The interest of foreign world powers in the presidential elections in Turkey is not just idle curiosity, but is connected to the potential for future bilateral relations between Turkey and the countries in question. And in this, Russia is no exception.
Attitudes to President Erdoğan vary, with some leaders seeing him as a friend, while for others the relationship is governed purely by his status, but he remains the leader of an important state, and that accounts for a great deal. And international interest in Turkey will remain unchanged if his challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu becomes the new leader. Politicians typically make an effort to observe diplomatic protocol in all circumstances, as all significant disagreements and discussions are dealt with at the negotiating table – frequently, as the saying goes, behind closed doors.
Nevertheless, many experts are trying to make predictions, based on this or that argument, about Turkey’s future and the likely relations between Russia and Turkey after May 28 2023. And there is a limited number of possible outcomes – in fact there are just two of them, one positive and one negative. Ideally, there would be only one option – the positive outcome, which would allow the development of a constructive partnership. But, in the current challenging international situation, and in view of Turkey’s specific character as a nation, not everything depends on what we want.
If the incumbent, Recep Erdoğan wins, there is every reason to assume that the plans developed by the two countries for their long-term relations will continue in effect. We can expect to see new progress in trade relations, the implementation of the gas hub project, the completion of Turkey’s first nuclear power plant in Mersin and the beginning of construction work on its second nuclear power plant in Sinop, which (like the Mersin plant) will be financed by Russia and then jointly operated by both countries, future discounts on oil and gas for Turkey, as Russia’s partner, potential new international land routes – both roads and railways – through the South Caucasus states, the development of a constructive dialog on geopolitical issues in the wider region (including on Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia, Central Asia), Ankara’s ongoing role as an effective mediator in relation to the Russia- Ukraine crisis, and, most importantly, Turkey’s decision to keep the Bosphorus and Dardanelles closed to warships from non-Black Sea NATO countries (including the USA and Great Britain).
Those are the likely and clearly positive fruits of an Erdoğan victory. However, in the interests of objectivity, we should also consider the likely drawbacks of the ageing Erdoğan’s policies. After all, Recep Erdoğan is a complex political figure with a challenging character, for whom Turkey’s national interests are clearly the overriding concern.
Firstly, there remains the fact that Turkey and Russia are members of two different political and military alliances – NATO and the CSTO. Even though in recent times Turkey has been highly critical of the US and NATO, Recep Erdoğan has no intention of leaving the alliance – a step which he considers would threaten Turkey’s strategic security and territorial integrity.
Secondly, under Erdoğan Turkey has espoused imperialist revanchist ambitions based on neo-Ottoman and pan-Turkic ideologies, a tendency that risks jeopardizing its relations with a number of neighboring states, including Russia. It is no secret that under Recep Erdoğan Ankara’s policies have shifted from paying lip-service to pan-Turkic ideologies to adopting them as a policy and launching the Great Turan project. Recep Erdoğan was the first leader in Turkey’s modern history to transform Turan from a mythical idea into a 21st Century reality, and turn Antalya into the center (or a pole) of the Turkic world. And nothing – neither Turkey’s hyperinflation and the fall of the lira, nor the objections of the US and many other countries, including Russia, its energy dependence on other countries and overall shortage of natural resources, nor the ongoing rearmament of the armed forces and its status as a non-nuclear power – have prevented Erdoğan from following this course.
Thirdly, Erdoğan is able to skillfully manipulate the favorable foreign policy situation and play on the weaknesses of other major powers in order to obtain benefits and strengthen Turkey’s position. It is true that Turkey is currently experiencing an unprecedented economic crisis. But Erdoğan is continuing to receive gas and petroleum products at below-market prices from Russia, is benefitting from the new gas hub project, is hoping to implement a transit corridor connecting China to Europe and Russia to the South, has plans to have a fifth gas pipeline (ТАNAP-2) from the post-Soviet space (specifically, from Turkmenistan, which has 7% of global reserves), aims to acquire access to the Caspian Basin and the Turkic Central Asian nations (the Turan Project), and has not abandoned his dream of creating a unified Turkic-Islamic market with a total of population of between 160 and 390 million, taking in Turkey, the South Caucasus and Central Asian states, and possibly Pakistan.
Should Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu win the election, then there are two possible ways in which relations between Turkey and Russia could develop: they could remain stable, and favorable, or they could rapidly deteriorate.
Given the fact that economic links between Russia and Turkey have grown rapidly since the 2000s, that Turkey’s energy sector remains dependent on supplies of Russian gas and petroleum products, the Akkuyu nuclear power station is still under way, and that Turkey exports large volumes of agricultural produce, textiles, household chemical products and consumer electronics to the Russian market, there is every likelihood that this mutually beneficial partnership would continue under a government led by Kılıçdaroğlu.
What negative implications could the potential policies of a new Turkish leader have for Russia’s interests?
In terms of the economy, Kılıçdaroğlu is an open advocate of bringing Turkey into closer step with the EU and strengthening relations with the USA: he could change Turkey’s policy in relation to the West’s anti-Russian sanctions (i.e. by implementing them strictly), there is also risk of new obstacles to the parallel import of European goods through Turkey, nor is there any guarantee that Russian gas would be able to pass through Turkey under a “foreign flag”.
And as for the political implications, even if under a Kılıçdaroğlu government Turkey did not join the Ramstein group of NATO committed to supporting Ukraine in its conflict with Russia, Turkey’s role as a mediator would still necessarily be diminished. Ankara, influenced by and working together with the US, could help reduce Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space by creating new incentives for countries to break away from the CSTO and EAEU and also open up its border with Armenia, with no preconditions, in a bid to bring Yerevan into an alliance with Turkey, the West and NATO.
Kılıçdaroğlu could also continue with Turkey’s Great Turan policy while in an alliance with the US and Britain, but without publicly espousing any revanchist or neo-imperialistic goals. And, finally, under a new pro-American leader there is no guarantee for Russia that Turkey would continue to enforce the ban, enshrined in the 1936 Montreux Convention, on warships passing through the Black Sea straits, and this poses a further risk of military escalation in areas of the Black Sea close to those where the special military operation is under way in Ukraine.
As we have seen, depending on the results of the Turkish elections, we can expect either stability with a positive outlook, or highly negative consequences. But things are not as bad as our opponents might think. Whatever turn events take, Turkey should assess its strengths objectively and, in any case, value Russia’s positive intentions. Any attempt to destabilize partnership relations between Turkey and Russia could have negative consequences in the short and long term both for Turkey’s economy (specifically in relation to energy, transit, trade and tourism) and for security in the wider region. In such a case, Turkey might find itself faced with new conflicts near its borders (including in Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Iran, the black Sea and Central Asia).
However, taking into account the history of relations between Russia and Turkey, it seems likely that: firstly, Moscow will respect whatever choice the Turkish people make on May 28, secondly, that Russia will be ready to cooperate with Turkey whoever its new president is, and thirdly, that the leaders of the two countries and peoples will focus on continuing with their constructive partnership, dialog and friendship.
Aleksandr SVARANTS, PhD in political science, professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”