Absolute power is both reviled and revered. Most in the West will look aghast at blatant power grabs, smirk at narcissistic acts of self-promotion and regularly admonish leaders engaging in tyrannical behavior. But many others will just as easily look in awe at a leader who embodies sheer power. When a country's politics have been more volatile than just, people will more naturally crave a leader who oozes confidence and manifests strength. They will more willfully submit to propaganda, wanting to neither see nor hear stories of evil that can tarnish the image they hold of their protector.
This dichotomy defines two highly consequential leaders of our time: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, two men who not only have pasts and motivations with a great deal in common, but whose geopolitical destinies are also deeply intertwined.
Born With a Vengeance
"Men ought either to be indulged or utterly destroyed, for if you merely offend them they take vengeance, but if you injure them greatly they are unable to retaliate, so that the injury done to a man ought to be such that vengeance cannot be feared."
— Niccolo Machiavelli
Putin and Erdogan were born — and rule — with a vengeance rooted in their personal and national upbringings.
Erdogan's most formative years took place in the grimy district of Kasimpasa, on the edge of the Golden Horn waterway dividing European Istanbul, where poor residents looked up the hill with reproach at the wealthy and hip Taksim district, the symbolic center of the Europeanized elite. Erdogan was raised in a conservative family and attended a religious high school, a social environment that made him leery of prideful secular Turks drinking raki in the bars lining Istanbul's streets. He earned his street smarts making extra money selling Turkish snacks in the rough districts of Istanbul, but he always had bigger ambitions. A childhood friend of Erdogan's noted in the documentary "The Making of a Sultan: The Rise of Erdogan" that the young Tayyip, who loved reciting poetry, would stand in empty boats at the docks and deliver speeches to an imaginary audience, honing his oratory skills. Erdogan would later put those skills to use in rallying millions of conservative Turks who were sick of being sidelined from power by Westernized secular elites and who wanted their turn at the country's helm.
Putin, meanwhile, was raised in a dilapidated apartment building in the war-battered city of St. Petersburg (what was then Leningrad). There was no hot water, and only a single stinking toilet. The communal kitchen was always overcrowded with families squabbling over what little food there was to eat. Early accounts of Putin paint him as a thuggish kid, learning early on that an oversized image of strength was key to survival as he scrapped with other kids in rough neighborhoods. One of the few but more revealing anecdotes from Putin's childhood is written in his carefully curated autobiography, First Person.
"There, on that stair landing, I got a quick and lasting lesson in the meaning of the word cornered. There were hordes of rats in the front entryway. My friends and I used to chase them around with sticks. Once I spotted a huge rat and pursued it down the hall until I drove it into a corner. It had nowhere to run. Suddenly it lashed around and threw itself at me. I was surprised and frightened. Now the rat was chasing me. It jumped across the landing and down the stairs. Luckily, I was a little faster and managed to slam the door shut in its nose."
For young Volodya, even a cornered rat will find a way to fight back in a last gasp for survival. This was a lesson that both leaders carried with them in internalizing their national histories.
The West Is Not the Answer
Erdogan, born in 1954, and Putin, born in 1952, grew up in shaky postwar years, never forgetting what it meant to have their countries ravaged from within by insurrection and from beyond by bigger Western powers. Neither fully buy into the idea that their countries will have brighter and more stable futures simply by copying and pasting a template from the West. Not only is this approach unnatural, in their view, but it is also dangerous. For Erdogan, it is even impious.
Several statements made by Erdogan early in his political career reveal his belief that Turkey's national spirit stems from its Islamic heritage, and that the Turkish Republic's embrace of secularism following the fall of the Ottoman Empire was more an aberration than a logical decision in state-building. In a 1996 interview with the daily Milliyet newspaper, a defensive Erdogan is repeatedly asked by the fiercely secular journalist Nilgun Cerrahoglu what his Welfare Party (the predecessor to the Justice and Development Party) actually stood for when it came to religion. Erdogan responded, "Time will tell," and said his party's worldview rested on a system that "depends on the values of our native culture and the spirit of the nation. It is an understanding based on Islam."
Erdogan acknowledges that, pragmatically, Turkey must trade and cooperate on security with the West through mechanisms like its customs union with the European Union and through NATO. But he, along with many of his Kemalist counterparts, lives with the trauma of the draconian Treaty of Sevres that ended the Ottoman Empire and harbors a deep distrust toward Western powers that he accuses of hoping to divide and weaken Turkey. Still, that is where the common ground between Erdogan and the Kemalists ends. Erdogan fundamentally disagrees with the idea that Turkey's national identity is somehow rooted in the West. His is a view that polarizes at least half of his countrymen, who look to the West for inspiration to grow and modernize Turkey. Erdogan nonetheless believes that others, even his most ardent opponents, will eventually come to agree with him once they rediscover their Muslim roots.
Putin shares Erdogan's paranoia of the West. Putin once said that,
"... the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself."
