West, Russia take opposing sides in Turkey’s elections

Turkish elections on May 14 is closely monitored in Western capitals – and in Moscow. Russia favours the incumbent, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, while the West tacitly prefers his main rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, according to analysts. But an opposition win would not guarantee an obstacle-free path to pivoting Turkey back towards the West, opines France 24 news site.


Erdogan has attracted much international attention over recent years with his assertive foreign policy – most recently his blocking of Sweden’s NATO accession, after accusing Stockholm of giving safe haven to people allegedly linked to Kurdish militant group, the PKK.

This confrontational approach to projecting power marked a big change from Erdogan’s pro-Western stance shortly after he took power in 2003.



Russia ‘clearly’ supporting Erdogan

But while foreign policy might be a peripheral issue to the average Turkish voter, the elections are a big deal for various foreign powers.


“They’ll be watching it very carefully,” said Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey specialist at St Lawrence University and the Middle East Institute in Washington DC.


While underlining that the Turkish president is unlikely to upend his foreign policy if re-elected – “Erdogan will still be Erdogan” – Eissenstat observed that “Russia in particular will be hoping for an Erdogan victory”.


The dramatic attempted coup in 2016 inaugurated a chill in Turkey’s relations with the West.


Ankara accused Fethullah Gulen, an Islamist cleric and ex-Erdogan ally living in exile in the US, of masterminding the coup. Gulen denied the accusations amid a Turkish government crackdown on his movement, which extended to critics of Erdogan’s policies. For his part, Erdogan perceived the West as insufficiently supportive in the aftermath of the thwarted putsch.


Erdogan’s rapprochement with Russia led to a full-blown rupture with Washington in 2017, when Turkey agreed to buy the S-400 surface-to-air missile system from Russia – a red line for a NATO member, prompting US sanctions on the Turkish defence industry.


This fits into a pattern going back to the Cold War, when the USSR helped Turkey develop infrastructure for heavy industry in the 1970s after the US spurned Turkey’s request for assistance.


Since the Cold War era, Moscow has “always been the second choice for Turkey if it thinks Washington is unwilling” to help, while Moscow has “never lost an opportunity to draw a wedge between Turkey and the West”, observed Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Ankara bureau.


“Erdogan and Putin use each other for their own ends,” added Jeffrey Mankoff, from the Washington DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Since 2015, Russia has seen Erdogan as someone they could do business with. And Erdogan as a leader is now seen as toxic in the West – and that has benefits for Russia.”

In this context, Moscow has done Erdogan a favour ahead of his re-election campaign, Ulgen noted: “Russia has clearly supported Erdogan and they’ve demonstrated this by granting them deferred payments on natural gas purchases – essentially helping Turkey out financially by alleviating somewhat the pressures on the Turkish central bank”.


‘Frustration and exhaustion’

By contrast, Kilicdaroglu’s heterogenous six-party bloc, the Nation Alliance, suggests it wants restored relations with the West.


The Alliance is committed to restarting the EU accession process and following the rulings of the European Convention on Human Rights.


Most significantly, the Nation Alliance said it would “take initiatives” to bring Turkey back into the F-35 fighter jet programme, which allows NATO allies to buy the US stealth multirole combat aircraft. Washington removed Turkey from the programme in 2019 over its procurement of S-400s.


Analysts say that beneath the West’s silence about the election campaign, Europe and the US would welcome Kilicdaroglu’s victory.


“A lot of Western officials and leaders feel a sense of frustration and exhaustion in dealing with Erdogan,” said Mankoff. “They see him as presiding over Turkey’s drift from the West and the move towards a personalised and populist regime. For those reasons, they’d be pretty happy to see the back of him.


“At the same time, because Erdogan has been so effective at mobilising anti-Western sentiment, it pays for the West to be silent,” Mankoff continued. “And he’s a wily operator – a very effective politician – so there’s a reasonable sense that he might be re-elected despite all the headwinds. Why further alienate him?”


EU accession ‘effectively closed off’

But even if Kilicdaroglu wins, deepening ties with the West would take a lot of work.


The EU enlargement impetus has diminished over recent years, after the bloc’s rapid expansion was principally driven by Britain in the 2000s as a perceived means of diluting Franco-German influence. French President Emmanuel Macron vetoed accession talks for North Macedonia and Albania in 2019, suggesting the EU would struggle to integrate two countries from the troubled Balkans.


Bad relations with EU members Greece and Cyprus provide even bigger obstacles to Turkey’s EU accession


Greece and Turkey have seen resurgent animosity over their Aegean Sea maritime border dispute since natural gas reserves were discovered in the eastern Mediterranean in 2010.

Meanwhile Turkey is the only country in the world that recognises the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus created after the 1974 war divided the island. The Nation Alliance promises to maintain Turkey’s longstanding position on the issue, saying it “will pursue the objectives of protecting the acquired rights of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus”.


“Of course tensions between Turkey and the EU would decrease if Kilicdaroglu wins, so Turkey will be less isolated and will use diplomacy instead of threatening to invade Greece,” Unluhisarcikli said. “But even if Turkey meets all the other criteria for EU membership – and Turkey would have a lot of homework to do – Cyprus would still be a big issue, and there would still be questions about Greece.”


“On Cyprus, the opposition’s policy is not terribly dissimilar from Erdogan’s,” Eissenstat added – stating that the “road to Turkish EU accession is effectively closed by this point”.


‘Less difficult, but still difficult’

Restoring ties with the US would be similarly complex, given the low ebb they have reached. Unusually for a NATO leader, Erdogan took several days to congratulate President Joe Biden on his US presential election victory in 2020 as his predecessor Donald Trump baselessly contested the result. Biden reciprocated by taking three months to ring Erdogan.



“Under Kilicdaroglu, I would expect Turkey’s relations with the US to be less difficult, but still difficult,” Eissenstat added.



If Washington and Ankara made a concerted effort to deepen ties after a Kilicdaroglu victory, there could be scope for a compromise on the S-400 issue, according to Ulgen. “If there is a flexible attitudes on both sides, there are other formulas besides the maximalist approach of demanding Turkey get rid of them, such as the US putting conditions on any potential Turkish use of S-400s,” he noted.


Amid these thorny issues, if Kilicdaroglu wins Turkey and the West would likely concentrate on the low-hanging fruit – such as updating Turkey’s customs union with the EU to reduce trade friction.


Such an approach could also see Turkey resolve its most conspicuous source of tension with the West at present: “If the opposition wins, I would fully expect Turkey to ratify Sweden’s accession to NATO,” Eissenstat said.



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Published By: Atilla Yeşilada

GlobalSource Partners’ Turkey Country Analyst Atilla Yesilada is the country’s leading political analyst and commentator. He is known throughout the finance and political science world for his thorough and outspoken coverage of Turkey’s political and financial developments. In addition to his extensive writing schedule, he is often called upon to provide his political expertise on major radio and television channels. Based in Istanbul, Atilla is co-founder of the information platform Istanbul Analytics and is one of GlobalSource’s local partners in Turkey. In addition to his consulting work and speaking engagements throughout the US, Europe and the Middle East, he writes regular columns for Turkey’s leading financial websites VATAN and www.paraanaliz.com and has contributed to the financial daily Referans and the liberal daily Radikal.