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Putin, Erdogan Vow New Era Of Close Relations

  • RFE/RL

The presidents of Russia and Turkey vowed to open a new period of close relations as they rebuild ties between their countries after a nearly seven-month rupture over Ankara's shooting down of a Russian warplane last year.

Speaking on August 9 during a visit to St. Petersburg, Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Vladimir Putin that Turkey was entering a "very different period" in relations with Russia, and that cooperation between the two countries would help solve regional problems.

He also vowed to rebuild military, economic, and cultural cooperation.

"Your visit today, despite a very difficult situation regarding domestic politics, indicates that we all want to restart dialogue and restore relations between Russia and Turkey," Putin said.

Turkey, whose economy has also slowed in recent years, has come under increased Western criticism over Erdogan's crackdown on opponents following an unsuccessful coup attempt on July 15, during which 230 people were killed.

Russia remains mired in economic crisis following a steep decline in world oil prices and the imposition of U.S. and European Union sanctions in response to Moscow's 2014 takeover of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and support for armed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

"Both have good reasons to mend fences," says Kristian Brakel, an Istanbul-based analyst for the German Council on Foreign Relations. "Both are in economic difficulty and both are looking for a counterbalance to the West."

But for all the statements of good will and restoring ties, one of the biggest issues vexing the two countries' relations -- the conflict in Turkey's neighbor Syria -- appeared to go unresolved.

Erdogan has been a vocal foe of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and has actively participated in the U.S.-led effort to hit terrorist groups in Syria as well as bolster moderate rebels.

Moscow, for its part, has been a longtime backer of Assad, supplying his regime with weapons and using the Mediterranean naval port of Tartus. Russia's air campaign, launched in September 2015, has helped Assad's forces on the battlefield.

Putin told reporters he and Erdogan would hold further discussions on Syria later on August 9.

"I think it is possible to align our views and approaches," he said.

Erdogan also signaled that the Syria issue was a priority, telling the Russian state news agency TASS ahead of the visit that Russia was "a main, key and very important player in establishing peace in Syria."

Still, Brakel said, the two leaders' visions for Syria are so dramatically opposed that it is clearly difficult to find some common understanding on it.

"It's very hard reconcile these two approaches; one is black, the other is white," Brakel told RFE/RL.

Coup Fallout

In the wake of last month's coup, Western powers rallied to Erdogan but have also expressed concern over his mass purges of alleged supporters.

Ankara has arrested or detained over 20,000 people and suspended or fired tens of thousands from their jobs on suspicion of being associated with the movement of cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former Erdogan ally living in self-imposed exile in the United States.

Erdogan rejected the Western criticism as he met with Putin on his first foreign trip since the attempted coup.

Turkey's justice minister warned earlier on August 9 that the United States would "sacrifice relations" unless it extradites Gulen as Ankara has requested.But Washington insists that Ankara must present convincing evidence of the cleric's involvement in the coup, something Gulen himself has denied.

"I want to again say that it's our fundamental position that we are always categorically against any attempts at unconstitutional actions," Putin told the news conference. "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."

For both leaders, the visit appeared to publicly put an end to their own dispute, which saw ties plunge following the shooting down of a Russian jet by a Turkish F-16 near the Syrian border in November.

As punishment, Russia imposed a ban on the sale of package tours to Turkey -- a popular destination for Russian vacationers -- and slapped an embargo on Turkish agricultural imports and construction firms. Trade between the two countries reportedly plummeted 43 percent to $6.1 billion in January-May this year, and the number of Russian tourists visiting Turkey fell by 87 percent in the same period.

But Moscow also paid a price as the spat shelved progress on Turk Stream -- a proposed Russian natural gas pipeline that is to pump 31.5 billion cubic meters of gas to Turkey annually. Russia's construction of a nuclear power station on Turkey's Mediterranean coast was also put on hold.

At times, the dispute over the Russian warplane's downing appeared to take a distinctly personal tone. Putin called it a "stab in the back" and accused Erdogan of and having links to the illegal trading of oil with the extremist group Islamic State.

In late June, however, Putin accepted Erdogan's expression of regret as an apology and signaled that Moscow was ready to do business again.

With reporting by RFE/RL correspondent Mike Eckel; Reuters, AP, AFP and TASS