By Conor Gallagher
In recent years, Türkiye under president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has forged closer ties with Moscow, and has profited from being a middleman between Russia and the West that helps both sides bypass sanctions.
Following the Iran-Saudi Arabia rapprochement, it’s clear which way events are moving in the region.
Turkiye’s normalization talks with Syria continue. Moscow hosted diplomats from Ankara, Damascus, and Tehran last week in an effort to continue the thaw. Türkiye, as part of its turn east, has abandoned the US-led effort to topple Assad, and Russia began leading the detente efforts last year after more than a decade of hostility between Syria and Türkiye.
But Turkish general elections are on the horizon, currently scheduled for May 14. The key question is would the Erdogan opposition change Türkiye’s current trajectory vis a vis east and west?
Long-standing issues between Türkiye and the US/Nato have stressed the relationship in recent years, and Ankara, while sending weapons to Ukraine, has moved closer to Russia economically since the war began. By refusing to join sanctions on Moscow, Türkiye has come under immense pressure from the US.
Six opposition parties (the center-left Republican People’s Party, the Felicity Party, the nationalist İYİ, Democracy and Progress Party, the Future Party, and the Democrat Party) are joining forces to oppose Erdogan.
They chose the leader of the Republican People’s Party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, as their common candidate against Erdogan who has ruled the country for 20 years.
The elections are expected to be Erdogan’s toughest ever due to economic problems and criticism of the government’s response to the devastating earthquakes last month. Polls bear that out:
Another poll that has Kılıçdaroğlu winning against Erdoğan. The opposition’s whole calculus is winning both the presidency and a parliamentary majority. 55-45 balance does not guarantee a parliamentary majority for the opposition due to the government’s electoral engineering. https://t.co/21lcFP6jXd
— Orçun Selçuk (@orcunselcuk) March 11, 2023
Another poll conducted on March 6-7 by Alf Research showed Kilicdaroglu at 55.1 percent and Erdogan at 44.9 percent.
Additionally, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), is deciding whether to run its own candidate or join with the Nation Alliance. Should they choose the latter, the opposition might win in the first round without needing to go to a runoff due to the HDP having 8-13 percent of the vote.
So what are Kilicdaroglu and the Nation Alliance proposing regarding Russia and the West?
There is a lot of talk in the bloc’s “memorandum of understanding on common policies” about maintaining good ties with everyone (which is impossible with the West’s current with-us-or-against-us attitude), but a few items stand out from the document:
The alliance pledges to “take initiatives” in order to make it possible for Türkiye to be reaccepted to the F-35 fighter jet program. The memorandum does not expand on this, nor does it mention why the US expelled Türkiye from the program in the first place. The reason was that after years of ignored requests for the US Patriot system, Türkiye purchased the arguably superior Russian system in 2017. Would Kilicdaroglu and the Nation Alliance get rid of the S-400? Would they make amends in other ways in order to rejoin the F-35 program? It remains unclear.
The alliance also states it will do the following:
We will conclude contracts with new source countries to reduce the risk of dependence on certain countries/companies in natural gas imports and reduce the cost of natural gas imports. We will renegotiate existing high-priced natural gas contracts.
It’s pretty clear who they’re talking about here as Türkiye receives nearly half of its natural gas from Russia (and a quarter of its oil). Erdogan and Putin are also discussing expanding their energy relationship, which would allow Türkiye to increase its transfer fees when sending gas to Europe – if they want it.
Lastly, the Nation Alliance vows to review the contract for the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant that is currently being constructed by a Russian company.
So while Kilicdaroglu and the alliance say they want to maintain relationships with both Russia and the US, it’s fairly obvious which way they lean.
Kilicdaroglu made a six-day visit to the US in October, which was a bit of a head scratcher considering recent public opinion surveys in Türkiye show the public there views its NATO “ally” as the biggest threat to Türkiye.
Beyond stops at MIT, Harvard, John Hopkins University, the Washington Post, and a meeting with World Bank executives and “digital industry stakeholders,” it’s unclear who else Kilicdaroglu met with. He mentioned that he would also be visiting with NGOs, think tanks, investors, and human rights groups.
The trip opened Kilicdaroglu to attacks that he’s a Washington stooge. Turkish media do not tire of replaying Biden’s declaration during his 2020 election campaign that Washington should help the Turkish opposition “take on and defeat Erdogan.”
Speaking at John Hopkins University during his trip, Kilicdaroglu said, “we will develop our relationship with Russia but we want to stand with the West. There is no logic in fighting against Russia.”
