Çavuşoğlu and Lavrov in Antalya
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu meet at the Carya Regnum Hotel. Antalya, Turkey, June 30, 2021. Image: Russian Foreign Ministry/TASS.
On June 30, 2021, the Foreign Minister of Turkey, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, met with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov for wide-ranging discussions on topics including Syria, Karabakh and access to the Black Sea. They noted a dramatic 2021 improvement in mutual trade (recovering from a Covid-affected slump) and also addressed tourism. That’s especially relevant to the meeting’s venue, Antalya, a Turkish coastal resort that’s long been popular with visitors from Russia. Çavuşoğlu noted that Turkey is taking suitable precautions for the forthcoming Russian tourist influx and that the nations are working towards a common system of recognizing certificates of vaccination. Both sides also noted that the joint production in Turkey of the Russian Covid-19 Vaccine, Sputnik V, is due to start soon.
The ministers discussed many key areas of foreign policy in which their nations share an active interest, including Afghanistan, Ukraine and Central Asia. On the Caucasus, Lavrov stated that both Russia and Turkey hope to help Azerbaijan and Armenia normalize their relationship in the aftermath of the Second Karabakh War. In response to a question about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent visit to Shusha, Lavrov said that this was a matter between Turkey and Azerbaijan over which Russia was not concerned. He also underlined the importance of the joint Turkish-Russian center in monitoring the Karabakh peace deal. No signs, here at least, of Russia seeing Turkey ‘breaching its sphere of influence’ as some commentators have suggested recently.
On Syria, a pricklier subject where Russia and Turkey have sometimes been described as “The Best of Enemies,” both sides underlined the importance of facilitating humanitarian assistance and of keeping the country free from terrorist organizations. From Turkey’s point of view, Çavuşoğlu insisted, the ‘anti-fascist’ YPG should be considered a branch of the outlawed PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) and thus considered a terrorist organization. The ministers noted that while all efforts to bring peace and stability to Syria are welcome, there are fears that the recent Geneva Conference is likely to be less successful at ending the civil war than the Astana Process (mediated by Russia-Turkey-Iran), which most recently held meetings in Sochi.
The parties were on safer ground when discussing many significant ‘mega’ projects and trade initiatives in which Turkey and Russia are cooperating. These include the recently completed TurkStream gas pipeline across the Black Sea and the Akkuyu Power Station, Turkey’s first nuclear power plant being built using Russian technology on the southern Anatolian coast southwest of Mersin. Particular attention was given to the Istanbul Canal – a truly gigantic project creating a 45km-long shipping channel that would effectively turn Istanbul into a huge island. Wider than the Panama or Suez canals, it’s designed to help facilitate shipping access to the Black Sea by creating a new route that avoids the critically overloaded Bosphorous. The issue is important for Turkey as over 140 million tonnes of crude oil currently transit the Bosphorous passing within a short distance of central Istanbul – which would thus be seriously affected by any spillage. For Russia, whose main warm-water ports are on the Black Sea, the issue is one of ensuring smoother maritime trade and quicker passage for its naval fleets. Critics of the Istanbul Canal project often cite the environmental damage of any such massive construction effort. Geopolitically, however, a bigger question is whether this new ‘Bosphorous bypass’ might in some way undermine or re-frame the Montreux Convention. Since 1936, it has limited the tonnage of naval ships entering the Black Sea from non-Black Sea nations, as well as demanding that no tolls be charged for passage through the Bosphorous. In Antalya, however, Lavrov stated that the canal would not change the commitment of Turkey or Russia to the convention.
Overall the meeting appeared to have been a constructive one, with the nations already looking forward to a meeting of their heads of states in the next round of the High-Level Russian-Turkish Cooperation Council. The most recent (8th) of these was held in 2019.