Putin Lifts Turkey Travel Restrictions after Erdogan Call

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to journalists after the SCO Heads of State Council meeting at the Navruz palace in Dushanbe on September 12, 2014. Chinese President Xi Jinping called for Beijing and Moscow to offer each other a "helping hand" in the face of external challenges, at talks with his counterpart Vladimir Putin in Tajikistan on September 11, state media reported. The two leaders met in the Central Asian nation's capital Dushanbe ahead of a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a six-nation regional security group that also includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. AFP PHOTO / RIA NOVOSTI / KREMLIN POOL / MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV

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 some 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 ask 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 which 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 to Turkey, Russia also prohibited sales of package tours to the country and suspended visas for Turkish visitors.

The diplomatic breakthrough with Russia was forged 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 downed fighter jet.

– ‘Stab in the back’ –

In a statement, the Kremlin said that Putin expressed his “profound condolences” over the bombing and shooting attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport.

The Turkish presidency said in a statement that Erdogan and Putin “highlighted the importance of the normalization of bilateral relations between Turkey and Russia.”

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 AFP 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.

Putin called it 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 pilot who died to “excuse us”, but has not explicitly confirmed he apologized for shooting down the plane.

– 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 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 told local news wires 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 on television that “roughly within three months we can return the flow of tourists to the same level as before sales were shut down.”

Russia and Turkey also halted talks in December on the joint TurkStream project to pipe gas to Turkey and southern Europe but officials suggested the negotiations might start again.

Russia is currently suffering its longest economic recession since Putin came to power over 16 years ago due to Western sanctions over the Ukraine crisis and the fall in oil prices.

Putin on Wednesday also extended to the end of 2017 Moscow’s embargo on food items from the West imposed in retaliation for sanctions over Ukraine.