“Putin is like Al Capone” (Garry Kasparov)

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Turkey dominated the mainstream media’s agenda at a time when the international community was overwhelmed by the escalation of the Iran-US hostilities. 

The occasion was the launch of the TurkStream pipeline project, the latest joint energy project between the two countries, though the opening of the pipeline became secondary to behind the scenes diplomacy. Productive as always, the two presidents’ meeting led to ceasefire plans for Libya and Idlib region of Syria, although both initiatives have failed to materialize. The tangible rapprochement between the two countries in recent years has been interpreted in terms of Russia’s geostrategic aims, including the security of energy transportation routes and weakening the NATO bloc, and the Turkish president’s desperation for a strong international ally.

Gas and oil pipelines, regional diplomacy and global power struggles are certainly the primary reasons that frequently bring the two men together but the nexus between Putin and Erdoğan probably has a rather deeper, structural dimension, which can only be defined in terms of proximity or inspiration. To begin with, a shared “will to power” is immediately observable: Putin has reigned over Russia more than two decades; similarly Erdoğan’s rule has continued since 2002. In this context, Putin seems to be a role model, a source of inspiration for Erdoğan, from where the Turkish president obtained the prescription on how to establish autocratic power in the 21st Century and hold on to it. A guess as to the contents of this prescription is only possible after a close look at the Putinist model of transition to “neoliberal autocracy” (Boris Kagarlitsky). 

Putinist Russia

Putin’s primary political concern was centralization against the regional elites and business tycoons that had developed during Boris Yeltsin’s post-Soviet administration.  Putin inherited strong presidential powers, which he utilized to their limits. The parliament (State Duma) was an already weak institution, referred to as “a rubber-stamping parliament” (The Economist), which he effectively turned into “a puppet parliament” according to Putin critic Boris Nemptsov, who was gunned down in Moscow in 2015. 

Putin’s time in power witnessed the virtual elimination of the system of separation of powers with presidential interventions into the judicial process. Selective application of the law replaced the equal distribution of justice and the law was reduced to a tool to suppress the political opposition and eliminate rival economic elites. 

In Putinist transition, the media was the first casualty. The ownership of the TV company NTV, which was watched by 70 per cent of the population, was taken over by a pro-Putin businessman, while Boris Brezovsky, the owner of the other popular TV channel, ORT, had to flee to London. All the mainstream media outlets were put under direct or indirect state control. 

Putinism demonstrates sympathy with conservative values, including religion, which amounts to the promotion of clericalization of society. In turn, Putin assured the enthusiastic support of the Russian Orthodox Church. An ideology of national greatness, a desire to reclaim Russian glory of both the imperial and sovietic periods, accompanies the religious revival.

Putin’s post-Soviet economic model consists of a peculiar mode of capitalism that operates under political authority’s control. As The Financial Times put it: “Putinism was built on the understanding that if tycoons played by Kremlin rules they would prosper”. Such a system has its usual irregularities such as cronyism and unlawful accumulation of personal wealth, as documented in the recently publicized Panama Papers. 

The ever-inflating personality cult of Vladimir Putin is built over these foundations. The motto, “There is no Russia if there is no Putin” is by now an organic part of Russian folk culture. In the 1990s, Russian society experienced a traumatic fear of total collapse under the roof of a state that was in constant contraction regarding both geographical territory and international prestige. Putin, on the other hand, gained domestic and international appreciation as the second coming of Stalin or Peter the Great, who managed to put the country back on its feet and reclaim Russia’s status as a global power.

Erdoğan’s “New Turkey”

In 2002, Erdoğan came to power with a program promoting democratization and economic prosperity in a fierce struggle with the secularist ideology and republican establishment. After tragic steps and variants towards the liquidation of the “ancien regime” institutions, his aspirations have turned towards the establishment of his own presidential rule. The guidance of Putinism in achieving this goal is evident in the measures that Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have taken and the methods they have employed.

The transition to a presidential system has reduced the parliament from the legislative power to an office of approval of the president’s bills, similar to the Russian State Duma under Putin, while judicial reforms have brought judges and public prosecutors under political authority’s commands. Interventions into the judicial process and selective application of law to suppress political opposition are turning the whole citizenry into hostages of political authority. 

The presidential monopoly over the Turkish mainstream media has been achieved through Putinistic methods. Clericalization of the education system and religious revival in social life along with the rise of state-promoted nationalism also demonstrate parallels to the Russian experience. The personality cult of Erdoğan as “a world leader” is also a known phenomenon. 

At the economic foundations of society, Erdoğan has imposed new rules over conventional business elites, similar to Putin’s coercion of the Russian tycoons to obey his authority. A stratum of nouveau riche, consisting of entrepreneurs, financial businesses and contractors loyal to Erdoğan, has also been spawned through large-scale public projects. Turkish and Russian practices of economic transition have effectively reversed the assertions of economic determinism on behalf of a peculiarly “Asiatic mode of capitalism”, in which the economic activities are overdetermined by the political authority. The symptoms of this mode include both in the Russian and Turkish cases the usual irregularities of kleptocratic earnings, cronyism, nepotism, etc.

Overall, the deeper, structural dimension of the Putin-Erdoğan rapprochement probably indicates that the Russian experience of transition to post-Soviet capitalism provides the blue print for post-Kemalist Turkey.