erdogan, putin, turkey, russia.jpg
Photograph: EPA/ANATOLY MALTSEV

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared side by side with his "dear friend" Vladimir Putin on Tuesday in St Petersburg, as the two leaders met for the first time since a Turkish jet was downed by a Russian warplane last year on the Syrian border.

Erdogan and Putin agreed to restore their countries' previously robust economic ties and vowed to press ahead on construction and energy projects.

"Our priority for relations with Turkey is to return to the pre-crisis level," President Putin said after meeting Erdogan for the first time in more than half a year.

Moscow and Ankara support opposing sides in the Syrian civil war, with relations hitting a new low after the jet downing in November.

In June, Erdogan expressed regret in a pivot that set up the rapprochement with Moscow.

"My dear friend, Mr President, and I have a joint position, showing that we have the will to show to the rest of the world that we will be acting as friendly countries," Erdogan told reporters in St Petersburg.

He announced that a Russian-Turkish natural gas pipeline would be built as soon as possible, with the goal of extending it to Europe and plans to go ahead with Russia in building a nuclear power plant in Turkey.

Plans for the proposed Turkish Stream pipeline, possibly to connect to European Union member Greece, fell at the wayside as bilateral relations deteriorated.

"The Turkish-Russian relationship will continue to improve," Erdogan said. "We believe our relationship is much stronger than it used to be."

Erdogan, who called the meeting a chance to open a "different phase" in bilateral relations, thanked Putin for the opportunity to meet ahead of next month's G20 summit in China.

"Despite the complex internal political situation in Turkey, Mr Erdogan seized the opportunity to meet us in St Petersburg," Putin said.

The meeting, held in the 19th-century Constantine Palace on the city's outskirts, appears to have laid the groundwork for Russia to phase out economic sanctions against Turkey, including bans on Turkish fruits and vegetables.

Putin said the Turkish government has ensured that it can ensure the safety of Russian tourists.

Turkey was previously one of the most popular destinations for Russian tourists before Moscow imposed travel sanctions amid deteriorating relations and safety concerns related to the war in neighbouring Syria.

The meeting will be good news for Turkish business, especially in the tourism sector, which has been hard hit by terrorism concerns, but especially by the decline in Russian tourists. Last month, Turkey saw 93 per cent fewer Russian visitors than a year ago.

Putin proposed that Russia and Turkey collaborate against terrorism. Erdogan said their countries can work together to resolve problems in the region.

It was clear the sides remain divided on Syria, and said they would hold separate talks on the war-torn country. Erdogan backs the rebels while Putin supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Putin expressed solidarity with Erdogan following last month's attempted coup against the Turkish government, which left more than 260 people dead, with Putin saying that he is categorically against any unconstitutional action.

In the aftermath of the attempted coup, Turkish authorities have detained tens of thousands of people, and about 60,000 government workers have been suspended or fired.

Speaking to French newspaper Le Monde ahead of the St Petersburg meeting, Erdogan said that "when Putin called me to present his condolences, he did not criticize me over the number of military personnel or civil servants who were dismissed."

Turkey is a member of NATO and is in accession talks to join the European Union, which the government describes as a strategic objective, though the negotiations regularly hit roadblocks. Turkey's crackdown after the coup is straining relations with the West.

A spokeswoman at NATO headquarters in Brussels told dpa that Turkey is a "valued" member of the alliance.

"We have no specific comment on today's meeting, but as the NATO secretary general has said on many occasions, for NATO it is essential that we keep channels of communication open with Russia," she said.

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