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  August 17, 2016

Turkey to EU: Forget Refugee Deal If No Visa-Free Travel

Baris Karaagac explains why it's unlikely that Turkey will discard its 60-year-old alliance with the United States in favor of closer ties with Russia
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Baris Karaagac is a lecturer in International Development Studies at Trent University, in Ontario. He is also the editor of the book Accumulations, Crises and Struggles: Capital and Labour in Contemporary Capitalism.


KIM BROWN, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I'm Kim Brown.

The August 9 summit between Turkey's President Erdogan and Russia's President Putin appears to have been more of a success for Turkey than for Russia. Trade between the two countries are to be reestablished, and the two countries agreed to continue construction on a gas pipeline from Russia to Turkey, among other things. Erdogan, however, did not change his position on his supporting those in the West trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Erdogan thus returned to Turkey boasting success as he continued on his crackdown of government officials suspected of having supported the July 15 coup attempt against him..

Joining us to further analyze the situation in Turkey is Baris Karaagac. Baris is a lecturer in international development studies at Trent University in Ontario. He is also the editor of the book Accumulations, Crises, and Struggles: Capital and Labor in Contemporary Capitalism. Thanks for being on the Real News, Baris.

BARIS KARAAGAC: Thanks for having me.

BROWN: Baris, Erdogan returned to Turkey from his summit with President Putin with some good economic results and no concessions towards Russia in terms of his position of working with the West for removing Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad. Would you say that, all in all, this summit was a success for Erdogan?

KARAAGAC: Well, I'm not--personally I'm not sure about the no concessions part. First for our audience, a short summary: Turkish and Russian relations started to deteriorate significantly with the downing of a Russian jet very close to the Turkish-Syrian border last November. It has been quite important particularly for Turkey to have good relations with Russia, particularly regarding the Turkish economy. First of all, when we look at the natural gas that is being consumed in Turkey, more than half of it has been imported from Russia for some time. And Turkey also imports a significant amount of oil from that country.

Plus, there is a tourism aspect. Before November, before late November 2015, the last summer, about 4.5 million tourists visited Turkey. This is a significant number for any country when we're talking about tourism. Plus, Turkish companies, particularly in the construction sector, a sector that has been driving almost singlehandedly the Turkish economy for the last ten years or so, are working in Russia. They have huge contracts, and this is a very important trade relationship with Russia. So we're talking about a trade relationship that is $35 billion a year. Now Turkey wants to increase it to $100 billion.

So this is a trade [inaud.], of course. And Turkey has been hit significantly by this incident and its aftermath. So in that regard I think the Turkish economy will gain benefits from this rapprochement between Erdogan and Putin.

Another interesting thing is when we look at the turn of events, only a few, a couple of months ago, Erdogan would use the greatest insults to depict, to describe Putin. And now they have become, again, the best friends. Erdogan refers to him as his buddy right now. And this, I find it quite interesting, this turn of events.

When it comes to Syria, which is quite important on an international level, during the meeting between Erdogan and Putin this was not discussed, actually. They left it for another meeting or for the subsequent [inaud.] period to figure out how these two countries will approach this issue, whether or not they will act together. And the last week, a group of Turkish officials that moved to Russia to discuss with Russian authorities the Syrian issue. But I'm not sure what the outcome of these events will be.

On the other hand, there's an important fact. Since at least in the last two or three years, in the context of Syria, Turkey has been marginalized by the international community. Turkey has been acting alone with regard to a number of issues in the region, and it became clear for Erdogan and the people close to him that Turkey will not be able to continue such a policy on its own. And this policy has aroused a lot of criticism around the world, particularly within the West, because Erdogan and his regime has given significant support to a number of jihadist groups in the region.

BROWN: So, Baris, one of the outcomes of the Erdogan-Putin summit was a commitment to build a so-called Turkish Stream gas pipeline, which would go from Russia to Turkey via the Black Sea. What is the importance of this pipeline for Turkey, and how would it impact Turkey's relationship with Europe, given that Europe wants less, not more dependence on Russian gas?

KARAAGAC: Well, Turkey, of course--Turkey is planning to continue with this project, and it thinks that it can help its trade, or its import of natural gas from Russia. But it's also planning to sell some of it to Europe.

Recently there have been many articles and editorials in Western media that Russia is trying to separate Turkey from Western alliance. I think this is too premature to make such an argument, and I think it's quite unlikely yet, as of today, that Turkey is ready to get closer to Russia and discard its 60-year-old alliance, 60-plus-year-old alliance, the last [inaud.] with the United States. I think it's quite unlikely. It's an institutionalized alliance that has been in existence for over 60 years, if not more.

Another important issue is the talks between Russia and the United States with regard to Syria and Syria's future recently. So now--this is quite important for Turkey, particularly in terms of how these two countries, or what they think about the future of the Kurds in northern Syria. The greatest concern that Turkey has had, and this is a historical concern that dates back to the early 20th century, not earlier, that there would be a separate and autonomous Kurdish political entity, either within Turkey's existing borders or around Turkey.

So this will be an important issue. We'll see what implications these talks, as well as the rapprochement between Russia and Turkey will have for an emerging Kurdish polity in northern Syria.

