Trade matters

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s important visit to Turkey this week, during which landmark agreements were signed, especially on energy cooperation and visa waivers, is obviously a significant breakthrough in terms of boosting relations between old Cold War foes. More importantly, the visit is a precursor to further developments down the road to align the policies of these two key players in Europe. It will be no surprise to see Russia and Turkey acting in concert to move stuck-in-the-mud stones on a range of issues from the Caucasus to Cyprus and from the Balkans to the Iranian nuclear stalemate.

To take a hint from Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s comments during his visit to Baku last month, during which he said that Russia is playing an amazingly constructive role in the Caucasus to bolster Turkish efforts, I would say both Moscow and Ankara have for some time been deeply committed to bringing about a new order in relations that will serve the national interests of both countries. Medvedev’s comments in branding the bilateral relations as strategic and his remarks that “Russia and Turkey are strategic partners, not only in words but in deeds as well” during a joint press conference with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should be read as an official blessing to what has been going on behind closed doors for some time.

We should not forget, however, that Turkey’s close relations with Russia are only one part of the multifaceted Turkish foreign policy engagement. Ankara’s unreciprocated love affair with the European Union is part of the driving force behind this push, though certainly not the only one. The erosion and dilution of advantages under the customs union agreement Turkey has with the EU after Brussels inked similar agreements with major economies in Asia and Africa has disappointed Turks.

What is the point of having a customs agreement and continuing to negotiate as a “candidate country” if that does not offer some kind of privileges to Turkish entrepreneurs, they justifiably ask. Despite legally binding agreements and court decisions, the EU has even failed to extend the right of free movement to Turks by dragging its feet on visa-free travel agreements. The talk of easing visa requirement is no panacea to quiet down Turkish concerns — after all, every country in the world has started to offer easy visas to others to lure investors and business people after the global economic crisis.

The unwillingness of successive US administrations for many years to flesh out economic cooperation with Turkey, by shying away from free trade agreements, has undoubtedly given the Turkish government more reasons to look for diversified markets to generate income back at home. Only recently have we seen some movement on boosting economic relations between the US and Turkey. US President Barack Obama and Erdoğan in December of last year agreed to create a so-called “Framework for Strategic Economic and Commercial Cooperation,” which creates a new Cabinet-level forum to discuss ways to expand bilateral trade and investment flows and to try to resolve disputes when they arise.

United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk and US Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke will co-chair the US side, while Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, who is also responsible for the Turkish economy, and Foreign Trade Minister Zafer Çağlayan will co-chair the Turkish side. We have not seen any concrete results from this agreement yet. Hopefully Çağlayan’s trip to the US in the upcoming days will bear some fruit and revitalize the staggering economic numbers between the two countries.

I also need to point out one key development that certainly went unnoticed both in the Turkish and the foreign media. A high-level Chinese delegation headed by Li Changchun, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China — the innermost ring of power and de facto top power organ in the country — came to Turkey in April. Four agreements were signed between Turkey and China during this visit, in the fields of tourism, construction and energy. Li spoke with Babacan to explore economic opportunities on both sides. There were some concrete results from Li’s visit but certainly more will come, as it was obvious that political leadership of China pays special attention to regional powerhouse Turkey.

I see more emerging economic powers lining up to make their sales pitch to Turkey. For example, South Korea is actively negotiating a free trade agreement with Turkey at the moment and their embassy residence in Ankara is quite busy with trade delegations coming and going, so many and so often that their neighbors have started to complain. Another G-20 member, South Africa, accounting for almost half of the GDP generated in the entire African continent, is gearing up for a high-level visit to Turkey by the end of the month. Kgalema Motlanthe, deputy president of South Africa and a major power broker both in the ruling African National Congress (ANC) as well as the cabinet, will lead a large delegation to Turkey to set the political and economic tone in bilateral relations.

Did I mention Turkey has already cozied up to Brazil, South America’s largest economy, as part of its strategic initiative targeting Latin American countries, and the warm relations are already spilling over to political issues like alignment in the resolution of the Iranian nuclear program stand-off? Trade is the driving force behind this new Turkish foreign policy, and it is a shame that our traditional partners, the EU and the US, are losing Turkey in trade with a lack of political will to move forward.

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