Erdogan’s Loss in Turkey’s Election Would Stir Anxiety in Moscow

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Sunday’s presidential election in Turkey is being watched carefully in Western capitals, NATO headquarters and the Kremlin, with Turkey’s longtime mediating role in the complex and often vexing relations between the parties riding on the outcome.

With President Recep Tayyip Erdogan slightly trailing his challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, in recent polls, the prospect that the Turkish leader could lose the election is concentrating diplomatic minds.

Officially, people on the Western side won’t talk about their preferences, to avoid being accused of interfering in Turkey’s domestic politics. But it is an open secret that European leaders, not to speak of the Biden administration, would be delighted if Mr. Erdogan were to lose.

As Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister, said on Friday, “We all want an easier Turkey,” a strategically important member of NATO that has, under Mr. Erdogan, become an increasingly troublesome partner for the European Union, which has largely abandoned the idea of Turkish membership.

Russia, too, has much riding on the election’s outcome. Under Mr. Erdogan, Turkey has become Russia’s indispensable trading partner and at times a diplomatic intermediary, a relationship that has assumed an even greater importance for the Kremlin since the invasion of Ukraine.

Throughout his 20 years in power, Mr. Erdogan has pursued a nonaligned foreign policy that has frequently frustrated his putative Western allies and provided a welcome diplomatic opening for Moscow — perhaps never more so than after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

By refusing to enforce Western sanctions on Moscow, Mr. Erdogan has helped undermine efforts to isolate the Kremlin and starve it of funds to underwrite the war. At the same time, the stumbling Turkish economy has feasted recently on heavily discounted Russian oil, helping Mr. Erdogan in his quest for a third, five-year term.

Mr. Erdogan has further irritated his allies by blocking Sweden’s bid for membership in NATO, insisting that Stockholm first turn over scores of Kurdish refugees in the country, especially from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which both Ankara and Washington consider a terrorist organization.

More broadly, for the European Union and Washington there is the strong feeling that Turkey under Mr. Erdogan has moved farther away from European values and norms like the rule of law and freedom of the press.

Kaja Kallas, Estonia’s prime minister, said in an interview that NATO and the European Union viewed the election differently. It is a defense alliance, she said, and “Turkey is one of the allies that has great military capacities” to help NATO in a key part of the world. “So I don’t think anything changes in terms of NATO in this regard whoever wins the elections.”

For NATO, of course, the hope is that a change of leadership in Turkey will end the standoff over approval of Sweden’s membership in the military alliance, ideally before a summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, in July.

In Washington, Mr. Erdogan’s drift toward authoritarianism, his ties to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and his disputes with NATO have exasperated officials — and even led some members of Congress to suggest that Turkey should be banished from the NATO alliance.

While the United States, the European Union and, to a lesser extent, NATO stand to gain from an opposition victory, Mr. Putin almost certainly will be seen as the loser if Mr. Erdogan is ousted.

Not only has Mr. Erdogan refused to join Western sanctions against Russia and provided a market for its oil and gas, Turkey has also become a source for Moscow of much-needed imports and a crucial link to the global economy amid tightening Western sanctions. The Kremlin also sees in Mr. Erdogan’s often confrontational nationalist rhetoric the potential to disrupt the NATO alliance.

For its part, Turkey has benefited not only from cheap Russian energy, but also from Russian investment and revenues from Russian tourism, which have risen since the start of the war. Russia is building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant and, since war began, has announced plans to make the country a hub for its natural gas trade.

The two long-serving leaders also share an authoritarian streak and confrontational rhetoric toward the West, emphasizing historical grievances against other world powers. Mr. Erdogan’s relationship with Mr. Putin has allowed him to play the role of statesman as a mediator for Moscow’s war on Ukraine, most recently by brokering a deal to allow the export of Ukrainian grain.

But Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan’s partnership has always been based on mutual self-interest rather than ideological affinity, and the two countries compete for influence in the Caucasus and Middle East. Most notably, the two leaders back different factions in the armed conflicts in Syria and Libya. Relations grew tense after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet in 2015.

Mr. Erdogan has stopped short of offering Mr. Putin direct support in the war in Ukraine, and his government has angered Moscow by allowing the sale of Turkish armed drones to Kyiv.

In another worrying sign for the Kremlin, Mr. Kilicdaroglu, the opposition leader, accused Russia this past week of interfering in the country’s election by spreading “conspiracies, deep fakes and tapes that were exposed in this country yesterday.”

That was a reference to an alleged sex tape that surfaced on Thursday, prompting a minor presidential candidate to leave the race.

“Get your hands off the Turkish state,” he wrote in Turkish and Russian, though adding: “We are still in favor of cooperation and friendship.”

Mr. Kilicdaroglu has promised to maintain economic ties to Russia if he wins the presidency, but it remains unclear whether he would maintain Mr. Erdogan’s delicate balancing act in Ukraine.

As an indication of the sensitivity of the situation, when the United States ambassador to Turkey, Jeff Flake, met with Mr. Kilicdaroglu last month, he drew Mr. Erdogan’s ire. Saying that he would no longer meet with Mr. Flake, the Turkish president added, “We need to teach the United States a lesson in this election,” Turkish news media outlets reported.

Europe’s leaders, while silently rooting for an Erdogan defeat, are growing concerned about the potential for post-election turmoil, especially if Mr. Erdogan loses narrowly or the election goes to a second-round runoff in two weeks.

“It is a watershed election,” Mr. Bildt said. “But democracy is at stake. And my second concern is that we get a result” that means a division of powers — a powerful presidency under Mr. Erdogan and a Turkish Parliament controlled by an unstable opposition coalition.

“The risk of constitutional stalemate is quite high,” Mr. Bildt said.

Michael Crowley contributed reporting from Washington.

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