At the beginning of last December, the two countries locked into a troubling standoff after Turkey shot down a Russian airplane that had repeatedly crossed into Turkish airspace. The diplomatic standoff came at a time when Russian president Vladimir Putin was using Russian military force to boost the efforts of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to push back Sunni rebel forces. In response, Putin slammed trade restrictions against Turkey.
A lot can happen, however, in nine months, and yesterday, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan traveled to Moscow to mend somewhat broken relations with Putin, who announced that the country would slowly lift economic sanctions against Turkey on the path to restoring normalized relations.
Erdoğan, last month survived a coup attempt from within elements of the Turkish military that, for a few hours at least, seemed like it had some chances of success. The first world leader to call Erdoğan to pledge his support?
With Erdoğan placing blame for the coup on the shoulders of Fethullah Gülen (who lives in exile in Pennsylvania) and his Gulenist followers in Turkey, the crackdown has been swift and deep. In the past four weeks, Erdoğan has purged many Turkish institutions of tens of thousands of officials suspected of having any ties to Gulenism. That includes the military and the police forces, but also over 20,000 private school teachers, 10,000 education officials and agents within other government ministries. Erdoğan has also ordered the shutdown of around 100 media outlets, which echoes a decision earlier in March to seize Zaman, one of Turkey’s most popular independent newspapers.
Last May, prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu resigned after a series of files (the so-called ‘Pelican Files’) were released to the public and that showed the former foreign minister, who led the governing Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP, the Justice and Development Party) to a minority victory in June 2015 and a majority victory in November 2015, was increasingly uncomfortable with Erdoğan. His misgivings included both the push to concentrate power within the Turkish presidency (following Erdoğan’s shift from prime minister to president in 2014) and with the increasingly militant approach to Turkey’s Kurdish population — after over a decade of progress for Kurdish minority rights and a detente with the PKK, a militant, communist Kurdish militia.
Binali Yıldırım, the new prime minister, formerly a transport, maritime and communications minister and a loyal Erdoğan supporter, has been far more willing to countenance the shift from a powerful parliamentary government to a presidential one.
It has been clear since the late 2000s that Erdoğan was not the pure democrat that his supporters (and many sympathizers in the United States and Europe) once believed, and it’s been clear since the Gezi Park protests in 2013 that Erdoğan has no respect for the kind of liberal freedoms — expression, assembly, press, speech and otherwise — that are so important to a functioning democracy. In the wake of the July coup attempt, Erdoğan’s instinct towards the authoritarian has only sharpened. (Though, to be fair, imagine the kind of response that would follow from an American president if a military coup managed to shut down New York’s major airports, take control of public television and bomb the US Capitol).
That his first post-coup visit abroad was to Russia to visit Putin will, of course, be a source of increasing anxiety among US and European officials, who need Erdoğan’s assistance on at least two fronts: first, stemming the flow of migrants from Syria that cross through Turkey en route to Europe and, second, facilitating US, European and NATO efforts to weaken and ultimately displace ISIS from their territorial berth in eastern Syria and western Iraq.
If former US president George W. Bush famously miscalculated Putin’s intentions, current US president Barack Obama similarly miscalculated Erdoğan, an initially warm relationship chilling to its current nadir — American relations with Turkey are stalled over refusal to extradite Gülen without firm proof that the Turkish cleric was involved in the July coup.
But the Russia-Turkey rapprochement isn’t as clear-cut, and the two powers are still more rivals than allies in the Middle East, vying for influence as outsiders in a region now dominated by Sunni Arabs, Shiite Persians, and their allies and client states from Lebanon to Bahrain.
Putin reportedly hosted Erdoğan in the ‘Greek dining room’ in the Konstantinovsky Palace, according to Politico, a major snub to Turkey, which has long clashed with Greece over control of the still-divided island of Cyprus, among other things. Furthermore, Putin remains one of Assad’s few remaining ironclad supporters, while Erdoğan abandoned Assad years ago when the Syrian civil war began, and Erdoğan firmly hopes that Sunni rebel groups ultimately triumph (though not, perhaps, ISIS, which has claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks in Ankara and in Istanbul in the last year).
Moreover, the two leaders come from two very different backgrounds. So when you read or hear commentators trying to paint Erdoğan as a Turkish version of Putin, take it with a grain of salt.
Putin rose to power as a direct product of Russia’s state security apparatus, while Erdoğan came to power in direct conflict with Turkey’s state security apparatus.
This is an absolutely vital distinction, even as Erdoğan’s rule continues to trend toward authoritarianism.
Putin has a long, if shadowy, career as an agent for the KGB in the Soviet era and then the FSB in the post-Soviet era. Initially unknown, even in Russia, he was appointed prime minister in late 1999 under Boris Yeltsin, became acting president on New Year’s Day 2000 when Yeltsin resigned, easily won the ensuing elections and has increasingly consolidated power in the ensuing 16 years, notably displacing the oligarchs who thrived in the Yeltsin era with the siloviki, associates from within the FSB and other internal security sources. Putin’s power today rests, in no small part, on his deep ties within the Russian security state. Elections in Russia today feature no genuine political competition.
By contrast, Erdoğan came to power almost purely through democratic means, first as mayor of Istanbul, then finally leading the AKP to power in 2002 on a coalition that brought together pious Muslim voters with urban liberals, all of whom had tired of the corrupt and cozy rule of Kemalist elites and their military guarantors. At one point, Erdoğan was ousted as Istanbul’s mayor and even sentenced to 10 months in prison for inciting religious tolerance in 1998. Erdoğan’s power today rests, in no small part, on his ability to dismantle the power of the military in the early 2000s and weaken the ability of the armed forces to (as so many times before in the 20th century) launch a coup against a civilian Turkish leader. Even as Erdoğan has cracked down on most freedoms, he has introduced much wider religious freedom across Turkey. By and large, though Erdoğan has obvious advantages, elections in Turkey are far more legitimate than in Russia. When the AKP failed to win an outright majority last June and couldn’t find an acceptable coalition partner, Turkey held another election five months later.
Even before the coup attempt, it always seemed like the diplomatic crisis last December represented a low mark for Turkish-Russian relations, with the two Black Sea powers destined to mend ties, out of geopolitical necessity, if nothing else. That doesn’t mean that, with this week’s meeting, Russia and Turkey are now best friends, or even strategic allies on the Syrian conflict, even though Turkish relations with the United States and Europe remain somewhat strained.
It also doesn’t mean that Erdoğan is a mini-Putin, no matter how intense and rapid his post-coup crackdown on domestic enemies, both real and imagined.