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How Turkey’s presidential runoff may affect balancing act between Russia and the West

by Alexander Khrebet May 26, 2023 9:04 PM 6 min read
People walk by an election campaign poster for Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on May 25 in Istanbul. (Getty Images)
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Russia and Ukraine are paying close attention to Turkey's presidential runoff scheduled for May 28.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan fell short of a simple majority in the first round, with 49.5% of the vote. His main challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, trailed with 44.8%. The third most popular candidate, Sinan Ogan, who got most of the leftover votes, endorsed the president.

Polls project that Erdogan is likely to stay in power. The alliance between his party, AKP, and the nationalist MHP party, already secured 322 seats in the 600-seat parliament.

Turkey, a NATO member that has good relations with Russia, has maintained a balancing act between the two geopolitical sides. Turkey's position in the middle has allowed it to serve as a mediator between Ukraine and Russia.

Analysts expect this balancing act to continue. Regardless of the election outcome, they believe that Turkey will maintain its cautious support of Ukraine while trying not to alienate the Kremlin.

"All the decisions that have already been made, whether it's a drone manufacturing plant or other joint projects with Ukraine, will proceed," said Yevgeniya Gaber, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Turkey.

However, if an Erdogan victory spooks Western investors and Turkey's economic crisis continues, Ankara may seek to rely on Russian economic support.

Kilicdaroglu sought to present himself as less dependent on Moscow. In his campaign, he told voters that they should vote for Erdogan if they want to leave Turkey in Russia's hands and promised to join the international sanctions regime against Russia.

But it's unlikely that he would actually do so, according to Sinem Adar, a Turkish Studies expert with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

What the election outcome could affect is Ukraine's ability to export grain through the Black Sea and Russia's ability to evade Western sanctions through Turkish companies.

Grain Deal

Turkey's aid was instrumental in forging the July 2022 deal that allowed Ukraine to export grain through the Black Sea. The latest extension to this agreement was set to expire on May 18, four days after the first round of the Turkish elections.

The Kremlin probably chose the date deliberately to adjust its strategy based on the Turkish frontrunner, Gaber believes.

"If Erdogan wins in the second round, the deal will be preserved. If Kilicdaroglu wins, Russia will try to disrupt these agreements and renegotiate on new, more favorable terms," Gaber said. "Any loosening of Turkey's grip allows Russia to undermine the grain corridors."

"Russia agreed to extend the grain deal, albeit in a significantly reduced form, after it became clear that Erdogan has a strong enough position to win the runoff," she added.

Adar expects that if Kilicdaroglu wins, his government will also try to extend the grain deal.

"I'm sure Russia will try (to win more preferences within the deal). Whether it is successful or not is a completely different story," he said,

To agree to another extension, Russia wanted the removal of what it calls obstacles to its fertilizer exports. There are no Western sanctions on Russian food and fertilizers, but Moscow claims that the sanctions on its banks affect the export of these goods.

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Kilicdaroglu without a plan

After the May 14 general elections, there was some discord in the opposition bloc, whose members blamed each other for underperforming.

Experts said Kilicdaroglu's lack of a concrete plan on several key issues, including foreign policy, rendered Kilicdaroglu vulnerable.

"Turkish voters always prefer stability. There are more chances that people will want parliamentary and presidential power to be in one hand to avoid a political crisis," Gaber said.

Seeking to pull ahead, Kilicdaroglu adopted the anti-migrant rhetoric of the nationalist candidate, Ogan.

As of January 2023, there are over 3.5 million registered Syrian refugees in Turkey, which hosts one of the biggest refugee populations in the world. In addition, about 100,000 Syrian nationals reside in Turkey with a residence permit, according to the government.

"This was done to win over his nationalist, anti-immigration voters. But it looked like a clear attempt to parrot those slogans that the electorate responds well to," Gaber said.

Adar said that in the campaign's initial phase, Kilicdaroglu skillfully employed a unifying and non-confrontational language to attract voters across the ideological spectrum, ranging from conservatives and Kurds to liberals.

"But the tone of the campaign changed significantly to much more confrontational," Adar said — the opposition camp didn't expect to lose in the first round.

Ogan, now cast as kingmaker, supported Erdogan on May 22. "This does not mean that his 5% of the vote will automatically support Erdogan. But this is another nail in the hope of the opposition," Gaber said.

Erdogan maintains his grip on power in spite of Turkey's crumbling economy, unstable currency, soaring inflation, and woeful response to catastrophic earthquakes that killed 50,000 and caused an estimated $34.2 billion in damage in February.

Economy shapes approach

Turkey's economic woes might cause Erdogan to soften his anti-Western rhetoric in the short term to court investors. But Adar said he doesn't expect the incumbent government's confrontational attitude to change all that much.

"Under Erdogan, the Turkish geopolitical view will be the same: 'The West is in decline, and Asia is rising,'" Adar said.

Many Western investors seem like they would prefer an opposition victory. After the first round of the election, the Turkish lira declined in value, and Western investors' confidence appeared to waver, putting their return to the Turkish market in doubt.

As a result, a victorious Erdogan may have to rely on Russian economic support.

"It makes no sense for Erdogan to escalate his rhetoric towards Russia. Moscow's financial and energy support will remain important. This is a working construct of built-in relations with Putin. I see no reason why Erdogan would risk relations with Russia," Gaber said.

However, Erdogan does see Russia as a threat in the Black Sea region, where Turkey is trying to maintain its primacy, experts said. Ankara would continue to have a foot inside NATO, which Erdogan sees as an important source of leverage against the Kremlin.

Experts agree that this 'balancing act' would not exclude Ukraine, regardless of the election outcome, due to its ties with Turkey.

Trade between the two countries has increased to more than $7 billion in 2021, with Ukraine's share of exports worth $4.12 billion. Ukraine and Turkey have been working together for over a decade and are increasingly cooperating on defense.

Under an agreement signed between Ankara and Kyiv shortly before Russia unleashed its full-scale invasion in late February last year, Turkish defense company Baykar agreed to build its second manufacturing plant in Ukraine. It is scheduled to be done in the fall of 2024.

Turkish Bayraktar TB-2 drones played an important role for Ukraine in early 2022 when the West was hesitant to provide serious arms to Kyiv.

The drone manufacturer uses Ukrainian engines for Akinci drones and the unmanned fighter jet Kizilelma.

The order book worth around $1 billion in export revenues in 2022 is expected to be about 50% higher in 2023, according to Haluk Bayraktar, Baykar's CEO.

On the other hand, Turkish companies have reportedly helped Russia dodge Western sanctions.

"Under the opposition-led government, Turkey will not help Russia circumvent sanctions, which would be a significant difference (between Ergodan and Kilicdaroglu)," Adar said.

However, it's Erdogan who is set to win.

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Note from the author:


I'm Alexander Khrebet, and I appreciate your time dedicated to reading this article. As the Kyiv Independent strives to bring you crucial updates from the region, including the upcoming Turkish presidential runoff, your support is an essential foundation that keeps our team delivering quality journalism.

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