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The Significance of Russian Muslims in Turkish-Russian Relations

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With Erdogan’s conciliatory letter to Putin in the end of June 2016, the process of normalization of Russian-Turkish relations, which were heavily damaged by Turkey’s downing of the Russian jet in 24 November 2015, has started. Since 24 November 2015, there have been many significant developments affecting Turkish-Russian relations. The war in Syria has also deepened the crisis between Turkey and Russia due to both sides bearing different goals over Syria. On the other hand, the decisions were taken by the Warsaw Summit of NATO in July 2016 against Russia and the FETO (Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Movement) military coup attempt in Turkey in 15 July 2016 have made Turkish-Russian relations more crucial and significant. According to the general belief of Turkish public opinion, this military coup attempt was supported by U.S. Furthermore, there are strong claims in Turkey that the Russian warplane was downed by the Turkish air force pilot who is a member of FETO which is a clique and illegal religious organization targeting to control the state. Hence, anti-American stance within Turkish society and public opinion has rapidly increased with this attempt. In parallel with this, there has been an increase in the number of Turkish people supporting the reconciliation of Turkish-Russian relations. It also demonstrates that Turkish-Russian relations are affected by various elements such as regional, global events and domestic politics. In this sense, the relations have many components and dimensions. One of the positive components contributing the bilateral relations of Turkey and Russia could be the Muslim community in Russia. After Erdogan’s letter to Putin as well as the Erdogan-Putin meeting in Saint Petersburg in 9 August 2016, a new door has been opened in order to restore the destroyed Turkish-Russian relations. The Muslim community in Russia has potential to contribute to the relations.
Muslim regions in Russia very ambiguously reacted to the crisis in Russian-Turkish relations. It can be classified into three camps (groups). The first camp is represented by the main Muslim region Povolzhye – Tatarstan, whose governance from the first days of the crisis acted against deterioration of relations with Turkey. So, in late December 2015 leader of Tatarstan R. Minnihanov made a very bold statement. The main argument of his statement was that between Kazan and Ankara has existed well-established cooperation, they have lingual, cultural, religious ties – and they are not inclined to cut them in order to please current political situation. “They [Turkish businessmen] believed in our republic, invested 1.5 billion dollars into modern companies where 98% of employees are the citizens of Russian Federation” – mentioned R. Minnihanov and emphasized the importance of keeping current joint projects through “common efforts”. Especially Tatarstan’s actions were in contrast comparing to neighboring Republic of Bashkortostan. In late March 2016 leader of Bashkiriya Rusthem Hamitov, most probably under the pressure of the Moscow, signed a decree on cancellation of the region’s representation in Turkey, allegedly explaining it from the point of economic inefficiency. But Tatarstan refused to follow this way. At the Republic’s Ministry of Industry and Trade in Kazan it was announced that “there is no such a question in agenda”, and Tatarstan has no intentions to close its plenipotentiary representation office in Istanbul. These kind of statements and actions explicitly demonstrates that during the crisis between Moscow and Ankara, political elite of Tatarstan basically, tried to preserve its previous relations with Turkey, despite that this was against the Kremlin’s official course.
Second group is represented by the Chechen Republic. In contrast with Tatarstan, its leader Ramzan Kadyrov openly supported actions of the Russian Government. Right after the downing of Russian war-plane, Ramzan Kadyrov made a special statement expressing that Turkey will “regret for a long time for what it has done”, underlining that “those who on every occasion talk about friendship and cooperation, don’t act in such an insidious way!”. A few days later leader of the Chechen Republic criticized publications of Turkish mass media that “Turkey was always helping to the Chechens”. According to Ramzan Kadyrov, Ankara was giving support to Chechen terrorist (to Udugov, Umarov, Basaev) just as it is now Ankara doing business with the fighter of “ISIS”. “I like preciseness, therefore I am asking, when, where and in which sense Turkey helped to Chechnya and to my nation? Show me at least one school, hospital, kindergarten, mosque built as a gift to Chechnya! Name me one example!” – underlined Kadyrov. But, later on the position of the Leader of Chechnya slightly evolved. After official apology from Turkey in late June 2016, when Moscow and Ankara declared their readiness to improve relations, leader of Chechnya also made adjustments in his position: “I am convinced, that Russia has never set a target to break relations with Turkey without a reason… Admitting [by Turkey] guilt – is a first step in bringing back intergovernmental relations to the normal course”, – stated he. Thus, Chechen government has demonstrated maximum loyalty to Kremlin and readiness to support Moscow’s actions in any situation.
Third camp is represented by Dagestan. Its leader – Ramazan Abdulatipov, unlike leaders of Tatarstan and Chechnya, throughout the crisis between Russia and Turkey, didn’t make any loud statements. Now, without any timidity he is going to sign serious agreements with Turkish businessmen. Particularly, on 22nd July of 2016 it became known about the negotiations with Turkish holding “Yildirim Group Inc” – major operator in the field of shipbuilding, on privatization of the Mahachkala port. These developments are demonstrating that Dagestani government follows most pragmatic approach, and deal on privatization of the main port in Russia in Caspian may become one of the greatest projects in restoration of Russian-Turkish relations.
Russian Muslims have potential to contribute to improving Turkish-Russian relations as a “bridge” between Turkey and Russia. Their cultural and religious ties with Turkey can deepen and strengthen the bilateral relations between Moscow and Ankara. According the Turkish point of view, the relations with Tatarstan in term of trade and culture are in the highest level. The relations of Turkey with Tatarstan can be a “role model” for the relations with the Republics of Dagestan, Chechnya and Bashkortostan. Besides that, Turkey’s cooperation with the Muslim Republics of Russia can provide to promote domestic stability and to diminish the risk for radicalization of Muslims in Russia. Turkey has potential to make this contribution due to being both Muslim and secular country. Moreover, Turkey and Russia share the common stance to struggle against ISIL. In conclusion, Russian Muslims are able to play a significant role in the construction of strong relations between Turkey and Russia.
Co-authored article by Dmitry Khristenko & Ümit Nazmi Hazır

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