BROWN: That certainly does put the United States in an interesting position, especially Secretary of State John Kerry, who was just in Moscow visiting recently with foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. And the U.S. has usually been sympathetic towards the Kurdish state and the idea of that, and that definitely puts U.S. interests at odds with Turkey's interests, in that respect.

But Turkey's foreign minister, FM Cavusoglu, he told a German newspaper on Monday that Turkey might scrap its refugee deal with the EU if the European Union doesn't approve a visa-free travel for Turks in EU member countries. The refugee deal, which has been in place for a few months now, it allows Greece to return refugees to Turkey, and in return Turkey sends an equal number of approved refugees to various EU member countries. What do you make of this threat to cancel the refugee agreement if visa-free travel is not approved?

KARAAGAC: Well, as you said, back in March, late in March, Turkey and the European Union reached an agreement. According to this agreement Turkey would receive 6 billion euros from the European Union, and take back every so-called illegal Syrian refugee that had crossed the border from Turkey to Greece. And in return, the European Union would resettle some of the Syrian [and] migrants, people who have been displaced by the conflict in Syria that found refuge in Turkey, within the borders of Europe. It would speed up the [accession] process so that Turkey would become part of the European Union, and it would also allow visa-free, short-term visa-free travel for Turkish nationals within the European Union.

The European Union also told Turkey that it would have to meet 72 criteria to conclude this agreement. But throughout the process there were critics from the European Union claiming that Turkey has not been able to fulfill these criteria, particularly with regard to its quite stringent anti-terror law, and what has happened since the July 15 coup attempt. But at the same time, Turkish officials, including the current foreign minister, accused the EU of not keeping its promise. And Turkey is now blackmailing the European Union. It says clearly, if you do not let our nationals travel freely, at least short-term, freely within the European Union, we don't know what's going to happen with the Syrians within our borders.

This is quite important, because Turkey is hosting right now almost 3 million Syrians. Some of these people are in refugee camps. Some of them are in the streets in the major cities. Some of them we don't know where. And this is of course, for the European Union, this is a significant threat. The European Union has already seen an influx of migrants, and particularly many right-wing European politicians have been complaining about this. So the European Union sees this as a significant threat and blackmail that comes from Turkey.

On the other hand, what is very interesting is the denial of the Western world throughout this process, but particularly the United States and the United Kingdom, or the role they played in the emergence of this huge refugee crisis. And for that we need to go back to the Iraq war of 2003, which created the [conducive] conditions, circumstances, in which such a crisis emerged.

And this, this is completely out of the discussion. Out of the debate. Particularly within the mainstream media today. Both in Europe, continental Europe and the UK, as well as the United States.

BROWN: Well, that's why we're having this discussion right now on the Real News, Baris. And we have time for one more question before I let you go. President Erdogan has suggested that Western governments have not been sufficiently loyal to him. We have him here from a clip from an August 10 rally in the southern Turkish city of Izmir, where Erdogan addressed supporters and spoke of the need for the U.S. to extradite Fethullah Gulen, who Erdogan accused of having been the mastermind behind the coup attempt against him.

What has the coup and its aftermath meant for how supporters of Erdogan perceive the West?

KARAAGAC: This is a great question. Well, of course, Erdogan and the people around him have consistently depicted Fethullah Gulen, a cleric who resides in Pennsylvania, as a puppet or as a tool of the West, but above all, of the United States. And there is some truth to it. I would not call him a puppet, but it is clear that since [Fethullah Gulen] left Turkey and resettled in the United States in 1999, he has worked closely with the United States, and has always refrained from criticizing the West.

That includes Israel. For example, in 2010 when the flotilla incident took place, and about 10 Turkish nationals were killed by the Israel Defense Forces, Fethullah Gulen came out and he said, well, that charity should have tried to get permission from the Israeli state first. So this completely contradicted the official discourse in Turkey, the discourse, particularly, of Erdogan at the time. Erdogan retracted, or backtracked on his original position since then. But at the time, this [inaud.] Fethullah Gulen, it seems, has worked closely with the United States government.

So now Turkey is trying to push the U.S. state to extradite Gulen and return him to Turkey. Actually, some of the leading figures of the AKP, the ruling party in Turkey, have made it very clear. They said the U.S. has to choose between Gulen and Turkey. In my opinion, the U.S. will not make such a choice, because the U.S. will try to keep both of them close to itself, because both of them are quite crucial to the U.S. interests, both in Turkey and in the Islamic world.

When we talk about Fethullah Gulen, who was a close partner of Erdogan, and who had captured, had been able to capture an important part of the Turkish state in the past 10 years, it has been presented by a number of organizations, including Western ones, as the leading Muslim in the world for several years. So I don't think that the U.S. would easily get rid of that card just because Turkey wants it to.

BROWN: We will certainly be keeping track of the developments, not only in Turkey, but the diplomatic flurry that is surrounding Turkey on seemingly all sides. Today we have been joined with Baris Karaagac. Baris is a lecturer in the international development studies at Trent University in Ontario. Baris, we certainly appreciate you speaking with the Real News today. Thank you.

KARAAGAC: Thank you very much.

BROWN: And thank you so much for joining us right here on the Real News Network.




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