Is Erdogan's Turkey the Next Putin's Russia?
The best prism through which to see the protests in Turkey, now in their second week, is a Russian rather than a Middle Eastern one.
For several years, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been edging toward the cauterized form of democracy that Russian President Vladimir Putin has made his own. The two men like each other. Erdogan respects Putin's toughness, certainly more than he does the European Union, forever whining about civil liberties.
Earlier this year, Erdogan raised the issue of joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- a security group consisting of China, Russia and several ex-Soviet Asian nations -- and later signed Turkey up as a "dialog partner." On Jan. 25, he said, only half in jest, that he told Putin: "Include us in the Shanghai Five and we will forget about the EU.” He said he thought the Shanghai group was the better and stronger bloc.
The two men share other traits. Both are macho former sportsmen -- Putin in Judo, Erdogan in soccer. Both have been genuinely popular for most of their time in power. Both benefited from the gratitude of voters who have seen the economy around them stabilize and recover from a period of crisis -- in Russia that was the wild 1990s and the default of 1998, in Turkey it was a 2001 financial crisis. Both are seeing that economic success begin to fade.
Now Erdogan wants to make the prime minister-to-president constitutional shuffle so familiar to Russians. And when uppity urbanites in Istanbul turned out to protest against his increasingly brusque style of government without consultation, he responded with a harshness also familiar to Russia's Muscovite pro-democracy movement.
None of this should come as any great surprise. Both countries straddle East and West in geography, culture and history. Turkey's Ottoman heritage is only more complex, because it also links North and South. Of course, Erdogan's Islamist instincts and his creeping attempts to reverse the radical secularism of the republic that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded in 1923 play an important role in the fears and frustrations of many protesters, who fear that their lifestyles are under threat. But at its core, these protests are responding to a form of Putinism.
The best example is the role of the Turkish news media. Russia and Turkey alike had riotous media scenes in the 1990s. Billionaires owned the main television stations and newspapers and used them to shape the business and political outcomes they wanted -- their journalism was partisan rather than independent. There were taboo subjects in Turkey -- the suppression of ethnic Kurds, the 1915 Armenian genocide, Ataturk's imperfections -- but otherwise there was always a platform somewhere that was willing to publish the news and criticize the government.
The Gezi Park protests have demonstrated the collapse of press freedom in Turkey. That has been achieved through: the 2007 transfer, in a single bidder public auction, of the country's second-largest media group, Sabah-ATV, to a company where Erdogan's son-in-law was the chief executive; a punitive, multibillion dollar set of tax claims against the largest group, Dogan Yayin Holding AS; the intimidation of investigative journalists in thousands of court cases; and the doling out of government contracts to companies whose media units fell into line.
This strategy has been distressingly effective. Turkey has more journalists in jail than China. When entire neighborhoods were turned to battle zones engulfed in tear gas in recent days, and tens of thousands of people leaned out of their windows to bang pots and pans, the private network NTV minimized its coverage of the events. The frustration that protesters felt at the media's failure are captured in this Twitter photo of an NTV television van.
Putin, notoriously, also tamed Russia's media, and both governments have since turned their attentions to the Internet (Reporters Without Borders lists Russia and Turkey as "under surveillance" for Web censorship). Erdogan clearly would also like to find a way to control Twitter, which he recently described as a scourge on society. Police in the Western city of Izmir on June 5 rounded up 38 people they have been ordered to arrest for allegedly spreading false information about the protests.
All analogies between countries fall down, of course. Turkey has a far deeper pluralist political tradition and stronger civil society than Russia, giving reason for hope. The protests are highly unlikely to force anything as dramatic as Erdogan's resignation. Let's hope they help him better see the risks involved in following the Putin model.
(Marc Champion is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)