And yet, many of the positions of the alliance he leads would move Türkiye into the Western camp, which is indeed fighting against Russia.
Kilicdaroglu is also all in on joining the EU – despite the process being dead for all intents and purposes. Türkiye has been a candidate country since 1999, has been negotiating for full membership for 18 years, and has gotten nowhere.
Turks have mostly given up on the prospect of EU membership ever happening. A recent Metropoll survey showed that 73 percent of Turks thought the EU discriminates against Türkiye in accession process, and only 29 percent thought Türkiye would be admitted even if it met all of Brussels’ criteria.
Barçın Yinanç, a foreign policy columnist at the Turkish news site t24, believes that should the Nation Alliance win, it will orchestrate a distancing from Russia and “reset” Türkiye’s relations with its Western allies. More:
The Nation Alliance promises nothing less than a reset: it reasserts Türkiye’s place in the West and as Western democracy. The [“Memorandum of understanding on common policies”] deems NATO to be of “critical importance in terms of the deterrence it provides for Türkiye’s national security,” and emphasizes the importance of the EU as well as of the Council of Europe. While the Nation Alliance remains committed to Turkish EU membership, the emphasis on “the modernization of the Customs Union,” nonetheless shows that the opposition is well aware of the difficulty of a speedy revival of the accession process.
Although Türkiye’s accession process to the European Union is de facto suspended, the Nation Alliance trusts the democratic reform process it holds forth will break the ice in the frozen relations with the West in general. The opposition alliance reiterates that “our goal is full membership in the European Union.” That explains why the statement that Türkiye will comply with the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights appears under the headline “foreign policy” instead of “rule of law”. The AKP’s resistance to amend the law, so as to adapt it to universal democratic standards has been a key obstacle to visa liberalization; the Nation Alliance’s pledge to “prioritize and finalize visa liberalization process with the EU countries,” implies a commitment to change Türkiye’s anti-terror laws. Meanwhile, the pledge to review the 2016 migration deal with the EU together with the statement “we will not let Türkiye be a buffer,” is clearly intended to appeal to anti-migrant opinion. But it also represents the Nation Alliance’s wish to end the “transactional nature” of Turkish-EU relations.
The primary reason Erdogan is so vulnerable in the upcoming election is due to the economy and 25-year-high inflation, but Russia has played a key role in helping to keep the Turkish economy afloat through tourism, natural gas deliveries, as well as Türkiye’s role facilitating the transfer of goods between Russia and Europe to avoid sanctions.
Russia is also trying to pressure the Assad government in Syria to move past Erdogan’s participation in US efforts to overthrow it and normalize ties. It would be a major boon for Erdogan ahead of the election to make progress in efforts to repatriate Syrian refugees in Türkiye, although that looks unlikely.
It would also snatch the issue away from the Turkish opposition, which blames Erdogan for causing the crisis due to the involvement in the Syrian conflict. There are more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Türkiye, which has strained the already fragile economy and generated popular sentiment against the presence of so many refugees.
But should the Nation Alliance emerge victorious and turn away from Russia to the West, it would be a major blow to the already fragile economy.
Kılıçdaroğlu, should he win, plans to rely more on western financial institutions to aid the Turkish economy. After receiving criticism for meeting with investors in London in November, Kılıçdaroğlu said, “yes, I visit foreign countries and hold talks. Don’t get concerned. I have already found the clean money.”
The stakes couldn’t be higher for Washington, Moscow, and the wider region in the election. Should the National Alliance emerge victorious and shift towards the US, it could mean some or all of the following:
- Sweden and Finland joining NATO. Erdogan has thus far refused to agree to the countries’ accession (which all NATO countries must approve) without his conditions being met, which include Sweden extraditing individuals Türkiye considers Kurdish terrorists and ending further support for such groups.
- Cutting off one of Russia’s links to bypass Western sanctions. The ports of the Azov-Black Sea Basin increased activity by 2.7 percent to 263.6 mln metric tons in 2022. Türkiye, despite constant pressure from Washington, has transformed into a transport, logistics, and gas hub between Russia and the West.
- Opening the Dardanelles and therefore the Black Sea to NATO warships, which Erdogan has refused to do under the 1936 Montreux Convention. Moscow’s updated version of the Naval Doctrine of the Russian Federation lists the eastern Mediterranean basin, the Black Sea and the Turkish straits as “important areas,” in which the use of force will be available as a last resort after other options have been exhausted.
- A lifeline for the US positions in Syria, which are becoming untenable with the Tehran-Riyadh rapprochement and nearly every country in the region now wanting the Americans out.
We’ll see. The election is 55 days away.