The role of the Black Sea region in Turkey’s foreign policy has changed over the course of the country’s history. The Carnegie Moscow Center, as part of the Black Sea Peacebuilding Network, hosted a discussion on Turkey’s current approach to the region. Alexander Vasiliev of the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, spoke at the event. Carnegie’s Andrei Ryabov moderated.

The Black Sea Region: The Change of the Role

In the middle of the twentieth century, the Black Sea emerged as a region of direct contact between two opposing military-political blocs: NATO and the Warsaw Pact. As a result, Turkey saw the Black Sea as a border region adjacent to a “hostile encirclement,” Vasiliev said. Turkish politicians believed this inhibited development of the Black Sea coast, which played an important and undervalued role in the country’s economy. After the collapse of the USSR, the Black Sea was viewed in Turkey as a shipping corridor that would open up alternative transportation and trade routes to Eastern and Northern Europe, as well as to the Caucasus and Central Asia. Turkish foreign policy thus saw the Black Sea region first and foremost as a hub where the most essential distribution lines converged, Vasiliev said.

Development of the Region

  • BSEC: Turkey’s active participation in the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) had to play an important role in helping the country to realize its foreign policy goals in the region. The organization seeks the development of economic cooperation and trade among the countries of the Black Sea basin. However, in recent years, Turkey has increasingly criticized the BSEC for delaying the joint projects.
  • TRASEKA: The TRASEKA transit corridor project aims to connect Central Asia with continental Europe via the South Caucasus, but has encountered serious construction and development problems. 

Turkey and Russia

According to Vasiliev, Turkey is pursuing—and will continue to pursue—its own goals and interests in dealing with Russia.

  • Main spheres of cooperation: The core of Russian-Turkish cooperation includes the areas of energy and tourism, as well as construction and contracting work carried out by Turkish companies in Russia. Trade in Turkish agricultural products, light industrial goods, and textiles also play an important role in bilateral relations.
  • Turkish-Russian projects: The decisions to create the Samsun-Caucasus rail transport ferry, as well as the Russian-Turkish customs and logistics centers in the Krasnodar and Rostov regions in Russia, look promising from the economic point of view.
  • Regional security: The Agreement on Participation in BLACKSEAFOR (the Black Sea Naval Co-operation Task Group) was signed by Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, and Turkey. The intended function of BLACKSEAFOR is organizing humanitarian missions; providing relief to disaster victims; locating mines; fighting terrorism, contraband, and illegal migration; and seeking to reduce environmental pollution in the Black Sea region. Despite the formation of this multi-national task force, the Turkish armed forces regard the Russian Navy as their main partner in the area and the most powerful force on the Black Sea. Since 2006, the Russian Navy has taken part in the Black Sea Harmony exercises, which are organized by Turkey.

However, for all of its statements about establishing a “strategic partnership” with Russia, Turkey remains a serious economic and geopolitical competitor to Russia in the Black Sea region and the South Caucasus, Vasiliev added.

Turkey and the Caucasus

  • Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh: The armed conflict between Russia and Georgia in August 2008 brought about a change in Turkish foreign policy in the Black Sea and Caucasus regions. Ankara proposed a Platform of Stability and Cooperation immediately after the conflict and bolstered its efforts to resolve the problems of Nagorno-Karabakh and its own relations with Armenia. While Turkey has made little progress in both areas, its efforts are likely to continue, Vasiliev said.
  • Georgia: Turkey continues to view Georgia as a foreign policy partner, and supports the formation of bilateral relations between Georgia and Azerbaijan.
  • Abkhazia: Ankara’s relations with Abkhazia are a separate aspect of Turkish policy in the Caucasus and Black Sea region—though in Russia, it’s usual to underestimate them.

According to Vasiliev, the main political issue facing Turkey in the Black Sea region is how to guarantee political and military security in the area. Turkey is positioning itself as a key actor and independent center of power. Ankara will try to maintain its relations with the United States, accede to the European Union, and develop the “Middle Eastern” (the Arab countries) and “Eurasian” (including Russia and Iran) aspects of its foreign policy, all at the same time, Vasiliev said. Nonetheless, Turkey’s partners, including Russia, should not underestimate Turkey’s domestic policy processes, which are leading to a growing Islamic influence in the country, Vasiliev concluded.