Saving Russian-Turkish ties from being hostage to PKK terrorism

The fundamental transformation of Turkish-Russian relations over the last two decades from being former Cold War foes to being strategic partners is quite a leap forward for students of international politics. The growing partnership between Turkey under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s government in Russia reached a peak, especially in economic interests, with the lifting of visa requirements for the nationals of both countries.

Turkey and Russia see eye-to-eye on most regional issues, albeit with some differences on how to handle them. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, both countries do not want the EU taking charge to solve outstanding issues in this very fragile country without the involvement of either Russia or Turkey. Bosnian Muslims feel more comfortable with Turkey engaged in the process while Russian involvement would cut back the uneasiness felt by Bosnian Serbs. On the Syrian front, both countries want no interference from outside powers either.

The ambassador of the Russian Federation to Turkey, Vladimir Ivanovskiy, with whom I spoke earlier this month, shares this conclusion. He even admits that the progress of bilateral relations has exceeded his expectations. The veteran diplomat sounded upbeat when it comes to the future relations of the two countries. “When I report to my leadership on Russia and Turkey, I always say that in 10 to 15 years, I see more issues that will bring the two countries further together,” he said, stressing that Russia strongly shares this view.

In view of these developments, I think the time has come for Russia to act on the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has claimed the lives of 30,000 people over the last three decades. It looks awkward for Russia to drag its feet in recognizing the PKK as a terrorist organization while both the US and the EU label the vicious organization a “terrorist group.” Turkey has raised the PKK issue on bilateral talks with Russia in the past but failed to secure a strong commitment from Moscow. The thorny issue needs to be dealt with and thereby taken off the agenda of Turkish and Russian officials.

US Ambassador to Turkey Francis J. Ricciardone has been successfully exploiting the cooperation between Washington and Ankara on PKK terrorism, appearing in the press with talking points specifically targeting Turkish public opinion. He said last week that Turkey and the US were cooperating in diplomacy, law and intelligence to combat PKK terrorism and called on third countries to put pressure on the terrorist organization. Russia might want to take a hint from Ricciardone’s call on the “third countries” to take a tougher stance against the PKK.

Ricciardone underlined that the US has incurred around $400 million in annual costs, or about $1 million a day, assisting Turkey to help fight terrorism. The US ambassador noted that the US has designated five leaders of the outlawed PKK as drug traffickers, adding them to a sanctions list that already covers the terrorist group more generally. The US Department of the Treasury announced in April that Cemil Bayık, Duran Kalkan, Remzi Kartal, Sabri Ok and Adem Uzun were named “specially designated narcotics traffickers” pursuant to the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act.

As PKK terrorism threatens the economic cooperation between Turkey and Russia, especially on energy cooperation, Moscow may want to reconsider its position with regard to the terrorist organization. The PKK has in the past sabotaged not only the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, which carries Azerbaijani crude oil to Western markets, but the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which carries Iraqi crude to the West as well. It will pose a threat to the proposed Samsun-Ceyhan pipeline, which will carry Russian and Kazakh oil from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean oil terminal in Ceyhan. Alarmed by the treat, Russia has already proposed to Turkey a special security team to eliminate threats along this route.

At this stage, the proposal forwarded to his Russian counterpart by Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Çiçek, who went to St. Petersburg to attend the 12th Ministerial Session of the EUR-OPA Major Hazards Agreement in September 2010, becomes very important. This might pave the way for a candid debate on the challenges PKK terrorism brings to Turkish-Russian relations.

Intelligence reports indicate some 80 percent of the arms the PKK uses are made in Russia. General Staff data confirm the majority of weapons seized from PKK terrorists or from their bases was of Russian origin. Russia is by far the largest source of sniper rifles used by the PKK as well as in the supply of anti-tank mines and rocket launchers. Eighty-eight percent of the mines and 85 percent of the launchers used by the PKK were of Russian origin. This does not, of course, mean the Russian government is directly providing arms to the PKK because arms dealers may very well use the black market to supply the PKK through routes cutting across Armenia and Iran.

Nevertheless, arms smuggling to the PKK puts Moscow in a very bad position. Added to that, the unwillingness of the Russian government to recognize the PKK as a terrorist organization raises further suspicions in Turkish public opinion. Turks still remember that Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, went to Russia twice after leaving Syria in 1999 to seek refuge in the country. Even the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, once attempted to recognize the PKK as a terrorist organization. There were speculations that a PKK training camp had existed close to the Russian capital during the Cold War.

I think it is now time to let bygones be bygones and start a new chapter in Turkish-Russian relations on cooperating against terrorism commensurate with the close ties in a number of other areas. Claiming that Russia’s official list of terrorist organizations was written in accordance with a court decision is not a convincing argument for Turks. It boosts the negative perception of Russia among Turkish public opinion and gives credibility to an argument that the Russians have not shown the sensitivity Turks expect.

I for one am a strong advocate of close Turkish and Russian ties and believe they will bring immense benefit to both sides. This is a mutual benefit and requires mutual trust as well. Current attitudes towards PKK terrorism are a major impediment to building that trust.

Mr. ABdullah Bozkurt, TZ