Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul's recent visit to Russia can be regarded as a watershed of sorts in the historic rivalry between Ankara and Moscow. The four-day visit in late February -- the first such diplomatic mission since then-Foreign Minister Hikmet Cetin traveled to the fledgling Russian Federation in January 1992 -- demonstrated that converging strategic interests have begun to transform the traditionally rocky Russian-Turkish relationship, replacing competition with cooperation.
On the economic front, tourism between the two countries, long hampered by diplomatic distrust, has blossomed into a $1 billion-a-year cottage industry over the past couple of years. Official Russian-Turkish commerce has also ballooned to nearly $6.5 billion annually, a figure supplemented by a thriving unofficial "shuttle" trade that now measures roughly $3 billion dollars.
Diplomatically, Moscow has shown uncharacteristic interest in the thorny dispute over Cyprus in recent months, and has scored points with Turkey for its support of Ankara's political efforts there. The Kremlin has also thrown its weight behind Turkey's efforts to accede to the European Union, based on the quiet understanding that membership would not interfere with the emerging Russian-Turkish rapprochement.
Strategically, meanwhile, Moscow and Ankara are drifting closer to consensus on the issue of security in Russia's "near abroad." Gul's Moscow visit thus saw the formation of a common vision of "regional stability" in the Caucasus, one built around the territorial integrity of Georgia and Azerbaijan. As part of this drift, Turkey has welcomed a more active Russian role in the mediation of the long-running conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, and has adopted a laissez-faire attitude toward Russia's redoubled diplomatic overtures to Georgia's new president, Mikheil Saakashvili.
The hitherto divisive issue of Chechnya likewise no longer constitutes an insurmountable barrier to warmer bilateral ties, even though the presence of Turkish militants in the breakaway Russian republic, together with lingering moral and financial support for Chechen separatism on the part of Turkey's sizeable North Caucasian community, remains a source of concern for policymakers in Moscow. A series of domestic reforms instituted by the Turkish government -- including greater accountability on humanitarian aid flowing to the region, and an overhaul of the country's counterterrorism apparatus in the wake of last November's bloody terrorist bombings in Istanbul -- has done much to allay Kremlin fears. So too has the growing counterterrorism dialogue between Moscow and Ankara, under which the two governments have now begun to share vital intelligence on groups and individuals of mutual concern.
Russia and Turkey have even closed ranks over the crucial issue of post-Saddam Iraq. Both have expressed an interest in a rapid transfer of power to Iraqi authorities and in the creation of a durable, sovereign Iraq -- albeit for different reasons. Ankara's motivations stem from persistent worries that the political unrest in neighboring Iraq could foment separatist tendencies among its own sizeable Kurdish minority. This concern has led the Turkish military to make several abortive attempts to create a military foothold in Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq, moves that have heightened lingering tensions between Ankara and Washington. Moscow, meanwhile, is looking to build a new relationship with Iraq's emerging government. Thus the Kremlin, a longtime energy partner of Saddam Hussein's regime, has opened discussions with Iraq's interim Governing Council regarding the resumption of Russian activity -- long stifled by international sanctions -- in Iraq's massive West Qurna-2 oil field.
Energy has a great deal to do with the emerging Russian-Turkish entente. Turkey is now the third-largest European importer of Russian natural gas. Further, officials in Ankara, previously wary of overdependence on Moscow, now say supplies from Russia could grow to as much as 30 million cubic meters -- more than half of Turkey's annual natural-gas imports -- by the year 2008.
Central to these plans is the controversial Blue Stream pipeline. Since its initiation in 1998, that project -- designed to ferry Russian natural gas to Turkey via the Black Sea -- has been a political and economic lightning rod between Moscow and Ankara. But a deal concluded in November between Russian natural gas giant Gazprom and Turkey's state-run Botas pipeline company has resolved the last quibbles raised by Ankara over the price and quantity of natural-gas deliveries. And given Turkey's soaring energy demand, Blue Stream could eventually be used to deliver as much as 16 billion cubic meters of Russian natural gas annually.
But much of the new closeness is also attributable to Turkey's changing political orientation. Since its assumption of power in November 2002, the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has pursued an "independent" foreign-policy course, one that has brought it closer to longtime rivals like Syria, Iran, and Russia. And Kremlin officials have taken notice; in his meetings with Foreign Minister Gul, Russian President Vladimir Putin specifically stressed the positive progress in bilateral ties that had been made since the AKP's rise to power.
The resulting reconciliation has major implications for the Caspian and Caucasus. Eager to maintain their deep historical and cultural influence, both Moscow and Ankara have long championed competing designs for the political evolution of both regions. Turkey's newfound tilt to the East, however, suggests a lessening of its objections to the preservation of the current, Russian-dominated energy balance -- and to its political implications for the region.