20 years under Putin: a timeline

The results of Turkey’s recent parliamentary elections came as a surprise to many. For the first time in the last twelve years, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party received only 41 percent of the vote, thus losing its simple majority in the Turkish Grand National Assembly. Political analysts characterize both Turkey and Russia as hybrid regimes; however, a comparative analysis of the two countries shows that despite him being an admirer of Putin’s policies, Erdogan is not destined to follow in the Russian leader’s footsteps.


Because of his tough policies and populist anti-Western rhetoric Recep Erdogan (right) was often compared to Vladimir Putin (left). However, this strategy didn’t help Turkish president win the elections. Photo: Reuters


The results of Turkey’s June 7 parliamentary elections must have come as a shock to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. First of all, his Justice and Development Party (AKP) secured only 41 percent of votes, or 259 seats in the 550-seat parliament, thus losing its constitutional majority for the first time in twelve years. Consequently, in order to form a government, the AKP will have to enter into a coalition with the opposition, a serious challenge. The parties that passed Turkey’s 10 percent electoral threshold are the Republican People’s Party (25 percent), the Nationalist Movement party (17 percent), and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic party (12.8 percent), all of which are in strong opposition to the AKP. If within a month the AKP fails to come to an agreement with any of the aforementioned parties, Turkey would face another round of legislative elections. Second, for the first time ever, representatives of ethnic minorities passed the 10 percent threshold to enter parliament (a high threshold was introduced to prevent Kurds, who account for about 20 percent of the population, from taking parliamentary seats). Third, the recent elections revealed high levels of polarization in Turkish society. According to Bulgarian political analyst Dimitar Bechev, 45 percent of the population support Erdogan and 55 percent support opposition parties.

The unexpected outcome of Turkey’s parliamentary elections creates an interesting context for a comparative analysis of the political situations in Turkey and Russia. Political analysts find a number of parallels in the development of these countries and often compare President Erdogan with his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin. Just as in Turkey, the political system in Russia represents a hybrid regime or electoral autocracy. According to Yekaterina Schulman, a political scientist at the Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, “Those are the regimes in which, on the one hand, elections take place regularly and a multi-party system exists legally, but on the other hand, legislative rules of the game are being changed in the interests of the ruling group, the media are controlled by the state, and consequently, the outcome of the elections is basically known in advance.” Analyst Dimitar Bechev shares this opinion and notes that in both countries, power is concentrated in the hands of one person (Erdogan and Putin respectively); there is an obvious cult of personality with regard to the head of state; the media are put under state control; and a number of state institutions, including courts, are marginalized or controlled by the executive branch.


Economic Boom

Like Vladimir Putin, Erdogan owes his political success in no small part to the economic boom. According to Pavel Shlykov, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, “The AKP appeared at the time when Turkey was emerging from a deep financial crisis.” Founded on August 14, 2001, the AKP declared its commitment to political and economic reforms and embraced the goal of European Union membership. Reforms proved so successful that in 2007, The Economist called the AKP’s ruling “the most successful ruling Turkey witnessed in the last five hundred years of its history.” “Like Russia, from 2002 to 2006, Turkey enjoyed considerable economic growth of about 7.2 percent a year, and three times in a row, the ruling Justice and Development Party won a predominant majority in the 2002, 2007, and 2011 elections,” notes Shulman.

According to TurkStat, between 2003 and 2013, Turkey’s GDP increased by 180 percent, reaching $820 billion with an annual average real GDP growth of 4.9 percent. Moreover, public stock debt decreased twice, and budget deficit almost ten times. According to experts, the 2008–2009 global crisis affected Turkey’s economy much less than it did, for example, EU members.

Under Vladimir Putin, Russia enjoyed similar growth rates, which resulted in the population’s long-term support of the president. According to the Russian Federal State Statistics Service (Rosstat), over the 2000s, the country’s average GDP reached 7 to 8 percent, and inflation decreased from 20.2 percent in 2000 to 8.8 percent in 2010.

However, according to the International Monetary Fund’s forecasts, in 2015, Turkey’s GDP growth will reach about 3 percent, whereas Russia’s economy gives much less reason for optimism: its GDP is expected to decline by 2.7 percent in 2015.



Until recently, Turkey’s electoral process has gone as follows: the population elected a parliament, and the leader of the winning party became president and in turn appointed the country’s prime minister and ministers. That all changed in 2014 when Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time, announced the country’s first direct presidential election, which he won in the first round with 52.1 percent of the vote. The changes introduced in Russia’s electoral procedures would fill another entire article. Suffice to recall the cancellation of gubernatorial elections, Vladimir Putin’s third term as a president, and the extension of the presidential term from four years to six.

