Turkey’s Foreign Policy in the Context of the Presidential Elections: Should We Expect Changes?

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A distinctive feature of Turkey’s foreign policy is its duality — the desire to maintain a high level of relations with Russia and to join the community of countries which are often called the ‘collective West’ and determine the global agenda.

Ankara’s ability to maintain mutually beneficial relations with Russia is facilitated by the significant volume of bilateral trade. By the end of 2022, the trade growth amounted to almost 50 billion dollars, making Turkey one of Russia’s top three trading partners. Energy remains the cornerstone of Russian-Turkish cooperation. The creation of a large gas hub in Turkey is being actively discussed, which will allow the redirecting of the volumes of non-functioning Nord Streams to Europe, bypassing Ukraine and, in the future, the creation of an international platform for gas trading. The construction of a nuclear power plant and potential cooperation in the field of nuclear energy, which is considered by Turkish experts to be the starting-off point of further energy development, are in the basket of Russian-Turkish relations.

Following the start of the Special Military Operation, Turkey demonstrated a responsible approach to security in the Black Sea region; it closed the Black Sea straits to all warships.

At the same time, Turkey continues to officially declare its strategic course towards joining the EU. NATO remains a powerful instrument of Turkish influence in the West. Until recently, the Turkish economy and industry had been successfully modernised and integrated into the production chains of global corporations and global markets. Successful economic development has allowed Turkey to become an influential regional power, which often draws on rich historical experience, declares its global ambitions, and forms a positive image of the country abroad. In the context of the global crisis, its failure to join the EU and difficult relations with the United States and a number of European countries, the Turkish political leadership is actively seizing leadership in the Muslim world. It demonstrates the image of an Islamic country and adheres to traditional values, yet has successfully modernized its economy and institutions by making them more Western. Of strategic importance are the appeals of Recep Tayyip Erdogan to build a more equitable system of world relations and the Turkic integration project within the Organization of Turkic States, which has an extensive political and economic horizon.

On May 14, parliamentary and presidential elections will take place in the Republic of Turkey. They will determine the face of the Turkish political system for the next five years.

The main struggle is between two major political blocs: the ruling Republican Alliance (Cumhur İttifakı) and the Nation Alliance (Millet İttifakı).

At the core of the Republican Alliance are the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which makes use of the slogans of Turkish nationalism. The powerful bloc of Turkish nationalists and moderate Islamists is joined by the Great Unity Party, which has relatively little support; it looks to synthesis of Turkic nationalism and moderate Islamism, and the Welfare Party operating with the ideas of Islamic socialism. The non-bloc Hür Dava party, which unites the Islamised wing of the Kurdish political movement, also declared support for the Republican Alliance. All these political forces share Erdogan’s ideals and values, which are based on the ideas of Turkish nationalism, as well as on the traditional Muslim approach to the economy and government.

The People’s Alliance is built around the centre-right Republican People’s Party and the Good Party (an ideological rival of the AKP). They are joined by the smaller Party of Happiness (according to its ideological base, it is a competitor to the Great Unity Party), the Democratic Party (which upholds liberal democratic values), the Party of Democracy and Initiatives (its founder, a former prominent functionary of the AKP, Ali Babacan, adheres to liberal views regarding the economy and was a supporter of keeping Turkey a parliamentary republic), the Party of the Future, headed by the former Minister of Foreign Affairs and layer Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu. The Peoples’ Democracy Party, which expresses the interests of Kurdish political activists who advocate political freedoms and the rights of various minorities, also intends to provide support to the bloc.

Thus, the pro-government alliance is supported by forces associated with Turkish nationalists (sometimes quite radical) and supporters of strengthening the religious factor in politics and the economy, supporting the foreign policy of President Erdogan.

The opposition bloc is an alliance of heterogeneous forces dominated by supporters of Turkish nationalism, secular government and, at the same time, moderate Islamism, who support the parliamentary model of development of the Turkish state and liberal economic reforms.

In the context of the tough domestic political struggle that is being waged on the eve of the parliamentary and presidential elections in May, the foreign policy approaches of both blocs have become an important factor in domestic policy and are actively used by all competing parties. Any action or statement by Erdogan or members of his team cause immediate criticism from representatives of the opposition bloc (and vice versa). Erdogan’s supporters and his opponents are both using the ‘Russian factor’ in their election campaign. So, Erdogan stated that as long as he rules Turkey, the West will not be able to draw his country into a military-political confrontation with Russia. At the same time, in an interview, opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroglu made it clear that the course towards Russia will not change, and his goal on the Russian track is to strengthen and develop bilateral relations and strengthen trust between the two countries.

