Ankara’s Kremlinology

Ankara’s Kremlinology

In political systems where power is highly centralized and personalized, laws, institutions and traditions do not matter much. Rather, almost all politics derive from the decisions - and fluctuations - of a Great Person. Inevitably, this leads both the associates and the observers of this system to focus on the minute details of the thoughts and acts of the Great Person. Did he smile this morning to the cameras, or was he tense? What exactly does he feel about the lesser mortals around him? Which clique around him has his full trust? Who are the unlucky ones beginning to lose his favor?

During the times of the Soviet Union, such questions about power dynamics within the small ruling elite led to the rise of “Kremlinology.” This was a “science” whose experts tried to read between the lines from the official messages and even gestures to understand and forecast the destination of the Kremlin, which ruled over the whole Soviet Empire.

Lately, I feel a sense of déjà vu for these old Moscow days when reading news and reports in the Turkish media regarding Ankara. The latter, of course, is not the home of a single-party dictatorship like the U.S.S.R. Rather, it is the home of an illiberal democracy, where the elected party rules in authoritarian ways. Consequently, its elected Great Person holds more power than all leaders in the liberal democracies of the world. (No wonder, one of his supporters recently referred to U.S. President Barack Obama as “poor Obama,” saying the American leader has truly pathetic powers compared to the ideal of the Turkish one.)

Turkey’s Great Person, of course, is President Tayyip Erdoğan. As I said in the beginning, when he is in the picture, laws, institutions and traditions matter little. Both the constitution and Turkey’s 150-year-old political tradition define the presidency as a “neutral” position, for example, but Erdoğan is defiantly partisan, controlling both the presidency and the incumbent party. His control over an increasingly large segment of the media would be a scandal for normal democracies, but he defends it openly by saying “I have to teach them the way.”

Most news and analyses we have been reading as “Ankara journalism” lately focus on the minute details of the thoughts and feelings of this Great Person. The questions are endless: Does he really like Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, or is he planning to “liquidate” him after the elections? What exactly does he feel about Hakan Fidan, the head of the National Intelligence Agency (MİT), after Fidan attempted to run for parliament without the Great Person’s approval (before having to go into reverse)? What about the journalists who support the Great Person? Who are the most popular ones, and who are the ones losing his grace?

The questions, as I said, are endless. The answers are not always very clear, for the Great Person often leaves them intentionally unanswered, to keep both his lovers and enemies on the hook. But so far there are two clearly visibly facts: First, the Great Person has been steadily increasing his power. Second, he wants more and more power. 

Will this constant aggrandizing of the Great Person go on forever? Well, no, nothing goes forever. In the short run, however, the big question is whether he will be able to pull off a whole new constitution with his ideal “presidential system” after the general elections in June. I find this less likely than more likely to happen. But you never know. For the Great Person is a great for a reason: He knows how to lead, and leads the kind of society that simply loves this.