* Turkey increasingly assertive in relationship
* Russia jealously guarding regional influence
By Thomas Grove
MOSCOW, July 17 A gleaming skyscraper rises from
the ultra-modern financial centre in the heart of Moscow,
dwarfing cathedral cuppolas and bombastic Stalinist highrises, a
symbol of how far Turkish business has come in the former Cold
The distinctive Turkish-built steel and glass towers of
Naberezhnaya, the second tallest skyscraper in Russia, will
serve as a powerful backdrop when President Vladimir Putin hosts
visiting Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in the Kremlin on
Wednesday to talk business, energy and regional power politics.
Projects by construction company Enka underscore Erdogan's
signature mix of business and politics that has expanded
NATO-member Turkey's presence in the Middle East, Africa and
former Soviet Union, where Russia still jealously guards its
"Turkey today is much more assertive and independent than it
was 20 years ago. It wants to be not only a part of NATO and
American-led alliances, but also an independent player in the
whole area," said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia
in Global Affairs.
But Turkey's regional aspirations in areas where Moscow is
sensitive to its waning influence have complicated an already
intricate relationship in which cooperation in trade and energy
politics is set off by conflicting regional foreign policies.
"Turkey and Russia resemble each other; they have the same
claims. Psychologically, Putin and Erdogan understand each other
quite well, but at the same time all their interests do not
coincide. For example, we see that in the Middle East."
Almost a year after the death of Russian ally Muammar
Gadaffi in Libya, Moscow and Ankara are at diplomatic
loggerheads over the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Once photographed with Assad and his family at a vacation
resort before anti-government uprisings demanding his departure,
Erdogan has since turned his back on the former ally, calling
for his removal and hosting Syrian rebel fighters on its soil.
Turkey's ire was raised last month when Syria, recipient of
Russian air defence systems, downed a fighter jet that it
claimed was in its airspace. The incident forced Ankara to call
on the other member states of NATO for consultations over what
it called an "act of aggression".
Putin however, fearing a replay of the Libyan scenario, has
continued sending Assad arms and has protected him from harsher
sanctions at the U.N. Security Council.
Moscow would be loath to see its last stronghold in the
Middle East fall - especially one that hosts a small naval
maintenance and repair facility, Russia's only naval base
outside of the former Soviet Union.
Indicating that Erdogan may work to try to influence Putin's
position over Syria, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told
reporters that new unilateral sanctions against Syria may be
passed after Erdogan returns from Moscow.
"I can say assuredly that new horizons will open up on this
subject (Syria) after our prime minister's visit to Russia and
that new sanctions against Syria will come onto the agenda,"
Arinc told reporters after a cabinet meeting on Monday.
Russia, for its part, has made clear it has no plans to back
sanctions against Assad. It h as stressed it will not agree to
negotiations that make his departure a precondition.
Russia and Turkey are also aware of their differences in the
South Caucasus region where their respective loyalties to
Armenia and Azerbaijan divide them in the frozen conflict of
War between ethnic Azeris and Armenians erupted in 1991 over
the mostly Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region, which broke away
from Muslim Azerbaijan with the backing of Christian Armenia as
the Soviet Union collapsed two decades ago.
Turkey closed its border with Armenia in a gesture of
solidarity with ethnic kin in Azerbaijan during the
Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Russia, on the other hand, maintains
an army base in Armenia.
"In the Caucasus there is always a potential rivalry
(between Russia and Turkey)," said Lukyanov.
Turkish construction firm Enka restored Moscow's White House
in 1994 after then President Boris Yeltsin ordered tanks to fire
at parliamentarians holed up in the building during a rebellion
against his leadership.
Analysts say the construction projects Turkish firms receive
are part of a complex tit-for-tat exchange between the two
countries that has seen Turkey raise the amount of gas it buys
from Russia to nearly half its total imports.
In 2008 Russia overtook Germany as Turkey's biggest trading
partner, the lion's share of which has come from natural gas
Turkey hopes to use its geographic location between oil rich
states on the Caspian and energy hungry Europe to boost its
clout as an energy transit hub and has looked primarily to
Russia and Azerbaijan to fill that role.
Ankara's dependency on Moscow has led some analysts to
speculate that while the two countries have their differences,
Erdogan may be going to make sure Putin understands the two
countries are still by and large partners.
"It won't be suprising for Erdogan to knock on the Kremlin
walls trying to persuade Putin (over Syria) and get no
response," wrote columnist Sami Kohen in Milliyet newspaper.
"However, from the point of view of minimising the effect of
the shadow Syria has cast across their relationship, it will be
important and helpful to continue a sincere dialogue."
Turkey has approved Russia's plans to allow the almost $20
billion South Stream pipeline, which aims to supply southern
Europe with 63 billion cubic metres of natural gas a year, to
pass under its territorial waters.
Even with Turkey's permission to build the pipeline through
its waters, Ankara may still use the line as a chip in
negotiations over gaining enough gas for its own domestic
(Additional reporting by Daren Butler in Istanbul and Orhan
Coskun in Ankara; editing by Ralph Boulton)