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Turkish President Visits Russia To Meet Vladimir Putin


Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is making his first foreign trip since last month's failed coup attempt. His destination is Moscow, where he'll meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Erdogan says that meeting tomorrow will mark a new beginning for the two countries. NPR's Peter Kenyon has more from Istanbul.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: These days, Turks tend to look on Russians with a smile and Americans with suspicion, quite the reverse of the mood less than a year ago.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting, unintelligible).

KENYON: At a massive Istanbul rally Sunday honoring the Turks who died resisting the coup effort, Erdogan condemned the U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, accused of ordering the coup. Many Turks are angry that Gulen is finding shelter in America despite the elderly cleric's denials of any involvement. They cheered as Erdogan, heard here through an interpreter, promised to go after Gulen and what he called the powers behind him.


PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through interpreter) We are joining forces, and this I am sure is saddening our enemies as it did on the 16th of July, the following morning after the coup attack. We are going to be one Turkey, one single country.

KENYON: For decades, Turkey has joined forces with the West, with NATO, with Europe and the United States. It was a frontline NATO state against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But now some are wondering if Erdogan's Russia visit coming at a time of strong anti-American feelings at home should be seen as something more than a symbolic diplomatic foray.

AKIN UNVER: Well, of course it should.

KENYON: Akin Unver, a Russia expert at Istanbul's Kadir Has University, says Russia has an overriding strategic objective to keep NATO forces as far from its borders as it can, and that means any dispute among NATO members, especially tension between Turkey and the U.S., is a gift to Moscow.

UNVER: That rift benefits Russia immensely because if Turkey and United States and the rest of NATO countries work together really well, it's bad news for Russia.

KENYON: Until recently, Turkey and Russia were exchanging hostile rhetoric and more. In November, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet it said strayed into Turkish airspace from Syria. Moscow promptly banned the import of Turkish goods and barred its citizens from vacationing in Turkey, a sharp economic blow.

Restoring trade would be a big help to both countries right now. There's even renewed talk of running Russian natural gas through Turkey. And analyst Unver says with Russian jets still active in Syria, mending ties will reduce one of the many potential threats facing Turkey these days.

UNVER: Does Russia have any chance of having any military threat to Turkey? Normally no, but now that Russia's deployed in Syria, Turkey is going to find itself militarily pressured both from the north and from the south.

KENYON: Unver believes Turkey's overriding goals remain much more in line with Washington than Moscow, but that won't stop the West from watching this diplomatic engagement very closely. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.