Is a Smart Revival between the West and Turkey Possible?

Citizens of Turkey go to the ballot box on May 14 for parliamentary and presidential elections. This election may mark the end of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's 20-year rule in Turkey. Even though the race is tight and there is no level playing field that would guarantee free and fair elections, transatlantic allies should prepare themselves for potential change.

The West’s response to the elections, no matter the outcome—opposition victory, the continuation of status quo, or a contested election—will shape the future of relations. Turkey policy is an important piece of the bigger “reconstructing wider Europe” puzzle in the aftermath of Russian invasion. Western policies following the election will set the tone for the years to come. The time to better coordinate a policy toward Turkey is now.

Q1: What does the main opposition offer when it comes to relations with the West?

A1: Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the social democrat Republican People’s Party and the common candidate of Nation Alliance, promises many changes on the domestic and international level. Some of them are very significant for the West’s relations with Turkey: reviving democracy, rule of law, basic rights, and freedoms; decreasing unilateralism in Turkish foreign policy; and reclaiming Turkey’s Western vocation. If there is a democratic transition of power and these promises are kept, there is a real chance of a transformation in the West’s relations with Turkey.

Q2: Could Turkey’s foreign policy really change?

A2: The answer is yes and no. Some of the Turkish national interests related to Cyprus or the Eastern Mediterranean would remain the same. Turkey’s opposition also has the desire to get a deal with the government in Syria to resettle some of the refugees—and it still will be controversial for the West. Strategic dependencies with Russia concerning energy, tourism, and foreign direct investment are hard to shake, especially with the poor state of the economy.

However, according to the opposition alliance’s “vision platform,” there will be areas of significant change, in particular the desire to reclaim Turkey’s Western vocation and for Turkey to play a constructive role in its alliances. Turkish foreign policy will likely shift toward a more multilateral approach to world affairs, moving away from Erdoğan’s unilateralism. A period of re-institutionalization of foreign policymaking and a revitalization of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—instead of the close circles of an overly personalized presidential system—are also among the opposition’s promises. All these structural changes in Turkish foreign policy could lead to a more harmonious relationship between Turkey and its Western allies, as well as significantly improving EU-NATO relations.

Q3: What about Turkey’s relationship with Russia and its place in wider Europe?

A3: There are changes of immense scale in the European Union’s approach to wider Europe after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Western Balkan countries and Eastern Neighbourhood countries are advancing on their European path, while Turkey is in limbo. Should the opposition win, they will seek to move Turkey closer to Europe.

Turkey is a NATO member that possesses S-400s, Russian antiaircraft missile systems. This purchase not only led to CAATSA sanctions by the United States, but also led to the removal of Turkey from the F-35 program. Despite Western concerns, it has not hindered the continuation and further development of Turkey’s special relationship with Russia. Erdoğan has historically maintained personal relations with Vladimir Putin. Even when they were at opposite sides—in Syria or Nagorno-Karabakh, for example—they remained in communication. This did not change even after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet in November 2015.

Turkey’s dependence on Russian gas and tourism have also been reasons for their continued dialogue. Turkey also awarded the construction of its nuclear power plant—the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant—to Russia. After the war, some expected Turkey to change course. It did not. Turkey continued with this balancing act despite the war.

A possible opposition win will not necessarily change these dynamics overnight. Having said that, Western concerns like sanction evasion could be better dealt with. A key change would be the new government playing a constructive role in wider Europe. The newly established European Political Community will be a good platform to start all these dialogues.

Q4: What about the relations with the European Union?

A4: EU-Turkey relations are at historic low. If there is a leadership change in Turkey—and there are strong signals of re-democratization in the country—the first step should be increasing dialogue and starting to build confidence. After confidence building and steps of reassurance are taken, and positive signals are sent, concrete policy areas and discussions about institutional structure should follow.

Many in the European Union will wait for reassurances from Turkey both in its domestic and foreign policy trajectory before thinking about re-railing EU-Turkey relations. The European Union will want to be confident in Turkey’s return to democracy, as well as its Western vocation and long-term foreign policy alignment with the European Union. Despite Turkey’s EU candidate status, its accession negotiations have been officially frozen since 2018 and it is mostly not included in any strategic initiatives, with the exception of the European Political Community. European skepticism about Turkey’s trajectory and relations with the European Union could lead to frustration in Ankara and undermine a new government if no smart strategy is defined.

The focus of rebuilding relations cannot only be regarding EU accession negotiations. Relations should be stabilized in the short term through a more comprehensive approach. Turkey should be aligned with other countries of wider Europe when it comes to connectivity—energy, information, and transport being the leading areas, while also developing trade relations.

The smart revival of relations will need to outline a path forward. This will need to be substantive, as simply reviving Turkey’s accession negotiations will not be sufficient or real. The United States—which has historically supported Turkey’s membership to Western institutions, including the European Union and its customs union—has a role to play in this period of innovative thinking. The transatlantic allies should have a strategic conversation on the steps ahead. While doing so, the initial decisions in Turkish foreign policy will play an important role.

Turkey will need to move quickly to regain the confidence of its Western partners. The Parliament of Turkey should immediately vote for Sweden’s NATO membership, but in the case of a hung parliament, this may become a negotiation. It should also take action to stop Russian sanctions evasion. It could also divest in S-400s and look to acquire a NATO-compatible system. Complying with the pending European Court of Human Rights decisions will ensure the allies that Turkey will keep its promise to reestablish the rule of law. All these steps will help build trust between allies after years of rupture.

Q5: What would a democratic Turkey mean?

A5: If there is an opposition victory, one message is essential: a democratic Turkey belongs in the Western alliance and the European community. This message not only has symbolic value but also would encourage investors in the short term. Turkey’s economic reconstruction will be the most important agenda item in the aftermath of the elections. The rest of the process of improving relations needs innovative thinking and patience. Realistic transformation of the relations will take time. But in case of change, Western allies should coordinate the best way to give that message loud and clear.

Ilke Toygür is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Ilke Toygür
Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program