Crucial presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey are around the corner. Russia's political elites are now closely following the upcoming vote, as it seems that current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been leading the country for almost as long as Vladimir Putin has been reigning over Russia, may lose his presidential bid. As of now, the polls are showing a close race between Erdoğan and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the main opposition candidate. However, Erdogan's opponents are worried about a split in the opposition vote, as many voters that have no intention of supporting the AKP leader may vote for the other two minor contenders.
The Kremlin is very much concerned over the Turkish vote for many different reasons. This is why, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently flew to Ankara for talks with his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. Soon after, it was rumored that Putin himself was planning to travel to Turkey, which would have been his first foreign visit after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant again him. Formally, Putin's trip would have been organized in the framework of the Russian-built Akkuyu nuclear power plant's inauguration in Mersin, on Turkey's Southern Mediterranean coast, but the real goal of the visit would have been to demonstrate his support to the embattled president. Nevertheless, the news was later dismissed, even though there is no doubt that the contacts between two leaders remain very strong.
Russia-Turkey Contradicting Relation
However, before continuing the analysis, it is worth noting that Russia and Turkey have developed highly contradictory relations in recent years that are influenced, to my mind, by the fact that both nations are former powerful empires. Furthermore, an important aspect of it is that the peripheries of these empires overlap over time immemorial. The northern coast of the Black Sea, the Crimea, the Georgian coast and large parts of Armenia and Azerbaijan are not only the "near abroad" for Russia, but also for Turkey.
Turkey has been the only major power, with the exception of Poland (or it would better to say, Rzeczpospolita), which exercised control over vast lands that later became parts of the Russian domain (from Walachia and Moldavia through Crimea and Azov to today's Abkhazia and many regions in the South Caucasus). Moreover, Russia and the Ottoman Empire have fought at least 12 wars since 1568, without counting small border disputes and encounters between Russia and the Ottoman Empire's vassal kingdoms (I would not even mention the Russo-Turkish clashes that appeared during Moscow's military involvement in Syria, especially after Turkish warplanes shot down a Russian military aircraft on the border with Syria, in 2015).
Such a history made Russia and Turkey both interrelated and competing actors. This competition became fiercer, as both Erdoğan and Putin started to foster the ideas of Turkic and Russian worlds descending on regions as diverse as Crimea and Azerbaijan, Abkhazia and much of Central Asia. Being extremely jealous about any attempts at a great power renaissance, Putin was definitively concerned with the fact that Turkey has been trying to become the leading Islamic power, interfering with ongoing political processes from the Eastern Mediterranean to Libya. It should also be mentioned that Turkey has been an active participant of all projects aimed at building new transport corridors for Central Asian energy resources, allowing their delivery to Europe bypassing Russian territory, triggering Moscow's criticism and opposition.
Russia And Turkey's Mutual Beneficial Cooperation
Much of these contradictions and quarrels were put aside in recent months, as Russia and Turkey found many crucial points for a mutual beneficial cooperation. Even though Turkey condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Ankara maintained a pragmatic position. In the first stages of the war, Erdoğan was enthusiastic about organizing peace talks, an idea that collapsed in late March 2022. He then stood behind the "grain deal," an agreement between Russia and Ukraine made with Turkey and the United Nations, allowing Ukrainian wheat and other cereals to be exported from Ukrainian ports via the Black Sea. The deal made the Turkish leader the only actor in global politics who succeeded, at least partially, in helping the Ukrainian crisis. In March 2023, the Kremlin announced that it had no interest in extending the deal for another term.
However, the Turkish authorities immediately responded by freezing the flows of Russian imports that went from other countries via Turkey, and lifted the restriction only after Moscow agreed to respect the treaty for a longer period. Moreover, after the European Union introduced its energy embargo on Russia and it became clear to Moscow that Europe can survive without Russian gas, Turkey arose as an active supporter of a new configuration of European energy trading. Being now the largest buyer of Russian natural gas (expected at 24-27 billion cubic meters, or not less than 20 percent of the total for fiscal year 2023), Ankara proposed a creation of a new "natural gas hub" in Turkey's European portion that was met with great support by the Russians. While the negotiations concerning these issues are still ongoing, Moscow seemingly relies quite significantly on a chance to revitalize its energy trade with Europe (including re-exports of its oil products) with Turkey's help: some estimates (or, better to say, dreams) that the volume of Russian gas that will be supplied to Europe through Turkey, if there is demand, could reach 63 billion cubic meters per year.
Yet, what looks much more important is Russian-Turkish cooperation in trade and financial issues. Turkey remains the only NATO member state that did not introduce any sanctions against Russia, following Moscow's attack on Ukraine. Therefore, as many Western companies discontinued their business in Russia and the local consumers faced shortages in electronics, communication equipment, automobile spare-parts, and dozens of other products, the Russian authorities legalized what they called "parallel imports," allowing nearly anyone to import and resell products brought abroad, even without the manufacturers' consent to bring them into the Russian market.
