At the margins of Europe

Russia and Turkey

21 December 2005
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November 2005 saw the opening of the monumental Blue Stream pipeline, which pumps natural gas from Russia across the Black Sea to the Turkish Mediterranean coast. Is a new Eurasian alliance forming at the margins of Europe? Looking back on centuries of Russian-Turkish hostility, that seems unlikely, says Mischa Gabowitsch. The anti-Westernism that appears to bind the two nations is irreconcilable: in the one case it is the phantom pains of the superpower, in the other a moderate Islamism and frustration with EU accession talks. However, in Europe there is still a sense that if Russia and Turkey are non-European, they are less so than other non-European countries. And the lack of high-cultural relations between the two nations is being made up for by processes of grass-roots cultural exchange.

Avrupalilastiramadiklarimizdan misiniz?
[Are you among those we have not yet Europeanized?]

On 17 November 2005, the Blue Stream pipeline was officially opened, with great fanfare and in the presence of president Putin and prime minister Erdogan, in the Turkish Black Sea port of Samsun. The pipeline, which cuts across the Black Sea, has been pumping natural gas into Turkey for several months already, for the time being at a volume of 3.7 billion cubic metres per year. After a second pipeline is laid, that will become 14 billion, or so Putin has it; there is also talk of an oil pipeline. This would turn Turkey into one of the most important transit countries for Russian mineral resources, which form the basis of the Kremlin’s power. Is this a new Eurasian coalition shaping at Europe’s gates, one that could have political implications rather than just economic ones?

A look back at the history of the strange relations between Russia and Turkey shows why a long-term alliance is unlikely to emerge. Almost exactly a century separates the two events that catapulted Turkey and Russia into the league of major global powers: the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and Ivan IV’s seizure of Kazan in 1552. Both states, however, had already staked claims to the political and cultural heritage of the Byzantine empire. These claims, whose roots can be traced respectively to the eleventh to thirteenth century Seljuks of Rum and to the symbolic Christening of Kievan Rus’ in 988, is most frequently adduced as the historical basis of both countries’ present-day claim to a European identity – where such claims are made and where an historical basis is sought for them.

Unlike the maritime European empires – Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Britain and France – but like the Habsburgs, the Ottoman and Romanov dynasties shaped their poly-ethnic empires by co-opting members of non-metropolitan religious or ethnic groups into their system of rule (although this happened very differently in the two cases, and although military conquest also played a decisive role). Both empires went through periods of decline after which new rulers introduced Western-style modernizing measures that spawned new intellectual milieus. Though these were highly productive, and in many ways oppositional, they remained chained to the autocratic regimes that generated them. The “West” – meaning first France, then Germany – was the main beacon for these intellectuals, as it later became the main enemy for those who lashed out against modernization and strove to find “their own way”. In both Turkey and Russia, until very recently, intellectuals and political modernizers were dealing with a predominantly rural population that was perceived as the main obstacle to a truly European identity. Not least, like in other non-Western former empires (Japan being an obvious example), large sections of the political and intellectual elites in both countries find it very difficult to come to terms with past crimes, and often respond to Western reminders about these crimes with almost hysterical hostility.

Most obviously and most importantly, both countries span Europe and Asia, and while neither of the two countries has ever seriously abandoned its European ambitions or seen itself predominantly as an Asian power, most of both countries’ territory is located in what is traditionally called Asia. The Central Asian and Caucasian regions populated by Turkic-speaking peoples have been important for Turkey and Russia not only in a geopolitical sense, but also as potential sources of alternative identities, as illustrated by the concept of Eurasianism in Russia, and pan-Turkism and the notion of Avrasya in Turkey. It is often forgotten in the West that Russia has Europe’s second-largest Muslim population after Turkey. Figures such as the Crimean Tatar intellectual Ismail Gasprinsky (1851-1914) were influential among Muslims of both countries.

Combined with the two empires’ geographical contiguity and resulting geopolitical rivalry, these parallels unsurprisingly resulted in centuries of almost constant hostility (eight wars against two alliances over a period of two hundred years), which was twice interrupted during the Soviet era. The first of these thaws was a prolonged flirtation between Kemalist Turkey and the USSR during the 1920s and 1930s, when the two truncated states were still the largest newborns among the numerous entities hatched by World War I, and were both fighting enemies supported by the Western Entente. In 1920, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, later to become the nucleus of the USSR, was quick to recognise the government of what was to become the Turkish Republic, which in turn became a loyal supporter and was among the first to recognise the Soviet Union when it was proclaimed in December 1922. In 1921, even before the Russian Civil War and the Graeco-Turkish war had ended, and as Transcaucasia was ending its brief drift towards a short-lived period of independence, both countries signed a Friendship Treaty under which Adzharia was declared part of Soviet Georgia, while Turkey received the cities of Kars, Ardahan, Sarikamis and the surrounding areas (hence the Russian reminiscences in Orhan Pamuk’s best-selling novel Snow, set in Kars). However, it was only after Atat�rk’s death in 1938 and World War II that the two parallel paths of authoritarian modernisation allowed moderately good relations, cut short by Turkey’s westward drift and partly justified fear of Communism.

