Erdogans exit could have huge ramifications for NATO, Putin and refugee crisis

Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan will lose the presidential election on Sunday, according to the latest polls, ending two decades of political rule. The polls have just closed as of 5pm local time (2pm GMT), with roughly 64 million members of the electorate casting their votes in what is believed to be a record turnout. The ramifications of an opposition victory for Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of a six-party coalition, on the global community could be far-reaching., with the help of Mr Ryan, has endeavoured to explain the three main geopolitical implications of a potential end Mr Erdogan’s rule, which has been the country’s most significant since Mustafa Kemal opened the Republic of Turkey a century ago.

Turkey exists both literally and metaphorically as a bridge between the growing east and the concerted west, and one of the most pronounced manifestations of this intermediary role is Turkey’s strengthened relationship with Russia, achieved in tandem with maintaining a membership to NATO.

Less than a week after the war broke out in eastern Europe last February, Mr Erdogan left a cabinet meeting with government officials in Ankara to tell reporters that while the invasion was “unacceptable” and he would honour Turkey’s NATO commitments, he had to protect his country’s “national interests”.

In effect, he was announcing that Russian investment into Turkey and the business it brought into the country was too valuable to destroy.

In the last 15 months, under Mr Erdogan’s rule, Turkey has enjoyed a nearly 300 percent increase in Russian investment, while the number of companies set up by Russian citizens has risen by more than eight times, according to the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkiye (TOBB). Mr Erdogan has also refused to engage with Western sanctions on Russia.

The Turkish President has been useful to his Western allies – last year Ankara helped mediate a landmark grain export deal between Ukraine and Russia, and even provided Ukraine with drones that played a part in countering Russian attacks – but Mr Erdogan has refused to sever ties with Vladimir Putin.

Last October, he met with the Russian autocrat in Kazakhstan on the sidelines of a regional summit. And on April 27 this year, he personally welcomed Putin, via video link, to celebrate the completion of a Russian-built nuclear power plant in Turkey. During that meeting, Putin praised Mr Erdogan for “how much you are doing for your country”.

In 2019, he also purchased Russian air defences, which triggered a US arms industry sanction against Ankara that has prevented his country from being part of the F-35 fighter jet programme driven by the US.

But if he loses the presidential election to Mr Kilicdaroglu on Sunday, or in a fortnight’s time should this weekend’s decision prove inconclusive, forcing a two-way run-off, Turkey’s relationship with Russia could indelibly change.

When the US Ambassador to Ankara Jeff Flake paid a visit in March to Mr Kilicdaroglu, Mr Erdogan lashed out against him, calling the US diplomat’s visit a “shame” and warning that Turkey needs to “teach the US a lesson in this election”.

Mr Kilicdaroglu is not anti-Russian – on Thursday night, in the same breath as warning the Kremlin against interfering in the Turkish election, he expressed a desire to “continue our friendship” – but he is decidedly more pro-Western than Mr Erdogan.

Analysts suggest that if Mr Kiricdaroglu wins the presidency, he will aim to improve relations with Western allies, including the United States, and attempt to return Turkey to the F-35 fighter jet programme.

Speaking to, James Ryan also questioned whether Mr Kiricdaroglu would be as interested in maintaining an intermediary role between Russia and Ukraine as Mr Erdogan has been over the past 15 months.

While it is necessary, Mr Ryan suggested, to acknowledge that Russia is “always going to be a major factor in Turkish foreign policy”, it is “expected that the opposition, should they win, will align Turkey more with NATO” than when the nation was under Mr Erdogan’s rule.

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One area where this re-alignment could come into effect reasonably quickly concerns Sweden’s application to NATO, which Turkey has blocked for a year.

Under Mr Erdogan, the Nordic nation has been unable to fulfil its wishes, formally declared last May in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to end decades of neutrality and join the alliance.

The Turkish President has accused Sweden of allowing Kurdish groups to demonstrate with Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) flags, which is a group he has designated a terrorist organisation.

And when in January this year, a Quran was burned near Turkey’s embassy in the Swedish capital of Stockholm, further enraging the Mr Erdogan, with the President doubling-down on his blocking of Sweden’s application and saying simply that their membership “won’t happen”.

NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg and Turkey’s fellow member states have appeared ultimately unconcerned by this blocking, seeing it as a political stunt.

As Mr Ryan put it, “Erdogan has made an enemy out of the Kurds in the hope to galvanise support from ultra nationalist parties” who view the population, primarily concentrated in the east and southeast of the country, within the region viewed by Kurds as Turkish Kurdistan, as terrorists.

Mr Kiricdaroglu, however, born in the eastern, Kurdish-majority province of Tunceli, and with the explicit backing of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Turkey’s second-largest opposition party, is unlikely to share these concerns.

Should Mr Erdogan cede power to Mr Kiricdaroglu this weekend or later this month, Sweden could become the 32nd member of NATO, and Russia’s border with the alliance would grow even longer.

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The final geopolitical point relates to Syria. Under Erdogan, Turkey has flexed military power in the Middle East and beyond, launching four incursions into Syria.

The Turkish head of state, over more than a decade, has supported multiple failed efforts to topple Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, while hosting at least 3.6million Syrian refugees who have become increasingly unwelcome at a time of economic hardship in Turkey.

Mr Kiricdaroglu, running a “very nationalist” party, according to Mr Ryan, is “very eager to see the Syrian refugees returned to their country”.

“I think that is why you have seen Kiricdaroglu in the past few months and weeks commit to normalising relations with [Bashar] al-Assad,” Mr Ryan said.

But it is a “different situation” for Mr Erdogan. Despite the Turkish animosity towards Syrian refugees, “the piece that often gets overlooked is that Erdogan’s economy is heavily reliant on the construction sector,” Mr Ryan said, “and who do you think is building all those buildings?

“The cheapest source of labour he has for all these projects he wants to effect is Syrian refugees. Erdogan does not necessarily want to send them back without being able to extract rent from them in some form. He depends on the Syrians for the political economy that keeps him in power.”

Ultimately, if Mr Erdogan opts to send some Syrians back, he will want to send them to Turkish control areas, to live and work in regions controlled by his affiliates. Outside of that, he is notably less interested in getting rid of the Syrian refugees in Turkey compared with Mr Kiricdaroglu.

Syria remains a volatile nation fraught with danger, caught up in dozens of battles and occupied by multiple proxy forces backed by several nations, including the US. The return of millions of refugees could have devastating consequences.

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