From his KGB posting in 1985-89 in Dresden, where he was charged with stealing Western technology to help Russia catch up with the West, he saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, witnessed the spread of NATO and the European Union into former Warsaw Pact countries, personally fended off riots against his Soviet outpost and then returned to a country in chaos following Mikhail Gorbachev's experiments in liberalization (glasnost and perestroika). He saw the West walk over a weak and embattled Boris Yeltsin, who tried and failed first to prevent NATO from launching a war against Russian-allied Serbs in 1998 and then to secure a role for Russia in the Kosovo peacekeeping mission that followed the war. Putin's Russia needed to be saved, and Putin designated himself as its savior. While Erdogan saw his mission to save Turkey from Western secularists, Putin first went after Russia's oligarchs, who had used an economic opening with the West to plunder the country.
Democracy: A Tool and a Nuisance
For those who carry a deep conviction that they are saving their nation from tragedy and sin, the concept of democracy tends to hold little weight. For Erdogan and Putin, democracy is a tool for gaining power — and a nuisance to navigate once you have it.
In the same 1996 Milliyet interview, Erdogan famously said that "democracy is a means, not an end." He also casually noted that "democracy is a tramway — you climb on to get where you want to go, and then you climb off." His repeated assertion that "laws are made by human beings" implies that laws can easily be lifted to comport with his own vision for the republic. Similarly, Erdogan's inheritance of Turkey's EU accession bid was used as a means to assuage Western onlookers and his own political opponents that Turkey would still keep a foothold in the West, even though Erdogan likely had little expectation of fully adhering to the bloc's democratic norms to complete the accession process.
Putin has also has shown his repugnance for Western lectures on democracy. As he has asserted time and time again, "democracy cannot be exported from one country to another, like you cannot exports revolutions or ideology." In Putin's view, democracy must be a product of a society's developments with its own nuances and timeline. In other words, Russia cannot be rushed and Putin is not about to allow overzealous experimentation in democratization and economic liberalization to shatter Russia once again.
But democracy was a useful tool to build an empire. Indeed, both leaders took similar paths to rise to power and are employing similar tactics to hold onto it. Both worked diligently to mask their more politically unpalatable pasts. Putin commissioned documentaries and biographies to tone down misgivings over his KGB history while Erdogan took care early on to cultivate an image as a "middle-path" Muslim, not an avowed Islamist bent on radically transforming the government. While Putin used his position as deputy mayor and his allies in St Petersburg in the late 1990s to quietly work his way through the corridors of the Kremlin elite, Erdogan placed himself in the public spotlight and passed his first big popularity test as mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to1998.
Both men understood deeply the power of patronage. At the start of their political careers, Putin reined in rapacious oligarchs to earn the people's trust and Erdogan won hearts and minds in Istanbul when he brought clean water to the city, removed trash collecting on the streets and expanded road networks. Both reached the pinnacle of power at the turn of the century, Putin as president in 2000 (after briefly serving as FSB chief and then prime minister) and Erdogan as prime minister in 2003 (his party rose to power in 2002, but Erdogan was temporarily banned from politics by the military-backed establishment). As soon as they reached the top, they worked rapidly to build up networks of loyalists beneath them. They knew that keeping power meant creating deep dependencies in critical institutions and industries as well as on the streets. They were to be seen as the protectors of their people with the power to both punish and reward.
The price of patronage, of course, was unquestionable loyalty. After gutting the oligarchs, Putin made powerful allies in resurrecting national champions in oil, natural gas, nickel, aluminum, steel, diamonds and gold. Erdogan, meanwhile, commissioned massive infrastructure projects with hefty line items and multiple regulatory layers where side sums could be pocketed at every turn. With the procurement and contracting for these projects centered on himself, Erdogan was able to cultivate a powerful network of construction magnates whose wealth depended almost entirely on the quality of their relationship with the Turkish leader. Both presidents accumulated fantastic wealth over the years (by several estimates, Putin is believed to be among the wealthiest people in the world) and have shamelessly displayed their power through oversized presidential palaces built in their names. Some may find it confusing that leaders can ride to power on an anti-corruption crusade and yet, once in power, openly embody the corruptive rot they once vowed to eliminate. But an authoritarian leader can live with such contradiction as long as he has accumulated enough wealth and power to buy allies as needed and convince those beneath him that the loyal will reap the rewards of his rule.
For Putin and Erdogan, laws that get in the way of power can be changed. When Putin reached his presidential term limit in 2008, he installed his subordinate, Dmitri Medvedev, as president while he took the lesser position of prime minister. A loyal Medvedev dutifully signed a constitutional amendment the same year extending presidential terms from four years to six. Putin predictably returned to the presidency in 2012 and, assuming he can win again in 2018, could remain president for a fourth term until 2024.
