While sitting drinking a coffee, catching up with friends in a Kiev hotel last week, I suddenly heard Turkish voices. Turning around, I was taken aback to see a sea of Turks taking over the lobby. Then I remembered that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was due to speak at the annual Yalta Security Conference the following day. It seems the preceding days were full of other meetings with representatives of the Ukrainian government and Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, and a number of other ministers that Erdoğan had brought with him in his large delegation. This included Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Economy Minister Zafer Cağlayan, Minister of Transport and Communication Binali Yıldırım and Minister of Energy Taner Yıldız.
With its strategic location and economic potential, Ukraine is one of the most important countries in Eastern Europe. Turkey wants to have a greater presence in the region north of the Black Sea, and Ukraine sees Turkey as a «conduit» to the markets of the Middle East. Therefore, it is not news that Turkey and Ukraine have been strengthening ties for a while now, including the creation of a Strategic Council that aims to deepen ties in numerous different sectors, beefing up economic and political cooperation. Preserving stability in the region, the Black Sea neighborhood adds another dimension to bilateral relations. Indeed, the second meeting of the Ukrainian-Turkish High Level Council took place during the visit, with Turkey reporting progress in all areas with further efforts to be made to strengthen inter-regional cooperation. The two Black Sea nations, which have a history of strong cultural ties, already declare they have a «strategic relationship.»
Trade is on the increase, with the two countries presently negotiating a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). While negotiations are nearing completion, some sticking points remain, including the fact that Turkey has not yet allowed Ukraine access to its agricultural market, something essential for Ukraine, a country with one of the richest agricultural lands and potential in the world. Still, Prime Minister Erdoğan expressed the hope that all issues would be resolved by the year’s end. In 2011 overall bilateral foreign trade increased by 29 percent, reaching some $6.5 billion. Erdoğan said he expected trade turnover to reach some $20 billion by 2015. Things look bright. At a recent Trade Bridge conference organized by the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON) some 19 contracts were agreed between Turkish and Ukrainian construction firms to the tune of $800 million.
The Autonomous Republic of Crimea is a particularly important region for Turkey. Ankara has very good ties with the local leadership as well as with the Tatar community, which numbers some 200,000 and with which Turkey has very close cultural and religious links. Indeed, Turkey views Crimea as a bridge in Ukrainian-Turkish relations and is particularly keen on investing more there. Ankara recently opened a consulate in Simferopol, is increasing flights of Turkish airlines, and during his visit, Erdoğan met with Crimean Prime Minister Anatoliy Mohyliov to discuss a number of projects, including investment in the Crimean agricultural and industrial sectors, and possible finance in support of returnees.
Other important developments include the soon-to-be-implemented agreement on direct rail-ferry communication between ports in Turkey and Ukraine, possible Ukrainian involvement in the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline (TANAP) project, which will transport gas from Azerbaijan’s Caspian shores across Turkey to its western border, and developing the potential that exists in the aerospace sector in which Ukraine is a world leader.
Tourism is also a key sector for mutual gain. In August short-term visa-free travel was introduced between the two countries. Turkey is one of the top foreign holiday destinations for Ukrainians. In 2011, 602,000 Ukrainians visited Turkey. Turkish visitors to Ukraine are also on the rise, with an increasing number of Turks traveling to the Black Sea coast of Crimea.
For Ukraine, clearly developing a strong relationship with a neighbor country that has had significant economic growth in the past decade offers a good opportunity for Ukraine’s leadership. During a period when Ukraine is become increasingly isolated from Western partners, being accused of rolling back democratic practices and with a deep trade agreement with the EU presently on hold, Turkey offers Ukraine a ray of hope in a difficult economic and political situation. Moreover, after Russia, Turkey is the second biggest regional power and market, offering the country a route to markets further afield.