Sunday, August 9, 2009

Dueling Pipelines and Turkey’s Delicate Energy Dance

A few weeks ago, Ankara was the scene of the celebratory signing of an intergovernmental agreement for the troubled Nabucco pipeline project, designed to weaken Russia’s grip on Europe’s energy supply by bringing Caspian and Middle Eastern gas to the continent via Turkey and the Balkans. (For more background on Nabucco, take a look at this series of posts from Istanbul Calling.) Although the pipeline is still far from becoming a reality, the signing in Ankara was hailed as an important step in helping Europe diversify its energy supply.

Cut to last week, when Ankara was the scene of the signing of another series of energy-related agreements, only this time with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Among the agreements signed was one that would allow Russia’s proposed South Stream gas pipeline – seen as a potentially lethal rival to the Nabucco project – to run through Turkish waters on the Black Sea.

What’s going on here? Had Ankara just stabbed Nabucco (and the European Union, it’s main supporter) in the back? Turkish officials clearly don’t want things to look that way, with “diplomatic sources” telling the English-language Hurriyet Daily News that “Nabucco is still [Turkey’s] priority.” That might be the case, but Ankara certainly also knows that as it moves along on Nabucco, it also needs to keep Moscow’s interests in mind. If anything, the recent dueling signings in Ankara serve as a good example of the delicate dance that Turkey now has to perform as part of its new, multi-polar foreign policy, which seeks to minimize conflict with its neighbors while also raising the country’s regional and international profile. As political scientist Bulent Aras points out in a new report he wrote on Turkish-Russian relations for the Foundation for Political Economic and Social Research (SETA), an Ankara-based think tank: “Under the strong influence of its new geographic thinking toward Russia, Ankara tries to avoid taking sides in any ‘Russia versus the West’ struggles, while developing its own relations with Moscow.”

From being intense regional rivals and then Cold War foes, Turkey and Russia have moved towards being strong partners in trade, defense and energy. That said, Turkey – like Europe – also finds itself heavily dependent on Russian energy supplies, importing 63 percent of its gas and 28 percent of its oil from Russia. It is now also working out terms with a Russian company to build Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, something that critics say will only deepen the country’s dependence on Russia. Still, Ankara policymakers realize that working together with Russia makes more sense for Turkey than antagonizing it.

But as Aras points out in his SETA report, this new approach to Russia will not be without its limitations:
“There is no guarantee that the Turkish politicians’ projection of good relations with Russia will be possible without endangering its relations with the EU and the US….
…. The current developments indicate that Turkish and Russian policy-makers have the political will to improve bilateral relations in the realm of politics, economy and security. However, these relations are not free of a number of serious problems that could threaten a derailing in the growing ties; both countries have converging and conflicting interests in neighboring regions. This fact, in combination with the high-profile status of both countries, makes Turkish-Russian relations promising, yet difficult.”

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