“The international media often uses the term ‘Putinization’ to describe the transformation that Turkey’s political system has been going through for the last ten years,” Shulman notes. “This is a transition from a reform- and modernization-oriented agenda to a socially-oriented rhetoric of nationalism, isolationism, support of ‘traditional values,’ and closer relations between the state and the church.”

Part of Turkish society that supports the AKP is very sensitive about the domination of Western culture, the emasculation of Islamic traditions, and the displacement of Islam from everyday social and political life. According to Shlykov, although unlikely to attract an experienced electorate, the AKP’s vague political platform resonated with unsophisticated voters. “Erdogan and his close circle utilized the potential of an unclaimed electorate residing outside of the central agglomeration in small towns and rural areas. The AKP’s support comes mainly from the so-called ‘Anatolian type’—medium-sized business owners who consider themselves representatives of the conservative part of Turkish society—because the conservative democracy model offered by the AKP satisfies their demands,” Shlykov says.

The AKP also calls for a soft “rehabilitation of Islam,” which appeals to Turkey’s religious majority. AKP members have skillfully concealed the party’s emphasis on Islamic values, though: technically, the party has no attributes that would lead to it being shut down. It is worth remembering that the implementation of policies based on ethnic or religious differences is prohibited in Turkey. This is why, in 2001, the country’s constitutional court banned the Islamic Virtue Party on charges that its activity violated the secular character of the Turkish State.

Although Russia is also a secular state, the Russian Orthodox Church is involved with ever increasing frequency in Putin’s government policies promoting “traditional values,” patriotism, and the cult of family. For instance, the Russian Orthodox Church supported State Duma members’ recent initiative to remove abortions from free state health insurance and ban private clinics from administering them. Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, the Russian Orthodox Church spokesman, declared any organization that practices abortions an enemy of Russia.


Image of “Foreign Enemies”

Also linking Russia and Turkey are the essential principles of their foreign policies. According to Shulman, the main similarities between the two countries include the “exaggerated role of the state in politics and the activity of the media, attempts at imposing what the government believes to be ‘traditional values,’ the propaganda of the idea that the country is ‘surrounded by enemies,’ and the general negative attitude toward other countries and nations, especially toward the United States.” She points out that, according to an October 2014 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 73 percent of Turkish citizens expressed a negative attitude toward the United States, and a mere 19 percent expressed a positive one. Such sentiments have become common in recent years. Seventy percent of Turks hold negative views toward NATO, despite the country’s NATO membership. Countries provoking Turkish citizens’ unfavorable opinion include Israel (86 percent), Iran (75 percent), and—quite unexpectedly—Russia (73 percent). Then again, the world’s opinion of Russia has deteriorated considerably due to the country’s role in the Ukrainian conflict.

Russians demonstrate a similar attitude toward the United States, encouraged by anti-Western propaganda on federal television. According to a May poll conducted by the Levada Center, 73 percent of Russians expressed a negative view of the United States, and 59 percent of respondents voiced an unfavorable opinion of the European Union. At the same time, 55 percent of those polled considered Belarus Russia’s “friend,” and 43 percent, China.

Both Moscow and Ankara actively promote the idea of “foreign enemies.” “What we have been experiencing for the last two years is a global struggle. A war is being waged against Turkey and its plans for the future. If you want to become a great country, the entire world will be against you,” the pro-government newspaper Yeni Şafak (New Dawn) writes. In a trade union conference address cited by TASS news agency in February 2015, President Putin said, “There is definitely an attempt to curb our development, there is an attempt to freeze the existing world order that has become established over recent decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, with a single leader who wants to stay that way and believes that he can do anything he wants, whereas others can only do what he deems fit and what serves his interests. Such a world order will never suit Russia.”

In the Freedom House 2014 report, both Turkey and Russia are characterized as economically powerful countries that have clearly renounced democratic standards. The list also includes Egypt, Venezuela, Thailand, Nigeria, Kenya, and Azerbaijan. However, the same report also describes Turkey as a “partially free” country, whereas Russia has been downgraded to “not free.”

According to Dimitar Bechev, both leaders use foreign policy as an instrument of domestic mobilization. For instance, Erdogan often recurs to rhetoric aimed at demonizing his opponents by branding them fifth columnists and Turkey’s external enemies (the country’s main enemies, in Erdogan’s opinion, are Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Syrian Kurds). The Russian authorities do the same, using the same terminology and accusing the opposition of being financed by the United States.