A more modest thaw intervened in the 1960s, after the Soviet Union finally renounced Russia’s age-old claim to the Bosphorus and Dardanelles in 1958. This claim had been the ultimate expression of the “Eastern question” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, one of the most important geopolitical issues in Europe at the time, and one of the reasons for the Crimean War. Every Russian emperor had been dreaming of securing the free passage of battleships through the straits to secure the Black Sea as a Russian lake and gain a foothold in the Mediterranean, and generations of Messianic Russian nationalists had aspired to conquer Constantinople, thus sealing Russia’s fate as heir to the Byzantine Empire. In the nuclear age, however, the geopolitical significance of the straits became almost obsolete, though Turkey’s role as Nato’s outpost at the threshold of the Soviet Union did trigger reminiscences of events a hundred years earlier. For most of the post-war period, Turkey and the USSR confronted each other from different sides of the Cold War barricades. This mutual wariness hardly led to mutual interest: Turkey did not develop anything comparable to the Sovietology that flourished among its Western NATO partners, and Russia’s output of specialists on contemporary Turkey (mostly spies) was modest even compared to the limited number of experts on the United States, Latin America or the Arab countries it produced. With the notable but rule-confirming exception of Nazim Hikmet’s adventurous escape from Turkey in 1950 and subsequent life in Russia, cultural exchange was largely confined to scattered literary translations – of Russian literature into Turkish more than vice-versa – and rare officially-sanctioned visits by writers and critics.

Economic and even political relations between Russia and Turkey have soared to an all-time high over the past fifteen years, now that the countries are, technically speaking, no longer neighbours. The monumental Blue Stream gas pipeline across the Black Sea was officially inaugurated in November 2005, and there are plans to expand cooperation in the energy sector. Russia has become Turkey’s second largest trading partner after Germany, while Turkish business is well-represented in the construction sector in Russia, and a fashionable Turkish-owned shopping mall has opened in central Moscow. Turkey has become Russians’ favourite holiday destination, where they outnumber tourists of any other nationality on the Turkish beaches. High-level visits are exchanged between the two countries, and there is much talk about a new Russian-Turkish partnership, perhaps as an economic counterweight to the European Union.

The topic of a “multi-polar world” has been fashionable in Russia ever since the pro-Western euphoria of the late 1980s and early 1990s came to an end. Nationalist politicians, especially, are constantly on the lookout for potential geopolitical partners. While some of them, most notably Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a specialist on Turkey who was expelled from the country in the late 1960s for spreading Communist propaganda, see Turkey as the main enemy or even, like Yegor Kholmogorov, revive dreams of conquering Constantinople, others, mainly the extreme rightwing ideologist Alexander Dugin, have chosen Turkey as a potential partner in the construction of a new anti-American super-empire on the Eurasian continent.

Clearly, all of these projects are pipedreams, though perhaps not for the obvious reasons. Geostrategic rivalry between Russia and Turkey in Central Asia and the Caucasus is an oft-cited obstacle to co-operation; however, the pan-Turkish ideas of the early 1990s have petered out or been sublimated into Turkish cultural diplomacy among the Turkic-speaking countries or, less perceptibly, among Russia’s Muslims. Post-war western Europe offers numerous examples of how ancient rivalries can be resolved in new partnerships; the pre-condition for this, however, is the rejection of superpower politics. In the Russian case, this would mean, at the very least, the Kremlin abandoning its clumsy interventionism in the Caucasus; many people in Moscow are convinced that Turkey would be only too happy to move in to the region alongside the US.

Underlying this distrust is a lack of mutual knowledge and cultural ties. The lifting of the Iron Curtain has resulted in a flood of translations of western European authors and a never-ending series of visits by French, German, and North American artists and musicians. However the presence of Turkish culture in Russia is limited to Tarkan, whose lyrics no one bothers to understand, and some novels by Orhan Pamuk, which few people have read. In Turkey, the situation is somewhat better; however, even here nineteenth century Russian culture remains much better known than that of the present day. Despite the significant economic links between the two near-neighbours, cultural relations are virtually non-existent, and always take a detour via the West. Turgut Bey, the character in Orhan Pamuk’s Snow who translates Turgenev from the French, is a case in point; Pamuk himself, whose novels were translated into Russian only after their initial success in the West, is another.

