Putin, Erdogan agree on steps to mend ties

Erdogan's visit to Putin's hometown of Saint Petersburg is also his first foreign trip since the failed coup against him last month

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says after talks with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin that the two nations can rebuild their damaged ties and make them even closer.

Calling Putin his “dear friend,” Erdogan said Turkey is ready to implement a natural gas pipeline project with Russia and a deal to build Turkey’s first nuclear power plant.

Putin, in his turn, said that the flow of Russian tourists to Turkey, halted after the downing of a Russian jet by Turkey in November, will resume.

Putin added that he and Erdogan will have a separate discussion on Syria later Tuesday involving top military and intelligence officials to search for common ground in the crisis, where Moscow and Ankara have backed the opposing sides.

“Ahead of us lies painstaking work to resuscitate trade and economic cooperation. This process has already started but it will take some time,” Putin told a press conference in Saint Petersburg.

"I think it is possible to align our views and approaches," Putin told reporters on Syria.

Earlier, Erdogan thanked Putin for inviting him for talks Tuesday aimed at repairing ties shattered by Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane along the Syrian border last year.

The downing of the Russian jet in November, which Putin described as a “treacherous stab in the back,” came amid boiling tensions over Syria, where Moscow and Ankara back opposing sides in the war. Russia promptly cut ties with Turkey over the incident, banned Turkish vegetables, restricted Russian tourists’ access to Turkey and blocked some Turkish companies from working on its market.

Erdogan in June sent a letter to Putin with a long-anticipated apology for Turkey’s downing of the jet, setting the scene for the meeting Tuesday at Konstantin Palace in St. Petersburg.

Opening the talks, Putin said he was “glad” to be seeing Erdogan again and praised his visit as Turkey’s commitment to repair the soured ties.

“Your visit means that all of us want the dialogue to be resumed,” Putin said.

Putin is interested in mending the rift with Turkey in the hopes of reviving key economic projects, including a much-touted pipeline to carry natural gas to Turkey, and expanding Russia’s clout in Syria.

Both leaders looked composed and not overly emotional when they met and shook hands for a picture.

Erdogan, in his opening remarks, thanked Putin twice for inviting him to Russia and said the cooperation between the two countries should benefit the entire region.

Speaking in St. Petersburg ahead of a meeting with Vladimir Putin, Erdogan thanked his Russian counterpart for his telephone call after the failed military coup, saying it “brought our people great happiness.”

Erdogan’s trip to Russia comes as Turkey’s relations with Europe and the United States are strained by what Ankara sees as Western concern over the abortive coup, in which more than 240 people were killed.

“I know that I was one of the first who called you to express support regarding the crisis,” Putin said of the coup attempt. “I want to say once again that this is our principled position, we are against any unconstitutional actions.”

Analysts say that Erdogan, with the visit, may also be hoping to play the Russian card to strengthen his hand in disputes with the United States and European Union.

Turkey is pressing the United States hard to extradite Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the government blames for the failed July 15 coup. Gulen denies the claims.

Relations between Turkey and Russia -- two powers vying for influence in the strategic Black Sea region and Middle East -- have never been straightforward and their predecessor Ottoman and Russian empires fought three centuries of war.

Yet before the plane crisis, Moscow and Ankara managed to prevent disputes on Syria and Ukraine harming strategic cooperation on issues like the TurkStream gas pipeline to Europe and a Russian-built nuclear power station in Turkey.

Those projects were all put on ice with trade between the two countries falling 43 percent to $6.1 billion in January-May this year and Turkey's tourism industry seeing numbers from Russia fall by 93 percent.

Now with Russia mired in economic crisis due to Western sanctions over Ukraine and lower oil prices and Turkey's outlook flagging, both men want to get business started again.

Erdogan told Russian media that he wants to "immediately take steps" towards getting the TurkStream project -- that was to have pumped 31.5 billion cubic metres of gas a year -- going again and to finish the Akkuyu power plant.

Friends for real?

The earlier uptick in relations was built on a macho friendship between Putin and Erdogan, two combative leaders in their early 60s credited with restoring confidence to their nations in the wake of financial crises but also criticised for clamping down on human rights.

But after such a bitter dispute -- which saw Putin accuse Erdogan of stabbing Russia in the back and having links to the illegal oil trade with the Islamic State group -- it will take a lot for the pair to reheat ties.

"What we are going to see is a longer-lasting but more pragmatic type of relationship built not on a personal friendship or ideology but on common material interests," said Alexander Baunov, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Russia, which is flying a bombing campaign in support of Erdogan's foe President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, transformed the balance of the Syrian civil war last September when it intervened militarily, to Turkey's consternation.

Erdogan insisted to Russian media that Assad must still go -- a position opposed by Putin -- but did say that the conflict at the heart of the falling out with Moscow could now also become the focus for renewed cooperation between the two sides.

"Russian is a main, key and very important player in establishing peace in Syria," Erdogan said in comments translated into Russian. "The problem needs to be solved with help of joint steps between Russia and Turkey."

(With AFP, AP)

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