Russia, Turkey And The Isolationist Trap

The increasingly authoritative stances of Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan are only isolating them inside their own countries and on the global stage.

Putin and Erdogan, the "last czar" and the "last sultan."
Putin and Erdogan, the "last czar" and the "last sultan."
Dominique Moïsi


PARIS — Have Russia and Turkey become the two sick men on Europe's outskirts? For centuries, the Russian Empire's territorial expansion came at the expense of the Ottoman Empire, famously described in the 19th century as the "sick man of Europe." Today, these two former empires seem to be going through a similar and negative evolution, which can be explained with two names: Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The root of this "evil" hitting Russia and Turkey seems simple enough and indeed derives from the authoritarian drift and the excessive concentration of power around these two men.

The rapprochement between Moscow and Ankara is not diplomatic in nature, even though there are murmurs that it could be headed that way. Turkey is still NATO's southern cornerstone. Russia, meanwhile, is angered by Ukraine's move towards NATO. Economically too, the two countries couldn't be more different. With a booming demography, the Turkish economy's dynamic is a stark contrast to the accelerated decline of Russia, the energy giant with the feet of clay. Western sanctions and the fall of oil and gas prices are mere indicators and aggravating factors of the Russian economy's structural weaknesses.

As a matter of fact, the rapprochement is political and institutional. In their increasingly centralized administrations, in their desire to control everything and not tolerate the slightest criticism, Putin and Erdogan seem eager to deliver each other a certificate of good political management, saying "the rest of the world is annoying us with their criticism. We don't need anybody telling us what to do!"

They both seem driven by a common instinct — if not urge. Their own version of nationalism includes a willingness to control all spheres of power and leads to them alternating between being prime ministers and presidents. The two seem to betray their personal ambition, which is mixed with a certain feeling of nostalgia for a time that has ceased to exist and to which they cannot go back.

They can picture themselves as the "last czar" or the "last sultan." All they want is to restore the Great Russia or to rebuild a neo-Ottoman Empire, but neither of them actually has the means to turn their dreams into reality.

The great drift

Their increasingly authoritative stances are only isolating them further inside their own countries, while at the same time isolating their countries on the global stage. By moving away from Europe and its values, Turkey and Russia are going the wrong way. Turkey's economy will only continue to thrive in an open society. Putin's "capitalism for friends," at least in its results, looks increasingly like the USSR's 1980s decadence.

To be sure, the fact that the European Union has been dragging its feet has more than contributed to Turkey's moving away from it. But Erdogan's personal evolution can't be blamed on the sole reluctance of the EU and its primary member states. Like Putin, the Turkish president seems to be increasingly driven by his own political agenda. Which brings us to the question of what could stop their isolation.

Only the fear of losing power could lead them to change their behavior and priorities. But isn't it already too late for that? Isolated from the real world, surrounded by sycophants, Erdogan and Putin look trapped in a sort of headlong rush. The more they are criticized, the more stubborn they become. The more difficult the situation gets, the more important it seems for them to appear firmly in control.

Putin is not France's Henri IV, a protestant king who converted to Catholicism amid a violent religious war, famously saying that "Paris is well worth a mass." The Russian president's main goal is to last — which means above all not to yield on anything. In the end, the whole world is talking about Russia and its leader more than ever before. Moscow might deserve its reputation as a "poor power," but it still can't be overlooked, even as Barack Obama's America is seen as an inadequate but indispensable power.

Erdogan's Turkey is arguably no longer the living proof that Islam and democracy, Islam and modernity, are compatible. The country is no longer what it seemed to be at the beginning of the Arab Spring, namely a model. But despite, rather than thanks to, its leader, Turkey is still a key Middle East player, between the rival ambitions of Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.

Russia and Turkey may be engaged in a competitive process of authoritarian drift, but Ankara's playing cards seem objectively better than Moscow's. The question is whether this should be another reason to fear Russia's evolution more than Turkey's.

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