Elections in Türkiye and its double-game foreign policy

Turkey under Erdogan`s leadership has distinguished itself as an important player in the Russo-Ukrainian war by maintaining good relations with both Moscow and Kyiv.[1] Since the outbreak of Russia`s invasion of Ukraine, Erdogan has pushed for Türkiye to become a middleman between the two warring parties: Moscow and Kyiv. Under Erdogan, Türkiye has assisted in brokering deals, for example, the Black Sea Grain Initiative, and hosted talks between the U.S. and Russian security chiefs.[2] Furthermore, Türkiye is the only NATO member that has not imposed sanctions on Kremlin, on the contrary: it has become the 2nd largest exporter to Russia over course of the war in Ukraine with export volume doubling during 2022 from $5.77 billion in 2021 to $9.34 in 2022 according to Turkish Statistical Institute (TUIK) data.[3] At the same time, Türkiye is actively supporting Ukraine by supplying Bayrakatar TB-2 drones and blockading Turkish straits for Russian warships.

Türkiye’s middleman position is motivated by two important goals in Turkish foreign policy – the ambition of becoming an energy hub and preserving Ankara’s strategic position in the Black Sea. One goal requires strong ties with Russia to maintain Moscow`s oil and gas flow to Türkiye, and the other required Ukraine as an independent state to keep Russia away from dominating the Black Sea basin.[4] Thus, Ankara in pursuit of national interest from the beginning of the war has played a double game between the West and the East to extract maximum gains from the conflict. On the one hand, Türkiye has become a harbor for Russian money and Moscow`s 2nd most important partner after Beijing. On the other hand, Türkiye has taken up the role of defending Ukraine`s independence.

However, Erdogan is not the first to attempt to play a double game between the West and East. For years, “Europe`s last dictator” Alexander Lukashenko played on tensions between the Kremlin and the West to extract gains from both.[5]Although firmly in Russia`s camp, as the war in Donbas began in 2014, Lukashenko refused to recognize the annexation of Crimea and took up a role of mediator and a peacemaker, scoring a diplomatic victory via facilitating Minsk agreements.[6] Thus, Lukashenko facilitated speculation that Belarus is opening to Europe, securing both political and economic concessions from the West that saw Lukashenko as a lesser evil than Putin. Simultaneously, Belarus profited from the Western sanctions on Russia by adapting and exporting sanctioned goods to Russia. European goods became Belarussian by a simple label change and were exported to Russia despite sanctions.

The pitfall of Lukashenko`s double game: a contested domestic election in 2020, which left a strongman leader in a dilemma. The dictator had to make a hard choice, either to give up his power and compromise with a protesting crowd by introducing elements of real democracy or to keep the power and repress his people into submission.[7] Lukashenko choose the latter, and, as the western world condemned his brutal crackdown, Europe`s last dictator could no longer play a double game, leaving Belarus in Kremlin`s grasp. Since 2020 Lukashenko has made significant concessions to Kremlin from deepening of Belarus-Russia relations within the Union State to Crimea`s recognition as Russian land and revoking Belarus`s stance of neutrality from the constitution.[8] Now there is a legitimate threat that Belarus soldiers will join Russia in its war on Ukraine.

Although, on surface level the case comparison between current Turkey and Belarus pre-2020 elections might be seen farfetched as the positions of the countries are completely different, there are some parallels in cases. Apart from attempting to play a middleman between Russia and West, both countries are classified as unfree by Freedom house,[9]and by extension their leaders have been criticized for authoritarian tendencies. Erdogan has been accused of curtailing freedom of speech and press, cracking down on political dissent, and manipulating justice to target his opponents.[10]Meanwhile Lukashenko is known for suppressing political opposition, violating human rights, and rigging elections. Furthermore, at current moment Erdogan is facing a political fallout for mishandling of February earthquake crises similarly to fallout Lukashenko did face for his handling of Covid-19 crisis in 2020.

Erdogan may face a similar dilemma like Lukashenko during 2020 with an expectation of a hotly contested election as Erdogan’s controversial economic policies have plummeted the Turkish lira. The inflation in Turkey is running at over 80% a year leading to a decline in living standards for the average Turk. Furthermore, despite Türkiye’s foreign policy successes, the support for Erdogan’s Islamist-tinged Justice and Development Party (AKP) has plummeted to 30% according to recent polls.[11] Lastly, the government’s struggles to address the humanitarian catastrophe in wake of the February earthquakes has left Erdogan with a political fallout as Türkiye’s opposition blames the president for country being ill-prepared to tackle the catastrophe.[12]

