Erdoğan in the footsteps of Vladimir Putin

The similarities between the strong men of Turkey and Russia are not limited to their love for lavish places and dislike of alcohol

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was not there when Russia celebrated its Victory Day on May 9 this year with a military parade overseen by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Erdoğan wasn’t the only one who missed the event since Western leaders mostly boycotted the ceremony, protesting Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Erdoğan had a slightly different reason: He was a no-show because Putin had attended ceremonies to commemorate the Armenian Genocide in Yerevan on April 24, in spite of Ankara’s diplomatic advice not to do so.

It is unlikely that Putin’s attendance in the Yerevan event or Erdoğan’s absence on May 9 will affect bilateral relations between Turkey and Russia. The two men had found themselves in disagreement many times before, for example, on Syria or Crimea. But they are united by other traits, such as their shared anti-Western stance. It is also no secret that the two men happen to act despotically at times and they both have a tendency to befriend other strongmen.

Turkey and Russia, located in the purgatory betwixt East and West, seem to be increasingly converging towards a common fate, and the mental and emotional resemblance between their leaders is striking. For example, Putin and Erdoğan have often used the exact same words in response to very similar situations.
Time and again, they have asserted that there are “no political prisoners in Russia” or “the imprisoned journalists in Turkey are not in prison because of their journalistic activities.” People in jail who are political activists or journalists also happen to be tax evaders or terrorists and coup plotters, according to the Turkish and Russian leaders.

With great power comes great responsibility and, of course, a – not always healthy — dose of paranoia. Both Putin and Erdoğan have taken actions that clearly were based on fear following anti-government protests, or after being confronted by what might be a semblance of organized opposition. Putin faced mass protests against his rule in 2011, and later in 2012, although the latter were a bit less enthusiastic. Turkey’s 2013 Gezi Protests changed Erdoğan’s (and everybody else’s) life.

Measures had to be taken!

Erdoğan’s government responded by introducing a new domestic security law, which gives superpowers to Turkish police. Putin also used new legislation to crackdown on civil society in new and inventive ways. To quote a Human Rights Watch report, some of the changes introduced in 2012 and after that year include the “Enforcement of the ‘foreign agents’ law [which has] led to an unprecedented, nationwide inspection campaign of hundreds of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Dozens of groups are fighting the prosecutors in courts, refusing to register as ‘foreign agents’.”

In today’s modern world, strict Internet censorship laws are what set a functioning dictatorship apart from the rest. Both countries now duly have “internet filters,” that supposedly allow one to choose between a family filter and a default  “unfiltered” access, not to mention draconian internet laws or web site access bans.

The two men also share a distaste for booze; a hallmark of today’s health-conscious autocrats. Erdoğan has introduced several restrictions on alcohol. In Russia, beer was declared an alcoholic drink for the first time under Putin. Both countries now have laws restricting alcohol sales near schools and after a certain hour.

Religion has also been a strong weapon of choice both for Erdoğan and Putin, and both Russia and Turkey have seen the boundaries between state and religion get increasingly blurred over the past decade. Erdoğan has taken steps to specifically Islamize the country’s education system. Two years ago, Putin signed a law imposing sentences of up to five years for publicly “insulting the feelings of religious believers.”

This list can no doubt be extended, but of course what really unites the two men is their taste for lavish palaces, preferably built (‘’allegedly,’’ of course) through the improper use of state funds.

Erdoğan’s Palace, built in the middle of the Turkish capital, in spite of court orders declaring it illegal, is called “Kaçak Saray” (literally, the illegal palace, and a pun on the word Ak Saray (White Palace) used by Erdoğan to define his new home).

Although it was built as the “prime minister’s residence” initially, it became Turkey’s new presidential palace after Erdoğan’s election as president. The cost of it has never been revealed officially, but on May 5, Erdoğan said the most “exaggerated number” he could give for the cost of the palace would be 1 billion dollars. The utility bills related with the palace, the monthly expenses to maintain the palace and questions around those have been unanswered by state officials.

The good news is, judging by “Putin’s Palace”, Turkish citizens should simply be happy that there are no known “ownership” issues with Ak Saray.

Putin’s Palace, a luxurious compound on the Black Sea coast, which also cost 1 billion dollars and allegedly was built using state funds, belongs to somebody else on paper. Putin’s unofficial ownership has been well-documented though, by what remains of Russia’s independent media as well as an open letter by a businessman. (It is from this letter that we know Putin’s Palace also cost 1 billion dollars).

Of course, even at his current pace, Erdoğan’s rule pales in comparison with Putin’s classically oppressive regime.

Although it is hard to speak of an independent media in Russia, the country’s most important critical newspaper has seen six of its journalists assassinated over the past 15 years. The most shocking development in the country was the murder of Boris Nemtsov in February this year. The assassination was largely taken as a message to the anti-Putin camp.

Compared to Russia, Turkey has had a longer experience with democracy, first transitioning to a parliamentary monarchy in 1876 (which was also the country’s first parliamentary experience). In the first decade of the 21st century, Turkey became a relatively more democratic society, effectively shaking off the military tutelage system and introducing many pieces EU-compliant legislation. Russia, hoewever, could never take a serious step towards democratization in the post-Soviet era.

Putin enjoys wide public support: 63 percent of voters supported  him in the 2012 elections, compared with Erdoğan’s 52 percent in Turkey’s last presidential election.

Although Erdoğan’s alleged support for ISIS remains an issue that he and his regime need to account for, its consequences have been much less impactful than Putin’s troublesome use of former Chechen rebel and current head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov, accused of severe human rights abuses in the Chechen Republic. Most importantly, the Turkish leader so far has not been implicated in suspicious deaths of political rivals.

Still, if Putin’s example is any indicator of what an autocrat of his caliber is capable of, it becomes even clearer why an even stronger Erdoğan will mean for Turkey. It is also why the elections in June are so crucial for the country.

Although he has recently proven his disrespect for the rule of law, Erdoğan is still confined by the silhouette of what once was a more or less functional parliamentary system. Putin is the president in an actual presidential system.

Corruption, greed and power held by strong leaders often have disastrous consequences for societies, but even a minimal check on autocratic power can make a big difference; render ferocious dictators less dangerous.

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