Most tragically, the Iron Curtain between the two countries put an end to the century-old tradition of cultural exchange performed by neighbouring populations. These included the Armenians and other minorities living under the rule of both Tsar and Sultan, and the inhabitants of borderlands such as multicultural Odessa, who, shuttling between the two realms, spoke both Russian and Turkish, and whose stocks-in-trade included furs and spices as well as revolutionary ideas. The numerous Tsarist �migr�s who temporarily settled in “Constantinople” (and were soon evicted for corrupting Turkish youth) could not play that role, since they were scarcely interested in Turkish culture and barred from returning home.

Institutional expertise about Turkey in Russia is more or less limited to the Institute of Oriental Studies of the notoriously underfinanced Academy of Sciences, while the only Turkish centre for Russian studies of any note (at Bilkent University) has yet to produce anything of significant academic value. Russia seems absent from the cultural fabric of modern Turkey, unlike in neighbouring Syria or Iraq, where one still frequently meets Russian speakers.

This mutual ignorance has profound political implications. The anti-Occidentalism that could form the ideological basis for strategic co-operation in competition against the EU have very different bases in the two countries: in the one case it is the phantom pains of the superpower, in the other a relatively moderate form of Islamism and frustration with EU accession talks. Moreover, both countries’ economies are Western-oriented. An Italian company was involved in the construction of the Blue Stream pipeline, which was co-financed by the Italian state (explaining why Silvio Berlusconi joined Putin and Erdogan in Samsun in November). Culture, too, is geared towards western Europe and “the West” in general. The West, and especially Germany, home to the biggest Russian and Turkish diasporas, as well as the United States and France, act as magnets, attracting and repelling by turn. Those who want to prove their Europeanness, as well as those who spend their time denying their country’s European identity, need to speak the language of the West. This is reinforced by the fact that cultural exchange is used by the European Union as a substitute for political co-operation. Russia and Turkey are not unique in this respect, of course – they share this fate with most of the developing (or, in the case of Russia, non-developing) countries that are now euphemistically called �emerging markets’, and indeed with most non-Western countries.

What makes the two countries both unique and similar is that they are the only former empires contiguous to the European Union. Their membership prospects are in the mid term for Turkey, and in the very long term for Russia. They are also similar in that their European identity is often disputed by western Europeans, usually on emotional and unargued grounds; however in Europe there is still always a sense that if Russia and Turkey are non-European, they are less so than other non-European countries. The main difference is that Turkey’s EU membership, unlike Russia’s, is at least not clearly ruled out by decision-makers in the current EU. Consequently, in Turkey, unlike in Russia, a critical mass among the political and intellectual elite has firmly opted for a European political identity that is potentially compatible with a national cultural identity, and has initiated far-reaching, though certainly insufficient, political reforms.

This is fortunate; for any anti-liberal, anti-democratic and anti-Western international such as that which Dugin has in mind would not only be a threat to the West, but also to civil society and political liberties in the countries involved. Justified qualms about cultural globalisation and excessive Western influence should not blind us to the dangers of international cultural cooperation founded upon opposition to the West. The EU, unlike with Turkey, is unwilling to use its influence to put human rights and democracy on the agenda in Russia; if that were to change, clearly affirming Russia’s identity as a European country, and declaring EU membership to be at least a distant possibility, would perhaps be the greatest contribution the European Union could make.

There is hope, however, that Russian-Turkish ties will develop beyond gas and engineering without turning into a menacing anti-Western alliance. This hope involves a change of perspective – from “high culture” to grassroots. These contacts are facilitated by two of the four pillars of economic cooperation between the two countries: the suitcase trade and tourism. In the early 1990s, when textile production came to a halt in the former Soviet Union, the so-called meshochniki, or suitcase traders, clothed Russia and its neighbouring republics in Turkish garments. Even though it has declined, the suitcase trade remains an important source of income for Turks; traders in the Laleli district of Istanbul who were interviewed for a study about the phenomenon said they followed Russian news more closely than Turkish news.1 Cheap tourism has brought hundreds of thousands of Russians to Turkey, and while most remain shielded from Turkish life in their four-star ghettos, the infrastructure that serves them, just like the suitcase trade, has bred thousands of Russophone Turks and vice-versa, and not a few mixed couples, whose children will be at home in both cultures. Will they also be accepted as Europeans?

This article is based on a contribution to the panel discussion, “Only neighbours? Turkey and EUrope”, which took place at the 18th European Meeting of Cultural Journals in Istanbul from 4 to 7 November 2005.

  1. "Turkey: suitcase trade part -- trade is lucrative, but numbers are declining", www.bisnis.doc.gov.

Published 21 December 2005

Original in English
First published in

© Mischa Gabowitsch Eurozine

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