 2016 (Reuters Photo)
rucks are parked at a container terminal at the port of Astrakhan, Russia, May 17, 2016 (Reuters Photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin Wednesday ordered bilateral trade relations with Turkey to restart shortly after speaking with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over the phone. According to the Kremlin, Erdoğan's letter of condolence and regret formed the basis to end the crisis between the two countries. Putin also ordered travel restrictions for Russian citizens visiting Turkey be lifted.

"I want to start with the question of tourism. ... We are lifting the administrative restrictions in this area," Putin told government ministers in televised comments. "I ask that the Russian government begins the process of normalizing general trade and economic ties with Turkey," he said.

The decision probably elated the Russian Union of Tourist Industry once more, as they had said on Monday that Erdoğan's letter made them scream with joy. In an interview with the Govorit Moskva radio station on Monday, Russian Union of Tourist Industry Press Secretary Irina Turina said: "We even screamed with joy, as the Russian market needs Turkey very much. ... All tourists and agencies suffer greatly from a lack of access to Turkey. No other destinations compete with Turkey on the price-quality ratio and on the level of service. We hope now for a decision to open Turkey."

It has been seven months since Turkey downed a Russian warplane that violated Turkey's airspace near the Syrian border on Nov. 24, 2015. However, it took only one month for Ankara and Moscow to restore ties. Erdoğan and Putin have been exchanging messages and 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.

Normalization of relations between Turkey and Russia gained momentum in June, a move that could restore trade ties following Erdoğan sending a letter to Putin to celebrate Russia's National Day, which marks the country's post-Soviet constitution, and Putin thanking Erdoğan, along with the Russian ambassador attending an iftar dinner at the Presidential Palace in Ankara. Erdoğan's letter on Monday and 45 minutes on the phone have been enough to call off sanctions against Turkey.

After the incident in November, the furious Russian government announced sanctions against Turkey in response. Turkish food imports were blocked at Russian border gates after Jan. 1. Moscow called on Russians to not visit Turkey and opened up investigations into Russian tourism agencies organizing tours to Turkey. Moreover, Russia refused to issue work permits for Turkish citizens and called for an end to visa-free travel. But, these have been too costly for both sides.

Foreign trade volume between Turkey and Russia soared from $26.2 billion in 2010 to $31.2 billion by the end of 2014, a 17.3 percent upsurge. However, it was turned upside down after the incident of Nov. 24, 2015. While Russia was Turkey's seventh-largest import partner in 2014, it was 20th as of May. In the first five months of this year, Turkey's exports to Russia fell dramatically, nearly 75 percent when compared to the same time period of 2014.

The number of visitors from Russia declined sharply, 91.8 percent in May, compared to the same month the previous year. The share of Russian visitors among all tourists in Turkey shrank from 13.2 percent to 1.65 percent.

The Turkish construction sector has been facing problems in Russia despite special permissions provided for major projects. The good news has cheered up sector representatives. Speaking to Sabah daily's Seda Tabak, Turkish Contractors Association (TMB) Chairman Mithat Yenigün said that they are expecting takeover projects worth $2 billion in Russia by year-end.

Turkish contractors have taken over more than 1,920 infrastructure and superstructure projects in Russia, equaling $62 billion since 1988. According to TMB data, Turkish contractors are top Russia's list of foreign contractors, taking 19.4 percent of works.

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