ABDULLAH – Turkey-Belarus ties

Turkey-Belarus tiesWith the prospect of an economic crisis looming large on the horizon and political conflicts pounding on their doors, Turkey and Belarus — two Russian-energy-dependent countries that are uniquely positioned at the junction between East and West — must find a way to boost their cooperation on bilateral matters to better respond to the serious challenges they face today.In other words, Ankara and Minsk should be able to help each other in trying to resolve ethnic differences that wreak havoc in their own backyards while diversifying their economic and political partners, in order to cushion the aerse impacts of the changing economic and political map in the larger Eurasian region to which they belong.

From the lingering Ukraine crisis to frozen conflicts in the Caucasus, from currency devaluations to sharp drops in exports, Turkey and Belarus are unfortunately looking at the same daunting prospects for their economic and political interests.We searched for answers to these difficult questions in a panel discussion in Minsk on Thursday that was organized by the Belarusian State University Faculty of International Relations and the Dialogue Eurasia Platform, an international aocacy group for intercultural dialogue.

The veteran Professor Victor Shadurski, the dean who hosted the event at the university, moderated the panel, while Professor Svetlana Vinokurova, the president of the Belarus office of the Dialogue Eurasia Platform and first vice rector of the Belarusian State Academy of Arts, co-hosted the event.I was struck by how Belarusian scholars are familiar with the intricate details of Turkeyand#39s domestic politics as well as its foreign policy.

Many good points were raised on how to improve bilateral ties given the challenges both countries face in their own immediate and distant neighborhoods that overlap quite extensively. No doubt there are issues in both countries for which one may easily find fallacies and lay the blame on current governments.

But, as the saying goes, we must not lose sight of the forest for the trees, because governments come and go.For one, Ankara and Minsk can start working to examine why bilateral trade and business ties have been underperforming.

Belarusand#39s trade volume with Turkey does not represent the real potential between the two countries, considering the combined gross domestic product (GDP) of some $900 billion. Bilateral trade volume was recorded as $420 million in 2014, a drop of 14 percentage points from the 2013 figure of $490 million.

Considering that the trade volume in 2004 was only $66 million, a 536 percent increase in a decade is impressive, but certainly not enough.Second, Turkey should be able to tap into the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), an economic bloc between Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia and Armenia that boasts some 170 million people and a gross domestic product of $3 trillion in 2015 figures.

(Kyrgyzstanand#39s accession is expected by the end of May). The union kicked off with several problems this year, primarily due to Russiaand#39s response to Western sanctions in terms of import and transit restrictions that drew the ire of Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Yet, with the likelihood that the EEU will become a successful enterprise, Turkey must be in a position to link up with this economic bloc to protect its business and trade interests.According to Evgenia Rupakova, a Belarusian specialist on Turkey and coordinator for international cooperation at the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies, there are several ways Turkey can seize on the opportunities the EEU offers, such as working on the bilateral agreements it has with Belarus.

She suggested that Turkey should negotiate with Belarus for new deals at the bilateral level to gain a better foothold in the EEU and predicted that Minsk would welcome and accommodate such Turkish overtures. Her win-win idea is certainly worth trying.

Turkey already has a customs union with the European Union but faces hurdles there because Turkey is obliged to abide by the terms of the free-trade deals the EU has with other countries while not being allowed to enter these third-country markets, because Ankara is not part of the EU. As a result, third countries are left with little incentive to negotiate free-trade agreements with Turkey.

Once the negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) — the largest free-trade deal in the world — between the EU and the US concluded, Turkey stands to lose big time.Therefore, Turkey has to engage more with alternative trade blocs and give a further boost to bilateral economic ties with its non-traditional trading partners.

Belarus may very well be a test study for Turkey to see how far it can expand its reach to the Eurasia market. With Belarusand#39s anticipated entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) after the acceptance of Russia in 2012, business ties may flourish further The fact that both Turkey and Belarus are dialogue partners in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) also increases the chances of better coordination on several issues that are impacting the Eurasian region.

Interestingly enough, both countries find themselves straddling the West and the East, subjected to opposing forces pulling in different directions from time to time. Turkey has belonged to the Western alliance since World War II while Belarus is strongly anchored in a Russia-led bloc.

Yet both have been trying to diversify these traditional ties without putting them in jeopardy. There are no outstanding issues between the two, and both share the same vision of seeing a stabilized and secure region, especially in Ukraine, Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and Central Asia so that they can continue trading freely and safely.

What is more, as energy importers, both Ankara and Minsk want to make sure energy routes and supplies are secured.The agreement between Turkey and Belarus to mutually remove visa requirements for each otherand#39s citizens in 2013 was an important step in boosting trade, investment and people-to-people connection.

The legislative framework already exists, such as agreements for the prevention of double taxation and the protection of existing investments. Connectivity and geographical proximity are additional aantages for the flourishing of ties.

Various offers such as increasing the number of flights between Turkey and Belarus, extending the combined transport train project Viking to Turkey, establishing free industrial zones for Turkish businesses in Belarus and science and education cooperation are all under consideration.Belarusians are open to cultural and linguistic cooperation, something that may very well pave the way for a stronger people-to-people connection between the two countries.

I was told, for example, that courses teaching the Turkish language, art and culture are offered both at the Belarusian State University and the privately funded Friendship Education and Culture Foundation and are very popular Many students from Belarus successfully compete each year in the Turkish Olympiad, held as a part of the International Turkish Education Associationand#39s (TuRKEDER) language and culture festival.Unlike Iran and the Arab nations, the Belarusian government seems to be much more comfortable with Turkey because of Turksand#39 centuries-long moderation and the Sufi tradition of its Islamic heritage that has successfully served as a bulwark against religious extremism For understandable reasons, Minsk has always had to tread carefully in its ties with Iran because of Tehranand#39s constant search for high-tech military and defense capabilities in defiance of UN, EU and US sanctions while using clandestine activities dressed up in the form of cultural activities to propagate politically motivated Shiite ideology that features anti-West and anti-American sentiment.

On the other extreme, Belarus is also uneasy about possible influence of radical religious views originating from SalafiWahhabi-influenced Arab nations. Turkey stands in quite a contrast in that sense.

All in all, I think the time has come to stop trotting out rhetorical statements by senior figures on both sides and to start fleshing out promising potentials with actual deliverables. The political commitment is all there.

A new roadmap has to be plotted at the technical level with benchmarks set up in aance to measure success. If that happens, there is no reason why the relationship between Turkey and Belarus should not be upgraded to the strategic level.

SOURCE: Today’s Zaman