Putin’s New Year gesture to Erdoğan: 50,000 tonnes of tomatoes

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his country are paying a huge economic and political price for preserving close relations with Russia, with Moscow coming out on top in a series of bilateral issues.

Russian President Vladimir Putin convinced Azeri President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to sign an agreement in January permitting Russia to carry out all infrastructure projects, including railway construction, in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh following a ceasefire in the conflict.

Erdoğan was not given a seat at the table at discussions in Moscow, despite his close relations with Aliyev.

Last week, Turkey hailed a decision by Russia to increase import quotas for Turkish tomatoes to 250,000 tonnes from 200,000 tonnes. Turkey’s exports of fruits and vegetables to Russia are part of a skewed trade relationship with Moscow that weighs heavily in the latter’s favour.

Trade Minister Ruhsar Pekcan said the softening of the restrictions was “good news for our farmers and exporters” in comments on Twitter. The ruling made the headlines in Turkey’s pro-government press.

But the curbs on tomatoes and other Turkish vegetables date back some five years, when Putin ordered economic sanctions against Turkey for its downing of a Russian military jet on the Syrian-Turkish border in November 2015.

Putin also barred Russian tourists from visiting Turkey and ended visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to Russia. He also sent more than 200,000 Turkish workers back home and banned nearly every Turkish company from bringing workers and engineers to Russia to carry out construction contracts and other work. These bans damaged Turkey’s economy significantly.

Although steps towards re-normalisation of bilateral ties between Ankara and Moscow were taken after Erdoğan expressed deep regret for the downing of the jet in June 2016, Putin has controlled the speed of the reconciliation, forcing Turkey to make serious concessions.

Erdoğan has sought to repair ties with Russia and then strengthen them to help achieve his strategic vision for Turkey. The Turkish president is using closer relations with Moscow to establish his country as a top regional power independent of Western tutelage.

Turkey’s imports from Russia, largely made up of natural gas exported via pipelines, totalled $15.9 billion in the first 11 months of last year. Russia was ranked third after China and Germany for exports to Turkey. The figure compared with Turkish exports to Russia of $4 billion, In 2019, Russian imports totalled $23.1 billion and Turkish exports $4.2 billion.

Since 2015, Erdoğan has done all he could to expediate tens of billions of dollars of projects in Turkey carried out by Russian firms, including the Akkuyu nuclear power plant and the Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline. In 2019, he paid Moscow $2.5 billion for the S-400 air defence system, which put Turkey at loggerheads with NATO and the United States, eventually leading to U.S. sanctions.

Following Russia’s sanctions, Moscow did not give permission to Turkish firms to export tomatoes again until 2017. They had sold 350,000-400,000 tonnes per year before the measures were introduced. It first allowed in just 50,000 tonnes. Exporters may have to wait at least three more years to match levels previously achieved.

The Russian Agriculture Ministry introduced a programme that supports domestic tomato production after the 2015 crisis. Since then, there has been a sharp increase in greenhouse cultivation and domestic vegetable and fruit production in the country. Under the pretext of protecting domestic producers, Russia is latently continuing with the embargo on Turkish products. But Ankara is lauding the latest quota increase as good news for the country.

Meanwhile, Russia has decided to increase import taxes on cereals and other agricultural products – especially wheat, barley, corn and sunflower – by up to 100 percent to protect its own producers.

Turkey’s dependence on Russia – from nuclear power to natural gas, from air defence to tomatoes and wheat bread – has grown as Erdoğan sought to reconcile with Putin, leaving Turkey with little or no room for manoeuvre.

Turkey has not bought Western vaccines to help combat the coronavirus in any significant number. It has acquired them from China instead. The government has now applied to purchase the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine.

Ankara and Moscow have signed an agreement to allow Sputnik V to be produced in Turkey, making the country even more reliant on Russia’s products and favours.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.