In this regard, Türkiye’s opposition is doing Erdogan no favors as previously fragmented opposition has been forced to unite in wake of Türkiye’s 2017 referendum results. Essentially, the referendum consolidated Erdogan`s power transforming Türkiye from parliamentary to presidential system,[13] giving way to speculation that Türkiye is sliding into dictatorship.[14] The referendum was followed by another 2018 Erdogan presidential election victory. This consolidation of power, motivated parties to unite in opposition to Erdogan`s ruling party on issues like democracy, human rights, and social justice. Since then, the strategy of forming oppositional alliances has paid off as during 2019 local elections oppositional candidates gained mayoral election victory in Istanbul and Ankara – two largest cities in the country. However, oppositions victory in 2019 local elections victory had also shown a worrying sign as Erdogan`s party rejected opposition’s victory in Istanbul. The following rerun of the Istanbul local elections has heightened the fears of electoral fraud, especially in the upcoming 2023 presidential elections.[15]

Meanwhile, the stakes could not be higher as the election will not only determine if the NATO country could slide into authoritarianism, but it will also determine the future of Türkiye policy toward the war in Ukraine. As Lukashenko’s story has shown, the strongman-autocrat dilemma of either giving up power or not has foreign policy implications. In Lukashenko’s case, the dictator`s choice affected Belarus’s alignment in favor of Russia as the brutal crackdown alienated Western states that saw Lukashenko as an illegitimate ruler. Thus, if Erdogan fails to win the election convincingly without loss of legitimacy, Türkiye will be faced with the question of alignment. This question of alignment is poised to either alienate the West or Russia in favor of the other and Ukraine is at the crossfire.

To sum it up, Turkey`s 2023 election is shaping up to be the most important election of the year as it won’t only determine the future domestic developments in the country, but also its ability to play a double game between the West and East and thus effecting Ankara`s future policy in Ukraine. In the advent of Erdogan’s dilemma, Ankara could be forced into alignment and not able to play a role of a middleman no more.

The views expressed in the opinion section do not reflect the position of the Latvian Institute of International Affairs.


[1] Kusa, I., 2022., Turkey’s Goals in the Russia-Ukraine War, Kennan Institute, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/turkeys-goals-russia-ukraine-war.
[2] Pamuk, H., 15.11.2022., CIA boss talks nuclear weapons and prisoners with Putin's spy chief, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/world/russian-us-officials-holding-talks-turkey-kommersant-2022-11-14/.
[3] Kenez, L., 23.02.2023., Ukraine war anniversary: Turkish-Russian trade skyrocketed despite sanctions, https://nordicmonitor.com/2023/02/ukraine-war-anniversary-turkish-russian-trade-skyrocketed-despite-sanctions/.
[4] Torbakov, I., 2008., The Georgia Crisis and Russia-Turkey Relations, Russia`s Resurgence and Tukey`s dilemmas, The Jamestown Foundation, https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/view/44302186/the-georgia-crisis-and-russia-turkey-relations-the-jamestown.
[5] Denisenko, V., 05.10.2015., Alexander Lukashenko’s Recognizable Game, http://www.geopolitika.lt/?artc=7527.
[6] Macdonald, A., 20.02.2015., After Ukraine mediation, EU looks to embrace Lukashenko, https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-belarus-eu-idUSKBN0LN2DP20150219.
[7] Kolesnikov, A., 2020., Dictator’s Dilemma: Why Lukashenko Is Still Clinging On, https://carnegiemoscow.org/commentary/82551.
[8] Leukavets, A., 2022., The Role of Belarus in the Ukrainian Crisis, Kennan Institute, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/role-belarus-ukrainian-crisis.
[9] Freedom Hause, 2022., Countries and Territories, https://freedomhouse.org/countries/freedom-world/scores.
[10] U.S department of state, 2020., 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Turkey, https://www.state.gov/reports/2020-country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/turkey/.
[11] Taylor, P., 02.01.2023., Erdoğan plots war, crackdown to save his skin, Politico Europe, https://www.politico.eu/article/recep-tayyip-erdogan-turkey-election-2023-plots-war-opponents-crackdown/.
[12] Stamouli, N., 10.02.2023., Anger grows at Erdoğan over Turkey’s earthquake response, Politico Europe, https://www.politico.eu/article/turkey-earthquake-erdogan-opposition-anger-response/.
[13] Ekim, S., 2017., The Turkish constitutional referendum, explained, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2017/04/13/the-turkish-constitutional-referendum-explained/.
[14] The economist, 2017., Turkey is sliding into dictatorship, https://www.economist.com/leaders/2017/04/15/turkey-is-sliding-into-dictatorship.
[15] Korkmaz, S., 2022., The Strategies and Struggles of the Turkish Opposition under Autocratization, https://www.mei.edu/publications/strategies-and-struggles-turkish-opposition-under-autocratization.

Published 21 March 2023

Author Jānis Ieviņš