- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 5, 2004

ANKARA, Turkey — President Vladimir Putin made the first official visit by a Russian leader to Turkey yesterday, seeking to strengthen an economic relationship that is turning a centuries-old foe into an important trading partner.

Mr. Putin’s two-day visit will include a business forum and is expected to produce cooperation agreements on defense, finance and energy, in addition to declarations of friendship and partnership.

“We are here to make courageous decisions,” Mr. Putin said at a dinner with his Turkish counterpart, President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, ahead of official talks today. “The visit will give the opportunity for both economic and trade relations between Russian and Turkey to open up to new horizons.”

Mr. Sezer said the trip “will undoubtedly be a cornerstone in moving cooperation and relations between our two countries toward a multifaceted partnership.” He added that Turkey was determined to cooperate with Russia in the fight against terrorism.

Russia has urged Turkey to crack down on charities it claims channel money and weapons to Chechen rebels. In an apparent gesture to Mr. Putin, Turkish authorities arrested nine suspected Chechen militants and three pro-Chechen Turks last week, and the Anatolia news agency reported yesterday that police had linked them to al Qaeda.

Many Turks trace their ancestry to Chechnya or elsewhere in the Caucasus, and sympathize with fellow Muslims in the war-ravaged region.

In Istanbul yesterday, members of a group of 2,000 people protesting the U.S. war in Iraq carried a banner that read “Murderer Putin. Get out of Turkey.” A Caucasus group also protested the Russian president’s visit and Chechnya policies before placing a black wreath in front of the Russian Consulate.

Security was tight for Mr. Putin’s visit, with several streets closed to traffic and about 3,000 police officers assigned to protect him, authorities said.

The visit marks a milestone in relations between two countries, whose meetings in past centuries often came on the battlefield, as they struggled for control of lands from the Balkans to the Black Sea and beyond to China’s borders.

The Ottoman Empire and czarist Russia vied for regional supremacy; Turkey was NATO’s easternmost Cold War outpost; and the two have fought for influence in Turkic states that gained independence in the 1991 Soviet collapse. Religion also has been a source of friction between predominantly Orthodox Christian Russia and Islamic Turkey.

Three centuries ago, Czar Peter the Great opened Russia to the West partly in a quest for know-how that might help him wage war against Turkey. Today, Mr. Putin’s Russia bickers with Turkey over access to the West through the Bosporus, which Turkey says is dangerously crowded with tankers carrying Russian oil.

Despite their persistent problems, “Russia and Turkey are moving toward cooperation and the flourishing it will bring with it,” Mr. Putin said before the trip, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.

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