Erdoğan’s and Putin’s anti-Westernism


With tensions rising higher in eastern Ukraine, all attention is focused on how Kiev and the rest of the world should react to the unashamedly open Russian provocations.

The US and the EU have announced more of the same soft sanctions, but are very cautious about moving to a level of punitive measures that would really hurt Russian (and American and European) economic interests. The Ukrainian authorities seem to be stuck between a rock and a hard place: If they intervene militarily against the Russia-backed takeover of parts of the country, Moscow will use that as an excuse to send in its troops to protect the ethnic Russian population in the eastern regions of Ukraine; if they accept the demands of the pro-Russia rebels, Ukraine will most probably cease to exist as a unified state.

Much of the writing and analysis of the current crisis tries to find explanations for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s confrontational policies. Most observers agree the president is trying to restore Russia’s power and influence in neighboring countries that was lost after the demise of the Soviet Union and that these efforts to build a “new order” are based on a combination of revanchism, distorting history and bending international law. There is, however, a growing number of Russia-watchers that claim the past and present territorial disputes are only one part of Putin’s much larger, deliberately anti-Western agenda.

Maria Lipman, analyst at the Moscow Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has underlined the importance of the concept of the “good Russian” that was introduced some time ago. It is based on the idea that Russian values are superior to those of the West, a chaotic, atheist society, in the eyes of Putin, undermined by gays and unlimited free speech. The new ideology promoted by the Kremlin stresses family values and the need to practice religion in an effort to stop Russia’s birthrate from declining. In this analysis, the anti-gay legislation introduced last year that was, according to its supporters first and foremost to protect children, is an integral part of this booming anti-Westernism. Another example is the rhetoric used by Putin in his presidential election campaign in 2012 when he spoke of a battle for Russia and compared it with Russia’s historic wars of survival against Napoleon and Hitler. In Putin’s recent Crimean annexation speech, he referred to “fifth columnists” and Western-backed “traitors” that should be silenced.

Renowned journalist and Russia specialist Anne Applebaum concluded last month on the Slate website that since the end of the Cold War, the US and Europe have spent 20 years trying to make Russia a Western nation, believing that some day Russia would join the club. Applebaum’s harsh verdict: The West is not going to be successful because Russia simply doesn’t want it.

If Lipman, Applebaum and others are right, that would have huge repercussions for how to deal with a Putinesque Russia. But the examples given above should also alarm many Turks because of their uncomfortable resemblance to the words and concepts used by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and other leaders of the ruling party in Turkey.

Of course, there are important differences, historically, politically and economically, between Russia and Turkey and one should be careful in comparing the two. Still, in analyzing Putin’s anti-Western rhetoric of the last couple of years, it is hard not to recognize many of the themes pushed so aggressively and relentlessly by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) leader in the last few months. Both use rants against the moral decay of the West, the campaign to promote having more babies by stressing religious prescriptions, and the need to limit freedom of expression to protect society against degeneration. There is also conspiracy-thinking, in which the West and its domestic lackeys (in Russia, the liberals; in Turkey, the Gülenists) are trying to sabotage the glorious rise and resurrection of a powerful, autonomous and anti-Western Russia and Turkey.

My fear is that the success of Putin’s tactics of intimidation due to Ukrainian and Western helplessness will only stimulate Erdoğan and his small circle of advisers (which includes Putin admirer Yiğit Bulut) to continue copying the Russian president’s anti-Western policies. I guess Applebaum is right when she claims that Russia, from a Western perspective, is a lost cause. One can only hope that Turkey manages to get off that same downhill path.