Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s re-election as Turkish President should have pleased one person in particular: Vladimir Putin. The two autocrats have moved closer together in recent years, even though Russia and Turkey have been opponents on a number of issues, both historically and in the present.
But Kremlin ruler Putin recognized in good time that a Turkish head of state and government who is loyal to him has all the means to keep his European NATO partners and the USA in check.
That is why Putin invited Erdogan to the Kremlin in 2016, shortly after the failed coup attempt against him. Erdogan, who felt cornered at the time, was happy to be welcomed by Putin and thus strengthen his standing at home and in the world.
Erdogan copies chess moves from the “Putin Playbook”
As a thank you, it seems, he subsequently undertook the transformation of Turkey from an illiberal democracy into an autocratic state based on the model of Putin’s Russia.
Like the Kremlin boss, Erdogan has switched positions at the head of state in order to remain in power. The culmination of this approach was the transformation of the Turkish constitution into a presidential republic, with him at the head of state.
There are said to have been irregularities in the current runoff election. Some votes for Erdogan appeared almost out of nowhere. Also from the Putin playbook is the early weeding out of possible political competitors.
Like China’s dictator Xi Jinping, Erdogan uses political bans to control who can run against him. The media in Turkey are also brought into line in such a way that competitors have no place and/or receive negative reporting.
Before the elections, Erdogan killed his competitor, the Mayor of Istanbul, Eurem Imamoglu, by having him sued for “insulting the electoral office”. Imamoglu then desisted from his further political ambitions, as a conviction would have cost him his job as mayor.
Erdogan himself was in prison in 1998
Erdogan, who was Istanbul’s mayor from 1994 to 1998, has already tasted such a political ban himself. Due to Islamist activities he was imprisoned in 1998 and for a time was not allowed to hold any political office.
Although the elections were nominally free, they were anything but fair. At the same time, Erdogan enjoys broad support in society, which has not dried up despite mismanagement, the currency crisis and disastrous disaster relief after the devastating earthquake in February.
This is mainly due to his nationalist message, which is well received by both the left and right-wing camps. Like Putin and Xi, Erdogan speaks of the past greatness of the defunct empire, in his case the Ottoman. He portrays himself as a sultan, just as Putin portrays himself as a tsar and Xi as an emperor.
This nationalistic exaggeration goes hand in hand with not wanting to be told anything from abroad because you are bigger and better than everyone else. In the case of Turkey, the president refuses to be given the same name for the genocide committed against Christian Armenians in 1915 and 1916.
He tried to blackmail the EU with threats
Erdogan is also politically exploiting Turkey’s key role at the interface between East and West, the Christian Occident and the Islamic world, much to the delight of Kremlin ruler Putin.
He has repeatedly tried to blackmail the EU by threatening to send refugees to Europe. The Belarusian dictator Lukashenko, also a vassal of Moscow, did and is doing the same thing.
A fixation on an idealized past and the role one plays in the future of the new, old empire has grown among Putin and Xi during the pandemic, which has kept the two leaders isolated from the outside world. The next few years of his sultanate will show whether Erdogan has also radicalized himself further.