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Failed Turkish Coup Holds Lessons for Putin

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The failed coup d'etat against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was avidly watched in Russia -- not just because Erdogan and his authoritarian twin, President Vladimir Putin, have recently restored relations after the downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey in November, but because many wondered if Putin himself could become the target of a coup attempt and if he could survive it.

QuickTake Turkey's Continental Divide

"Watch how it can be, with Erdogan as an example," Ksenia Sobchak, a Russian TV personality and one-time anti-Putin opposition figure, tweeted in the early hours of Saturday as the Turkish coup unfolded.

The projection of the Turkish events onto Russia is only natural. Like Erdogan, Putin has appealed to Russians' conservative, non-European values. Like Erdogan, he has consolidated personal power over a long rule unconstrained by constitutional term limits. Like Erdogan, he has moved to suppress the freedoms of speech and assembly and initiated tough "anti-terrorism" laws that make it hard to oppose him. And like Erdogan, he has struck at nonprofit organizations as "foreign agents" working against his regime.

Besides, Russia, like Turkey, is a country where military and palace coups have taken place in recent memory. In 1991, an attempted coup by a conservative, Soviet elite failed to get rid of President Mikhail Gorbachev immediately, but helped bring about the Soviet Union's demise. In 1993, extreme left and nationalist rioters nearly toppled President Boris Yeltsin, who suppressed the insurgency by military force, memorably shelling the parliament building -- his opponents' stronghold -- with tanks. In 1998, General Lev Rokhlin, a hero of the anti-separatist war in Chechnya, was alleged to have plotted a military coup against Yeltsin; but he was killed before the plot could come to fruition. His wife was convicted of the murder, a version Russian nationalists dismiss.

In late 2014 and early 2015, after a steep drop in oil prices and the ruble's sharp devaluation, there was briefly talk that Putin might face a problem "from within his own entourage," as the former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky put it. That talk quieted down once the economy stabilized.

The similarities veil important differences between the Turkish and Russian regimes. Rooted in these differences are lessons both Putin and Erdogan could draw from last weekend's events.

Putin most likely has little to fear from the military. The Russian president has dramatically increased military spending in recent years. Unlike Yeltsin, he has cultivated a warm relationship with generals, his defense minister Sergei Shoigu is popular with officers and Russia's recent military adventures -- the Crimea annexation and a blitz against President Bashar Assad's adversaries in Syria -- have boosted morale. Erdogan's relationship with the military has been characterized by mistrust on both sides; it was his loyal police force that helped him defeat the coup. Putin is not counting on the army or police to prop him up, though he takes care to keep both loyal -- he recently set up a National Guard, comprising elite units from various services, which is effectively subordinate to him personally.

All in all, he appears to have taken much better care than Erdogan with Russia's security services. Besides, his conservatism and Soviet nostalgia generally fit these services' culture. Both leaders have tried to curb freedom of speech in their countries, but their approaches have been different. Erdogan's government tries to block social networks every time there is trouble. Last weekend, this backfired on him -- the coup plotters apparently found a way to do the same, throttling traffic to social networks. It dropped dramatically in the early, uncertain hours of the coup, making it difficult for Erdogan to call on supporters to take to the streets (he ultimately managed through a mobile-phone message broadcast on television). 

Putin hasn't tried anything on this scale yet, though his government has blocked some opposition sites. Instead, the Kremlin has fought an expensive war for mindshare on the social networks, hiring armies of pro-Putin trolls. It's not clear now effective they would be, however, if Putin needed to defend himself against a coup attempt.

Something Erdogan has done right, and Putin evidently has not, was to let foreign-owned and private media operate widely, if not quite freely, in Turkey. As a result, it wasn't state television but the secularist, private Dogan media group, which owns the CNN Turk TV channel, that put Erdogan on the air first so he could tell the nation he was fighting the coup attempt. Putin wouldn't benefit from such unexpected support: Last year, he forced foreign publishers off the Russian market, his cronies have been taking over private media companies, and even relatively independent owners have been pummeled into submission. It's perfectly possible that in a palace coup, the obedient media would merely serve new masters as they serve Putin now.

A vibrant connection to organized religion is another strength of the Erdogan regime. It was the muezzin who called on the president's backers to go out and face the coup plotters, waking neighborhoods up and mobilizing the faithful in a way no social network or TV station could have done. Putin has sought the support of the Russian Orthodox church and co-opted its hierarchy, yet most Russians aren't as pious as most Turks, and the sound of church bells in the night wouldn't bring them out in force to demonstrate for Putin. Even religious Russian often see Putin's conservatism as less than sincere.

Putin has reengineered Russian politics so that there are no credible opposition forces left. His is essentially a one-party democracy -- the kind that makes voters yawn rather than rally in an emergency. Under Erdogan, Turkish politics have remained competitive; his 52 percent of the vote may mean more than Putin's 80 percent approval rating because Erdogan's supporters are genuinely ready to defend their choice against alternatives they know and mistrust. Putin's supporters are passive and often dependent on government largesse -- which might still be available from whoever tries to depose the president.

Erdogan's survival may seem to recommend to the Kremlin the merits of a less imitative democracy, a more genuine effort to court conservative voters (which would require allowing a real liberal alternative) and more media diversity.  That would be to Russia's benefit. That's not likely, though. Erdogan's first moves since the coup attempt -- his massive purge of the military and the judiciary --may well reinforce Putin's confidence in his own version of authoritarian rule. He might even tighten a few screws as well.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net