GSTAAD—When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met in July with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin about the civil war in Syria, political biographers had a right to be confused.
After all, one is the leader of a government that has imprisoned more journalists than China and Iran combined; empowered special courts to arrest citizens on suspicion of terrorism without evidence or the right to a hearing; sentenced two students to eight years in prison for holding a sign at a rally demanding “free education”; and has seen more than 20,000 complaints filed against it in the European Court of Human Rights since 2008.
The other is president of Russia.
That the leader of secular, democratic Turkey—a longtime US ally and member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—has managed to out-Putin Putin when it comes to steamrolling civil liberties the past ten years is just the beginning of the way politics is changing on the Black Sea. Even while Putin receives a fresh round of global scorn for the two-year prison sentence meted out to three young women of the “Pussy Riot” punk band, Erdogan has successfully executed every trick in the Putin playbook except one. But it is that one failure that may have the most dramatic effect on Turkey’s future and the direction of US foreign policy.
For two neighbors that fought eight wars between them from the eighteenth through the early twentieth century, Russia and Turkey have a lot in common. Both bridge Asia and Europe. Both enjoyed historic runs as world powers. Both have declared their intention to join Europe. And under Putin and Erdogan, both have taken historic steps away from democracy in an attempt to recapture past glory. Call it the four steps toward autocracy in a global age.
Step 1: Use the judicial system to crush your enemies.
Like Putin—whom The Economist recently argued is “building the legal framework for authoritarian rule”—Erdogan has used the courts to create what has been called “a new climate of fear in Istanbul.” While arresting students, journalists, and activists in record numbers, he has trained his greatest guns on the military—which has defended Turkey’s secularism since 1921, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk created modern Turkey out of the Ottoman Empire’s ashes. As one Turk recently said of the bloodthirsty Syrian dictator, the military is “the reason Turkey never had an Assad.” With hundreds of officers now behind bars on trumped-up charges that they planned a coup, last month Erdogan forcibly retired 40 top admirals and generals currently on trial before their guilt or innocence could be established. But like Putin, Erdogan is granted a lot of slack by his own citizens—he took a moribund economy in 2003 and turned it into one of Europe’s strongest. Culturally, cities such as Istanbul are thriving. Many Turks believe life is better under Erdogan and don’t look fondly on the three coups the military staged since 1960 or the government it forced to quit in 1997.
Step 2: Mask your true ideology under the guise of democracy.
Just as Putin speaks of democracy in Russia while making no attempt to hide his affection for the centrally planned, KGB-dominated days of the Soviet Union, Erdogan has praised democracy while expressing disgust at Turkey’s separation of mosque and state, calling himself both “the imam of Istanbul” and “a servant of sharia.” Since taking power in 2003, Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party has tripled the number of students attending Islamist high schools; passed a new law requiring that every public facility in the country have a Muslim prayer room; taken control of the historically secular Turkish Academy of Sciences; and built more mosques than any previous government while announcing plans to create a super-mosque in Istanbul with the “highest minarets in the world.” It’s little wonder that in 2010, Saudi King Abdullah presented Erdogan with Saudi Arabia’s most prestigious prize for his “services to Islam.”
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