Editor’s Note: A version of this story appears in CNN’s Meanwhile in the Middle East newsletter, a three-times-a-week look inside the region’s biggest stories. Sign up here.
At the height of election campaigning and just three weeks before polls were set to open, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin inaugurated Turkey’s first nuclear plant in a virtual ceremony, in a move that further tethered the two Black Sea neighbors.
The event last month saw the inaugural nuclear fuel delivery at the Akkuyu plant in Mersin province, which is the first in the world to be built, owned and operated by one company – that is Russia’s state atomic energy company Rosatom.
With that, Turkey extended its energy dependence on Moscow at a time when its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies were reducing such links to deprive Russia of leverage against them. It entrenched Moscow’s presence in Turkey for the long term just as Erdogan was set to head into an election that some polls predict could push him out of power.
The strengthening ties between Erdogan and Putin have caused jitters in the West, with some watching the upcoming elections with anticipation of a possible Erdogan exit.
The Turkish strongman knows this. When the US Ambassador to Ankara Jeff Flake paid a visit in March to Erdogan’s main electoral rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, Erdogan lashed out against him, calling the US diplomat’s visit a “shame,” and warning that Turkey needs to “teach the US a lesson in this election.”
Polls suggest a tight race between Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu, with the likelihood of the May 14 election going into a second ballot if no candidate wins a majority vote.
But analysts have said that even if Erdogan is ousted in the polls, a foreign policy u-turn for Turkey is not a given. While figures close to the opposition have indicated that if victorious, it would reorient Turkey back to the West, others say core foreign policy issues are likely to remain unchanged.
Over the past two decades, Erdogan’s Turkey has repositioned itself from a staunchly secular, Western-oriented nation to a more conservative, religiously oriented one. A NATO member that has the alliance’s second-largest army, it has strengthened its ties with Russia, and in 2019 even bought weapons from it in defiance of the US. Erdogan has raised eyebrows in the West by continuing to maintain close ties with Russia as it continues its Ukraine onslaught, and has caused a headache for NATO’s expansion plans by stalling the membership of Finland and Sweden.
Turkey has, however, also been useful to its Western allies under Erdogan. Last year Ankara helped mediate a landmark grains export deal between Ukraine and Russia, and even provided Ukraine with drones that played a part in countering Russian attacks.
“I think there are areas where we will see radical change if the opposition wins, and many of our colleagues and European diplomats in Ankara are asking to what extent Turkey will pivot back to its Western allies,” said Onur Isci, an assistant professor of international relations at Bilkent University in Ankara, noting that if the opposition wins, the first thing it will do is mend fences with the West.
Limits to Turkey’s pivot to the West
But even if relations with the West are repaired, there will be limits to Turkey’s pivot back to the West, he said, given how deeply intertwined Turkish and Russian economies have become, especially as regards energy.
Much of Erdogan’s foreign policy has been driven by economic considerations, Isci said. And that is likely to continue into the next government.
Turkey is a key trading partner for Russia, as well as a hub for thousands of Russians who fled after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, pouring money into real estate and other sectors.
Trade between the two has been on the rise, and last month Putin said that Russia was keen on deepening its economic ties with Ankara, noting that bilateral trade surpassed $62 billion as of 2022, according to the Russian state news agency TASS. That makes Russia among Turkey’s biggest trade partners.
The European Union, as a bloc, however remains Turkey’s largest trade partner, with bilateral trade reaching around $219 billion, according to the European Commission. Meanwhile, trade with the US stood at approximately $33.8 billion in 2022, according to the US Census Bureau.
Russia’s geographical proximity to Turkey, as well as its economic interests in Ankara, will probably mean that a different leader to Erdogan would still maintain good relations with Russia, while firmly anchoring Turkey within its Western democratic alliances, Murat Somer, a political science professor at Koc University in Istanbul, told CNN.
“In terms of the country’s outlook, it very much will be oriented towards the democratic West,” said Somer, noting that this would not mean a complete end to disagreements with Western countries.
After several delays, Turkey this year allowed Finland to finally join NATO, but it continues to stand in the way of Sweden’s membership, saying it houses Kurdish “terrorist organizations,” referring to the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist group by Turkey, the US and the EU.
Issues over Sweden’s accession may, however, be resolved with or without Erdogan.
“It’s highly likely that no matter who wins the elections, Ankara will ratify Sweden’s membership later in 2023, after the new anti-terror legislation comes into force in Sweden,” Nigar Goksel, Turkey Director at International Crisis Group, told CNN.
The opposition has been keen to note that “constructive steps to eliminate Turkey’s security concerns” are essential if Sweden’s membership is to be approved.
But while relations with the EU might improve if the opposition wins, the road may be longer and more challenging with the US, experts say.
“When we mention Turkey’s relationship with the West… we sometimes take both ends of the Atlantic (as one),” Isci said. “Turkey’s relationship with the US has hit a dead end, and has been going downhill for a very long time.”
Whether Erdogan or the opposition wins, he said, Turkey will try to “disentangle its relationship with the US and the EU,” given Ankara’s reliance on its European trading partners.
Additional reporting by CNN’s Elizabeth Wells