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Bilateral Trade Likely to Top Agenda During Putin's Visit to Turkey

Russia's President Vladimir Putin, right, and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan review an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Dec. 1, 2014.

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Turkey Monday to discuss a broad range of issues concerning the two countries, including trade, economics and energy. Syria is also high on the list.

On his arrival in Ankara, Putin received the full trappings of a state visit. The presidential convoy was escorted by mounted horsemen and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomed Putin at the palace gates.

Diplomatic columnist Semih Idiz of the Turkish newspaper Taraf and Al Monitor website said the visit is important to both leaders.

"It's significant from the Russia point of view coming at a time when its isolated because of Ukraine, and it also significant for Turkey,” Idiz said. “As you know President Erdogan is projecting a negative image at the moment, and this gives the ability for him to say he has high-level friends, so in terms of image it's important.”

Business entourage

Putin was accompanied by 10 ministers and a large business entourage.

Developing bilateral trade is expected to top the agenda of the one-day visit and the two presidents have committed themselves to tripling bilateral trade, to $100 billion by 2020.

Just before Putin’s arrival, Turkey’s Environment and Urbanization Ministry gave the green light to start construction of a Russian-built nuclear reactor.

Ankara is also keen to increase its Russian gas imports, if Moscow agrees to a price cut. Currently, Turkey is the second largest European importer of Russian gas. Germany is the largest.

The deepening in trade relations comes as Turkey’s Western allies are enforcing trade sanctions against Moscow for its intervention in Ukraine.

At a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Monday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he thought Turkey should join its allies in sanctioning Russia.

"Of course I’d like to see as many countries as possible be part of this, to support all sanctions. Because it’s important that it has an effect, it has consequence when a country violates international law,” Stoltenberg said.

But Ankara insisted it will only impose United Nation sanctions.

Putin, in an interview just before his arrival in Turkey, praised Ankara’s stance, saying, "We highly value independent decisions by Turkey."

Trade opportunities

Turkish exporters are eyeing lucrative trade opportunities in the wake of Russian sanctions, as many Turkish companies have been hit by the raging conflicts in neighboring Syria and Iraq.

Experts said developing Russian trade is particularly important for the ruling AK Party, with an election looming next year and the economy markedly slowing from the previous decade of record-breaking growth.

However, deep differences remain between the two countries over foreign policy, columnist Idiz said.

"The countries disagree very fundamentally on Syria. In fact they’ve exchanged barbs over this, although very diplomatic at that,” he said.

“They have difference of opinion vis-a-vis Ukraine, especially Crimea, where there is a Tartar minority. These are relatives of Turks. And the two countries do not agree on the Cyprus issue because Moscow is known to stand behind the Greek Cypriot administration,” Idiz said.

He added that a good working relationship has developed to allow the two leaders to manage their differences.

"I have personally been on visits with Erdogan when he was in Russia and you do notice that there is a certain chemistry, and they have a world’s view, an outlook on life, which is not dissimilar. They both are accused of being a little authoritarian in their approach. Yes, they do share this kindred spirit and they reflect that whenever they are together,” Idiz said.

With both leaders giving little indication of any change in style or policies, international pressure and criticism is likely to continue.

Observers predict that pressure from the West will likely give further impetus to Putin's and Erdogan's deepening bilateral relations.