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Putin and Erdogan, the dissimilar twins…

Putin and Erdogan, the dissimilar twins…

31. 09. 2016. Turkey-Russia. Portrait of two men with very similar rhetoric and style of power, but whose background and personalities have little resemblance.

After a period of major tensions due to diverging views on Syria and after a Turkish F16 shot down a Russian bomber aircraft in late November 2015, President Erdogan met President Putin on 9th August at the Kremlin so as to illustrate the reestablishment of bilateral relations between the two countries. Now the two men are supposed to meet on the 10th of october in Turkey.

How much are Erdogan and Putin similar or dissimilar?

Cold as a steel blade, inscrutable, Putin masters his emotions and knows when to turn on the charm. At the KGB, he learnt how to first put his interlocutor at ease before dealing a final blow. According to Maris Mendras, a political scientist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research CNRS and International Investigation Centre CERI: “When he lets go, Putin has no qualms about hitting below the belt, and on occasions renews with the slang that KGB members use among themselves”. In his book “La France russe” (“Russian France”) French journalist Nicolas Hénin describes how The Kremlin communication services are selling a calendar targeting a feminine public of almost erotic content as it shows Putin displaying his muscles on every page.

It is hard to imagine a similar Turkish counterpart. On this topic, and in so far as anything can be known about it, Erdogan is more the psycho-rigid type who holds back. Sanguine and prone to tremendous bursts of anger, Turkey’s strongman does not really try to please anybody beyond his constituency, neither does he try and adjust to his interlocutor.

The armed forces – under the charm or maybe not

Erdogan’s main challenge remains that of controlling the Turkish state security apparatus while, in Russia, it is totally behind Putin. The latter is said to have enjoyed the support of reliable networks at the FSB (Russian Federation Federal Security Service) and at inside the Kremlin, but not necessarily with the Army (long-time rivalry between the FSB and the Army), which he nevertheless enticed on his side with the second war in Chechnya.

Ever since he got into power, Erdogan has relied on the police force, whose workforce he increased and whose equipment he upgraded. After a first series of purges which he conducted between 2009 and 2014 that targeted military cadres, he was far from having established relations of mutual trust between him and the army. The 15th July 2016 attempted coup revealed this lack of trust and provided him with the opportunity to purge and thoroughly restructure the armed forces.

Personality cult

Being at the focus of a real personality cult, both men have woven an initiatory legend/narrative around themselves.

Erdogan enjoys making his the image of a “kabadayi”, that is, a tough man, kingpin of the neighbourhood, self-proclaimed champion of the honour of the inhabitants – sometimes brutal, contemptuous of the law though respectful of street laws. According to political scientist Bahadir Türk, this provides the Turkish President with the opportunity to “ conceal with the appearances of legitimacy his outbursts of anger thus making them acceptable

Whereas Putin recounts with satisfaction his supposed visit, aged only 16, to the KGB HQ in Leningrad, in order to offer his services.  French philosopher Michel Eltchaninoff, author of “Dans la tête de Vladimir Poutine” (“Inside Vladimir Putin’s Headspace”) writes that this legend allows the Russian president to perpetuate “the image of a noble and romantic spy and to throw into oblivion Stalin’s hundred of thousands of political victims, as well as the merciless hunting down of dissidents and other deviants to which he most certainly contributed.

Anti-communists, but for different reasons

Both of them are children from the Cold War, but coming from different sides of the Iron Curtain. This says a lot about the different roots of their respective anti-communism. In the biography they wrote on Erdogan, Nicolas Cheviron and Jean-François Pérouse explain that at that time, Muslim religious feelings were mobilised against any form of political commitment to the left. And this marked Erdogan for life.

A member of the secret police, Putin was ideally placed to see for himself the backwardness of the communist bloc. He quickly grasped what were the levels of corruption of the Party leaders, and how to hinder their actions, recounts Michel Eltchaninoff. Thus his opposition to Marxist-Leninist ideology.

Nationalist, plotter and vengeful

According to Alexis Prokopiev, co-author of a book on the other aspects of Russia, “Despite all the differences between Putin and Erdogan , one finds a similar determination to have people believe that a criticism against them amounts to a criticism against their countries. They hold similar discourses on traitors and enemies, a warrior type of discourse that goes along with the demonization of yesterday’s useful friend into today’s new enemy and, in the end, similar grounds for accusations against opponents”. Alexis Prokopiev thus concludes: “Sometimes, when I am listening to them, I feel like I am listening to the same person”.

“Sometimes, when I am listening to them, I have the feeling I am listening to the same person” Alexis Prokopiev, co-author of a work on the other aspects of Russia

Elected into power at the turn of the century, both men first got their country through an economic recovery plan, which attracted foreign investors and contributed to get them the support of liberals.  But the war effort and the collapse of oil prices for Russia, and the crash of the tourism industry for Turkey, altogether mean a situation that, today, is far less prosperous. Both men then developed a rhetoric, which over the years became increasingly nationalistic, conspiracy obsessed, vengeful and imperialistic. The glorious history of their respective countries, along with the prestige of their distant predecessors, whether Tsars or Sultans, play key roles.

