Tuesday, 09 August 2016 14:17


Lilia Shevtsova, The Financial Times, 09.08.2016  




The spetsnaz are Russia’s elite special forces, undertaking high-risk missions that lay the groundwork to enable the country’s regular soldiers to dominate the battlefield. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey is playing a similar role for the “authoritarian international”. His post-coup purges are part of a tradition of despots cracking down on enemies — real or imagined, it makes no odds — to consolidate their rule. Yet there is one crucial difference: Turkey belongs to Nato and to the Council of Europe human rights body, and is an aspiring member of the EU. Mr Erdogan’s actions are thus an open challenge to western principles.  


Authoritarians everywhere are scrutinising the western response. “Erdogan the Spetsnaz” is exposing precisely where the “red line” on illiberal actions really lies. His successful purge of the army, judiciary, universities and schools, and the grumbling acceptance of this by the west, will inspire his peers to follow suit.  


For now Russia is the main beneficiary of Mr Erdogan’s countercoup. It seems only yesterday that President Vladimir Putin was a whipping boy for promoters of democracy, who lamented his strangulation of civil society and domestic opposition. Turkey, meanwhile, was held up as proof that democracy could take root even in a country with an illiberal past. It appeared to be a democratic state with political pluralism, an independent media, opposition parties and a constitutional court able to confront the powerful president.  


But in light of Mr Erdogan’s vengeful clear out, the Russian regime looks positively vegetarian. True, the Kremlin still harasses opposition parties and manages electoral outcomes, and you can be sent to jail for a couple of years if you write an unflattering blog post. But it seems inconceivable that even the Kremlin today will start to behave like this (unless it faces domestic turmoil).  


Mr Erdogan’s experiment has broadened the Kremlin’s field for manoeuvre internationally as well as at home. The purge has weakened Turkey, which until recently was a headache for Russia. As long as Mr Erdogan persists in decimating his own army, Turkey’s role in Syria will continue to decline.  


Even before the coup, Mr Erdogan was patching up relations with Moscow; today Russia is returning to its joint gas and nuclear energy projects with Turkey. The Kremlin also anticipates that Turkey will become the weakest link in Nato and will stop insisting on an increased alliance presence in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.  


The “personal meeting” between Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan in Russia this week suggests both sides are ready to expand the scope of their dealings.  


How realistic are Russia’s dreams of Turkey pivoting east? Such hopes are in many ways naive. First, authoritarian regimes never forge sustainable friendships. Second, neighbouring states with expansionist agendas will sooner or later fall out; if Turkey turns away from the west, its interests in Eurasia will impinge on Moscow’s area of influence. Finally, why would Turkey want to leave Nato and confront an ambitious and reckless Iran and Russia on its own?  


The Kremlin sees upsides whichever way it goes. If the west decides it cannot do anything about Mr Erdogan’s push for absolute power, this will justify Moscow’s mantra about western hypocrisy and suggests the west will stomach any authoritarian crackdown. A soft line on Mr Erdogan could also strengthen the hand of those who propose accommodating Russia — who include, to judge by their rhetoric, Germany’s Social Democrats, the junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition.  


If, on the other hand, Turkey’s relationship with the west deteriorates, the Kremlin will be even happier. It could then play each side against the other, embracing Mr Erdogan against the west or vice versa. Most likely, it will try to do both. Mr Putin already has some experience in driving two horses in opposite directions when trying to contain the west and be partner with the west. And both he and Mr Erdogan have an interest in flirting with each other to enhance their negotiating positions with the west. But they will never trust one another — not only because Russia and Turkey have always had a rocky relationship but because authoritarian leaders survive by sewing distrust and suspicion of foreign enemies.  


From the Brexit vote to the Turkish coup, recent global events have dealt the Kremlin a strong hand. Mr Erdogan’s descent into authoritarianism should serve as a warning to the world about how far personalised regimes, from Moscow to Ankara and beyond, will go to keep a grip on power — and how little the west will do in response.


The writer is nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution




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