Eight days after Russian soldiers used a potent gas to seize a Moscow theater from Chechen guerrillas who had taken patrons hostage, the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) triumphed in Turkish elections November 3. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives]. In the intervening time, a diplomatic episode revealed Chechnya's potential to damage relations between the two countries.
On October 28, the Islamist-leaning Yeni Safak, a prominent Istanbul daily, published a commentary that denounced Russia's "brutal" theater operation, while more liberal and mainstream press quoted Turkish experts deeming the operation a "disaster." Two days later, Russian Ambassador Alexander Lebedev dispatched a blistering five-page diplomatic note to the Turkish Foreign Ministry. The note accused Turkey of revealing deep-seated anti-Russian bias in its coverage of the siege - and of hypocrisy in the global "war on terror." Such vitriol, rare in diplomatic conduct, hints at how Russia's campaign to eradicate Chechen insurgency may rekindle tensions between Moscow and Ankara.
Russia has branded Turkey as "soft" on Chechen terrorism since 1996, when armed Chechens hijacked a ferry on the Black Sea. Though the episode ended peacefully and Turkish authorities arrested and jailed the hijackers, all later escaped. In April 2001, the same rebels besieged a Swissotel in Istanbul for 12 hours, much to the embarrassment of the Turkish government. Russia has tended to contrast this history with Turkey's tough stand against its domestic separatists, the Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK.
"Is a terrorist who carries out terrorist attacks against Turkish citizens in Turkey a completely different thing to the Chechen terrorist who carries out sabotage against Russians in Russia?" Lebedev asked in his letter.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's vow to root out Chechen rebels wherever they are located may prompt further tense exchanges with Turkey. Some 5 million Turkish citizens trace their ancestry to the North Caucasus, which was once part of the Ottoman Empire. There are many Chechen and Caucasian associations and foundations in Turkey. Echoing US President George W. Bush's quick moves to shut down Islamic charities after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Lebedev accused these Chechen and Caucasian groups of providing financial and other material support for Chechen terrorism. On October 30, the Anatolia news agency quoted Lebedev as saying that "there is proof" that some of the Chechen theater captors placed calls to Turkish phone numbers during the siege. All of Turkey's Chechen associations strongly deny any link to terror.
"No proof of any connection has been offered. We don't have any connection with arms either - the money we send to the Chechens is for medical aid and food for families," Mehdi Nuzhet Cetinbas, president of the Caucasus Foundation, told EurasiaNet.
Muktedir Ilhan, press spokesman for the Chechen Cultural Foundation in Istanbul and former head of the now-disbanded Caucasus-Chechen Solidarity Committee in Turkey, made similar comments. "We don't approve of the theater attack. We don't approve of any type of action that harms civilians. However, you have to think about what brought these people to this. In the last eight years, 20 percent of the population of Chechnya has been killed."
Despite the escalating rhetoric, Turkish officials have tried to play down any idea of a rift. The Turkish foreign ministry responded calmly to the ambassador's letter, reiterating Turkey's anti-terrorism stance and calling on the Turkish press to report "responsibly" events such as the theater siege.
"In Turkish-Russian relations, both sides generally try to keep things cordial," Professor Iltar Turan of Bilgi University's International Relations Department told EurasiaNet. "Turkey has nothing to gain from exploiting the problems Russia has with its internal unity."
Indeed, Turkey may suffer if its relations with Russia come under strain. Russia has become one of Turkey's major trading partners in recent years, with an official trade volume of around $4 billion, and "shadow economy" activity could account for an extra $4 billion. Many Turkish construction firms are also operating in Russia, representing about $1 billion worth of investment. And Russia is one of Turkey's most important suppliers of natural gas, a role highlighted by the recent completion of the Blue Stream gas pipeline under the Black Sea. [For background, see the EurasiaNet Business & Economics archive].
Nevertheless, the strident tone of Lebedev's note may become more common in Turkish politics, and in the way the two countries deal with each other. The AKP's electoral landslide has deprived many of those who promoted commercial contacts with Russia of power.
"In the past, certain Turkish government officials did whatever the Russians wanted," says Ilhan, "but now, as they have lost their seats in parliament, their parliamentary immunity has gone along with this. Hopefully, now we'll see some justice." Russia and Turkey differ over the meaning of that word when it applies to Chechens. (NM)
Editor's Note: Jon Gorvett is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul and the article was published in November 7, 2002.