by Yiğit Saner writing for UWI from Rome / Italy
One of the eight elections that will change the world in 2023 will take place in Türkiye. Perhaps the most prominent reason behind the international interest in the elections is undoubtedly the fact that a country of great geopolitical importance like Türkiye creates an area of influence stretching from Libya to the Caucasus. Ankara’s hyperactive foreign policy causes the international balances to change, especially in the context of the Ukraine-Russia War, Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean. The May 14 elections seem to be decisive for Türkiye to continue, change or terminate these active roles. For all these reasons, the West is eagerly awaiting what kind of path Turkish foreign policy will follow if Erdoğan continues or leaves office. Now let’s look at how the Italian press sees the elections, especially in the context of foreign policy.
According to many Western columnists, Erdoğan is approaching the biggest test for himself and his party (AKP – The Justice and Development Party) after 20 uninterrupted years in power and he is carrying on the electoral campaign for “the most important vote in the history post-Ottoman Türkiye.”
The desire to end the Erdoğan era united six opposition parties (Altılı Masa – the Table of Six) under the name of Millet İttifakı (the Nation Alliance) and after initial splits, the CHP (The Republican People’s Party) leader, 74-year-old Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was named as the presidential candidate: “The Table of Six is extremely diverse and includes parties ranging from the center-left to the nationalist and Islamist right, which have coalesced around some reforms of principle (for example: abolishing presidentialism and reducing the concentration of power in the hands of the president) and above all in the name of the last-ditch attempt to oust Erdoğan from power.”
“It is an ideologically disparate coalition united in their hatred of Erdoğan.”
On the other hand, the outcome of these elections depends on both a multitude of internal issues (such as high inflation, social injustices, refugees, the Kurdish question etc.): “The country is recovering with difficulty from the economic difficulties aggravated by the February earthquake and does not seem to have lost too much faith in Erdoğan, who immediately announced that he is personally committed to rebuilding all the collapsed houses” and external factors (Russia, Nato, Syria, East Mediterrean etc.) due to the role that Ankara intends to play regionally and globally.
Türkiye’s search for its own role
As often referred to by the West, the “ambiguous” but effective role that Türkiye has acquired in recent years has created problems above all with its traditional partners. Türkiye’s pursuit of more strategic autonomy and its policy of balance in relations with Moscow have led to increased mutual misunderstanding with the West, and in some cases, real frictions with the United States: “But it is Erdoğan’s stance on the Ukrainian conflict that worries the United States. Türkiye does not join the sanctions and continues to do business with Russia. Finally, Türkiye, together with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, intends to ask for official membership of the BRICS. Türkiye’s entry into the BRICS would mean a serious problem for NATO. It would have a military ally positioned in a strategic point on the planet, which would simultaneously be an economic and political ally of Russia and China. For all these reasons, the US urgently needs regime change in Türkiye.”
“The other highly strategic consequence would derive from the electoral promise – by the opposition coalition led by Kılıçdaroğlu – of a return to institutionalized diplomacy and a normalization of relations with NATO. This would mean changing the current “balanced policy” between NATO and Russia, through which Türkiye has created a strategic ambiguity that only benefits Moscow”, comments startmag.it.
But without a doubt this strategy has so far rewarded above all Türkiye and Erdoğan as can be read in the pages of Domani: “President Erdoğan’s ability to make himself indispensable to both sides of the conflict and to increase his regional and economic influence has led some journalists to name Türkiye the ‘unexpected winner’ of the conflict. Indeed, since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Türkiye has become a major player in the conflict. This shouldn’t be surprising. Ankara is a key regional power in the Black Sea and controls the straits that connect it to the Mediterranean. The stability of the region therefore falls within its strategic interests.”
“Furthermore, in recent decades, Türkiye has developed an increasingly intense, albeit not without criticality, relationship with Russia”. Their partnership is “often labeled a ‘marriage of convenience’ or ‘competitive cooperation’ and remains strong despite the frictions in Syria, Libya, the South Caucasus and even Ukraine (especially after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014). And the economic reasons are no less important. Ankara has decided not to sanction Putin’s regime, instead operating as a “trading platform” between sanctioned Russia and the sanctioning West.”
According to the Italian geopolitical magazine Limes, the May 14 elections should be seen as an integral part of the conflict between Washington and Moscow and that the meetings between Flake (U.S. Ambassador in Türkiye) – Kılıçdaroğlu on the one side and Lavrov (Foreign Minister of Russia) – Erdoğan on the other highlight the positioning of the two poles: “The electoral campaign for the presidential elections on May 14 in Türkiye is slowly evolving into yet another front in the war of proximity between the United States and Russia. At least in the dimension that the Anatolian deep state deems it appropriate to bring to the surface. This is clearly demonstrated by the inopportune visit made at the end of March by the American Ambassador in Ankara Jeff Flake to the headquarters of the CHP, where the envoy from Washington met with the opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. Flake therefore effectively treated him as a victor in pectore as he discussed with Erdoğan’s rival “matters of mutual interest between the two countries”. A circumstance that has led the Turkish president to formally cut ties with the representative of the superpower in his country, establishing that if Flake has the audacity to ask him for a meeting, the door will be slammed in his face.”
