Rotting Turkish tomatoes show Putin holds the cards on Syria

Lorry loads of Turkish tomatoes may be starting to rot at the border with Russia as discord intensifies between Ankara and Moscow over Syria.

Hundreds of trucks carrying 5,000 tonnes of the fruit are sitting near customs gates in no man’s land between Russia and Ukraine, Turkish media reported this week.

The potential consequences of this logjam are clear to all those who follow the relationship between President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – should it come to a full political and economic slugging match over Syria’s opposition enclave of Idlib, Putin can hit Erdoğan hard.

The world is watching with some trepidation as Putin and Erdoğan square up for a crisis over Syria, fearing that NATO may get drawn in. Turkey has sent troops into Idlib to back Islamist militants against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army, which is supported by Russian firepower and financing. Moscow says the militants are terrorists linked to al Qaeda and Turkey must get out of the way after failing to disarm them.

Tomatoes are among Turkey’s biggest contribution to a lopsided economic relationship between Ankara and Moscow. Turkey is reliant on tens of billions of dollars of natural gas that Russia exports every year – imports from the country were $22.5 billion in 2019, while Turkey exported $3.9 billion of products. Russia also sends about 7 million visitors to the country annually, making it the biggest contributor to Turkey’s tourism industry.

It was tourism and tomatoes, and Turkey’s wider economy, which fell victim to a political crisis between the two countries in 2015, when Turkey shot down a Russian military jet over the border with Syria and Erdoğan failed to meet Putin’s demands for an immediate apology. In 2016, Russian sanctions meant Turkish exports to the country decreased by 52 percent to $1.7 billion. The number of Russian tourists slumped by 77 percent to 855,000.

The West has watched on with some despair as Putin and Erdoğan forged close ties in diplomacy and defence after the latter apologised in June 2016 and relations were normalised the following year. The two leaders have since worked closely to help secure a peaceful settlement in Syria and Erdoğan has bought S-400 air defence missiles from Moscow, much to the anger of the United States.

The emerging strategic alliance between the two countries has helped bolster Erdoğan’s domestic popularity and provided a springboard for Turkey to expand its reach in the Middle East and North Africa, free of Western influence. Putin, in turn, has used his close relations with Erdoğan to weaken NATO’s eastern front – Turkey has the second-largest army in the alliance – and to make Russia the ascending superpower in Syria and the wider Middle East.

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Military escalation continues in Syria's Idlib

Erdoğan, however, has even more to lose financially than he did in 2015 should relations with Moscow go off the rails. A currency crisis swept through Turkey’s economy in the summer of 2018. An economic recession ensued, causing Erdoğan to lose control of Turkey’s three biggest cities in local elections in March 2019. The economy is yet to fully recover and Erdoğan’s popularity ratings remain suppressed.

This week, political tensions over Syria helped push the lira to its lowest level against the dollar since May. Meanwhile, Turkey’s current account deficit, which widened precariously just ahead of the 2018 currency crisis, is re-emerging as Erdoğan pump-primes economic growth with interest rate cuts and cheap loans from state-run banks.

Tomato growing is an important industry for Turkey and farmers are a key constituency for Erdoğan. He faces re-election in 2023 at the latest. But tourism revenue is even more crucial.

The loss of millions of Russian tourists would hit the economy hard and deprive Erdoğan of the foreign currency earnings that Turkey needs to finance the current account deficit and tens of billions of dollars of foreign loans. Any failure to find that money would spell more trouble for the lira.

On Thursday, Turkey granted visa exemptions to five Schengen countries plus the United Kingdom in an apparent effort to ease any fallout from a slump in Russian tourists. Russian visitors totalled 7.02 million in 2019, the most of all nationalities and eight times the low of 2016. Germany ranked second with 5.03 million visitors.

Putin must also be aware that investor confidence in Turkey has declined rapidly since the last political crisis between the two countries. Tens of billions of dollars have exited the country after Erdoğan used a failed military coup in 2016 to tighten his political grip on the country and won enhanced presidential powers at elections in 2018.

The lira fell a further 0.5 percent to 6.12 per dollar late on Friday. With relations with the United States and Europe at a low ebb due to tensions over the S-400s, Libya and disputes with EU members Greece and Cyprus, Washington and Brussels are unlikely to provide strong military and political backing for Erdoğan against Putin over Idlib.

Rotting tomatoes may be just the start of Erdoğan’s troubles should he fail to steer Turkey away from a looming crisis with Russia.

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