Russia and Turkey find a common cause

Russia and Turkey find a common cause

The irregular trajectory of Russian-Turkish relations registered a new high in 2013, despite many factors that were pulling it down. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan asserted at the meeting of the High-Level Russian-Turkish Cooperation Council in St. Petersburg that other countries could envy the dynamics of these bilateral relations. Both Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin see great benefits in sustaining their special relations for advancing their respective geopolitical visions. These high ambitions have come under threat from internal discontent, which comes into resonance with external shocks from Cairo to Kyiv and makes the two autocratic leaders – whatever differences they might have regarding particular conflicts – natural allies in confronting the tide of turmoil and exorcising the specter of revolutions.

Putin recognized early on, perhaps because of his personal experience in Dresden in 1989, which led to the unification of Germany, the risk posed to his pseudo-democratic regime by revolutionary uprisings, and has positioned himself as a leader of counter-revolutionary forces in the wake of the first wave of the “color revolutions” in the mid-2000s. Erdoğan, to the contrary, came to power as the leader of a “peaceful” revolution against the entrenched and corrupt political establishment, so his attitude toward popular movements was rather neutral, if not positive, hence the difference between the two leaders in initial assessments of the origins and consequences of the “Arab Spring.” Putin has condemned this phenomenon as driven by Islamic radicalism and sponsored by short-sighted supporters of democratic transitions in the West. Erdoğan, in contrast, has embraced the chain of uprisings as the manifestation of a rise of political Islam, expecting to gain new authority and even moral leadership through this momentum.

These differences determined a direct clash of positions on the civil war in Syria. The dialectics of the revolution/counter-revolution conflict remain fluid, and the Bashar al-Assad-led regime in Syria may yet suffer a decisive defeat, but Erdoğan has already moved closer to Putin in the assessment of mass uprisings as a destabilizing factor and a major risk to domestic order. The key driver for this shift is in no doubt the mass protests that erupted in Istanbul in June 2013 – generating resonance in many other cities across the country. The similarity with the protests in Moscow in 2012, which took Putin’s court completely by surprise, stems from the nature of discontent among the urban middle classes.

While these classes certainly constitute a minority of the electorate, they have an outsized impact on the regime’s capacity for governing the country. Both regimes have demonstrated the capacity for withstanding the “carnival” of street protests and effectively deterring their escalation, but conflict with the social groups that drive modernization of conservative paternalist societies cannot be overcome.

The confrontation between the power holders and disunited but vocal “modernizers” has inevitably caused estrangement in Russia and Turkey’s relations with the EU, which remains cautious in criticizing “repressions,” but takes a sympathetic stance toward the opposition. This political drift away from Europe increases the importance of mutual support for the two leaders, who are keen to demonstrate their determination in defeating “radicals” and “extremists,” and to rebuff Western “interference.”

Suppressing street protests is only one element of a regime’s survival strategy, and a no-less important effort is directed toward preserving the unity of stakeholders, which tends to erode under the impact of mass discontent. In this respect, Putin has scored far better than Erdoğan, who mobilized his supporters when facing the protests in summer, but had to face splits and betrayals in his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the last weeks of 2013.

Since the start of this century, both Russia and Turkey have produced coherent autocratic/populist systems of power that have proven as fact they cannot be changed by elections. This only means they will be changed by other means.

*Pavel K. Baev is a research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). This article is an abridged version of the original article published in the Winter 2014 issue of the Turkish Policy Quarterly (TPQ).