ISTANBUL—Turkey’s opposition is accusing Russia of trying to influence Sunday’s elections in order to keep President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in office as several polls suggest he is on the verge of losing power.
Although Erdogan’s ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin have long raised alarm, a sex tape scandal is shaping up to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Muharrem İnce, a presidential candidate who led the main opposition party in 2018, left the race this week over rumors of an alleged sex tape spread online. The candidate claimed that the tape was a deepfake and said he had gone through a false character assassination.
Soon after, the presidential candidate for Turkey’s opposition, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, accused Russia of spreading deepfakes and conspiracies, including “tapes that were exposed in this country yesterday.”
“Get your hands off the Turkish state,” he wrote in a tweet on Thursday.
Kilicdaroglu told Reuters that he had concrete evidence to back up his statement, but the Kremlin has denied his accusation.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, a parliament member of the second largest party in Kilicdaroglu’s coalition said that—while he didn’t know the alleged evidence that was behind the statement—it was clear that Moscow was “assisting” Erdogan in his bid to stay in power.
“For sure that the Russians are intervening differently in the elections,” said Ahmet Erozan, who helps lead foreign affairs for the Good Party.
Just three days before the election, Reuters reported that Russia was postponing a bill for $600 million in natural gas payments to next year. Erozan, a former ambassador, said the delay in payment was a way for Moscow to contribute to Erdogan’s campaign, adding that there was an “abnormal hike” in trade between the two countries.
The country’s tanking economy is considered the top reason Erdogan may lose, as massive inflation means citizens are being inundated with rising sticker-shock prices for everything from onions to their gas bills.
Erozan said that Turkish-Russian ties had gotten “too personal”—dependent on relations between the two leaders rather than one led by state institutions—and Moscow might have to readjust its approach to Ankara.
“The Russians, they put all the eggs into the basket of Erdogan, all the eggs. Now, after the results of the election, they will come to face the reality,” he said. “Turkey will not be Erdogan’s Turkey.”
Erzoan believed that billions of dollars in the central bank that was of unknown origins was coming from Russia.
Peas in a Pod
A person with close contact to the Turkish government said the Russian president wants Erdogan to win because Putin would face less criticism having a president on the global stage with a similar leadership style and political leanings, such as a lack of respect for press freedom.
“He [Putin] wants more people like him so he doesn’t stand out,” they told The Daily Beast. “If they’re all bad guys they don’t stand out anymore… They’re similar and they survive together.”
The person compared the situation to when Trump was president, stating that Turkey got less attention about rights and freedoms in the country because the criticism was focused on Trump.
“When Trump was in office, it was good for us,” they added.
Hisyar Ozsoy, a MP and deputy chairman with the pro-Kurdish HDP with a focus on foreign affairs, said Erdogan was clearly Putin’s choice for a leader in Turkey. He cited the postponement of gas payments as a top way Russia had helped the Turkish president, which limited the rise in people’s utility bills, as well as sending money to Turkey for the nuclear power plant.
“President Putin wants Erdogan as his partner in Turkey so those were some of the ways he eased pressure on Erdogan before the elections,” he told The Daily Beast.
Putin heaped praise on the Turkish president three weeks before the elections during a ceremony for Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, which was funded by Russia.
Putin said the ceremony and power plant showed how much Erdogan was doing for the country, the economy and “for all Turkish citizens,” Russia’s state news agency TASS reported.
Putin’s on-camera appearance came as Erdogan canceled in-person events over an apparent illness, giving the Turkish president a boost at a time when his strongman image had been dented.
“I think Putin supports Erdogan, and clearly would prefer Erdogan,” Gulru Gezer, a former senior counselor at Turkey’s embassy in Moscow from 2017 to 2020, told The Daily Beast.
She said that Russia has been cautious due to facing speculation of intervening in other countries’ elections.
“I know the Russians are treating this very carefully,” Gezer said.
Gezer said the similar personality traits of Putin and Erdogan—including projecting strength and charisma—have helped them bond, and pointed to their nearly monthly phone calls as an example of an uncommonly close relationship between leaders.
While she stressed that the two countries would have to maintain relations regardless of who wins the election, she said the simple fact that the Russian president has had decades of experience dealing with Erdogan would make it easier to work with him.
“If he doesn’t respect the person he’s sitting with, he doesn’t have closer ties,” Gezer said. “He also has this relationship based on respect with Erdogan because he knows that when Erdogan gives a promise he delivers it.”
Gezer said that Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet that Ankara said had violated its airspace showed the Kremlin that the Turkish government would stand its ground.
Beyond that, Russia easing its financial demands to Turkey has been a big boost for Erdogan.
The dwindling Turkish lira has broken records for its fall against the dollar this year and the official inflation rate was reported at 44 percent in April. But independent economists have said the number is much higher, sometimes reporting double the rate the government gives.
Since Turkey is dependent on foreign imports for its energy, that devalued currency has meant a major increase in utility prices—and a lot of the bills are paid to Russia, which has supplied about 40 percent of Turkey’s natural gas imports.