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Russia-Georgia Conflict Puts Turkey in Vulnerable Position

The Russia-Georgia conflict has put Turkey in a tight spot. Will Turkey side with the United States, its NATO ally, and let more U.S. military ships into the Black Sea to assist Georgia? Or will it choose Russia which also shares a Black Sea coast with Turkey? As Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul, ever since Turkey joined NATO in 1952, it has hoped to never have to make a choice between the alliance and its Russian neighbor to the north.

Turkey has been playing the role of mediator between various parties in the region: the United States and Iran; Israel and Syria; Pakistan and Afghanistan. But as more U.S. warships pass through the narrow Turkish-controlled strait into the Black Sea to deliver aid to Georgia, a time for choosing sides may have arrived.

Last weekend, U.S. warships used the Turkish straits to deliver aid to Georgia. A Russian official condemned the move and warned Turkey it was obliged to enforce the rules of an agreement that gives a 21 day limit on any warship from a country that does not border the Black Sea.

The Turkish government is responsible for policing the 32-kilometer Bosporus, the only route for ships traveling to the Black Sea, under the Montreux agreement of 1936. The Bosporus provides sole access for ships to Georgia's Black Sea ports.

International relations expert Soli Ozel of Istanbul's Bilgi University said this has put Turkey in a precarious position.

"Turkey is a NATO member and is also a neighbor of Georgia's and great supporter of Georgia both economically and militarily," he said. "And Turkey controls the passage from and to the Black Sea. Therefore whatever happens next Turkey is going to find itself impacted by the developments."

Also at stake is Turkey's trade relations with Russia. Turkey's trades more goods with Russia than any other country, mostly because of Turkey's dependence on Russian gas.

"We have very good economic relations with Russia," said Ozel. "Our trade is over $10 billion and we are overly dependent on Russian gas at 64 percent and 40 percent for Russia oil."

Turkey has been trying to boost trade with Moscow as it struggles with a current account deficit that's growing as energy costs soar.

But Russia has introduced new custom regulations which, according to the Turkish trade minister Kursad Tuzmen, could cost Turkey as much as $3 billion. Tuzmen attacked the regulations as political, saying Moscow may be punishing it for allowing the U.S. ships to pass through the Bosporus.

Tuzman said that on September 1 Turkey will impose curbs on Russian exports and withdraw support for its membership of the World Trade Organization.

But a Turkish diplomatic source said that Ankara is determined not to be drawn into the conflict. Much of the Turkish media is also calling for a neutral stance.

With the Turkish prime minister visiting Moscow and Tbilisi, Ankara is now working hard to secure peace. Soli Ozel doesn't believe such efforts have much chance of success, but still thinks they are important.

"For the moment I see it as an empty shell and as a good will gesture. If anything comes out of it will be good, and if nothing comes out of it no one will blame Turkey," said Ozel. "It is better than what the Europeans can and would do anyway."

This weekend Georgia's foreign minister, Eka Tkeshelashvili, is due to visit Turkey, while his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, is expected next week. While few people give little chance of any breakthrough, experts say the real motive behind such efforts is for Turkey to balance its relations between Russia and the West. But with another U.S. warship headed to the Black Sea this weekend, those efforts are predicted to get increasingly difficult.