(Bloomberg) -- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is likely to throw his weight behind Mark Rutte to become the next NATO chief within weeks after the Dutch prime minister visits Istanbul Friday.

Turkey’s backing is likely in turn to prompt Romanian President Klaus Iohannis to back away from his own bid for the post.

Rutte is paying for the trip to Istanbul with his own money, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter, as the Dutch leader looks to shore up support from Turkey to back him to succeed NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg when he steps down from his post in October. 

Erdogan is expected to make his decision after receiving Rutte, according to several Turkish officials familiar with the president’s thinking. They said the president is likely to favor the Dutch leader’s candidacy but that the decision ultimately rests with Erdogan himself. 

The top NATO job will be critical in the years ahead, amid growing doubts about the US commitment to Europe and the potential victory of former president Donald Trump. The NATO chief will have to continue corralling allies’ support for Ukraine in defending itself against Russia, while also preventing any further escalation between Moscow and the military alliance.  

NATO allies aim to agree on Stoltenberg’s successor by the time foreign ministers meet for an informal gathering in Prague by the end of May. The US and other big countries backing Rutte had hoped to formalize it at a gathering in April. But Romania’s surprise move in March to put Iohannis forward delayed the process, even as many officials say his candidacy came too late to dent support for Rutte.

With 28 nations out of 32 already backing the Dutch leader for the job, Turkey’s approval could in turn lead Iohannis to concede the race, officials familiar with the deliberations inside NATO said, as any candidate needs unanimous support from all allies. That would leave Slovakia and Hungary as the final remaining holdouts on Rutte. 

Iohannis’ goal is not to block a decision about the next NATO chief, Romanian officials said. They added that if the Romanian leader steps aside, he would seek to secure clear commitments from Rutte about how the alliance’s policies would reflect Eastern Europe’s priorities, as well as the region’s representation among top posts.

Hungary could emerge as a bigger obstacle to Rutte’s candidacy, after the Dutch leader frequently criticized the erosion of democracy under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, several officials said. It’s unclear what, if any, concessions Hungary is seeking for its backing, one of the officials said. 

“We certainly can’t support the election of someone for the position of NATO secretary general who in the past has tried to bring Hungary down to its knees,” Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said in March. 

Although Rutte isn’t pleased with the recent signals from Hungary, he believes he can get Turkey and Hungary on board, according to people familiar with his thinking.

Turkey is keen to ensure that the next NATO chief won’t have a bias toward the alliance’s European Union members, Bloomberg reported previously. Meanwhile, countries from the eastern flank have raised the issue of geographic representation in talks with Rutte, who has assured them that it’s on his radar. 

--With assistance from Cagan Koc.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.