Turkey's President Erdogan and Vladimir Putin seek to 'reset' ties in first meeting since Russian jet downing

Mr Erdogan says ties could be expanded not just restored as both leaders seek to mend relations

Chris Stevenson
Tuesday 09 August 2016 18:05 BST
Mr Putin, left, met Mr Erdogan in the Konstantin palace outside St Petersburg
Mr Putin, left, met Mr Erdogan in the Konstantin palace outside St Petersburg (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg, the first face-to-face contact between the pair since ties between the nations were shattered after a Russian fighter jet was downed by Turkey's air force last November.

Both men appear keen to put the recent past behind them with Mr Erdogan saying that Turkey could rebuild ties with Russia – and even expand them further than before – with Turkey entering a “very different period” in its relations with the nation. Mr Putin said ahead of the meeting on Tuesday that he was “glad” to see his counterpart.

The visit is Mr Erdogan’s first foreign visit since a failed coup in his country last month, an event that has seen ties strained with Western nations. The Turkish president has complained at the apparent the lack of support he has received from the US and EU nations over the coup attempt – particularly since the beginning of a purge of thousands of army officers, judges and other workers in the wake of the rebellion that some Western nations have labelled “undemocratic”.

The fact that Mr Erdogan has also suggested he supports the re-introduction of the death penalty in Turkey for those found guilty of organising the coup has also not gone down well in some European quarters.

Mr Erdogan was quick to thank Mr Putin for his call after the coup on 15 July, saying that he was one of the first world leaders to express his support. Mr Erdogan said the move “gladdened me, my colleagues and our people”. Mr Putin had said that his country’s “principled position” was to be “categorically against any attempts at unconstitutional actions”.

He added: “I want to express the hope that under your leadership the Turkish people will cope with this problem [the coup's aftermath] and that order and constitutional legality will be restored.”

The Russian president made clear in his remarks just before the meeting on Tuesday afternoon that Mr Erdogan's visit “despite the really complex domestic political situation” in Turkey “shows we all want to restart our dialogue and restore our relations”. He said that their talks would cover “the whole range of our relations...including restoring economic ties, combating terrorism”.

A thaw in relations between the two countries would appear to suit both men. While Mr Putin will not seemingly miss an opportunity to flex his political muscle and cause Western nations to fret over his intentions, Mr Erdogan may also hope that turning to Russia may give him some leverage in other complicated matters with Europe and beyond.

Erdogan travels to Russia to reset relations

Some have called for the end to negotiations with Turkey over accession to the EU – a part of the agreement with Turkey aimed at helping to end the flow of migrants and refugees to Europe from places such as Syria – over the possible reintroduction of the death penalty. On Tuesday, the foreign policy spokesman for Denmark's Liberal Party, Michael Aastrup Jensen, told Reuters that negotiations should end due to President Erdogan's “undemocratic initiatives” and his support for reintroducing the death penalty. His remarks come after Austria's foreign minister said he believed talks should cease.

The refugee deal is seen as important for a continent that has struggled to deal with an influx of people from conflict-ridden countries such as Syria and Iraq. But it has been placed under further strain by the fact that Mr Erdogan has said he cannot rewrite Turkey's terrorism laws – a key demand of the EU – after the recent coup attempt.

Despite this, a full rapprochement will not come easy given the full breakdown in relations between Russia and Turkey last year. In November, Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter jet, after what it said were multiple warnings to get out of Turkish airspace. Russia insisted the plane remained inside Syrian airspace, where it was flying missions in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. One of the pilots died, as well as a member of a rescue mission.

At the time, Mr Putin called the incident “a stab in the back, carried out by the accomplices of terrorists” – a reference to the differing sides the two nations are in within the Syrian conflict. This led to Russia imposing economic sanctions on Turkey and charter flights between the two countries stopped. Turkey's tourism industry suffered a massive blow, with Russians, who usually flock to Turkey every year in their millions, staying away.

On Tuesday, Mr Putin appeared to strike a more conciliatory tone, referring to “the tragic incident involving the death of our servicemen” during his opening remarks.

Syria may still be a problem, but Mr Putin suggested on Tuesday that even that could be resolved – with both Russia and Turkey having a common goal of resolving the crisis.

Speaking after the meeting with President Erdogan, Mr Putin said that Russia’s views on Syria have not always coincided with those of Turkey but the two states agreed to talk further and seek solutions. “I think it is possible to align our views and approaches,” he said.

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the Bild daily that he was not worried about Russia and Turkey improving ties.

“It is good that after the shooting down of the Russian fighter jet by Turkey last year, there is a rapprochement,” he said. “At the same time I do not believe that relations between the two countries will become so close that Russia can offer Turkey an alternative to the Nato security partnership.”

But, the fact that Mr Erdogan and his government have also been upping their rhetoric with Nato partner the United States, will not have gone unnoticed by Mr Putin. Mr Erdogan blames the coup attempt in his country on a rival, US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, and his followers. Mr Gulen has denied all involvement – but Turkey's government has repeatedly asked the US to send him to Turkey to face trial. American officials have said this cannot happen without proper evidence being presented.

Turkey's justice minister, Bekir Bozdag, said on Tuesday that the United States would be sacrificing its alliance with Turkey to “a terrorist” if it were to refuse to extradite Mr Gulen

Mr Bozdag told the state-run Anadolu Agency that anti-American sentiment in Turkey is reaching “its peak” over the issue of cleric’s return, and risks turning into hatred.

“If (the United States) does not return him, it will have sacrificed Turkey to a terrorist,” Mr Bozdag said. “The United States is a great state and I believe it will do what is expected from a great state.”

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report

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