Turkey: Historic Elections Behind and Historic Choices Ahead

Turkey gained its 13th president today, May 29, the day of the 570th anniversary of the Ottoman Empire. In the second round of the presidential election, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan scored a hard-fought victory over his opponent Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, with just over 52 percent. A similar scenario of Erdoğan’s success was noted in expert assessments.

Thus, the leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) extended his rule for another five years, which is a historical record for republican Turkey in terms of uninterrupted rule for a quarter of a century. Erdoğan will apparently equal Sultan Osman Ghazi in terms of his period of rule and will be surpassed only by nine sultans (Orhan I, Murad I, Mehmed Fatih, Bayazid II, Süleyman I Qanuni, Mehmed IV, Ahmed III, Mahmud II and Abdul-Hamid II).

Many experts and politicians have called the 2023 presidential election historic for several reasons. Firstly, Turkey has not yet had such a case of presidential election in two rounds in its political practice. Secondly, Turkey has never seen such intensity of political (I would say foreign policy) confrontation between the main candidates from the government and the opposition. Thirdly, Anatolia has also not seen an almost proportional split in society between pro-Western secularists and pro-Islamist nationalists. Fourthly, Ankara has no memory of relevant attention to, and, in a sense, interference in, the Turkish elections by key outside forces. Fifthly, the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2023 showed the high achievements of the Turkish democracy where the government and opposition did not overstep the limits of what was allowed according to the legislation and the Islamic morals. Sixthly, the elections took place on the eve of the important historical dates in the fate of Turkey – the 570th anniversary of the Ottoman Empire and the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Turkey. Seventh, Turkey’s subsequent geopolitical fate also depends on the outcome of the 2023 elections. All of this allows us to consider the past elections as historic.

At the same time, Turkey has made significant achievements in economic development (especially in the military-industrial complex) and foreign policy under the rule of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Although Erdoğan’s economic success in the last two years was called into question due to the growing financial crisis and devaluation of the Turkish lira and the tragic consequences of the February earthquake further aggravated the social and economic situation in Turkey, the Turkish society can’t but see the striking changes in Ankara’s foreign policy. This includes Erdoğan’s foreign economic success in implementing a series of energy transport systems from Azerbaijan and Russia to Turkey and further to Europe, the construction of Turkey’s first ever Akkuyu nuclear power plant and a major international gas hub project thanks to Russia’s goodwill. There are also Erdoğan’s military and political successes in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh. Furthermore, there is a progress in Turkic integration with Azerbaijan and Central Asian countries.

Many of President Erdoğan’s supporters inside and outside Turkey (especially in Russia, Iran and China) consider his main historical achievement to be strengthening Turkey’s independence and autonomy (above all, in regard to the dictate of the United States). And vice versa, opponents of President Erdoğan inside and outside of Turkey (especially in the United States and other NATO countries) accuse the Turkish leader of excessively engaging in rhetoric and independence policy, weakening the former allied relations with the United States, NATO and the EU as well as strengthening mutually beneficial relations with Russia and China.

Meanwhile, paradoxically, the USA, Russia, China and Iran, in spite of their interstate contradictions, can be united with respect to Turkey as a whole in excluding the implementation of Neo-Ottomanism and Neo-Panturanism strategy in the form of creation (or revival) of a new Turkish empire called Turan with the geographical integration of Turkey and post-Soviet Turkic world. However, each of these four countries believes that it will be able to use this Turkish threat against the others, or overcome it on its own.

In particular, the Anglo-Saxons hope to turn the Turkish revanchism against the interests of Russia, Iran and China, to create through Turan a so-called dividing (or middle) corridor between Russia, on the one hand, and Iran and China, on the other (and to use Turkic nationalism called “pan-Turkism” to undermine Russia, the IRI and the PRC in the future). Russia, in turn, hopes to use the strategy of Neo-Ottomanism and Neo-Panturanism of Turkey as a partner to establish a multipolar world structure, where Turkey controls the Turkic world and pole (and in the future lead to Turkey’s withdrawal from NATO). Iran assumes that Turkey’s fascination with Neo-Panturanism will lead to a weakening of US and NATO influence on Turkish politics, giving Tehran an advantage in equal competition with Ankara. China, apparently without publicly opposing such a strategy of Turkey, still establishes its economic dominance over the Turkic countries of Central Asia and plans to make Turkey dependent on Chinese investments, which will neutralize the Turkish ambitions regarding East Turkestan (Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region).

The author of the Neo-Ottomanism strategy is known to be former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, whose political paths with Erdoğan diverged after the downing of the Russian Sukhoi Su-24 bomber in the skies over Syria in 2015.

Davutoğlu suggests building on the entire historical strength of the Turkish nation since the 15th century. In other words, the author of “Strategic Depth – The Present Situation of Turkey” has come up with the ambitious idea of abandoning the republican strategy of Kemalism and returning to Turkish neo-imperialism. According to Ahmet Davutoğlu, any state is guided in its foreign policy aspirations by: first, the geostrategic position of the country; second, the historical heritage (this is the “strategic depth”); third, the charismatic leader who can maneuver between different centers of power and push through his interests and goals.

