MOSCOW: President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday lifted restrictions on travel to Turkey after mending ties with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seven months after Ankara downed a Russian jet, triggering a raft of sanctions.
Following his first call with Erdogan since the incident, Putin announced that Moscow’s ban on charter flights and package tours to Turkey would be lifted and that government would also look at ending an embargo on a selection of Turkish food products.
“I want to start with the question of tourism… we are lifting the administrative restrictions in this area,” Putin told government ministers in televised comments.
“I’m asking that the Russian government begin the process of normalizing general trade and economic ties with Turkey,” he said.
The move came as Turkey was hit by a triple suicide bombing at Istanbul’s main international airport on Tuesday that left 41 people dead, including 13 foreigners.
The assault, at the start of Turkey’s crucial tourist season, was the latest in a wave of attacks in Istanbul and the capital Ankara blamed either on Islamic State (IS) jihadists or Kurdish rebels.
The attack was a further blow to an industry that was already battered by Russia’s sanctions.
Apart from banning charter flights and sales of tourist packages to Turkey, Moscow had also suspended visas for Turkish visitors.
The diplomatic breakthrough came in a phone call by Putin to Erdogan after the Turkish strongman on Monday sent a letter to the Kremlin leader that Moscow said contained an apology over the downing of the jet in November.
Erdogan also called Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev to thank for his contribution to improving Russia-Turkey relations, the Kazakh presidency said.
Stab in the back
The Kremlin said that Putin expressed his “profound condolences” to Erdogan over the bombing and shooting attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport.
The Turkish presidency said that Erdogan and Putin stressed “the importance of the normalization of bilateral relations.”
Erdogan is expected to meet with Putin in September on the sidelines of the forthcoming G20 summit in China for their first face-to-face talks since the start of the diplomatic row, a Turkish official told Agence France-Presse on Wednesday speaking on condition of anonymity.
The downing of the Russian plane near the Turkey-Syria border slammed the brakes on burgeoning relations between Moscow and Ankara and sparked a bitter war of words between the leaders. The pilot was shot dead after he parachuted out of the jet.
Putin called the attack a “stab in the back” and demanded an apology from Erdogan, who he also accused of being involved in the illegal oil trade with the Islamic State group.
Ankara said Erdogan expressed his “regret” over the incident in Monday’s letter to Putin and asked the family of the dead pilot to “excuse us,” but did not confirm whether he apologized outright.
Erdogan’s diplomatic blitz
Turkey has argued that the Russian plane strayed into its airspace and ignored repeated warnings, but Russia insisted it did not cross the border and accused Turkey of a “planned provocation.”
The countries are on opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, with Ankara backing rebels fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad who has the backing of Moscow.
Erdogan has been on a diplomatic blitz in recent days that also saw him restore ties with Israel after years of acrimony over a deadly 2010 raid on a Turkish aid flotilla for Gaza.
The crisis in relations with Moscow had dealt a blow to Turkish tourism, with the number of Russian tourists drastically declining in holiday resorts along the Mediterranean coast.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich said that the ban on charter flights and the product embargo would formally be lifted in the “next few days.”
Dmitry Gordin, the vice president of Russia’s association of tour operators, predicted that tourist flows to Turkey would recover to pre-November levels within three months.
Russia and Turkey also halted talks in December on the joint TurkStream project to pipe gas to Turkey and southern Europe but officials suggested those negotiations might now resume.
While relaxing restrictions on trade with Turkey, Putin on Wednesday extended to the end of 2017 Moscow’s embargo on food items from the West imposed in retaliation for sanctions over the Ukraine conflict.