Turkey’s International Dilemma

Senem Aydın-Düzgit

4 mins - 12 de Mayo de 2023, 07:05

Turkey takes to the polls on Sunday. The elections come at a decisive moment for the fate of Turkey’s democracy, economy, and society in the coming years. After countless defeats over more than two decades, the opposition has finally united against President Erdogan. Polls point to a narrow victory of the opposition for the presidency. As for parliament, it seems highly likely that neither the opposition nor the ruling bloc will win a majority of seats. And in the face of these far-from-ordinary elections, one question that is of global concern is the foreign policy implications of these electoral results. What kind of foreign policy can be expected from the opposition coalition if it comes to power? Should Erdogan win, would this mean more of the same in Turkish foreign policy?

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Turkish foreign policy is entirely likely to undergo changes on multiple fronts if the opposition wins. As for relations with the EU, the opposition’s first steps will be geared towards building mutual trust in a relationship that has largely eroded over the past decade. As such, there will be no immediate push to revitalise EU accession talks or the stalemate that already exists on EU enlargement policy. Most likely, talks will be opened on the modernisation of the EU-Turkey customs union and the necessary changes will be made to the Turkish Penal Code, key for proceeding with visa liberalisation. A thorny issue could be the EU-Turkey migration agreement. The Turkish opposition has expressed its dissatisfaction with the agreement and vowed to renegotiate with the EU. The opposition presidential candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, has explicitly stated that he will ask the EU for financial assistance for the large-scale return of Syrian refugees and will declare the agreement null and void if the EU fails to do so. As for relations between Turkey and the greater Western alliance, the opposition promises to restore Turkey’s much eroded position in NATO by seeking a more transparent and credible balance between Russia and the West. The opposition is expected to approve Sweden’s NATO membership, commit Turkey to return to the F-35 programme, and close the file in the case of the S-400s. The shift would also mean a less belligerent tone with respect to foreign policy in the Eastern Mediterranean, whereby it opposes the government’s proposed two-state solution in Cyprus and underlines its openness to multilateral negotiations. It is also likely to continue the government’s normalisation efforts with other countries in the eastern Mediterranean and beyond, such as Syria, Egypt, and Israel.

Turkey’s economic woes, coupled with its heavy dependence on Russian oil and gas, mean that the country continues to refrain from adopting Western sanctions against Russia. However, the opposition’s commitment to change the direction of Turkish foreign policy from an extremely centralised, personalised policy to one that is more transparent and more inclusive of state institutions and society at large would imply a much narrower space for Russian government intrusion than at present. It is not surprising, then, that President Putin is openly supporting an Erdogan victory, as evidenced by Russia’s decision to postpone gas payments to Turkey until 2024.

Thus, in the event of a ruling coalition victory, Russian power and influence over Turkey will almost certainly increase. Turkey’s purely transactional approach to foreign policy, aimed primarily at securing the regime’s security and facilitating its survival, will continue. Its strained relationship with the EU will persist, with no progress towards constructive engagement. Turkey will approve Sweden’s NATO membership in the medium term, yes, but its credibility in NATO will not improve. Tensions in the eastern Mediterranean with Cyprus and Greece will not ease and may even worsen with Turkey pushing for a two-state solution on the island. The government’s attempts to normalise relations with Syria and other eastern Mediterranean partners are expected to continue, as normalisation of relations with Syria could also facilitate the return of some Syrian refugees back to Syria. I am in a position to assure that a Turkey that continues to be ruled by the AKP and its far-right coalition partners will mean more of the same for the country’s foreign policy and certainly for its troubled relationship with its Western allies. We soon will know which direction the country will take.
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