The two men share a vivid feeling of humiliation, which goes back to the fall of the Soviet Union for Putin, and to the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire for Erdogan. Both denounce in one voice “Western hypocrisy”. This is to be expected with Putin, as he felt betrayed by Western military interventions in Kosovo, then in Iraq, and eventually in Libya, but it may look paradoxical in the case of Erdogan as president of a country that has been a NATO member since 1952 and a candidate to the European Union.

Legitimacy derived from religion

In this invocation, religion plays a legitimising function: Moscow is “the third Rome” while Ankara likes to think of itself as the leader of the Muslim world. While Putin stands firm on his vision of Orthodox Christendom and advocates for an  “Islam under control”, Erdogan sees himself at the vanguard of a Muslim restoration. With the Russian president, the inflation of the religious discourse fits within a nationalist revival that fills in the ideological void.

For Putin, religion is not a theory. He uses the Orthodox Patriarchate because it gives him an unconditional support”, explains Marie Mendras, author of “Russian Politics, the Paradox of a Weak State”. “He is increasingly appealing to Providence, to destiny, and describes the actions of his enemies as conspiracies against himself and the State.”

Whereas Erdogan has had a basic programme right from the beginning. One of the reasons why religious references took on an increasing importance in his discourse, has to do with the call to order for those who wanted to go down the road of political Islam, as well as a warning for the powerful brotherhoods he had left behind in favour of the Gülenist Movement, against which he has been waging a real witch hunt since 2013 and whom he accuses of being the brain behind the 15th July attempted coup.

But when it comes to morals, Putin and Erdogan stand as defenders of traditional values, opposed to Western decadence. They use almost the same words to condemn the “spread of homosexuality” and call for a moral and demographic recovery.

A dual view of power

Thus, they have similar rhetoric and styles of governance too. Both Erdogan and Putin share the same dual view of power: those who are not on their side are against them. As soon as they enjoy the legitimacy of the votes, nobody and nothing actually has any right anymore to stand up to them: neither the constitutional judges, or even less international judges, neither the press, nor political opponents, who are suspected of harbouring anti-democratic aims as soon as they object any decision taken by their leader.

When their power was undermined (in Russia, during the 2011 parliamentary elections, and in Turkey, during the 2015 parliamentary poll), both men acted in similar ways: they amputated the movements or parties that stood in their way, and proceeded with massive waves of detentions, both targeted and arbitrary.

Founding member of the Party of Justice and Development (AKP, Muslim-conservative) and in power ever since 2002, President Erdogan moves through a political world which is much more competitive than President Putin “who, on the contrary, places himself above all parties even though he actually has “his party” which always gives him unwavering support (United Russia)”, explains Alexis Prokopiev. “Opposition parties (such as Yabloko, the Russian United Democratic Party, or Parnas, the People’s Freedom Party), are under constant pressure, particularly after their good electoral results”.

The political landscape is the same in Turkey, when it comes to the People’s Democratic Party HDP (left, and mainly Kurdish) whose 50 MPs out of a total of 59 have just lost their parliamentary immunity, just as happened to the 51 MPs of the main opposition party CHP, Republican People’s Party (Nationalist left or social-democrats).

When their power was undermined (in Russia, during the 2011 parliamentary elections, and in Turkey, during the 2015 parliamentary poll), both men acted in similar ways: they amputated the movements or parties that stood in their way, and proceeded with massive waves of detentions, both targeted and arbitrary.

Politics as a power struggle

As both countries are member states of the Council of Europe, who both ratified the European Convention of Human rights, Turkey and Russia therefore adhere to democratic values and international legality. Yet, neither Putin nor Erdogan grant much meaning to the state of Law. Politics is first and foremost a power struggle.

Thus, minority groups of their national populations are quickly assimilated to secessionist currents that must be fought, whether they be Kurds or Chechens.  And in one move, Putin uses the Kurds against Erdogan who, in retaliation, stands up for the Tatars of Crimea, and turns a blind eye, to say the least, on the circulation of jihadists between Syria and the Caucasus region. Some observers also link the rivalry between Putin and Erdogan to the renewed flare-up of the Nagorno-Karabakh War, as, in the Caucasus, there is only one country that is considered to be a great ally of Erdogan, that is, Azerbaijan.

Beyond the similarities, can one talk about political convergences?  After all, the Turkish president briefly implied that, as the European Union did not want to let Turkey in, the latter might just as well join the Eurasian Economic Union – a project close to the Russian president’s heart. What’s more, both presidents are in a position to be a real nuisance to Europe.

The present rapprochement between Putin and Erdogan cannot make one forget that between the two countries, there is a century old history made of wars, (14 in total), openings, rivalries and alternate periods of cooperation rather than lasting alliances.

Ariane Bonzon


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