In fact, both opposing blocs are in favour of a strong and independent Turkey. Erdogan and his team see their country as a powerful, independent international player, capable of taking unexpected steps in foreign policy and the economy, as tough and often contradicting international norms and rules, and as defending national interests along the perimeter of the national borders and beyond.

At the same time, the joint declaration of the opposition bloc, published on January 30 this year, contains a common vision of correcting the country’s foreign policy if the opposition comes to power. The opposition is going to build a new foreign policy based on the primacy of institutions over the personal diplomacy of the head of the Turkish state. It is precisely for the impulsive and largely personal predilections and interests of foreign policy and its staffing that Erdogan and his government are being heavily criticized.

In a veiled form, the foreign policy programme of the opposition recognizes as erroneous the political course of recent years, which was marked by participation in the conflicts in Libya, Syria and Palestine. A course is proclaimed to renounce interference in the affairs of neighbouring states, respect for their territorial integrity and sovereignty, and resolve conflict issues through dialogue and negotiations. The opposition states that in foreign policy there will be a rejection of ideological approaches based on domestic political calculations. This may be the first step towards the beginning of a political settlement with Syria.

A strategic course is being declared towards joining the EU, which, however, must be carried out on the basis of dialogue, justice and equality. On the issue of refugees, the opposition is ready to share the “common burden of responsibility” with the EU and revise the migration agreements of 2014 and 2016 with Brussels. The opposition is ready to revise the policy towards forced migrants, who have become a major socio-political problem for Turkey.

At the same time, there are promises to continue NATO membership “on the basis of a rational approach that would reflect Turkey’s national interests.”

The opposition has declared its desire to preserve relations with the United States “on an equal basis”, as well as the desire to develop allied relations with the United States, based on mutual trust. The opposition is ready to return to the discussion of participation in the deal for the sale of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey. Thus, the opposition recognizes a crisis of mutual trust with the United States and hints at a possible reset of Turkish-American relations.

The opposition seeks to develop relations with Russia on an equal footing, strengthening a constructive and balanced dialogue. Thus, the opposition does not want to break off profitable trade and economic ties with Russia, continuing cooperation on a whole range of common trade, economic and political issues.

In relation to the largest external national and international actors with which Turkey interacts, the words “equality” and “equal” are repeatedly used. This may indicate the desire of the opposition to maintain neutrality in conditions of instability on the basis of the balance of power and the interests of large regional players; that is customary for the Turks.

If the government of Erdogan sought to assert Turkish influence in conflict zones near the Turkish borders, then the policy of the opposition, if it wins, will, at least in the early stages, be more cautious and balanced. The opposition’s programme reflects the views of that part of Turkish society that at a time of a global crisis demands a focus on the country’s internal problems: a significant number of illegal migrants, high unemployment, rising inflation, establishing peace along the perimeter of the Turkish maritime and land borders and keeping the country away from risky foreign policy projects. Such a political line partly echoes the policy of “zero problems with neighbours”, which was once proclaimed and its implementation was attempted by Davutoglu, who is now in the leadership of the opposition bloc. However, later it was under him that Turkish foreign policy was radicalized significantly. This raises doubts that the opposition will be able to integrate Turkey’s new foreign policy into the indicated contours of the balance between its largest foreign policy partners.

One of the changes in the foreign policy that the opposition is talking about is the transition from relations between leaders to relations between institutions. The Turkish opposition would like to move from a model of foreign policy in which the personal interests of the first person are decisive, to a model in which foreign policy will be more institutionalised and will more clearly correspond to the spirit and letter of those international obligations that Turkey has assumed or is ready to take.

It should be noted that the personal factor has always played an important role in Russian-Turkish relations. At the same time, the presence of institutions made it possible to stabilise Russian-Turkish relations in times of crisis. The institutions for the development of Russian-Turkish relations have been inscribed into the structure of bilateral relations since 2010. Regardless of who wins the elections, it is important to maintain a high level of Russian-Turkish relations and to revise those institutions that contribute to the development of Russian-Turkish relations.

Valdai Discussion Club
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