ISTANBUL — TURKISH Prime Minister Tansu Ciller, in her first official visit abroad, was to meet with Russian President Boris Yeltsin today in an attempt to diffuse tensions between Ankara and Moscow over their competitive interests in the Caucasus and central Asia.
The two countries are locked in a rivalry over influence in Azerbaijan, the Turkic republics, and control of Caspian Sea oil reserves.
Mrs. Ciller's mission in Moscow, a close aide says, will be ``to explore the chances of establishing a new basis for relations, replacing confrontation with coordination and cooperation.''
But critics of the Ciller administration worry that Turkey is losing ground.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey has sought closer political and economic ties throughout central Asia. Turkey's Export-Import Bank has extended roughly $1.1 billion in credit to the five Turkic republics of the former Soviet Union and the Caucasus.
The biggest prize, however, may be oil. Both Ankara and Moscow seek influence over a proposed pipeline that would transport an estimated 4 billion barrels of oil from Azerbaijan's Caspian Sea port of Baku. Turkey wants the pipeline to extend to its Mediterranean coast. Russia wants to route it to its Black Sea port of Novorossysk.
There have been several setbacks to Turkey's goals. A June 20 military coup ousted the pro-Turkish Azeri leader Abulfaz Elchibey, replacing him with the old Communist ruler, Geidar Aliyev.
Many Turks see Moscow behind the Baku coup. They already see a tilt by Azerbaijan toward Russia as a result of Mr. Aliyev's visit to Moscow early this week. He spelled out his intention to bring Azerbaijan into the Moscow-led Commonwealth of Independent States, a move Mr. Elchibey had rejected.
Further, Armenian forces have control over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh and now occupy 20 percent of Azeri territory. Many Turkish officials charge that the Armenians have been receiving moral and material support from Moscow.
Efforts by the Turkish government to ensure a more active Russian role to press Armenia to stop their attacks and their advance deep into Azerbaijan have so far failed.
The Turks resent Armenian occupation of Azeri territory, and public and opposition pressures have led the Ciller administration to deploy troops along the Armenian border, put the Third Army in Eastern Turkey in a state of alert, and start reconnaissance flights over the area.
Critics blame the Turkish government for allowing Russia to bring a Moscow-oriented leadership to power in Baku. They charge that Turkey has lost not only Azerbaijan, but also a gateway to Central Asia.
``We have lost the chance of becoming a regional power and a leader of the Turkic world,'' commented Altemur Kilic, a former Turkish diplomat.
The popular daily, Hurriyet, noted: ``Turkey is losing a round in the region as Russia spreads its influence.... Turkish diplomacy is failing to maintain the role that it had targeted after the collapse of the Soviet Union.''
Turkish diplomats deny these setbacks were due to government errors. ``It is wrong to conclude from recent events that Turkey has lost its chances in the region,'' says a senior Foreign Ministry official. ``Perhaps the mistake [of the critics] was to have overexpectations and to ignore the Russian factor.''
But Russia is not Turkey's only rival in the region. Some Turkish officials say Iran is a more dangerous contender. Last weekend, reports about intrusions into southwestern Azerbaijan by Iranian troops caused grave concern here.
The reports hinted that Iran was about to create a ``security zone'' inside Azeri territory for the establishment of refugee camps for the 100,000 Azeris who fled from their homes overrun by the Armenians. Turkish officials worry Iran may be trying to get a foothold in Azerbaijan.
Iran assured Turkey that it did not have such intentions. But the Turkish government nonetheless put forces on alert along the Armenian border. That show of force has angered Armenia, whose president, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, sent a note to President Suleyman Demirel saying such provocative action would increase tension.
But Turkish officials do not rule out intervention if Armenian forces continue their advance.
``We know that a military intervention will cause complications and problems,'' said Foreign Minister Hikmet Cetin. ``But it is wrong to expect Turkey to stand as a spectator till the end.... It would be a mistake to assume that Turkey will not intervene.''