Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) enjoyed strong public support during the first decade of its 20-year rule, but since the December 2013 corruption investigations, in which the close circle of then-prime minister Erdoğan was implicated, the party has been involved in the establishment of an oppressive regime to cover up the crimes committed by party members and to stay in power. Erdoğan moved away from Europe’s democratic norms to avoid accountability and in the process built a strong economic and political relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Following a controversial coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016, he continued destroying Turkey’s democratic institutions and built an illiberal authoritarian regime. Whether or not Putin will be successful in occupying Ukraine, Western powers have already isolated the Putin regime through harsh economic sanctions, and Erdoğan may not be able to continue his draconian regime in Turkey without the support of Putin.
There are some unusual similarities between Putin and Erdoğan. Putin came to power in 1999 and is currently serving his fourth term as president. There was then a brief period consisting of a job swap between him and his then-prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, in 2008, before he returned to the presidency in 2012. Putin received criticism for amending the constitution in April 2021 to allow him to serve two more presidential terms, potentially keeping him in power until 2036. European election observers reported fraud in Russia’s December 2011 parliamentary election as well as in its 2012 and 2018 presidential elections. Thousands of Russians were arrested for protesting and accusing Putin of stealing votes in those elections. Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was arrested on Jan. 17, 2021, formed the Anti-Corruption Foundation and accused Putin of corruption.
Erdoğan co-founded the AKP in 2001, and the party came to power in 2002. Erdoğan as well as Putin achieved great economic success during the first 10 years of their rule as Turkey and Russia both recorded continuing economic growth during that period. As Putin dreamed of re-establishing the Russian Empire, Erdoğan embarked on military adventures in Syria, Libya and northern Iraq and established a huge military base in Somalia, with a view to reviving the Ottoman Empire. Some European election observers and opposition parties have reported fraud in Turkey’s elections since November 2015. Erdoğan covered up the Dec. 17-25, 2013 corruption investigations targeting his inner circle including his own son Bilal Erdoğan. Navalny released videos accusing Putin of corruption that received more than 70 million hits, while millions of Turks listened to the leaked voice records of Erdoğan instructing his son to dispose of hidden cash amid the corruption investigation.
Despite Turkey having shot down a Russian fighter jet in November 2015, Erdoğan managed to maintain his close relationship with Putin after he expressed regret for the incident to Putin in June 2016. A year after the downing of the Russian warplane, Erdoğan visited Putin in St. Petersburg, on Aug. 9, 2016. The Russian government lifted a travel ban for its citizens to visit Turkey, thereby normalizing relations. This also happened to be the Turkish leader’s first trip to Russia after the July 15 failed coup in Turkey. Erdoğan ordered Russia’s S-400 ground-to-air missile defense system despite fierce opposition from the US and defense equipment sanctions on Turkey since Ankara is a NATO member. Turkey, Russia and Iran initiated the Astana peace talks on a Syria peace settlement in December 2016, and Putin and Erdoğan had several face-to-face meetings in the following years. Erdoğan sided with Putin during the Venezuelan presidential crisis in January 2019, and Ankara subsequently built strong relations with the regime of Nicolás Maduro, which many Western governments including the US recognized as opposition to Juan Guaidó and the legitimate government.
Putin largely turned a blind eye to Turkey’s military support of Azerbaijan’s war against Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh, while Moscow expressed support for Armenia-Turkey relations.
Turkey opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and Erdoğan criticizes Putin’s decision to recognize Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states, but Erdoğan stated that Turkey wants to maintain good relations with both Ukraine and Russia. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu tried hard to find a solution to the Ukraine crisis by hosting the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers in Antalya on March 10.
Of course, Turkey has complex relations with Russia as Turkey shares a maritime border with Ukraine and Russia in the Black Sea. Turkey has ethnic, cultural and religious ties to the Central Asian countries that got their independence from the Soviet Union during the early ’90s. Russia and Turkey are key partners in trade and investment, with bilateral trade reaching $30 billion in 2021. Energy constitutes an important element of the relations between the two countries as the TurkStream Pipeline and Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant projects are being carried out with Russia. Millions of Russian tourists flock to Turkey every year, and Russia is a big market for Turkish construction firms as well as for agriculture, textile and other exports. Turkish firms have completed more than 2,000 projects with a total value exceeding $80 billion in Russia.
Turkey and Russia have always made an effort to maintain harmonious relations, but it is obvious that Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia after the downing of the Russian jet came at the expense of Putin taking the Erdoğan regime hostage and that Turkey is paying the price to calm Putin. Erdoğan oligarch Ethem Sancak and Doğu Perinçek, the leader of Turkey’s ultra-nationalist Motherland Party, visited Moscow last week to maintain a good relationship with Russia amid the Ukraine war. Perinçek is known as Turkey’s “shadow” defense minister as he has strong control over many Turkish generals. These generals are known as Eurasia groups as they are close to Russia and in a strong position in the Turkish army since Erdoğan purged more than 150 Turkish generals and thousands of high-ranking army officers who served at NATO.
Nordic Monitor cited Henri Barkey, director of the Middle East Program at the Washington-based Wilson Center, as saying in February 2018 that “many of the generals dismissed by the Turkish government were pro-NATO and pro-American, foreseeing a possible shift in Turkey-NATO relations.” Perinçek told the media at his party headquarters in İstanbul on Tuesday that Turkey should not recognize the sanctions on Russia and that Ankara must side with Russia. Referring to the post-coup purge in the military, he mentioned that pro-NATO Turkish generals are all in prison and that Turkey could benefit from the US sanctions on Russia.
Putin’s Russia might invade all of Ukraine but should be prepared to face severe political and economic isolation. The Russian leader may no longer be focused on backing his close authoritarian allies including Erdoğan. The weakened Putin regime’s failure to support Erdoğan’s rule may encourage the pro-Western opposition in Turkey to unite more forcefully against the Erdoğan regime. Turkey’s ruling AKP may not be able to win the upcoming 2023 general election amid record inflation that has left the Turkish people without basic necessities.