The Astonishing Likeness of Turkey and Russia

Erdogan; Putin
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There are a number of similarities between Turkey and Russia. Both used to have powerful empires, with much of their territory situated outside Europe. Both started their modernization late, in the second half of the nineteenth century, went through catastrophes of war and revolution at the beginning of the twentieth, and, as a consequence, had to reinvent themselves as nations.

Both are now going through a second wave of modernization of their economies, societies, and polities. Both are treated as outsiders by Europeans: the Turks, because they are many and Muslim; the Russians, because they are largely Christian Orthodox, and used to be Communist. And, crucially, both deserve the attention of the EU, which needs to rethink its relations with its two largest neighbors.

To many Russian observers, what is happening now in Istanbul’s Taksim Square has parallels to the Bolotnaya Square rallies in Moscow in 2011–2012. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is loosely likened to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Essentially, in both Turkey and Russia, highly vocal minorities are challenging the rule of leaders who can claim the support of around half of their respective populations. The minorities are urban, cosmopolitan, secular, and articulate, while the majorities consist of traditionalists in the broad sense of the word.

Yet the minorities are leaderless, unorganized, and their protests will surely dissipate after a while, whereas the majority-based leaders will probably be able to mobilize their supporters and carry the day at the ballot box. But matters won’t end there. Whichever way the present Turkish crisis is resolved, the divisions in society will not be bridged. Nor did that happen in Russia after it had “calmed down.” Turkey and Russia will remain deeply split societies, torn between tradition and modernity, though the balance between those two factors will keep changing.

For sure, there are vast differences between the two countries, societies, and leaders. Turkey is a democracy, however imperfect, while Russia is under authoritarian rule. In Turkey, Erdoğan’s government has implemented a number of important economic reforms. His support derives from the new power of the Anatolian middle class made up of private entrepreneurs. Turkey’s liberal and democratic institutions may be challenged or distorted, but they are still in place. Turkey is a key U.S. ally in NATO, is linked to the EU by a customs union, and still aspires to become a full EU member.

Putin’s priorities, by contrast, have been post-imperial consolidation and stabilization (rather than reform), rebuilding a strong centralized state, and restoring Russia to its “natural” great-power status. Still, for Putin as well as Erdoğan, the current protests are a perverse mark of success: they show how Russian and Turkish societies are maturing as they become more affluent.

The process, however, will be long, and the road tortuous. Crises such as the events in Turkey now are an essential part of this process, but they should not be allowed to degenerate into violence. It is important that street protests are converted into political action and channeled through the structured political process. It is important, too, that those who rely on elections for legitimacy—whether the elections are free and fair, or neither—realize that even an absolute majority at the polls does not mean absolute legitimacy for any action. Russia has awakened, Turkey has fought back, and neither will revert to where it was before people had started to stir.

This raises an issue for the Europeans. Their two biggest neighbors, in the east and southeast, are struggling to define their new identities as they go through fundamental societal changes. Both seek to play an important role vis-à-vis those countries that used to form part of their empires, and far beyond that. Russia has no interest in joining the EU; Turkey, which formally still wants to join, will probably never be allowed in.

If and when the Europeans decide that they want their union to become a strategic player, they will need to begin by crafting long-term strategies toward Turkey and Russia. This, however, requires that Europeans drop their long-held belief that the EU needs no foreign policy strategy and can simply rely on its unparalleled power of attraction. The era of magnetism that produced the EU’s phenomenal enlargement in the first decade of the twenty-first century is over. A more traditional, no-nonsense approach to foreign policy statecraft would be more effective.

With Turkey, the EU would do better by demonstrating more clarity and sincerity. If Turkish membership in the union is not a realistic option, what would be? With Russia, the EU would be wise to drop the notion that Russians are basically like other Eastern Europeans but just need more time to catch up. Russians are different, in the sense of prioritizing strategic independence, and the EU will need to build a partnership with them that takes that into account.



