By Prof. Dr İLTER TURAN
Results of the Turkish parliamentary and presidential elections were anxiously awaited both in Turkey and abroad. Although some countries may have had a preference for a particular outcome, they abstained from open expression to remain within the boundaries of diplomatic courtesy. Now that the results are in, it seems that the ruling coalition of the religiously oriented AKP and the jingoistic MHP will govern for another five years. Irrespective of their feelings, outside actors are relieved that the ordeal is over. If developments progress as expected, Mr. Erdoğan will be running Turkish foreign policy.
The first question a diplomat naturally asks is whether Turkey‘s foreign policy will change under the new government. Searching for an answer, naturally the question of who the new foreign minister will be arises. The name of the new minister was not known at the time of this writing but a person may have been appointed by the time you read this article. There has been strong suggestions that İbrahim Kalın, a top advisor to the president, may be in line for the job. Some have speculated that the current minister who has been elected to the parliament may be asked to resign his parliamentary post to reassume the portfolio. Other names are also mentioned. I would propose that the name of the next foreign minister is not as important as it may look because President Erdoğan wants to have full control of foreign policy. This means that the minister is not much involved in policy formulation as in its implementation.
The second question might be what aspects of policy are likely to change if at all. We might begin by noting that the government had already begun revising its policy toward the Middle East. It had tried, for example, to mend fences with Egypt while the latter had proven less than enthusiastic in responding to Turkish overtures. Now that Mr. Erdoğan will continue to be in power, the Egyptian president has not only called his Turkish counterpart to congratulate him but the two presidents have agreed to exchange ambassadors soon. Similarly, there has been a warming of relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, a development that is likely to continue. The president has in fact made vague references that these countries have made some hard cash deposits in Turkey that the country desperately needs and has suggested that these gestures will continue. Some observers have expressed curiosity about what may have been offered in return.
Not long before the elections, Turkey and Israel had appointed ambassadors to positions that had been lying vacant for some time. Although the Turkish government grumbles about the way Israel treats it Palestinian population, relations are expected to continue to improve. In the past, the Israeli lobby in the US had frequently offered help to Turkey whose own lobbying organizations and efforts often proved insufficient. There is no question that Turkey would welcome such help once again but Turkey’s foreign policy behavior has to become much more predictable before that happens.
Finally, the new government, under electoral pressures to send Syrian refugees home, will intensify its efforts to make peace with Syria which insists that Turkish troops withdraw from its soil first. The Russians and Iranians who are facilitating the negotiations may “persuade” the Syrians to drop this insistence. Turkey, on the other hand, would insist that Syria take over the Kurdish regions and not allow them to be used as a base of terrorist operations against Turkey. Progress may be slow but it will be in the predictable direction.
Mr. Erdoğan has also exchanged congratulatory pleasantries with President Biden. It so happens that Mr. Erdoğan also noted Turkey’s expectations that the US government authorize the sale of F-16s to Turkey while his American counterpart mentioned that extending parliamentary approval to Sweden’s accession to NATO would facilitate in securing Congressional consent for the sale. They agreed to talk further. The critical question is whether Mr. Erdoğan will ask the Turkish parliament to approve Sweden’s accession prior to the Vilnius Summit in July or postpone to a later meeting. A positive vote soon should not be ruled out.
While Mr. Erdoğan insists that Turkey has not given up its goal of membership in the EU, he is likely to insist on better visa terms for Turkish citizens and improvements in the Customs Union in return for his country’s continued willingness to prevent unregulated flow of Syrian and other refugees into Europe. The EU might feel pressured to respond and offer some concessions in order to maintain cooperative rather than problematical relations with Turkey.
And finally, Turkey is likely to continue its friendly but somewhat ambivalent relationship Russia.
Does all this look as initiation of major changes in Turkey’s external relations? Probably not. Turkey will continue to retain its sometimes confusing relationships with different countries and international communities, conducting its business in a transactional manner with all.
By Prof. Dr İLTER TURAN