The results of the upcoming snap parliamentary elections in Turkey might have a great impact on the country’s relations with Russia, which have been dealt a setback by the Kremlin’s campaign in Syria.

A vendor sells Turkish flags for party supporters near a mosque in Istanbul, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015, ahead of the Nov. 1 general elections. Photo: AP

Turkey is set to hold early parliamentary elections on Nov. 1. The result is important for Moscow, since storm clouds are gathering over relations with Ankara.

Turkey divided

The November ballot will be a repeat of the inconclusive June general election, in which none of the parliamentary parties won an absolute majority of seats in the Grand National Assembly, the country’s unicameral parliament. The election will take place in an atmosphere of deep political and social division, the most tragic indicator of which was the bloodthirsty terror attack in Ankara on Oct. 10, which claimed the lives of nearly a hundred people.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, founder of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), called the snap election with one objective in mind: to restore his party’s absolute majority in parliament, which it lost in summer.

But despite the tough line of the Islamo-conservatives, who have dominated Turkish politics for more than a decade largely through bullying the political opposition (particularly leftist pro-Kurdish forces), a de facto war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and their refusal to compromise with other social movements, the latest opinion polls show that the AKP can count on the same 40 percent slice of the vote that it got five months ago. 

In contrast, the leading opposition force, the center-left Republican People’s Party, could improve its performance to 30-31 percent. If the far-right Nationalist Movement Party and the left-leaning, ethnic minority-backed People’s Democratic Party again win seats, it would only complicate the political deadlock in Turkey’s divided society.

The Syria factor

The “Syria factor” has a strong grip on the internal political life of the country — and not simply because of Turkey’s more than four million refugees from neighboring countries forced to flee the civil war in Syria. Ever since the start of the Syrian standoff, the AKP government has supported its founder Erdogan’s desire to overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Ankara has always treated with caution, if not outright hostility.

Ankara’s longing to achieve decisive political change in Syria has resulted in close cooperation with the United States, other NATO leaders and the reactionary monarchist regimes of the Persian Gulf, in particular Saudi Arabia. Inside this new “holy alliance” Turkey is without fear or favor, adhering to the positions previously outlined by Erdogan and his faithful ally, Turkish Prime Minister and AKP leader Ahmet Davitoglu.

It is quite logical, therefore, that Russian-Turkish relations should feel the impact of Russia’s air campaign in support of the Syrian government.

Since the very beginning of the Syrian conflict, Ankara’s bet has been on toppling the Assad regime and providing real political and logistical support to the Free Syrian Army and those forces Turkish politicians call the “moderate opposition.” Turkish supplies of arms, ammunition, food and medicines have flowed across the border to the “moderate” anti-Assad rebels.

Russia’s arrival on the Syrian scene in late September, followed by violations of Turkish airspace by Russian jets, provoked outrage and condemnation in Ankara. Turkey, together with its NATO allies and Saudi Arabia, demanded an “immediate end to the attacks on the Syrian opposition and civilians.”

Erdogan has stated that “Russia’s friendship with Turkey is at stake.” Ankara is no doubt alarmed by the expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), but judging by its actions, the ruling AKP views the Assad regime and the Kurdish national movement, in both Turkey and Syria, as the far greater threat.

Russia-Turkey cooperation at risk

The “Syria rift” between Ankara and Moscow could have a major impact on economic and energy cooperation between the two powers. First Erdogan and then Davitoglu have openly declared that Turkey could reconsider its gas and energy ties with Russia.

In other words, Ankara may withdraw from the ambitious Turkish Stream project, which could ultimately cost Russia anywhere from $14 billion to $20 billion. The Turkish authorities have also made it clear that they can do without Russian assistance in the construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant.

It is hard to disagree with Moscow State University Professor Aleksey Fenenko’s assertion that to date “Moscow-Ankara relations have been primarily grounded in economics.”

Turkey receives millions of Russian tourists every year, and is a major supplier of textiles in the other direction. These components of bilateral cooperation are unlikely to be jeopardized, but in the sphere of “big politics” the threats are real.

Geography alone means that political tension between Russia and Turkey could negatively affect the situation in the Black Sea-South Caucasus-Central Asia zone.

Turkey is hypervigilant in respect of these three regions, all of which are critical to Russian geopolitical interests. It should not be forgotten also that the United States intends to review the Montreux Convention, which regulates the passage of vessels through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. Ankara’s position here would be decisive.

Recall too the highly negative attitude of the Turkish government to Crimea’s change of status in 2014.

Russian International Affairs Council expert Timur Mahmetov is hopeful that the personal meeting between the two presidents scheduled for the sidelines of the G20 summit in Antalya in a few weeks’ time might lessen the tension.

Let us hope that happens even if Turkey has still not managed to elect a new government. All the same, figuratively speaking, the sky above Russian-Turkish relations is darkening.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.