Erdoğan and Putin: unalike likeness

The leaders of Turkey and Russia are often compared. But their differences are more instructive than their similarities.

(This article was first published on 22 November 2014)

Dimitar Bechev
28 November 2015

Strongmen are in high demand across Europe’s fringes these days. Hungary’s prime minister Victor Orbán hit a raw nerve when, addressing a crowd of admirers in neighbouring Romania in July 2014, he declared that the era of liberal democracy was over. Orbán, the bête noire of many a Europhile, vowed to lead the Hungarian nation with a firm grip and to protect its vital interests against foreign encroachments. Amongst the examples he cited as inspiring this resolve were Russia and Turkey.

Orbán was not the first, nor will he be the last, to put Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the same basket. Turkey’s combative prime minister (now president) raised cries of “Putinisation" from his opponents as early as September 2009, when he despatched the tax authorities to impose a $3.8 million fine on Doğan Holding, a powerful media group. 

There were differences: the streetwise businessman turned media mogul Aydın Doğan was treated far less roughly than had been Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his Yukos company.  Erdoğan's personal feud, on this occasion at least, sent no one to prison - and Doğan Holding is still around.

Yet the tax-violation case did echo the painfully familiar Russian maxim: “druzyam - vsyo, vragam - zakon” (“friends get everything, enemies get the law"). The selective application of the law showed who was the boss in Turkey. Soon the spectre of “Putinisation”  would overshadow previous concerns that Erdoğan's Justice & Development Party (AKP) was seeking the Islamisation of society and the state. Turkey, it was said, was turning not into the Islamic Republic of Iran but into a second Russia.  

By 2013, with Erdoğan’s security clampdown on the civic protests around Istanbul's Gezi Park - and his enthronement as a sultan-like president a year later - the parallel with the Kremlin's master was becoming even more salient. After all, Putin himself had reoccupied the presidency in 2012 in the wake of the protest rallies at Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square, having proved adept - again like Erdoğan - at exploiting the anger and frustration of a disenchanted urban middle class that had benefited from a decade of robust economic growth but was now feeling less secure.

Their responses to the protests were similar in style if different in detail. Putin spied a plot to export a "colour revolution", Erdoğan a conspiracy fomented by the global “interest-rate lobby” to thwart Turkey’s inexorable rise. In each case the leader's rhetorical and, latterly real, wars paid off. Putin annexed Crimea and detached parts of eastern Ukraine, in the process showing how foreign policy can be used to consolidate domestic support. Erdoğan had already bolstered his popularity via virulent attacks on Israel as well as the United States, and deployed the same fiery nationalist discourse over the conflict in Syria. 

In both cases too, relations with the European Union have been poisoned amid Moscow and Ankara's frequent recriminations and complaints of unfair treatment. Rejection by Europe has brought the two supposed "rising powers" closer, an embrace helped by the good personal chemistry between Erdoğan and Putin (notwithstanding the indirect clash over Syria, where they back opposing sides). Turkey, a longstanding Nato member, has declined to join western sanctions against Russia over Ukraine; bilateral trade is booming (partly fuelled by the Turkish economy's need for gas); Turkey’s construction companies earn lucrative contracts from Sochi to Moscow; and millions of Russian tourists flock to Turkey's Mediterranean resorts.

Power and its constraints

It is to be expected, then, that some analysts see Erdoğan and Putin as two sides of the same coin. Natalie Nougayrède, writing in the Guardian, speaks of “the two angry men on Europe’s borders” who ruthlessly pursue power, exploit historical traumas and myths of victimhood, and mix nationalism and anti-liberal traditionalism to pose a fundamental challenge to European values. Others refer to an "axis of the excluded”.

There is certainly a grain of truth in these views. Both Turkey's illiberal system and Russia's autocratic regime snub the model projected by the west - and the European Union in particular; both leaders seek inspiration in past empires (Ottoman and Tsarist-Soviet) rather than Brussels’ EU-topia. They are a poignant reminder that liberal democracy with its insistence on the rule of law, pluralism and deliberation is not the only game in town. The alternative they represent - the omnipresent and venerated state, the strong-willed and charismatic leader, the direct appeal to the masses through the skilful use of media, the staunch belief in sovereignty, and the reluctance to delegate or share power (either domestically or in the context of international institutions) - is a radical contrast to the EU’s narrative.

Yet differences between the two strongmen and their political tactics may outweigh similarities. First, the mismatch between Erdoğan’s anti-western rhetoric and his far more restrained actions is notable. The regional crisis has underscored Turkey’s continued dependence on the west. Erdoğan's anger with the US - over its aid to the Syrian Kurds fighting Islamic State jihadis in Kobane, and its refusal to intervene forcefully against Bashar al-Assad in Damascus - exposes Turkey's continued military dependency: it needs Nato’s Patriot missiles to be deployed along its porous border with Syria, and even more US "boots on the ground" to help address Turkey's vulnerability.

By contrast, Putin’s grudge is that the the US and EU are meddling in what he sees as Russia's privileged sphere of influence; thus the incursion into Ukraine to expunge western influence away from the post-Soviet space and control Kyiv’s choices by way of creating a new "frozen conflict".

