Moscow: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is holding talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, seeking to rebuild relations with a major economic partner and the now-dominant force in the war in Syria.
Erdogan said in St. Petersburg on Tuesday that Turkey is chasing "big goals” in its rapprochement with Russia, and Putin said talks have focused on economic issues as well as counter-terrorism.
Their meeting came nearly nine months after Russia’s leader called Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet near the Syrian border a "stab in the back” and imposed a series of punitive sanctions.
"This was our first face to face meeting since the incident,” Erdogan said, in an apparent reference to the jet. "Both sides have the determination and will to restore bilateral ties to their former levels and even improve them beyond.”
Sitting next to Erdogan, Putin said the "logic of mutual respect” has shaped bilateral ties.
While the patch-up began before last month’s attempted coup in Turkey, the trip has since gained in significance, and is Erdogan’s chance "to show Turkish society that he’s not isolated,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund of the US in Ankara.
Erdogan is also demanding the US extradite Fethullah Gulen, the cleric he blames for the military uprising, and can use the meeting with Putin to send a message to Washington, he said.
The two leaders will discuss bilateral relations and regional challenges, including counter-terrorism and the Syrian crisis, Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said in a recent interview with the TASS newswire, according to his office.
Kremlin foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters last week that Russia expects to gradually lift sanctions on Turkey and hopes that the Turkish position on Syria would become "more constructive.”
Erdogan tried to avoid questions on Syria, where Turkey and Russia are on opposing sides of the violent conflict.
The Turkish president said the issue would be discussed later on Tuesday during a separate meeting between his delegation and Russian bureaucrats, including foreign ministers.
"A democratic transformation can only be reached through democratic means,” said Putin, who has turned the war in Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s favour since deploying Russian planes to support government offensives.
Russia and Turkey "have a common goal of resolving the Syrian crisis,” he said.
Russia’s intervention in Syria has posed a major challenge for nations like Turkey that have backed rebel forces in the conflict and insist Assad must stand down as part of any settlement.
Activists monitoring the war say Turkey, which borders Syria, has slowed arms shipments to rebels since the July 15 coup attempt, signaling a possible strategic rethink.
Turkey may adopt a "low-profile” stance on Syria and move "closer to the idea of a negotiated settlement where Assad is in office at the beginning of the process but is not in office at the end of it,” Unluhisarcikli said.
In an interview broadcast by Russian state television on Monday, Erdogan called Assad a "killer” who shouldn’t be supported.
His spokesman Kalin told TASS that "in cooperation with Russia, we would like to facilitate a political transition in Syria as soon as possible.”
Russian sanctions on Turkey included a ban on charter flights taking Russian holidaymakers to Turkish beaches.
That led to a 93-per cent slump in Russian visitors in June compared to the same month in 2015.
Turkey’s exports to Russia have also dropped, falling an annual 63 per cent in June. The ban on agricultural imports from Turkey, a major blow to Turkish farmers, may be lifted by the end of the year as Russia ensures products are in compliance with its regulations,
Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev told reporters after the two presidents met.
Turkish Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci said Russia’s intention to restore economic ties was evident at the meetings, citing a common interest in completing a nuclear power plant that Russia’s Rosatom is building on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.
The Akkuyu project would be given the status of a strategic investment, qualifying for special incentives, Erdogan said.
Turkey is also interested in resuming talks over the Turkish Stream gas-pipeline project with Russia.
Russia shelved talks in December on the planned Black Sea link that would make Turkey a linchpin in Europe’s energy supplies by 2020, with Gazprom saying the route was still possible if political relations improved.