Russian officials warn of new Turkey charter flights ban amid Syria tensions

By bne IntelliNews April 11, 2017

Russian airlines have received a telegram from the Russian Federal Aviation Agency (Rosaviatsia) warning about a possible renewed suspension of charter flights to Turkey, TASS reported on April 10.

The potential suspension is related to the complicated political situation in Turkey, a source told the Russian news service.

Moscow banned charter flights to Turkey after one of its fighter jets was downed by the Turkish Air Forces near the Syrian border in late 2015. The move, dropped after the Turkish and Russian governments made steps towards a rapprochement, hit Turkey’s tourism industry hard.

Turkey is to hold a weekend referendum on April 16 on constitutional changes that would secure an executive presidency. The referendum campaigns have been peaceful, and there has not been a major terrorist attack in the country for the past two months. In essence, little has changed in Turkey since the two countries decided to improve their relations last summer.

Thus, it is intriguing that Moscow has suddenly realised that the political situation in Turkey is “complicated”. Analysts are looking to a different sphere to find the motive behind Russia’s latest move. The warning of the potential ban comes at a time when the rift between Ankara and Moscow over Syria has deepened following the chemical attack allegedly carried out by Damascus regime forces last week on a rebel-controlled town.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomed the American missile strike on a Syrian airbase in response to the chemical attack and called for more US action against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, a close ally of Russia.

Turkey and Russia are also at odds over Ankara’s restrictions on deliveries of Russian grain.

Moscow said the restrictions are hampering the restoration of fully-fledged relations.       

Turkey effectively halted purchases from Russia of wheat, maize and sunflower seeds by removing Russian items from a duty-free import scheme on March 15. Russian supplies now face a prohibitive 130% duty.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is trying to put pressure on his Turkish counterpart Erdogan with the charter ban threat, Alexei Malashenko, a Moscow-based Middle East expert at the Dialogue of Civilisations Research Institute, told Bloomberg.

“But it won’t work… A ban would only worsen the situation because ties will again be broken, and Turkey will stop any cooperation on Syria,” he said.

As a result of the first charter flight ban and other restrictions, the number of Russian tourists visiting Turkey plunged 76% to 866,000 in 2016 from more than 3.6mn in the previous year.

But with the ban having been dropped last August, Russian tourist arrivals soared 96% y/y to 39,000 in February, according to the latest data.

“If it [a ban on charger flights] happens, the consequences will be worse than in 2015,” Irina Tyurina, a spokeswoman for the Russian Tourist Industry Union, told Bloomberg. “The last ban was imposed after the end of the tourism peak season, while there are currently four to five times more orders for charter flights than in 2016,” she said.

“All Russian tour operators know that airline companies have received such a telegram from the Federal Aviation Agency on the possible suspension of charter flights.. Tour operators do not receive such documents. But as far as I understand, the telegram in its nature is a warning. There are no bans there,” Anna Podgornaya, general director of Pegas Touristik, one of Russia’s largest tour operators on Turkey, told TASS on April 10.

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