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How the Russian-Ukrainian war may mark Erdogan’s international rehabilitation

President Putin and President Erdogan at the Berlin Peace Conference on Libya (January 2020) – Source: Kremlin

As the conflict entrenched, some commentators in Europe started questioning the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Western approach to the war. Indeed, the object of the debate is not the diplomatic, military, and financial support to Kyiv’s Establishment, yet whether another, less mutually-detrimental way could not – indeed, should not – be endorsed too. As it stands, peace seems far to be achieved any time soon, but no doubt the longer a negotiation round will take before figuring on the leaders’ agenda, the more politically untenable the positioning of EU Member States risks becoming in the eyes of the citizens.

Here comes into play Europe’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Strongman at home, champion of international peace. The re-discovery of President Erdogan’s centrality on the European stage is one of the countless impacts of the armed confrontation, especially following the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic.

The Astana Summit in mid-October represented the fourth official bilateral meeting between the Russian and Turkish presidents since the start of the hostilities in February. The gas crisis still did not feature in the discussions, but a growing sentiment within the public opinion would see Turkey as the ‘guarantor’ of gas supplies to the Continent.

Since then, EU authorities have not publicly spoken about such a possibility, rather negotiating common tools, such as a cap on energy prices, or the adoption of an alternative index to that of the Dutch stock exchange, subject to excessive financial speculation. This does not mean, however, that NATO Member States could not assign Mr Erdogan a mandate to mediate a ceasefire, eventually paving the way for more structured peace efforts.

Turkey as the guarantor of gas supplies to the EU

Russian-Turkish relations have historically developed along a dual path of cooperation and competition, in what some analysts call an asymmetric interdependence in favour of Moscow.

The most important area of cooperation between the countries is energy, in particular natural gas. With over 33% of gas supplies, Russia is Ankara’s leading supplier, despite the share having gradually decreased from over 60% in 2011 due to the energy diversification policy pursued by Turkey and the entry into the market by a major player today – Azerbaijan.

The gas flows from Russia to Turkey through two underwater pipelines in the Black Sea: the Blue Stream, inaugurated in 2003, and the TurkStream, put into operation in 2020. Constant supplies have always been guaranteed, avoiding interruptions even during some of the most critical phases in bilateral relations, such as the shooting down of a Russian jet in Syria by Turkish forces in October 2015.

Figure 1: Daily Russian pipeline flows to Europe by route in 2022 (MMcm/d)

Source: Data from ENTSOG Transparency Platform. Graph by Mike Fulwood (Senior Research Fellow) and Jack Sharples (Research Fellow), Gas Research Programme, OIES

As shown in Figure 1, the only route witnessing stable flows in 2022 was the Turkish Stream. Gas delivered to Turkey via Turkish Stream flows onwards to South-Eastern Europe (Bulgaria, Greece, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary), and flows are measured at Strandzha-2, along the Turkish-Bulgarian border.

At present, Turkey is likely to be tempted to use its privileged position – both geographically and diplomatically – to redefine the energy and geopolitical balance in a broader area, between Europe, Libya, the Middle East, and Asia.

Indeed, on October 13 President Erdogan met his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Astana, Kazakhstan. During the meeting, Mr Erdogan welcomed the Russian President’s proposal to turn Turkey into a regional hub for natural gas, potentially positioning the country as a key route for Russian flows to Europe.

For President Putin – writes the New York Times – the plan would strengthen trade relations on energy, arms and investments, in a desperate attempt to counter Russia's international isolationism by tightening ties with a strategic NATO member.

On the other hand, Mr Erdogan’s advantages would include low-cost energy, a larger export market, renewed Russian tourism and, above all, the apparent acquiescence in Turkey’s efforts to crush Kurdish separatism in Syria, where Russia supports Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The EU's response lies in the RePowerEU – the product of the Joint European Action for more affordable, secure, and sustainable energy – further planning Europe's long-awaited independence from Russian fossil fuels, but completely precluding the possibility of using the Turkish platform.