Turkey Is Russia's Second-Largest Trade Partner
From the very beginning of the "parallel imports," Turkey helped to increase the transit trade flows significantly, as the size of Turkey's economy allowed the local companies to buy the foreign goods and then resell them to Russia without being accused of an "unnatural" increase of imports (in smaller economies, like those of Armenia or Kyrgyzstan, the surge of such imports almost immediately caused suspicion that they are assisting Russia in bypassing Western trade restrictions). It is worth noting that in 2021, Turkey was Russia's sixth-largest trade partner (with overall turnover of $33 billion, or 4.2 percent of the total). However, in 2022, Turkey surged to second position in 2022 with $45 billion, or 5.6 percent of the combined turnover, as its exports to Russia increased by 60 percent, from $5.89 to $9.34 billion (with no proper statistic about the transit flows available). In 2023 Turkey will further increase its gap from Russia's other trade partners.
Turkey benefited significantly from Russian emigrants. Russians that fled Putin's regime channeled billions of dollars into Turkey's economy and rejuvenated many Turkish communities by increasing demand for housing and hospitality services (in some localities the prices increased almost threefold, after Moscow announced its "partial mobilization" last September). Furthermore, in 2022, Russians became the most active creators of new foreign-owned business in Turkey, overtaking the long-term leaders, the Iranians.
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Turkish banks for many months remained the only ones that still accepted the debit and credit cards issued in Russia by its locally designed MIR payment system – and it took a lot of effort from both the United States and Europe to put an end to this practice (it was discontinued only by the end of September 2022), but the major Turkish banks – like DenizBank, VakıfBank, and Ziraat – are still opening bank accounts for Russians, without requiring much, as they are not asking for even a long-term visa or a confirmed local residential address. Turkish financiers became the most common intermediaries for Russian "parallel imports" funding and one of the largest traders of rubles outside of the Russian Federation, as they invented different means of receiving Russian rubles through the so called "instant payment system" used by the Russians and release cash or wire in all main Turkish cities. To lose such a reliable partner would be a great challenge for the Russian financial sector.
Turkey Under Erdogan Became What Russia Partially Is Under Putin
I would argue that Turkey is now, from the Russian perspective, a unique nation. It is the only country that supports Ukraine and even supplies Kyiv with weapons (I should remind that Turkish drones were considered a crucial factor in securing Ukrainian defense against the Russian assault in its early stages) and it is even mentioned in the "unfriendly nations list" regularly updated by the Russian authorities. It is a country whose president refers to both Russian President Putin and Ukrainian President Zelenskyy as his friends. It is a country that masterminds different ways and means for allowing the Central Asian nations to get rid of Russia's energy transportation monopoly, but nevertheless is engaged in various negotiations with Gazprom and is currently its largest client. This unique position is linked primarily, if not solely, to President Erdoğan's personality and to Turkey's "independent" policy vis-à-vis both Europe and the United States. The Russian leadership, losing its rational orientation in global politics, looks now for leaders that might resemble Putin himself, and Erdoğan seems to be one who fits this requisite quite well.
Turkey's incumbent President went several times against the current. He created and led to victory new political parties, he altered this country's Constitution twice to fit his standards and drafted a "disinformation law," which is now used to silence his opponents and independent journalists. He "captured" two presidential mandates, and either he or his appointees won five parliamentary elections. He also openly proclaimed the idea of reviving the "Turkic world" and turned a still formally secular republic into a leading country of the Islamic civilization. At the same time, Erdoğan has confidently shifted the focus to geopolitical issues despite the economic crisis that has intensified in recent years in the country (fueled, at least partially, by his irresponsible financial policy). It is worth noting that Erdoğan tried to influence elections and used the judiciary to push the most significant opponents out of politics, but he could not completely turn Turkey into an authoritarian country.
Turkey under Erdoğan has become what Russia partially is under Putin: A nation on which the West (or its individual countries) economically and politically depended, but that increasingly moved away from its Western "partners." Both Ankara and Moscow deliberately turned their backs on an alliance (in Turkey's case, in essence, if not formally) with the Atlantic powers, abandoned much of the European values in favor of traditional ones, and made religious motives important elements of political strategies. In Russia and Turkey, these changes were made to secure a life-long leadership to their current leaders without a formal ban on democracy.
Since both countries have pursued such similar political agendas in the early years of the 21st century, the results of Turkish elections are so important for the Russian political class. Will the Turkish leader recognize the unpleasant result of the elections, and how would the West react in the event that something does not go too "smoothly"? Is it possible to dismantle in an organized and peaceful manner a system, designed and fit to the "big boss" requirements without dumping into settling scores, persecution, and lustration? How problem-free will it be to restore relations with neighbors and partners after the departure of an authoritarian president, and to what extent will Turkey's foreign policy change? What will happen to bureaucrats and businessmen close to the former head of state? How likely is the country's return to a parliamentary republic, which Turkey essentially remained until 2014? And, if Erdoğan is reelected, how long would it take for the Turkish people to became entirely disillusioned with him? All these questions have no answer these days, but they will get them quite soon, and it makes the Russian elite nervous.
*Dr. Vladislav Inozemtsev is MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project Special Advisor, and Founder and Director of Moscow-based Center for Post-Industrial Studies.
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