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'Turkey's Putin' Faces His Toughest Challenge Yet

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a news conference in Istanbul in 2012. Can the protests in Turkey be compared to those in Moscow last year?
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a news conference in Istanbul in 2012. Can the protests in Turkey be compared to those in Moscow last year?
Is this Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's "Putin moment"?

As a national wave of protests against his rule continues and expands, Erdogan seems to be in a position very similar to the one Vladimir Putin found himself in during late 2011 and early 2012, when tens of thousands of Muscovites took to the streets to call for his ouster as Russia's leader.

The political crisis in Russia is far from over. But Putin appears to have weathered the storm, first with token accommodations to the protesters and later with a crackdown on dissent. Does the Russian experience provide any clues to how Erdogan will fare?

Michael Weiss, a fellow at the New York-based Institute of Modern Russia, says the protests are a crucial moment for the Turkish leader. "This is by far the gravest threat to Erdogan's reign and political system in the last 10 years," Weiss says. "And so far he has handled it catastrophically."

Erdogan's Putinesque statements about the protests -- blaming them on extremists, foreigners, and forces he defeated in elections while refusing to acknowledge or regret the excessive use of force by police -- have only served to make him the personal target of the demonstrators' anger.

Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Heritage Foundation, agrees, adding that the crisis casts serious doubt on Erdogan's future political ambitions.

"I think it is a blow. The question is: Is it a blow from which he will recover? If he recovers he will be weakened. Or, maybe he will not recover. Maybe there will be a challenge inside the party. Maybe there will be a challenge, more of a political challenge, in the next election," Cohen says. "The question is: what are his chances now of being elected president?"

Similar Public Personalities

Comparing Erdogan and Putin has been something of a cliche in recent years. Both men built highly centralized political systems characterized by crony capitalism, strict control of the media and civil society, and a compact with the public that political freedoms could be restricted as long as living standards continue to improve.

Moreover, observers say the two men seem to share key personality traits -- public displays of confidence bordering on arrogance, a touchy disdain for criticism, a reverence for conservative national traditions, and a penchant for authoritarian centralization.

For both leaders, the political crisis came after they had spent a decade in power, at a moment when they were manipulating the political system in an apparent effort to extend their rule far into the future.

Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says this is a key part of the problem. "There is increasing fatigue with the brand of Putin in Russia and the brand of Erdogan in Turkey," he says.

Turkey Isn't Russia

But there are key differences between the situations in Turkey and Russia that seem to indicate Erdogan is in for an even tougher time than Putin.

For all the criticism of the Turkish prime minister -- Turkey has more jailed journalists than any other country in the world -- Erdogan has presided over a period of successful political modernization, curbing the influence of the country's powerful military, and has won three credible elections.

Kuchins says this has emboldened Turkish society to an extent that Russia has not achieved. "The expectations in Turkey are higher, and they are justifiably higher since Turkey has achieved a higher and more sustained level of democratization throughout society," he notes.

READ MORE: Erdogan Depends On Working Class For Support

There are also stark differences in the way the protests unfolded and were subsequently handled by the authorities in the two countries. Maria Lipman of the Moscow Carnegie Center says the Russian authorities were more skilled at managing the protests in the early stages.

"Protests in Russia are authorized by the government, by the city authorities. Each time a big rally is held, it is preceded by negotiations between the organizers and the city authorities in which they discuss in detail how many people will take to the streets and where the march or the rally will be held," Lipman says.

"So, for several months in 2011 it worked quite well and there was official authorization for every rally. They were totally, completely peaceful. Nobody was roughed up; nobody was detained. There was absolutely no use of force and the policing was impeccable."

Although there were small sympathy demonstrations in other cities, the only really significant protests were in Moscow.

A protester holds up a picture of Turkish Republic founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Istanbul.
A protester holds up a picture of Turkish Republic founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Istanbul.

Slow-Motion Crackdown vs. Inflaming Dissent

In May 2012, the pattern of peaceful demonstrations was broken when police and protesters clashed on Bolotnaya Square in what opposition activists say was a provocation by the authorities. Since then, the authorities have sapped much of the energy from the protest movement by pressing prosecutions against 28 protesters accused of inciting mass arrests.

As a result of this slow-motion crackdown, the opposition marked the first anniversary of the Bolotnaya protest with a rally that was attended by only a few hundred demonstrators.

Analyst Weiss says Putin has thus far managed to defuse threats to his rule. "The Kremlin is outmaneuvering the opposition. Putting people in prison, putting on show trials," he says. "It is making them marginal."

By contrast, in Turkey a small, grassroots protest was badly mishandled by police and it quickly metastasized into a national wave of demonstrations expressing profound discontent with Erdogan, his Islamist tendencies, and his rigid political system.

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Analyst Kuchins sees this as reflecting key differences in the two systems and societies. "It may be simply a reflection that Turkey is somewhat of a more decentralized political system, but it also could actually reflect that the dissatisfaction is more widespread in Turkey and that the Turkish population is more less apathetic, is less fearful of expressing opposition to the government," he says.

During Erdogan's tenure, Turkey has been one of the fastest-growing economies in the Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development, which includes most of the world's developed states, averaging 5 percent growth over the past decade.

This economic success, together with the country's far less centralized political system, Weiss argues, makes Erdogan's "Putin moment" even more perilous than Putin's was. "Turkey is doing very, very well economically and look at the turmoil that it is now in. Whereas Russia is doing less well economically and seems to be sort of stabilizing in terms of its political unrest," the analyst says.

This is not to say that Putin's system can work forever in Russia, he adds. Authoritarian systems that seek economic development must develop a middle class that inevitably will turn against the restrictive system that created it.

"Turkey is, I would say, more of a European country to some extent than even Russia is. People come there -- it is a huge tourist destination. Turks travel the world. They have seen how other people live," Weiss observes. "This is all a roundabout way of saying that just because it didn't happen in Russia yet doesn't mean it won't happen in Russia eventually."

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