Geopolitical competition for the imperial legacy as a prelude to a probable crisis in Russian-Turkish relations12.09.2020
Recently, two quite momentous occasions have occurred in the world’s policy. One of them is when the Supreme Administrative Court of Turkey annulled the 1934 Government Decree (issued by Kemal Atatürk) according to which Hagia Sophia in Istanbul transforms into a museum.
This allows changing the status of the cult building with its further transformation into a mosque. Another one is the Russian president’s visit to the occupied Crimea where he took part in the laying of the Russian Navy ships in Kerch.
These two events seem to have nothing in common. In itself each of them looks completely independent. However, in broader and deeper contexts the connection between them is quite logical and clear.
It is common knowledge that both Republic of Turkey and Russian Federation have recently undergone non-trivial political processes, mainly related to the presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and, accordingly, Vladimir Putin.
Each of the leaders has made his own course on the way to a higher state position, but the style of both Putin’s and Erdogan’s rule is similar in its nature. The main similarity, which is quite obvious, is giving the pro-Western vector of development up and the policy of gradual estrangement from Europe. This became especially evident after Putin’s sensitivity to the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine (2014), and Erdogan’s morbid reaction to the attempted military coup in Turkey (2016).
Precisely after the above-mentioned events the vertical of power in both states began to gain ground. For example, in April 2017, a constitutional referendum was held in Turkey, which resulted in the transition from the parliamentary form of government to the presidential republic, accompanied with the Prime Minister post’s abolition. That is, Erdogan has increased his constitutional power.
Putin also took a constitutional step towards his power strengthening. In June 2020, an all-Russian poll was held in Russian Federation to amend the basic law. In particular, the changes provide the so-called «zeroing» of the current president’s term, giving the latter the opportunity to rule the country for at least sixteen years.
Turning back to the events mentioned at the beginning, we should notice that they have a common denominator. It is not an exaggeration to state that the Turkish and Russian leaders have long been nostalgic for the former imperial past of the predecessor states of modern Turkey and Russia. These are the Ottoman Empire for Erdogan, and the Russian Empire and Soviet Union for Putin.
However, the above-mentioned countries have long vanished from the political map of the world. Their rulers once tried to find the connection between their empires and older state formations. It happened so that both the Ottoman and Russian empires proclaimed themselves the successors of the same state — the Roman Empire.
For example, after the Turks seized Constantinople in 1453, where the Hagia Sophia cathedral built during the rule of Justinian I actually is, the Ottoman sultans appropriated the title of the «Emperors of Rome». And they used this title until 1922, when Ataturk came to power and began his reforms in Turkey.
As for the Russian rulers of the tsarist era, they also proclaimed Moscow as the «Third Rome» and themselves, respectively, as the heirs of the Byzantine ruling dynasty. However, for the latter the acquisition of territories related to the ancient Roman heritage had been of vital importance since the Middle Ages. The Crimean peninsula turned out to be that kind of territory. For more than thousand years ago it was a part of Byzantium and according to Russian monarchs possession of this peninsula gave the latter the right to inherit the ancient Roman imperial legacy (although there were intentions to capture the Constantinople).
In fact, Putin seemed to have had similar considerations in 2014, when after the change of power in Ukraine he took advantage of the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of our state, invaded the territory of the Crimea, with the ancient Greco-Roman polises (Panticapaeum, Feodosia, Chersonese and others), illegally annexing the peninsula to the Russian Federation.
It is also worth recalling the visit of the Russian leader to the Holy Mount Athos in 2016, when he took his seat on the throne, which only the East Roman emperors could take. And this, consequently, can serve as evidence of Putin’s commitment to revive the concept of «Moscow — the Third Rome» and include himself to the pantheon of Roman Caesars.
In fact, both Erdogan and Putin strive to remind the general public of the imperial past of the countries they lead, and make everybody remember more far off era of the Roman Empire, the «legacy» of which for both presidents turned out to be, so to speak, common. In its turn, this can be a crucial geopolitical dilemma — which of them is «true» — with increase of competition between the newly discovered «heirs» of the ancient Roman state.
Therefore, it is not surprising that launching the process of the main Christian holy’s transformation, through the required court decision, into a mosque, which Erdogan has already visited with revision, was quite jealously accepted by the Kremlin. That is why Putin did not hesitate to visit another sacred place of his — the occupied Crimea, and even to participate personally in the Russia’s increase of the navy in the Black Sea region.
In general, relations between Russia and Turkey have long been unstable. Over the past few years, they balanced between aggravation and warming. One should only recall the events around the Syrian theater of operations or the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara, when relations between the two countries were especially strained. After that, the leaders held a series of meetings leading to a noticeable warming in the capitals’ ties.
The increase of powers of the current leaders made through the constitutional amendments, may again negatively affect the Russian-Turkish relations. Especially when it comes to imperial-legacy matters important for each of the leaders. This may result in the new clash of geopolitical interests, as it has often happened between the candidates for the regional and global leadership.
The South Caucasus can be one of such crossing points. Thus, just recently, an armed conflict has occurred on the Azerbaijani-Armenian border. As a result the servicemen on both sides of the conflict were killed.
The President of Turkey Erdogan issued a firm and unequivocal condemnation of Armenia’s actions describing them as «deliberate attack on Azerbaijan». In contrast to the Turkish leader, his Russian counterpart Putin reserved his position without favoring any particular party of the conflict.
Nevertheless, in view of the fact that Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), in other words is in Moscow’s sphere of influence, it is clear who actually enjoys Russia’s supports. And if this time there is no clear crisis in relations between the claimants to the regional leadership, it can just be a matter of time.
Another aspect which can derail the Russian-Turkish relations is the Crimean issue. After all, Ankara has not recognized the peninsula as a subject of the Russian Federation, supporting the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Erdogan is well aware that Crimea being inhabited by the Crimean Tatar people of the same religion has been illegally annexed. Moreover, it is gradually becoming a Russian military base, which can threaten the security of Turkey in the future. And the hypothetical confrontation over control of the Black Sea area could turn the region into a zone of instability, becoming a truly dangerous place for all neighboring states, including Ukraine.
To crown it all, the political processes which take place in Republic of Turkey and Russian Federation concerning both the strengthening of presidential power and the search for its historical basis, can have unpredictable effects. It remains to be seen if the competition between the countries will really grow into an open confrontation. However, taking into consideration the above mentioned, we should not reject the probable crisis in the Russian-Turkish relations, and its negative consequences for the region.
Stanislav Zhelikhovskyi, PhD in Political Science, top specialist at Hennadii Udovenko Diplomatic Academy of Ukraine at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine