Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and presidential candidate of the Turkish opposition National Alliance (Millet), posted a video message on his Twitter account on May 6, captioned: “Neither West nor East, this is the Way of the Turk.”
Contrary to many expert assumptions, if the Turkish opposition emerged victorious in the elections, it is not guaranteed that Turkey would realign itself with the west. Instead, it is likely that Ankara would continue pursuing a foreign policy that maintains a balanced and nuanced approach.
In his video, which has been viewed over 20 million times, Kilicdaroglu rejected the claim that Millet is pro-western and revealed his “ambitious” project: Connecting Turkey with the Turkic states and China by revitalizing the historical Silk Road:
“We will open a fast, new trade and transport corridor, a highway. Along this corridor, we will create a high-capacity highway and double-track railway infrastructure.”
Connecting the Turkic world
According to Kilicdaroglu, this route will stretch over 5,500 km of terrain: Starting from Turkiey's frontier towns Gurbulak (Agri) and Kapikoy (Van), passing through Tabriz and Tehran in Iran, Ashgabat in Turkmenistan, Tashkent in Uzbekistan, and Almaty in Kazakhstan, with China as the final destination.
The project aims to provide China with a connection to the Black Sea and European ports via the Gurbulak route, as well as to the Mediterranean through the Kapikoy route, and encompassing the Mersin and Iskenderun ports.
The CHP leader’s proposal envisions linking the Turkic states to Turkish ports. “Turkiye will be the sea gateway of the Turkic world,” he said, noting that the ambitious project may raise concerns in the west. But he also issued a warning to China on the plight of its Muslim Uyghur population, stating:
“This is a project that is beneficial for China, therefore, the cessation of the oppression against Turkistan would be one of our prerequisites. We will not abandon our compatriots there to their fate.”
Kilicdaroglu has portrayed the railway as a “win-win” project, in which the US could conduct trade with this region via Turkish ports, while Turkey would facilitate easier trade between Asia and Europe. The project will resonate with domestic audiences too, especially ethno-nationalist Turks: Turkey is going to be more integrated with the Turkic world – aligning with the aspirations of pan-Turkism.
Erdogan’s ‘brother’ in Baku
However, Kilicdaroglu’s proposal notably omitted any mention of fellow Turkic nation Azerbaijan, which has caused a significant backlash. Azerbaijani news outlets, including prominent agency Report.az, published a harsh criticism against Kilicdaroglu:
“The idiosyncratic, nonsensical project serves to weaken the Turkic world by making it dependent on Iran and China, as well as destroying the Zangezur Corridor project.”
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev openly supports Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in his electoral race against Kilicdaroglu. Amid the ongoing election campaign, Aliyev attended TEKNOFEST Aerospace and Technology Festival in Istanbul and praised “his brother” Erdogan and his son-in-law Selcuk Bayraktar, the founder of TEKNOFEST and the chairman of Turkish drone manufacturer Baykar.
Rumblings were heard inside Turkey as well. Azerbaijani MP Hikmet Babaoglu, speaking to Turkish media outlet Anadolu, emphasized that the relationship between Ankara and Baku is built on the principle of “one nation, two states.” He also argued that “This would benefit neither the Turkic world nor Turkey.”
Another MP, Vugar Bayramov argued that it is not realistic to call Kilicdaroglu’s project the “Turkish road”:
“Because this project does not pass through Azerbaijan. It is not correct to call any transportation project that does not pass through Azerbaijan as a ‘Turkish road.’ It should also be taken into account that the project will pass through Iran, which is under European sanctions.”
MP Behruz Meherremov reacted on social media, accusing Kilicdaroglu and Millet of “representing the will of the west,” and claiming the opposition leader is going “to destroy the great ideals of the Turkic world.”
CHP’s new West Asia project
There are six political parties in the Millet Alliance, one of which is Gelecek (Future) led by Ahmet Davutoglu, a staunch opponent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who previously served as Erdogan’s foreign minister during the early stages of the Syrian crisis.
Two ways of ending a campaign for #Turkey’s elections:— Ragıp Soylu (@ragipsoylu) May 13, 2023
• Kilicdaroglu, on the left, visited Ataturk’s mausoleum in Ankara left flowers
• Erdogan, on the right, attended the evening prayers at Hagia Sophia pic.twitter.com/BwxGX5TqqK
However, the red-hot Turkish political debate over the country’s millions of Syrian refugees has led the CHP to promise to normalize ties with Damascus, so that these refugees can return home. Kilicdaroglu’s top foreign policy adviser Unal Cevikoz, told Swiss Neue Zürcher Zeitung that “there is no other way than dialog with President Assad.”