Daniele Santoro of Limes points out that the Turkish people’s Anti-Americanism could have a significant impact on the elections: “Turks of all backgrounds and orientations on average hold the Americans (co)responsible for the monetary crisis (in his ‘unattainable wisdom’ Trump publicly claimed the attack on the lira of August 2018), condemn its irreducibly pro-Greek approach in the vital confrontation with Athens in the Aegean and in the eastern Mediterranean, euphemistically blame the military and logistical support that Washington provides to the PKK in Syria and Iraq. Just to mention the main elements of friction between the superpower and its insubordinate Anatolian ‘ally’.”
“Speculating, the vast majority of Turks consider Russia a reliable partner. Two-thirds of Anatolian public opinion today see the historical rival as a friendly country – against 90% who perceive the United States as an enemy.”
Santoro adds that “Putin’s possible participation in the inauguration of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, a Rosatom creation, scheduled for the end of April would certainly play in Erdoğan’s favor, to remind Anatolian voters of the repercussions in terms of well-being of Turkish-Russian cooperation which the (Turkish) president was the protagonist.”
And just recently, the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, during a press conference, let journalists know that Moscow expects multiple contacts between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in view of the presidential elections in March 2024 in Russia: “We expect there will be more contacts (with Erdoğan) before the presidential elections in Russia.”
However, according to some commentators, the “unsustainable neutrality” of Erdoğan’s Türkiye will be less and less sustainable in the long run. Western pressures will be felt stronger and growing internal challenges such as the May 14 elections could in fact lead to a change in the Turkish position.
And they rightly wonder in the event of a change of power in Türkiye, will the new Turkish leaders be able to make an abrupt change of course: “What would happen to the circumvention of Western sanctions against Russia through industrial operations in the Turkish petrochemical sector? Will Turkish forces participate in NATO defensive operations on its eastern flank, from Estonia to Romania? Would they end the presence of Russian S400 missiles on Turkish territory, installed in July 2019 at the expense of the Atlantic Alliance’s missile defense? These are very delicate issues, but also hopeful at a time when the strategic balance of the European continent is at stake.
Will the new Turkish leaders be able to withstand the inevitable Russian pressure in these different playing areas? Especially since Moscow could activate the pressure tactics carefully implemented during the Erdoğan era: Gas sales with the TurkStream pipeline, the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, Russian tourism or even agricultural purchases.”
Refugees and Syria
Another issue that Europe is following closely is what will happen to Syrian refugees in Türkiye after the elections. The migration issue, in addition to highlighting all the European contradictions, constitutes one of the greatest weaknesses of the Union which has de facto subcontracted the control of a part of its borders to Türkiye, providing it with a lever of influence and pressure: “The last decade has seen an unprecedented surge in arrivals of people fleeing the war in Syria. Millions remained in Türkiye. Some polls show that as the number of foreigners has increased, so has anti-migrant sentiment. This means that immigration issues are a hot electoral topic, which could also have implications for the European Union. The oppositional Nation Alliance hopes to win votes by pledging to send two million Syrians home within two years. According to official data, Türkiye is hosting 3,447,837 Syrian refugees in March 2023. The opposition, in the first place, wants to try to make peace with its neighbors and ‘sit at the table’ with the Syrian government.”
“The possible new Turkish leadership would have as its objectives both the will to reconcile with the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and to bring Syrian refugees back to their homeland, after the billion-dollar agreement with the EU in 2016. A first consequence would be greater difficulty for the alliance since the presence of US and allied forces in and around Syria would be contested. But at the same time Ankara would receive quite a few pressures from Damascus and Moscow to withdraw its forces from the four areas in which they are currently deployed: Idlib, Afrin, Jarabulus and the area between Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ain.”, writes formiche.net.
“President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had received harsh criticism for his migration policy (from his own supporters). Last year he reiterated that his government was working on a program for the voluntary repatriation of one million Syrians. Shortly thereafter, he said, ‘We will never expel them from this land. Our door is wide open to them. We will continue to host them. We will not throw them into the lap of murderers’. Five months before the election, Erdoğan announced that more than half a million Syrians had chosen to return home, saying voluntary returns were accelerating.”, says euronews.
It should be noted that in recent months the current Turkish government “has shown an interest in normalizing relations with Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, which have seriously deteriorated with the outbreak of the Syrian conflict. After months of intense diplomatic work and mediation by Russia, the defense ministers of Syria and Türkiye officially met in Moscow, breaking a decade of diplomatic silence.”