Erdogan is in the process of engineering his own executive pirouette to consolidate power. When Erdogan reached his three-term limit as prime minister in 2014, he took the less powerful role of the presidency and installed Ahmet Davutoglu as prime minister. Though Davutoglu was long considered an ardent backer of Erdogan, even he grew tired of being politically bulldozed by the president and eventually resigned in 2016. With Binali Yildirim, a more willing executor of his political will, now in place as prime minister, Erdogan is inches away from radically transforming the country's political system and extending his tenure in the process.
On April 16, Turks will vote in a referendum that calls for placing the weight of executive power in the president's hands. Through the proposed constitutional changes, the prime minister's role would be abolished, a vice presidency would be created, parliamentary and judicial oversight over the presidency and his Cabinet would be diminished, and the president (instead of having to remain politically neutral under the existing law) would be allowed to head up his own political party, thus ensuring that lawmakers and deputies understand that their political futures rest directly on their loyalty to the president. Should the public approve these changes, Erdogan would become the acting executive. He would then be eligible to start from a clean slate in 2019 when his current term ends, able to run for the presidency and serve two more terms, potentially staying in power until 2029. (Erdogan is set on remaining president through 2023, the highly symbolic 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic.)
Hold on Tight
Erdogan and Putin are well beyond the power-building phase of their careers. They are now deep in the act of consolidation, employing whatever creative and heavy-handed tactics are needed to keep them in control. This entails everything from constitutional engineering to drastic steps in controlling the media and silencing the opposition. The two leaders are deeply haunted by their recent memories of the Arab Spring, Euromaidan and Gezi Park uprisings. The specter of social upheaval was not their cue to start reforming and appeasing a growing number of dissidents. On the contrary, it provided the impetus to clamp down and use every opportunity — be it a failed coup or a spectacular terrorist attack — to try to eliminate any whiff of dissent while they still have the power to do so. Both hold deep convictions that if they are not there to navigate their countries through troubled waters in the coming years, their nations' very existence will be at stake. If this sounds like gross egoism, take a step into the mind of an authoritarian personality. For all the effort that goes into making our leaders appear like the common man, they are anything but. As neuroscientist Nayef al-Rodhan explains in his article "The Neurochemistry of Power: Implications for Political Change," the primary neurochemical involved in the reward of power is dopamine, the same chemical transmitter responsible for producing a sense of pleasure. "Power activates the very same reward circuitry in the brain and creates an addictive 'high.'" People wired to crave and seek power are in essence feeding an addiction. And if they feel that power slipping, they become more paranoid, less empathetic and more ruthless in how they govern.
Putin and Erdogan are two authoritarian peas in a pod, ruling over territories that are spread across Europe and Asia. Stretched between East and West, the duality of their nations often collides with their worldview, but solipsistic personalities in high power are also wired to stamp out uncomfortable realities that do not conform to their versions of reality. If the West thinks that lectures on human rights will remold them into democratic visionaries, it is deeply mistaken. These leaders are dripping with power and will go to extreme lengths to insulate themselves from competitors at home and abroad. But they are still political mortals at the end of the day. And the problem with remaining in power for a generation is that it increases the risk of encountering a generational wave of resistance. Erdogan saw the Gezi protesters as young hooligans who needed more discipline and direction in life. He will not hesitate to crack down in full force again.
Putin is facing mass protests in the lead-up to Russia's 2018 election as well, and this time, the demonstrations are dominated by young people who lack the historical memory of much harsher Soviet days. For them, Putin is not a protector from chaos; he is the only dictator they've ever known. This is a generation that has social media at its fingertips to rapidly consume and circulate information. A student at a school outside the city of Bryansk, southwest of Moscow, secretly recorded a debate between students in the class and their principal and teachers before leaking it on social media. In the recording, the students flatly rejected the government's nationalistic reasoning on taking Crimea by force and their teacher's defense of the government's crackdown on opposition activists. An excerpt from the recording reads as follows:
Principal: So you think that life in this country got worse with the arrival of Putin and Medvedev?
Student 1: No, but they've stayed too long. They've just been there [in power] for too long.
Student 2: Yeah.
Principal: Did you live in some other era that I somehow missed? Under whom did you live well? And under Putin and Medvedev things got worse for you?
Student 2: We've studied history.
Student 2: Well…
Principal: What does "well" mean? I'm asking you, specifically you: Under what ruler did you live well? What do you mean "well"?
Student 2: We've only ever had one ruler, actually.
Principal: You said that things have become worse. But you never lived through the hard years of the 1990s. When, forgive me for saying this, everyone carried around a blade and a firearm, and the country was in chaos. And this was when I was studying in college! This was when it was scary to go out into the street after eight at night. You didn't see this.
The conversation shows a stark contrast between generations: One with a visceral reaction to a much darker past that makes it deeply distrustful of social upheavals and fiercely loyal to a strongman leader; the other, far less risk averse, has only a distant memory from history books and simply is not willing to buy into fear-mongering propaganda designed to keep a few politicians in power. This is perhaps the challenge that neither Putin nor Erdogan may be fully prepared for in their extended political years.