That “cold autocrat Putin…”
One frequent criticism directed at Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is his potential to “Putinize himself” and “make Turkey into another Russia” in terms of civil liberties. That accusation is wrong and unfair. Well, at least unfair to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Russia.
In December, Hurriyet’s liberal columnist Hadi Uluengin wrote about “the cold autocrat Putin’s oppression,” contrasting it with “the fact that our country unmistakably targets perfection of civilian rule and democracy.” I smiled, not knowing a real Russia vs. Turkey test would emerge so soon.
The test is not the about Turkey’s unrivalled championship, now for a third year in a row, in the number of violations of the European Convention on Human Rights (nearly 9,500 complaints last year, and 159 convictions vs. Russia’s 121 – and this, mind you, despite a significant difference between Turkish and Russian populations).
The test is about a rude jolt outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Mr Putin’s eternal swap-partner, suffered last week. A Russian student asked Mr Medvedev if he was ready to stand trial for decisions taken during his rule and even face execution like ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
The youth, Vladimir Polyakov, challenged Mr Medvedev during a meeting with students, asking if he would shoulder the blame for protests that erupted over a planned job-swap which will see Mr Putin, his mentor, return to the Kremlin. “An acute, revolutionary situation is now brewing in the country. Are you ready to face responsibility?” the journalism student asked Mr Medvedev. “Do you realize that you could even be condemned to death? Are you ready to take it bravely just like Saddam Hussein did or will you emigrate to friendly North Korea?”
In response, Mr Medvedev appeared to make light of the student’s question, saying he did not see any reasons for a revolution in Russia and that he was not afraid of anything. “You probably asked the most courageous question of your life,” he quipped.
Both Mr Putin and Mr Erdoğan have the support of half of their nations. In Mr Putin’s Russia a student can ask the president a question of such boldness and leave the venue unharmed and as a free man. In Mr Erdoğan’s Turkey, prosecutors just last week demanded an 11-year prison sentence for a student who was caught with three eggs in his bag, which the prosecutors believe he had intended to throw at President Abdullah Gül during an academic ceremony.
Let’s try to guess. What would be the chances that a Turkish student could walk away as free as the student Mr Polyakov after having asked the same question to President Gül or Prime Minister Erdoğan? And what are the chances that he would be beaten, arrested on the spot and put in jail on charges of terrorism, only to be able to make his first defense at a court hearing, a couple of light years after his arrest?
As journalist Ece Temelkuran, who was recently fired from her newspaper because of her “critical column,” reminded in an article she wrote for The Guardian, a few days before the verdict in the Hrant Dink murder case the minister of the interior, Idris Naim Şahin, said: “Terror is a multifaceted phenomenon that includes psychology and art. Sometimes it is on canvas, sometimes in a poem, in daily articles, or even jokes. We know that terrorist cells might include a university chair, an association or a NGO.”
Ms Temelkuran wrote: “Thanks to this mentality, Turkey is now ranked the 148th of 179 in Reporters Without Border’s press freedom index – just a little above Afghanistan and slipping down constantly.
More importantly, the silent fear among journalists is impossible to put into numbers; consider the 3,500 Kurdish and Turkish politicians, the 500 students and the 100 journalists who are now in jail.”
Apparently, Mr Erdoğan becoming a Putin or Turkey becoming a Russia is a false analogy and a baseless fear. Let’s hope for the Russians sake that the opposite never happens.