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‘Real partner’: Kılıçdaroğlu seeks softer foreign policy touch

Kemal Kilicdaroglu

Chairman of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu speaks at the parliament during his group speech in Ankara on March 7, 2023. Kılıçdaroğlu has been endorsed by five parties to be an opposition alliance joint presidential candidate in the country's May 14, 2023, general elections. ADEM ALTAN / AFP

If it is victorious in Sunday’s general election, the Turkish opposition led by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu pledges to restore trust with Washington and Europe while repairing ties with Syria, Agence France-Presse reported.

A regional power of 85 million people and NATO’s bridgehead in the Middle East, Turkey gradually detached itself from Western allies during President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s 21-year rule.

Ahmet Ünal Çeviköz, a former ambassador and special adviser to Erdoğan’s main rival, thinks a diplomatic reversal and a transition to more democratic rule go hand-in-hand.

“Most of our problems with the European Union stem from the lack of democracy in Turkey,” Çeviköz told AFP ahead of the tight parliamentary and presidential elections.

A return to the rule of law, which Western states accuse Erdoğan of eroding during his second decade in power, will change Turkey’s image abroad, Çeviköz said.

“It will become a very real partner,” he promised.

Turkey’s accession talks with the European Union were frozen less than a decade after it applied to join in 1999.

European powers such as France had reservations about admitting the majority Muslim nation, and Erdoğan began to feel resentful as the talks dragged on.

Çeviköz said it was vital to revive the process because it “helps the democratization of the country.”

A member of Kılıçdaroğlu’s secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), Çeviköz also backs extending a 2016 migrant deal with the EU.

Brussels sent billions of euros to Ankara in return for Turkey hosting roughly 5 million people fleeing war-torn countries, particularly neighboring Syria.

Çeviköz said the opposition wants to “revitalize and review [the deal] to make it more effective.”

The CHP also plans to launch the Syrians’ “voluntary and dignified” return, which Çeviköz views as part of a broader reassessment of Turkey and the EU’s migration stances.

“The [migration] problem concerns Europe as much as Turkey,” he said. “But the EU does not have a migration policy.”

Erdoğan’s ‘mistake’

Turkey has become one of NATO’s most unruly members in the latter years of Erdoğan’s rule.

Çeviköz stressed the importance of Turkey’s membership of the US-led military alliance, which was shaken by Erdoğan’s decision to purchase advanced missiles from Russia.

Washington expelled Turkey from its F-35 joint strike fighter program in retaliation.

Analysts felt that Moscow had successfully inserted a wedge in Ankara’s relations with the West.

“Turkey’s national defense is very much enhanced by its membership in NATO,” Çeviköz said.

He called the Russian purchase “a mistake” that “cost us a lot.”

Turkey’s position in NATO has been further complicated by its refusal to let Sweden join the bloc in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Ankara wants Stockholm to extradite suspects it links to a Kurdish insurgency and a failed 2016 coup attempt.

Sweden has been toughening its anti-terrorism laws in response to Turkey’s pressure, planning to put new legislation before parliament on June 1.

Çeviköz acknowledged Stockholm’s “progress,” saying this “will certainly ease the way for Sweden’s membership.”

‘Balance’ with Russia

At the same time, Çeviköz signaled no significant break from Erdoğan’s approach to Moscow.

Wartime trade with Russia has boomed despite Turkey’s decision to supply Kyiv with weapons.

Erdoğan benefitted from a pre-election rebate on Russian energy and used his Kremlin ties to set up truce talks in the first months of the Ukraine war, boosting his stature at home.

“Turkey has always pursued a very balanced approach during the Cold War,” Çeviköz said.

“Why not continue the same kind of balanced approach?”

“After the resolution of the Ukrainian conflict, there is the future architecture of European security” to consider, he said.

Such logic, similar to that adopted by French President Emmanuel Macron, worries Washington.

So does the region’s reconciliation with Syria, which Çeviköz wholeheartedly backs.

Ankara’s ties with Damascus were severed when Erdoğan began backing rebel efforts to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2011.

But Syria this week was readmitted to the Arab League, and Erdoğan is now seeking a summit with Assad, which Damascus is refusing until Turkey pulls all its troops out of Syria.

“We want to resume an unconditional dialogue” with Syria, Çeviköz said.

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