The return of Turkey to the “Ottoman world” with a projection to 70 countries has been the line of the new Turkish diplomacy since 2009 (that is, since the date of Ahmet Davutoğlu’s appointment as Turkish Foreign Minister). However, the principle of “zero problems with neighbors,” which used to be part of the former Ottoman Empire, for some reason turned into “zero neighbors without problems.”

Former US President Bill Clinton expressed his interest in the causes of these Turkey’s aspirations at a meeting with Davutoğlu (then foreign minister of Turkey). Davutoglu’s response is symptomatic: “Draw on the map a circle with a diameter of 1000 km around Turkey – 20 countries will fall into it, in case of a circle with a 3000-km diameter, 70 countries will fall into it. And how many countries will be within such a circle around the US? Turkey will be interested in its surroundings.”

However, after the “November 2015 crisis” in Turkish-Russian relations, his resignation as prime minister in May 2016 and his departure from the ruling AKP in September 2019, Ahmet Davutoğlu eventually went into opposition to President Recep Erdoğan. In December 2019, he created the Party of the Future and allied himself with the Kemalists in the last elections.

In other words, the author of the Neo-Ottomanism strategy moderated Turkey’s imperial revanchism and advocated a strategic alliance with the United States, NATO and the EU. Hence, neo-Ottomanism and Neo-Panturanism are under the control of the West. It is no coincidence that Davutoğlu joined the People’s Alliance and supported Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP), in the elections.

But today, Kılıçdaroğlu lost the election, and Erdoğan’s opposition bet on the United States and European integration has failed. The AKP and its partners in the People’s Alliance bloc may have to draw conclusions, reflect on the mistakes made, and change their leader (it has already been noted that Kılıçdaroğlu could be replaced as head of the party by Imamoğlu). However, this is a matter for the future, and time is not standing still.

Erdoğan’s victory means a new historic choice for Turkey in favor of strengthening its independence from the dictates of the United States and the West as a whole, developing beneficial cooperation with Russia and China, and moving away from Kemalism in the direction of Neo-Panturanism.

Andrei Baklanov, Deputy Chairman of the Association of Russian Diplomats and Professor at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, believes that President Recep Erdoğan should highly appreciate the position of Russia (its President Vladimir Putin) regarding the recent presidential election in Turkey and draw serious conclusions in light of its results. What does Baklanov mean? Obviously, the fact that the Kremlin did not flirt with the Turkish opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, but contributed greatly to the success of Recep Erdoğan in economy and diplomacy: The Akkuyu NPP, Turkish Stream gas pipeline, the gas hub project, military-industrial complex cooperation, Turkish interests in Syria and Karabakh, movement to Central Asia, the grain deal, the extension of gas debt.

But Erdogan won the last election in a difficult struggle with part of the consolidated opposition by a small margin. There is a split in Turkish society and growing dissatisfaction with the policies of the aging Erdoğan. Accordingly, Baklanov believes it would be fair for Erdoğan to rely on those who really lent him support (above all, Russia). In the opinion of the professor, Russia remains dissatisfied with a number of Erdoğan’s policies in Central Asia, NATO and in relation to Ukraine.

Baklanov is obviously right that Erdoğan is more likely to be eager for the post-Soviet Turkic world (Central Asia and Azerbaijan), rather than agreeing his regional policy in the South Caucasus and historical Turkestan with Moscow. Until the fall of 2020, Professor Alexander Baklanov believed it would be appropriate to toughly respond to the Turks’ regional aspirations in the Transcaucasia implying a subsequent reduction of Russian influence. But the results of the second Karabakh war and the time that followed showed the diplomacy of concessions from Moscow.

In Ukraine, Erdoğan promises new mediation initiatives for the extension and preservation of the “grain deal”, whose prolongation he received on May 17 this year, as a kind of advance payment for two months (or a bonus for the election), while Russian interests are not taken into account in this trade deal. In addition, Russia is unlikely to be satisfied with Ankara’s consistent statements about preserving the territorial integrity of Ukraine (including Crimea), as well as the continuing Turkish military supplies to the Kyiv regime.

As for Turkey’s NATO membership, Erdoğan is unlikely to give up participation in this military-political alliance for fear of losing the guarantee of strategic security against external threats (including a certain distrust of Russia itself). The fact is that the Turks define their relations with a foreign country not so much by the established personal relationships between the leaders as by objective national interests and an analysis of the entire history of relations in respect of a particular stage.

The failure of Kılıçdaroğlu effectively buried the Turkish dream of European integration. It is no coincidence that the leader of the European People’s Party Manfred Weber, speaking before the European Parliament on May 29 this year, said: “Recent years have shown that a close partnership between the EU and Turkey is important, but no one wants Ankara’s full membership in the EU anymore – neither Turkey nor the EU. We must stop the process of Turkey’s accession to the EU.” We do not yet have similar political statements regarding Turkey’s membership in NATO.

Nevertheless, Recep Erdoğan’s victory preserves favorable chances for strengthening the Russian-Turkish partnership and finding new topics of dialogue.

Aleksandr SVARANTS, PhD in political science, professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.


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