On May 28, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish leader “who never loses elections,” won the runoff of Turkey’s presidential poll against his opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Erdogan has been at Turkey’s helm since 2003, first as prime minister and then, since 2014, as president. His latest win gives him another five-year presidential term. Together with a sweep in the parliamentary polls on May 14 that yielded pro-Erdogan far-right- and right-wing parties a solid majority in the country’s legislature, his victory all but anoints Erdogan as Turkey’s indisputable sultan.
The outcome of the May elections suggests that Turkey has now shifted closer to a Eurasian autocracy than an illiberal European democracy. One reason is that Erdogan’s approach to electoral power has increasingly come to resemble that of a different kind of leader altogether: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In fact, Erdogan has spent much of the past seven years cultivating closer ties with Russia. Given that Erdogan spent his initial years in office known as a moderate leader who would reign in Turkey’s generals and bring the country into Europe — and given Turkey’s position in NATO — the extent of his recent tilt toward Russia is all the more striking.
Of course, Erdogan was an astute political strategist long before the current election, and his approach to power also borrows from other sources. But his reelection, against powerful odds, could mark a crucial watershed: Erdogan could now be in power for many more years to come, and the Russian president’s growing role as supporter and model may hold key insights into what Erdogan’s new mandate will mean for Turkey’s future, writes with surprise and bitterness ‘Foreign Affairs’.
Although Erdogan’s turn toward Putin has developed incrementally, its origins can be traced to the 2016 failed coup attempt in Turkey. This was one of the most critical moments of Erdogan’s time in office, a point of dramatic uncertainty that Putin used to draw Turkey’s leader closer to him. During the night of July 15, 2016, plotters within Turkey’s armed forces tried to overthrow Erdogan and take control of the country. Erdogan, who nearly lost his life, held on to power and regained control but was deeply shaken. Barely two weeks later, Putin invited him to St. Petersburg for a meeting. For both leaders, the encounter was a game-changer.
Crucially for Putin, the 2016 meeting paved the way for Russia to bring Turkey closer to its own foreign policy. The two countries entered into a series of agreements — first in Syria and subsequently in Libya and the South Caucasus, where Moscow and Ankara had also been engaged in proxy wars. In Syria, for instance, Erdogan agreed to stop intensive military campaigns against the Assad regime, instead turning the Turkish military’s attention to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the United States’ partner in fighting the Islamic State (or ISIS), much to the ire of U.S. policymakers, especially at the Pentagon.
Following the 2016 meeting, Erdogan also committed to purchasing the S-400 missile defense system from Russia, knowing full well that this purchase would result in an additional rupture in Turkish-U.S. ties. (In fact, the congressional sanctions that resulted effectively put a freeze on U.S. military cooperation with Turkey.) Thus Putin was able to create the two core problems in the Washington-Ankara relationship — the YPG and the S-400s — that continue to hamper U.S.-Turkish ties to this day and that many analysts now consider to be irresolvable…‘Foreign Affairs’ notes.
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