Comments (3)

  • Eshref from Turkey
    Congurats! Really very proper and realistic analysis of the events in Turkey while the Western media delibaretely exagerated the Gezi Park demonstrations! Erdogan and his party still dominate the political spectrum in Turkey through a strong political will behind the incumbent AK Party Government. Unfortunately, the Western media attempted to crack down Erdogan`s image via very much biased news and disinformation by exploiting the Turkish police`s disproportional use of force against the demonstrators among which some ultra and terrorist groups also brutally violated the democratic rights. But, what happenned and still ongoing in Turkey are just related with the discontent of a secular-urban minority which is known as `the white Turks`mostly consisting of Kemalist People`s Repuclican Party voters. The overwhelming majority of the Turks strongly support Erdogan and his ambitious political and economic efforts in order to reassert Turkey`s surge to power in its region. Rather than being a `dictator`, `authocrat` or some claimed `sultan`, the prime minister Erdogan is continuing to increase his popularity and also will be expected to be the first selectecd president of Turkey through a referendum next year. In this political climate therefore, the events in Taksim square have just been exploited and warped intentionally by both internal opposition of the Government and also perceived as an unmisable opportunity by the anti-Erdogan interest rate loby circles in both the West and the Middle East! However, one sharp difference between Russia and Turkey appears when Turkey is already undergoing into democratization during the last decade under Erdogan, Russia has been maintaing its path dependent autocracy within Putin-Medvedev diarchy...
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    • The voice replies...
      Considering the ongoing protests started with the brutal police intervention to Gezi Park on May 31 as the pervert opposition of the interest-rate lobby to Erdogan's vision of Strong Turkey in its Region is such a shallow point of view. It is shallow just because it is far from understanding the meaning of democracy. Democracy means that every layer and every segment of the society can freely give voice to their demands. It is a must for a democratic government to listen to their voice. Today, which is unfortunate for Turkey, we can not see Erdogan in such a virtuous manner. Instead, Erdogan has raised the tension by humiliating the crouds who opposes to his authocratic manner in Gezi Park. He has chosen to polarize the society by exploiting the religious sensibilities of the people to maintain support to his illegitimate actions towards the opposition. To maintain this support he does not hesitate to tell lies claiming that the demonstrators have drunk alcoholic drinks in a mosque ( It would have been a big insult to faith of Islam if it were real). He even sees no problem in openly threaten the media, the businessmen, the artists, the European Parliament and the rest who does not share his ideas. This is called Tyranny. This Tyranny is not created by the so-called white Turks but by Erdogan himself. Everyone should remember that the fruits of democracy and the rule of law is for everyone, not for a limited part of the society no mater how big it is or no mater it is the majority in the society. The votes of the majority designates who will be in charge in the government but once elected, the government should take serious and listen to the demands of all layers and all segments of the society. if the government doesn't listen or tries to suppress the opposing voices it is not possible to say that there is a legitimate political governance. This is the situation in Turkey now and no one should try to hide this reality by mentioning some fictitious 'Interest- rate Lobby'. Today, the modern world sees that the seed of democracy is in the hearts of Turkish people but not in the ones' who claimed the right of governing.
  • Georgika05
    Excellent point about the need for the EU to review the strategic approach to both Russia and Turkey! I have looked at this issue from a different perspective, but I've basically got at a similar conclusion. You may look at:

    On the other hand, "the astonishing likeness of Turkey and Russia" is currently somewhat limited, beyond the fact that both powers have struggled recently with internal unrest. More interesting would be to weigh the potential impact of a possibly growing likeness of Turkey and Russia on their respective foreign and security policies. Might it mean that the embattled AKP government under Erdogan would eventually blame pro-Western democrats for the current internal turmoil in the Western cities of Izmir and Istanbul, as well as in the more cosmopolite Ankara? Would he eventually suspect, as Putin has done few years ago, that all current domestic unrest is artificially made up and supported by "agents" of some radical Western circles willing to contain the growing power of Turkey? In short, would this growing likeness of Turkey and Russia lead to a stronger Turkish-Russian partnership with all of its ensuing regional consequences?
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