Turkey is preparing for an unprecedented second round on Sunday May 28 to elect its president. For this new face-to-face, Recep Tayyip Erdogan leaves after the first round with a lead of five points (49.5%) and 2.5 million votes over his rival, the social democrat Kemal Kilçdaroglu (45%) , at the head of a disparate alliance of six parties ranging from the national right to the left. The latest polls – which were wrong before the first round – also give a similar lead of five points to the Head of State. For analyst Kerim Has, who lives in Russia, the Putin regime has “campaigned for the re-election of Erdogan”.
L’Express: Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces the second round of the Turkish presidential election, this May 28, as a big favorite. How does Moscow react to this probable re-election?
Kerim Has: In Russia, everyone thinks that Erdogan will stay in power. During the election campaign, Vladimir Putin supported him openly, with frank friendship, to highlight his international achievements. His support was evident during his speech for the inauguration ceremony of the nuclear power plant project in Akkuyu [construite par Rosatom]. Also, Gazprom has postponed the payment of Turkey’s gas debt until next year. Financially and in the energy sector, Russia campaigned for Erdogan’s re-election.
Would a victory for Erdogan in the second round be a victory for Putin?
I don’t think so, even if this feeling dominates among Russian experts and diplomats. Russia is increasingly dependent on Erdogan, which poses a risk to its long-term interests. Erdogan is not acting rationally. It is impossible to anticipate its actions, especially on the international level. For example, it remains unclear what military support Erdogan will continue to provide to Ukraine, which is a real headache for Russia. On the other hand, Azerbaijan is again increasing the pressure on Armenia, in coordination with Ankara. But Armenia remains close to Russia. These actions call into question Russian interests in the Caucasus. Same thing in Syria: Erdogan maintains his troops on the territory, despite repeated requests from the regime of Bashar el-Assad, a great ally of Moscow.
In the long term, Erdogan’s re-election poses major risks to Russian interests abroad and in the post-Soviet space. It is quite possible that in the near future Erdogan will supply combat drones to Moldova. Turkey is also trying to deepen its military relations with Kazakhstan and other Central Asian republics. This would challenge Moscow’s hold on the region.
Why, then, has the Russian regime decided to openly support Erdogan?
The Russians are focused on their short-term interests. With the war in Ukraine dragging on, Putin is trying to avoid the collapse of his economy, under Western sanctions. And Turkey remains one of the main countries allowing Russia to circumvent these economic sanctions. Due to its geographical position, Ankara constitutes one of the most useful routes to Moscow for parallel imports. In the short term, Putin absolutely needs Erdogan to be re-elected. But for long-term Russian interests, Erdogan is a very dangerous actor.
His role as spoilsport within NATO is, however, an asset for Putin…
Absolutely. It is a unique communication link between Russia and the Western bloc. All Erdogan has to do is call Putin on the phone for a Ukrainian grain deal to be concluded. Moreover, the signing of this agreement has been postponed to fall on May 18, in the interval between the two rounds of the Turkish elections. Erdogan took the opportunity to sell his image as a statesman, decisive on the international scene
Will the Turkish government continue to block Sweden’s entry into NATO?
I do not think so. Erdogan is likely to ratify Sweden’s NATO membership after the elections, perhaps even before the Alliance summit in Vilnius in July. He used this blocking of Sweden to rally the nationalist vote, showing that he could stand up to the United States and foreign powers. But basically, he is not opposed to the enlargement of NATO.
During the campaign, Erdogan was very aggressive towards the West and accused Joe Biden of wanting to overthrow him. Will the tone change after the election?
It’s possible. Even if the Turkish economy is doing a little better, it remains in great difficulty and Erdogan must attract Western investment. In this sense, Turkey’s ratification of Sweden’s NATO membership will improve relations with the Biden administration. But for Erdogan, everything rests on his legitimacy: he wants the West to recognize that one man is running Turkey and that Westerners approve of this regime. He would like to be seen again by Westerners as a reliable ally, as was the case ten or fifteen years ago. He wants his power to be recognized as such by the major Western powers.
During the campaign, Erdogan’s opponent, Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, called on Russia to stop interfering in the electoral process. Are these accusations credible?
Of course, it is entirely possible that Russian hackers or Moscow’s intelligence services could help Erdogan in his campaign. But these are serious accusations and Kiliçdaroglu should have supported them with documents or concrete evidence. But he didn’t show anything. These accusations only harmed Kiliçdaroglu’s image in Russia. Moreover, Erdogan was able to use it in the campaign to portray his adversary as anti-Russian and submissive to Westerners, to appear as the only one capable of defending Turkey’s interests on the international scene.
Will these elections change Turkey’s position vis-à-vis Ukraine?
Turkey’s support for Ukraine will continue and even grow. At the start of the war, Ankara supplied kyiv with Bayraktar drones and then other military equipment. Recently, Turkey even sent missiles to Ukraine. As the Western powers will supply fighter jets to kyiv, Turkey could follow by stepping up its military support for the Ukrainian army.
At the same time, Erdogan will not risk his privileged relationship with Putin, at least not in the short term, and will try to deepen economic ties with Russia. Above all, he will try to mediate between kyiv and Moscow, thus continuing his great gap between the West and Russia.