Putin, Erdoğan and the West lost in translation

Putin, Erdoğan and the West lost in translation

The European Union’s enlargement commissioner, Stefan Füle, confessed in a recent interview that the European Union had contributed to the current conflict in Ukraine by “failing” to understand Russian President Vladimir Putin’s past statements about the legacy of the U.S.S.R.

“We didn’t take seriously the message that President Putin sent to us when he said a couple of years ago that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the biggest catastrophe of the 20th century,” said Füle in an interview at RFE/RL’s Prague headquarters.

“At the 2008 Bucharest NATO-Russia summit, I was in the room when Putin said Ukraine was an ‘artificial country,’” Füle added. “Half of us laughed, half of us didn’t understand. But we understand now. We’re not laughing anymore.”

When some prominent opinion leaders, including representatives from the  Turkish press, tried to convey the message to the EU that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was “an authoritarian ruler; a wolf disguised in a democratic sheep’s clothing,” I’m sure many in the EU laughed as well. I bet no one is laughing now when they hear about Erdoğan; apart from those who do not want to see Turkey as a member, obviously.

Füle’s remarks made me recall another anecdote recounted by the former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who met Russia’s current leader Vladimir Putin when he was the head of the Committee for External Relations of the Saint Petersburg Mayor’s office. According to Kissinger, Putin blamed Mikhail Gorbachev for the dissolution of the Soviet Union. “He was a weak leader,” Putin told Kissinger, adding that the Soviet Union would not have been dissolved if it had been headed by a strong leader.

“Wow,“ I recall claiming in disbelief when I first heard of Kissinger’s anecdote, which was told to me by a Turkish diplomat, just as I said “wow” quietly when Gülnur Aybet, a professor of international relations, told me in an interview that Russia wanted to act as a “benign power.” Russia does do not look benign to the West yet, and as Aybet said, Russia does not see anything benign about what the Western powers are doing either.

Aybet’s analysis made me realize once again how we can get “lost in translation,” as nation-states have different sets of norms.

EU is a normative power, whereas Russia is a Realpolitik power, Aybet said, adding that while Russia has always been wary of NATO and EU expansion, it was much more alarmed by the EU’s expansion than that of NATO. In other words, Russia is more afraid of spreading values than marching armies.

“Because values can put people on the streets. Weapons can confront another army, but with normative power, Russia is not quite sure how it works. Russia is much more of a Realpolitik power. It exerts influence through power. It does not understand institutional normative power, which is what the EU is,” Aybet explained.

I thought of this explanation when I watched Erdoğan’s reaction to the speech of Metin Feyzioğlu, the head of the Turkish Bar Association (TBB), during the Council of State’s 146th anniversary. I think it is disrespectful of Feyzioğlu to make his speech much longer than he was allowed, especially in view of all of the scheduled programs of all the state dignitaries. It is also debatable whether one can find his speech politically oriented. But was Erdoğan’s the right way to react? To get up, raise your voice, insult, show your teeth, turn your back, leave the place and promise not to have a similar scene again; ruining all the bridges for dialogue.

He behaved exactly like that during the Gezi protests. Erdoğan just doesn’t understand the normative power of “democratic dissidence.” He does not know how it works, so he deals with it in the only way he knows, exerting political power and showing his political teeth.