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Today's Zaman - May 13, 2010

Turkey and Russia agreed to create an intergovernmental council and signed a series of agreements -- including one on mutually lifting visa requirements -- to bolster cooperation between the former Cold War rivals yesterday, prompting visiting Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to brand the relations between the two countries a “strategic partnership.”

“Russia and Turkey are strategic partners, not only in words but genuinely,” Medvedev said during a joint press conference with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during his first official visit to Ankara. His remarks were simultaneously translated into Turkish. Earlier in the day, during a press conference with President Abdullah Gül, he said relations have progressed to a “new phase” and were “multidimensional” and had a strategic dimension.

Cooperation between Turkey and Russia has significantly expanded under Erdoğan's government, but economic ties have constituted the engine of the deepening ties, with political aspect trying, unsuccessfully, to catch up. But in a sign of significant momentum in the political field, the two countries agreed yesterday to launch a high-level cooperation council, an intergovernmental body that is to be led by Medvedev and Erdoğan and will meet annually to review ties.

“Our cooperation has grown to such an extent that it became a necessity for political leaders to oversee them,” Medvedev said during the press conference with Erdoğan. “Our political contacts and consultations will increase in the future,” he added.

Turkey, which has been seeking an active role in its region, has established similar mechanisms with Syria, Iraq and Greece. The two sides also agreed to lift the visa requirement for their nationals for trips not exceeding 30 days, a measure that is expected to please Russians who flock to Turkey’s southern holiday resorts every year. Some 3 million Russian visitors come to Turkey, mostly to Antalya, annually, and the visa exemption is expected to further increase the number. The visa liberalization, however, will only become effective following the signing of an agreement that authorities say is designed to prevent the abuse of visa-free travel.

The agreement to lift the visa requirement clearly attests to the expanding cooperation between Turkey and Russia and is expected to be welcomed by the Turkish tourism sector. However, initial assessments show the Turkish national budget will be an immediate loser. It is expected to lose revenue from the visa fees collected from Russian nationals, which stands at about TL 80 million annually.

Medvedev said the agreement to abolish the visa requirements was a “historic” one, saying it will make life easier for millions of people. “Lifting the visa requirement is pleasing for the peoples of both Russia and Turkey, and it will affect the tourists positively in the first place,” Gül said. “Drivers and people in the transportation business will also benefit, but it is a great advantage for tourists,” he added.

Nuclear deal and energy cooperation

Among other highlights of the visit is an agreement that will allow Russian companies to build Turkey’s first nuclear power plant in the southern province of Mersin. A previous tender won by a Russian consortium was cancelled by a Turkish court. The construction of the nuclear power plant is expected to take seven years, Prime Minister Erdoğan said.

State-controlled Russian builder Atomstroyexport will lead the construction of the plant in the coastal town of Akkuyu, Russian nuclear agency chief Sergei Kiriyenko said. “It’s an extremely important contract for us,” the Rosatom chief told reporters.

Russia has built nuclear power plants in nations such as Iran and China and is aggressively seeking deals to build new stations. Kiriyenko said that for the first time, Russia would not just build the plant but would have a controlling stake in a company to be created to own it. “It is much more interesting for us to be a co-investor in such projects,” he said, adding that a long-term contract would be reached to supply power to a Turkish utility.

Medvedev and Turkish leaders also voiced readiness to boost the bilateral trade volume, currently standing at about $40 billion, to $100 billion in the next five years. Medvedev said the goal is attainable. “It is hard even to imagine, but this figure is an attainable one,” he said. “Once we will achieve this goal, we will be a model for Europe.”

Most of the trade volume stems from Turkish energy imports from Russia. Turkey, dependent on Russia for 70 percent of its energy imports, is trying to balance the imports with cooperation in a number of energy projects. Medvedev said they also agreed to work on the proposed Samsun-Ceyhan pipeline that would pump Russian oil from Turkey’s Black Sea coast to the Mediterranean. It will run from the Black Sea port of Samsun to the Ceyhan oil terminal in the Mediterranean, where an oil refinery will be set up. The significance of the project is that it is to bypass the Bosporus to alleviate the congested oil tanker traffic through the narrow waterway that bisects İstanbul, where accidents are a concern, as well as the Dardanelles Strait, further south. The Turkish straits are the sole naval outlet from the Black Sea. Ankara also hopes the pipeline will boost its status as a global hub for energy transportation.

Discussions are also under way on cooperation regarding the Moscow-backed, Europe-bound South Stream gas pipeline.

The two countries signed a total of 17 agreements yesterday. They cover, in addition to the visa regime and energy, a number of areas ranging from transportation to education and combating drug trafficking.

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