Second, there are divergences in domestic politics. In Putin’s authoritarian system, elections are a mere sideshow and the Duma rubber-stamps the Kremlin's decisions; under Erdoğan and the AKP, electoral legitimacy matters, and political authority is a function of it. Turkey's polarised society generates a political system, which, for all its flaws, is more competitive than Russia's. It shares and benefits from a longer tradition of (albeit imperfect) democracy. While Putin’s regime is about creating and sustaining fake opposition parties and staging elections, in Turkey ballots do count. Erdoğan’s choice to run for the presidency was conditioned by the AKP's strong showing in the municipal polls of 31 March. 

Looking ahead, the legislative elections of 2015 will be critical for the government as they will decide whether AKP will win enough seats to adopt a new constitutional draft and bring in a presidential system. Again, this confirms the importance of elections and institutions do matter in Turkey compared to Russia. After all, Erdoğan is an electoral politician who worked his way up from the streets of Istanbul to the peak of power; Putin is a security operative whose roots lie in the state's repressive apparatus.

The roots of difference

If the outcome in Turkey were highly personalised rule where one individual grabs all levers of power and suppresses dissent, such distinctions might seem irelevant. Here it is important to note that key parts of the AKP pro-democracy narrative of the early 2000s - when the party acted as a champion of Europeanisation, human and minority rights - remain in place. The Kurdish peace (or solution) process has been dealth a heavy blow by Ankara’s alignment with IS and unwillingness to come to the rescue of the Syrian Kurds, yet it survives. Erdoğan, together with the jailed head of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, remains at the forefront of efforts to heal a scar that has torn Turkey’s polity for decades. Whether Turkey’s president delivers or not on the promise to settle the conflict will determine the final judgment on his reign.

Furthermore, Erdoğan and Putin relate in dissimilar ways to tradition and religious identity.  The war in Ukraine has exposed the heterogeneous and tenuous nature of the Kremlin’s ideological message, which combines references to Orthodoxy with glorification of the Soviet past. Putin's bid to undermine western ideological hegemony has also seen him join forces with both Europe's far left and the extreme right; in ways reminiscent of Slobodan Milošević’s Serbia, communist-era apparatchiks and security-service types (siloviki) have co-opted culture and faith - and consulted PR experts - to concoct a postmodern pastiche whose sole purpose is legitimising autocracy.

Again by contrast, the AKP and Erdoğan draw on a longer organic tradition of political Islam whose roots lie in the 1960s (if not earlier). Its central preoccupation is the question of whether and how religious values and modernity can be reconciled. Erdoğan's image as an “authentic“ conservative - as opposed to self-seeking politician using tradition as a mere tool - might be questioned; but it is central to the identity of the AKP’s cohesive party base and its dense grassroots networks. And it's worth recalling that Erdoğan was educated at a religious seminary (imam hatip)  - a far cry from the Soviet schools attended by Putin, following by KGB training.

Empire vs nation-state

The best way to see this relationship might be in terms of two dissimilar post-imperial situations. Putin is a product of the Soviet empire as well of its collapse in the 1980s-90s. His objective is to restore its power and prestige. Russia, unlike Turkey, never underwent a process of nation-state homogenisation; empire is a vivid reality even in its present confines, rather than a historical artefact and resource of memory (Russia is home to a large Muslim population, Turkey has very few non-Muslims left).

Erdoğan springs from a distinctively nation-state context, one where key parts of the Ottoman legacy were suppressed. He chose to reinvent Turkey’s identity, pushing (Sunni) Islam and the Ottomans to the forefront to refight a struggle against Kemalists. Rather than redrawing borders, his quasi-imperial mission abroad envisages establishing Turkey as a political and economic model for the Middle East and north Africa.

But in fairness, the much vaunted bonds between Turkey and its neighbours (cultural, linguistic, migratory) are nowhere near those that connect Russia to its "near abroad". Millions across the ex-Soviet Union, regardless of their ethnicity, have direct access to Putin’s message through the medium of Russian as a lingua franca. Putin’s neighbourhood policy is alive and kicking: the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) is officially launched on 1 January 2015; Erdoğan’s, after so much effort to harness Ottoman nostalgia, crashed with Syria's war, the military coup in Egypt, and Iraq’s implosion.

That does not give Putin has an easier ride than Erdoğan. The Kremlin oscillates between inclusive schemes of Eurasian unification where economic integration renews political bonds across the Soviet Union and ethnocentric phantasms of a Russkii Mir (Russian world). Its imperial ambitons are constrained by a xenophobic public opinion in Russia, where a minority of thugs is ever ready to lash out at immigrants from central Asia and the Caucasus. The dilution of borders in the EEU might prove a hard sell, which has not been the case in Turkey’s dealings with its neighbours. Tensions between parochial and exclusionary nationalism and imperial expansionism are a formidable challenge to Putin’s regime.

Comparing Putin and Erdoğan is an interesting exercise. Juxtaposing them is even more fruitful. For all the commonalities, it is the differences between the two leaders that provide most insight into today’s Turkey and Russia.

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