Russia dreams of Turkey pivoting to ‘authoritarian international’


Turkey on Tuesday warned of rising anti-American sentiment and risks to a migrant deal with the European Union, ramping up the rhetoric in the face of Western alarm over the scale of purges in state institutions since last month’s failed coup, Reuters reports:

President Tayyip Erdogan, who was in Russia on Tuesday for talks with Vladimir Putin on improving ties, has sharply criticized the United States and the EU for what he says is a lack of solidarity with Turkey over the July 15 coup and of caring more for the rights of the suspected plotters. Erdogan blames Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric who has lived in self-imposed exile in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania since 1999, and his followers for the attempted putsch, in which more than 240 people were killed and nearly 2,200 wounded.

The spetsnaz are Russia’s elite special forces, undertaking high-risk missions that lay the groundwork to enable the country’s regular soldiers to dominate the battlefield. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey is playing a similar role for the “authoritarian international”, argues Lilia Shevtsova (right), nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

His post-coup purges are part of a tradition of despots cracking down on enemies — real or imagined, it makes no odds — to consolidate their rule. Yet there is one crucial difference: Turkey belongs to Nato and to the Council of Europe human rights body, and is an aspiring member of the EU. Mr Erdogan’s actions are thus an open challenge to western principles, she writes for The Financial Times:

Authoritarians everywhere are scrutinising the western response. “Erdogan the Spetsnaz” is exposing precisely where the “red line” on illiberal actions really lies. His successful purge of the army, judiciary, universities and schools, and the grumbling acceptance of this by the west, will inspire his peers to follow suit….

For now Russia is the main beneficiary of Mr Erdogan’s countercoup. It seems only yesterday that President Vladimir Putin was a whipping boy for promoters of democracy, who lamented his strangulation of civil society and domestic opposition. Turkey, meanwhile, was held up as proof that democracy could take root even in a country with an illiberal past. It appeared to be a democratic state with political pluralism, an independent media, opposition parties and a constitutional court able to confront the powerful president.

But in light of Mr Erdogan’s vengeful clear out, the Russian regime looks positively vegetarian. True, the Kremlin still harasses opposition parties and manages electoral outcomes, and you can be sent to jail for a couple of years if you write an unflattering blog post. But it seems inconceivable that even the Kremlin today will start to behave like this (unless it faces domestic turmoil).

Ankara is also upset with the post-coup statements from the European Union, which has criticized the widespread crackdown as a curtailment of democracy, analyst Asli Aydıntaşbaş writes for the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan are often seen as similar: authoritarian, combative, unbending and nationalistic, with little time for niceties like freedom of expression. Both are quick to anger, but can shelve it just as quickly when strategic interests are at stake, The New York Times adds.

Over recent years, Erdoğan has also grown more like Putin as he imprisons critical journalists, prosecutes independent media proprietors on trumped-up tax evasion charges and nurtures a stridently nationalistic, xenophobic brand of personal rule, analyst Owen Matthews writes for Politico.EU. As Turkey moves away from the West, Putin and Erdoğan are ready to form an alliance based on “an ideology of sovereign values as a union of the deceived against the West,” argues Alexander Baunov, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

The meeting between Putin and Erdogan “is a big deal . . . Turkish foreign policy now stands at a crossroads,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“For the first time in recent memory, there is serious discussion of Turkey’s NATO membership,” he said. And some Turkish officials are questioning whether Turkey should move toward Russia, he told The Washington Post:

Erdogan “could easily accomplish this pivot,” Cagaptay said, especially given the reduced state of the Turkish military. The armed forces have the strongest interest in maintaining NATO ties, he said, but are damaged after undergoing thousands of arrests since the coup attempt.

Given the tone in Brussels and Washington, Moscow could become an appealing base of support for Turkey, said Viktor Nadein-Rayevsky, of the Russian Institute of Political and Social Studies of the Black Sea-Caspian Region. “Recently there has been talk of Turkish membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union,” he told DW. Russia is the driving force behind both organizations.

How realistic are Russia’s dreams of Turkey pivoting east? asks Shevtsova, [who delivered the National Endowment for Democracy’s 2014 Lipset Lecture on Russia’s Political System: The Drama of Decay]:

Such hopes are in many ways naive. First, authoritarian regimes never forge sustainable friendships. Second, neighbouring states with expansionist agendas will sooner or later fall out; if Turkey turns away from the west, its interests in Eurasia will impinge on Moscow’s area of influence. Finally, why would Turkey want to leave Nato and confront an ambitious and reckless Iran and Russia on its own?

The Kremlin sees upsides whichever way it goes. If the west decides it cannot do anything about Mr Erdogan’s push for absolute power, this will justify Moscow’s mantra about western hypocrisy and suggests the west will stomach any authoritarian crackdown. A soft line on Mr Erdogan could also strengthen the hand of those who propose accommodating Russia — who include, to judge by their rhetoric, Germany’s Social Democrats, the junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition.

“From the Brexit vote to the Turkish coup, recent global events have dealt the Kremlin a strong hand,” Shevtsova concludes. “Mr Erdogan’s descent into authoritarianism should serve as a warning to the world about how far personalized regimes, from Moscow to Ankara and beyond, will go to keep a grip on power — and how little the west will do in response.”

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