The limits of such an operation lie in the lack of infrastructure connecting Turkey with the European market, on top of EU institutions’ aversion to accepting this possibility.

An ‘illiberal’ democracy?

Should President Erdogan’s dreams of glory come true – and more importantly, should effective collaboration materialise on the Ukrainian dossier – it would remain only to understand on what basis the rapprochement would occur between the European authorities and a leader, Mario Draghi himself had referred to as a 'dictator' in the aftermath of the Sofa-gate in April 2021.

Besides the ‘diplomatic incident’ involving the European Commission’s President, Ursula von der Leyen, the origins of such explicit language by Italy’s former PM are to be found in the recent history of the Anatolian country.

The notion of ‘illiberal democracy’ is not new, nor was it coined ad hoc for the Turkish framework. In broad terms, it expresses blurred, illiberal legal and Constitutional constraints, Executives use to be fully responsive to the will of the country’s majority. In such democracies, some empirical consequences have been less-frequent alternation in power, and Constitutional mutations promoted in favour of the ruling party or coalition.

As to Ankara, autocratic shadows descended ever since the thwarted Golpe in July 2016, in response to which Mr Erdogan removed, through a Presidential decree, two Constitutional judges for alleged connection to the uprisings. In addition, the repression deprived the Court of the right of mediation in case of abuses of power by the Presidential Establishment.

Moreover, as noted by the American think-tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the 2017 constitutional referendum witnessed a further spike in political turmoil around the electoral result. On that occasion, the Turks were called upon to vote on a series of amendments to the national Constitution proposed by AKP – Mr Erdogan’s party – de facto transforming the country from a parliamentary into a presidential system.

The ‘yes’ front won by a slight 51.4%, yet the verdict was openly criticised by both the internal opposition, and international observers, for 1.5-2.5 million unstamped ballots having been counted as valid votes. The Turkish law did establish the invalidity of such ballots; however, members of the national electoral board later justified the choice by arguing that those ballot papers had certainly not been forged.

The practical risks of such democratic backsliding include the ‘relativisation’ of the rule of law, along with forms of clientelism, and controlled, state-level corruption.

What future of EU-Turkey relationships?

After the Turkish parliamentary and presidential elections of 2018, the Guardian rightly pointed out how in 2003, when Mr Erdoğan was first appointed as Prime Minister, the public image of the country’s political elite had been severely affected by a harsh financial crisis, driving ballooning inflation and interest rates.

Nonetheless, not only did the leader of the AKP party manage to deliver growth and stability - today the economy is more than twice the size it was in 2003 (see Figure 2) - but he also held office until the 2014 elections, then beginning his reign as the country’s President.

Figure 2: Turkey’s GDP and inflation rate (2000-2021)

Source: World Bank data

Thus, the question arises whether the EU strategy is likely to generate discontent in the longer run, given the growing tensions between Member States in the field of foreign policy and border defence.

After all, in 2021, Turkey rose to become the Union’s sixth trading partner, with a turnover of over EUR 150 million in goods imports and exports, well beyond the amount reached with other G7 countries such as Japan or Canada.

On the other hand, the European Community is grounded on values that go far beyond the free exchange of persons, services, goods, and capital. Respect for the rule of law and the human rights of women and minorities are inescapable dimensions, on which no negotiation shall be reasonably opened.

Despite Turkey's efforts to become the transition region for Russian supplies to be redirected to Europe, the plan appears overall difficult to align. There are limits to such agreements. The European Union will likely not accept the offer and rely on its initial plan to search for resources elsewhere.

More than ever, exogenous factors could also play a crucial role in determining the new geopolitical equilibrium in the region. Take the weather. An unusually cold winter, for instance, would increase gas consumption, while significantly reducing the EU's bargaining power against both the Turkish Executive and the Kremlin.

In the end, given the undeniable difficulties experienced by Russian troops in Ukraine and with increasing international pressure on climate action, Europe can really do nothing but wait. Spring – not so much as a metaphor – will presumably give an answer.


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