The annexation of new territories is another common point between Turkey and Russia. “Turkey has its own Crimea: Northern Cyprus,” Shulman notes. It is not annexed to the country, but has been declared an independent republic that is recognized only by Turkey. “However, due to the fact that the Cyprus conflict has been dragging on for several years, the situation there is becoming less tense, passport control is becoming more liberal, and residents of both parts of the divided island find it easier to communicate,” Shulman adds.



Russia and Turkey also use similar methods of dealing with the opposition. “Russian observers have no trouble recognizing campaigns against hostile Western media outlets, paid pro-government Internet activity, fear of the destructive role of social networks combined with top government officials’ unhealthy love for gadgets and Twitter, typical of countries that follow the catching-up development path,” Shulman explains.

The 2011 rally on Moscow’s Sakharov Prospect and the 2012 meeting on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square have become the largest mass protests witnessed by Russia in the last twenty years. But if the former was a peaceful meeting where participants gave flowers to police officers and opposition leaders sipped whiskey in the mayor’s office while waiting for official approval of the event, the latter was held under the slogan “Fair government! Russia without Putin!” and was accompanied by disorder and mass arrests. The rally on Bolotnaya Square resulted in the politically motivated “Bolotnaya Case” under which, according to the most recent reports, thirty people are being prosecuted. Several individuals involved in the case are currently serving prison sentences.

In Turkey, the so-called Gezi Park Rally of May 28, 2013, is the largest protest to have taken place under Erdogan. A peaceful rally organized by a small group of activists in downtown Istanbul turned into a large wave of protests that went on for several months across the country. After riot squads used bludgeons and tear gas to liquidate the camp of demonstrators opposing the replacement of Taksim Gezi Park with a shopping mall, thousands of Istanbul residents unexpectedly joined the protesters in their fight for the park. Police attempts to deal with the demonstrators by using tear gas, bludgeons, water cannons, and mass arrests only made matters worse. Protests spread to other large cities, including Antalya, Ankara, and Izmir. Most demonstrators were young people: high school and college students.

Online social networks played a key role in the development of the Turkish protests. In response, Erdogan blocked Twitter and then YouTube access for a time. “We will eradicate Twitter,” the Turkish leader declared. Erdogan seemed unconcerned about incurring Western criticism or the outrage of the Turkish people.

Yet the Gezi Park Rally was not destined to become the “Turkish Spring.” According to Alexey Mukhin, director of the Center for Political Information, “A lack of objective was the main shortcoming of the Gezi Park protests. In Russia, too, politically established groups cannot relate to demands for Putin’s resignation. Like Russia, Turkey lacks an opposition candidate for the role of the head of state.” Opposition parties that tried to lead the Turkish protest movement did not receive the population’s support because they are not popular among young Turks.


The End of an Era?

Beyond these similarities, Yekaterina Shulman believes that the differences between the Turkish and Russian regimes are also noteworthy. “From a political point of view, the key difference consists in the fact that Turkey is not an EU member, but has a NATO and OSCE membership. Whatever the opinions of the Turkish population about Americans, the country’s military and political integration with the United States and the European Union is much deeper than that of Russia.” In Turkey, the degree of political influence over the military is rather strong, whereas in Russia, the army and navy are in no way involved in the political process.

For a long time, the army served as a guarantor of democratic values in the Turkish Republic. This is why the military opposed the AKP’s monopolization of power. The confrontation between top army officials and the “last Turkish sultan,” as the military labeled Erdogan, began in 1997. Having come to power, Erdogan and his close circle decided to put an end to the unofficial influence of the military elite. By initiating three major cases—“28 of February," “Ergenekon,” and “Sledgehammer”—that resulted in mass arrests and prison sentences for military officials, the Turkish leader managed to “cleanse” the military of his opponents and replace them with his supporters.

Erdogan’s subsequent plans included transforming the parliamentary republic into a presidential one (the project of a new Constitution was underway for two years). However, the results of the recent parliamentary elections have put an end to these ambitions. Eurasia Group analysts believe that the coalition government the AKP will be forced to form in the coming month is unlikely to support further centralization of power in the hands of the Turkish leader. Consequently, one might say that Erdogan’s era is coming to an end.

As for Russia, it is worth remembering that in 2016, the country will have its own parliamentary elections. And although the Russian government will continue applying pressure to the opposition, the outcome of the elections, just as in Turkey, might come as a surprise.