Turkey and Russia: compare and contrast

There’s an element of arbitrariness in deciding what counts as a continent, and of course national borders are themselves basically arbitrary. Nonetheless, the two mostly coincide. There are occasional anomalies – the Sinai Peninsula is geographically in Asia, even though Egypt is clearly an African country; no-one would pick Kazakhstan as other than Asian, even though on some definitions its north-western part is in Europe – but for the most part they can be safely ignored.

That leaves two countries that on anyone’s account straddle the divide between Asia and Europe, namely Turkey and Russia. Russia has most of its population in Europe but most of its land area in Asia; most of Turkey is in Asia both by population and area, but its largest city, Istanbul, is mostly on the European side.

So it’s not surprising that both countries are prone to identity crises. Each has a fraught relationship with Europe, a relationship that is never entirely “internal” or “external” but has elements of both. Each can legitimately call itself a major European power, but non-European interests tug on them in a way that no other European power has to contend with (although Britain, at the other end of the continent, shows some similarities).

Each has also lagged in political development. Russia remained an absolute monarchy until the revolution of 1905, and Turkish absolutism only crumbled at the end of the first world war. Russia, however, then spent many more years as part of a totalitarian empire, while Turkey dragged itself into the modern world, emerging in the later twentieth century as a genuine if shaky democracy.

Which brings us to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, prime minister of Turkey since 2003. For much of his tenure, Erdoğan has been a modernising force, beginning talks for accession to the European Union, improving protection of human rights and moving towards a peace settlement with the Kurds. Despite the Islamist basis of his Justice and Development Party (AKP), he seemed more of a liberal than his secular, nationalist opponents.

But power corrupts, and in the last few years Turkey seems to have been shifting back towards authoritarianism. Last year a confrontation over a proposed development of Istanbul’s Gezi Park turned into nationwide anti-government protests. In the last few months, a major corruption scandal has shaken the government and fed allegations that Erdoğan is set on silencing his opponents and controlling the police and the judicial system.

Local elections last weekend were therefore widely seen as a referendum on Erdoğan’s leadership. It’s a test he appears to have passed; although early counting was chaotic, results show the AKP with 45.6% of the nationwide vote against a divided opposition, and retaining control of both Ankara (narrowly) and Istanbul (more decisively).

It’s all too reminiscent of the 2012 Russian election, when Vladimir Putin was returned to the presidency with 63.6% of the vote, despite a background of large-scale protests against his rule. Since then, Putin has taken a harder line against his opponents as well as showing a willingness to defy European opinion.

In both countries the elections themselves appear to be conducted fairly. The problem is that the ruling party dominates social institutions to such an extent that it’s difficult for its opponents to get a fair hearing. Russia has a more advanced case of the problem, but one fears that Erdoğan will take the weekend’s results as a green light to continue down the same road.

There is clearly some resilience in Turkey’s institutions. Yesterday the constitutional court overturned the government’s ban on Twitter, finding that it violates freedom of expression and individual rights. But it’s too early to say whether that will amount to a serious setback for Erdoğan’s creeping authoritarianism. Turkey has now fallen to 154th on the world press freedom index, a few places below Russia at 148.

Muhammad Abdul Bari, writing for Al-Jazeera, suggests that the opportunity is now there for Turkey to “heal its recent political fractures”:

This week’s local election victory gives the AKP space to reflect from a position of strength. …

Now that Erdogan has got what he wanted in the polls, he is in a position to show more magnanimity and humility. The political opposition should gracefully accept the verdict of the people with generosity of spirit and work constructively with the government to continue to build a modern Turkey. Stable and matured democracy needs contrasting qualities from both ruling and opposition parties.

But Putin’s example is there to show that successful rulers do not always display a talent for magnanimity and humility.



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