But Damascus has vowed to not give an inch until Ankara withdraws its troops from territories in Syrian’s north. Regarding this Turkish military presence in Syria, Çevikoz has said:
“Assad is demanding this (withdrawal of Turkish troops) because he does not trust Erdogan. We will not accept preconditions for talks. But if we are sure that Syrian territory no longer poses a threat to Turkiye and that border protection is working, then we can talk about the military presence.”
But Syria is not the only regional state in the CHP’s sights. Kilicdaroglu announced last month that he plans to establish a “Middle East Peace and Cooperation Organization” with three Turkey's three neighbors:
“Turkiye, Iran, Iraq and Syria, why don’t we come together? Why do we look at each other differently in the face of what is happening in the Middle East? The problem can be solved. We can come together and make a special effort to at least alleviate the suffering of the people. All of these things can happen.”
In one of his video messages, Kilicdaroglu said his government will establish a protocol with Syria, the EU, and the UN to solve the problem of Syrian refugees, and warned the EU that “they have to be part of it, otherwise there will be no Iraq, no Syria, everyone will be at the gates of Europe.”
Kilicdaroglu’s geopolitical vision
While Kilicdaroglu criticizes the EU’s refugee policy and readmission agreement, his vision involves “correcting” relations with the west. In terms of Russia, for example, Cevikoz said that if the CHP were to win the election, they would “remind Russia that Turkiye is a NATO member.” Kilicdaroglu emphasized that he would reorient Turkey and prioritize relations with the west over the Kremlin in an interview with a BBC correspondent. The CHP’s overall objective is to “reset” relations with the EU and the west.
However, it is evident that Russia will continue to be an important partner for Turkey after the elections. During his visit to Antalya, a popular vacation destination for Russian tourists and home to many expats, Kilicdaroglu dismissed claims that he would engage in a fight with Moscow. He stressed that his intention is not to alienate Russia, stating: “We will embrace everyone. We have nothing to do with fighting.”
In 2022, Turkey's tourism revenue reached a record $46.3 billion, with 5.23 million Russian tourists visiting the country. While the number of Russian tourists has decreased since 2019 and the number of European tourists increased, Russian tourism continues to hold significant revenue benefits for Turkey.
Similarly, although the share of Russian gas in Turkish imports has decreased while Azerbaijani gas has gradually increased, Russian natural gas still accounted for 45 percent of Turkiye’s total natural gas imports in 2022.
Fortifying the Europe-Asia bridge
If Kilicdaroglu were to win the polls, a dramatic shift in Turkiye’s foreign policy should not be expected. However, his “Silk Road” project serves several purposes.
First, the project aligns with the broader aim of repositioning Turkiye as a Eurasian trade corridor, particularly in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and trade tensions between the US and China. Both Kilicdaroglu and Erdogan share the goal of reinventing Turkey as a key player in facilitating trade between these regions. Additionally, the transition towards a “green” economy is a common objective for both leaders.
Turkty's abundant low-wage labor market and well-developed industrial infrastructure further support the concept of creating a trade corridor. The prospect of connecting Europe to China is enticing for Turkish capitalists, as it could attract foreign investment and potentially alleviate Turkey's growing dependency on foreign currency, which may lead to a balance of payments crisis.
Second, this project reinforces Turkey's positioning as an “eastern orientation within the western world.” While the political movement of Eurasianism has not gained significant traction in the country, it is likely to resonate with the western world’s current interest in Eurasian integration.
Turkey aspires to become an indispensable player in bridging Asia and Europe, leveraging its strategic location at the crossroads of these continents. It even occasionally applauds western companies’ decisions to divest from China, in order to present itself as the potential “China of Europe.”
At other times, Turkey plays the role of mediator in conflicts such as the Ukraine-Russia war, and it seeks closer ties with Central Asia through the Caucasus, appealing to pan-Turkic sentiments. Importantly, Turkey's engagement with Central Asia through the Caucasus is unlikely to upset the west, as Ankara established ties with Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Central Asian countries soon after the dissolution of the Soviet Union with the blessing of western nations.
Essentially, Kilicdaroglu’s vision aims to position Turkey as a “western country” with a keen focus on the east. As Asia rises and the west’s influence recedes, regional powers, including Turkiye, seek to establish themselves as indispensable actors for both regions, capitalizing on their strategic advantages.