“And the return of Syrian refugees. Such initiatives would inevitably complicate the fight of Western forces against the Islamic State forces in east-central Syria. Furthermore, a policy of systematic return of Syrian refugees to their country, in the absence of an internationally agreed legal framework, would pose a serious risk to their safety and the exercise of their rights. It would be necessary to manage a complex web of political, military and humanitarian differences.”
Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean
May 2023 will be election month not only for Türkiye but also for Greece. Although politicians on both sides have made it a tradition to provoke each other during every election campaign, some friction that hasn’t occurred in many years has resurfaced in recent months. Apart from the by now classic and unresolved issues, the continuous arming of the Aegean islands by the Greek side, a large number of US bases built on Greek territory and the F-35 issue show that this time the tension will not be limited to the electoral process: “F-35 and the bases, so the US is betting everything on Greece.”
“In the space of a few weeks, a sequence of elections in Türkiye and Greece could redraw the balance across the Eastern Mediterranean. What most worries Western observers is above all the fact that these close electoral deadlines (in Türkiye on 14 May and in Greece on 21 May) are bringing the relationship between these countries, already traditionally complex and conflictual, to a level of intensity that not seen in decades. Ending up also involving the EU, Libya, Egypt, Israel, refugee management, exploration for energy resources in the Mediterranean and other potentially explosive situations.”
“The main problem concerns the effect of the islands on the maritime boundaries: for Athens it must be 100% even if they are close to the Turkish coast; for Ankara it should be reduced to the full benefit of the equidistance between the continental coasts of the two countries. The question of the extension of territorial waters is also relevant: Greece has been declaring for years that it has the right to extend them from 6 to 12 miles. The Turkish Parliament in 1996 decided to consider such a decision a casus belli since a large part of the Aegean would pass under Greek sovereignty, effectively restricting the freedom of navigation.”
“If an open conflict between two NATO member countries appears extremely unlikely, invasions of airspace and close encounters by naval units in the Aegean Sea and in the Libyan Sea are now the order of the day. The main reason for the dispute, in fact, has to do with the sovereignty of maritime spaces. In the case of the Aegean Sea, for the Greek bill on the extension of territorial waters from 6 to 12 miles. A move which, due to the proximity of many Greek islands to the Turkish mainland, would effectively cut off large Turkish territories from direct access to international waters. Consequently, Türkiye opposes this extension, even demanding the demilitarization of the Greek islands, foreseen by various international treaties but never implemented.”
Ironically, Türkiye and Greece will not only go to elections in the same period but have both been affected by two catastrophic events, an earthquake and a railway disaster, which could inevitably have possible electoral repercussions.
A little further east, on the island of Cyprus and in the surrounding waters, tensions are growing between the interests of the West and those of Türkiye. Although there has been no significant conflict since the Turkish Army operation in 1974, natural gas resources discovered in the Eastern Mediterranean have turned the Republic of Cyprus and its allies against Türkiye: “Preventing the exploitation of energy resources by the Republic of Cyprus serves several purposes of Turkish policy: first of all, preventing an enemy country from accessing further energy resources while obtaining access to various deposits both for itself and for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. More strategically, if Cyprus could exploit its gas reserves without problems, it would guarantee the European Union an easy point of supply for its energy needs within the Union space, above all in view of the need to free itself from Russian gas. This would reduce the importance of the Turkish project to establish a hub for gas from Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia.”
Whatever the outcome of the elections, the Cyprus problem appears to remain unresolved between the Western Bloc and Türkiye, as pointed out by Marc Pierini, former EU ambassador to Türkiye: “Even more controversial would be the handling of the Cypriot question. Indeed, the status of the Turkish Cypriot community is a consensual issue in Türkiye. No agreement has so far been reached on the internal balance between the Greek and Turkish communities in Cyprus or on their rights relating to potential natural resources in the island’s territorial waters, and greater flexibility on these issues cannot be expected after the eventual arrival of a new president in Türkiye.”
Ankara’s hyperactive foreign policy brought with it many political and economic gains, but at the same time, it inevitably increased its expenditures and caused it to enter into a fierce competition with some states. During this process, Türkiye has turned its face to a previously almost ignored geography that stretches from Africa to Central Asia. In this context, Ankara’s adoption of an increasingly autonomous foreign policy has caused frictions with its traditional allies. Due to the deteriorating economic conditions and the instability created by the extreme political polarization both at home and abroad, the question arises whether Türkiye can continue to fight on multiple fronts, regardless of the election results.
“If the opposition candidate wins, Western leaders will face huge consequences. Ankara will move promptly to normalize its relations with NATO. But some of the current differences, for example on Cyprus and Syria, will not go away. On the positive side, the rule of law will be restored and relations with the EU will improve, if not eased.”
We will see together which path Ankara will follow after the elections, but apart from everything, considering that the international system and regional order have significantly changed during the AKP’s twenty years in power, it would be unrealistic to think that Türkiye can completely return to the pre-Erdoğan era in foreign policy, especially when the country’s regional interests are so obvious.