Thursday, April 17, 2014

Putin, Erdogan, and the new authoritarianism of the 21st century

I wrote last year about some of the differences between the cultures and politics of the East and West. As I said back then:

"Easterners may well therefore look at the current economic and ideological malaise in the West as being a direct result of their "freedom". What a Westerner considers freedom, an Easterner could instead call "weakness", or "moral degradation". The USA is currently struggling economically; the UK is moribund; the Eurozone has become a German economic protectorate. So while the East is prospering because it has found a formula that marries Eastern authoritarianism with Western elements of Capitalism, the West is failing (and getting comparatively poorer) because of weaknesses in the structure of its ideology."

The current "Ukraine Crisis" looks like a test case of these two ideologies and perspectives. It is the countries of the East and the developing world that look at what Vladimir Putin is doing with implicit approval, or at best, transparent indifference.

This attitude even extends into Europe. The rise of nationalism in Europe in recent years is married with an attitude of hostility to an out-of-touch bureaucracy in Brussels. Nigel Farage in the recent European debates in the UK was able to clearly articulate the view of many Britons who are tired of EU expansion for the sake of it, sabre-rattling in affairs that are far from our shore (as the Ukraine Crisis has shown), and European intransigence of the self-determination of various movements across the continent. And that's before even getting on to the effect European migration has had on the European economy. In many ways, the EU is ruled more like the bygone Austria-Hungary than any contemporary organisation or pseudo nation-state.

Managing democracy

Both Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan have shown themselves to be masters of "managed democracy".

I wrote last year about how these two contemporary authoritarian leaders compare to some of Europe's earlier faces. Both leaders came to power on a wave of popular support after an economic crisis: in Russia, it was after the 1998 default led to an economic breakdown, and Putin's rise to power the following year; in Turkey, it was after an inflationary crisis destroyed the reputation of the established secular parties that led to Islamist AKP coming to power in 2002.

Since those two leaders have come to power, they have held a firm grasp of the art of politics. In recent years, with the "Gezi Park" protests that started in Turkey last summer, and anti-Putin protests of late 2011, both Putin's and Erdogan's hold of the popular will has looked far shakier than ten years ago. But what has to be remembered is that, in both cases, Putin and Erdogan presided over an almost unprecedented economic expansion in their countries, that lasted until the financial crisis. It was this surge in living standards that explained their popularity. While the liberals of Turkey and Russia decried the creeping authoritarianism that was apparent from the first few years, the people who lived outside of these circles felt either untouched by it, or never cared. Not for the first time, people in the East were more than willing to sacrifice personal freedoms for the sake of economic gains. In the West the attitude is that both personal freedom and economic freedom go together to create socio-economic progress; in the East, the opposite view prevails.

With Russia's "United Russia" party, and Turkey's AKP, these two authoritarian leaders were able to create a "managed democracy" that applied Western PR techniques (such as accusing the opposition of going against progress and wanting to "turn the clock back") as well as gathering as broad a coalition of support as possible.

When the financial crisis started to bite, that's when the strategy for both Putin and Erdogan began to be refined.

"One Of Us"

The financial crisis didn't initially have a huge effect on either of Putin's or Erdogan's support, perhaps due to the amount of good-will that had been stored up by the unprecedented growth in both their countries. Their support base was able to cut them considerable slack.

In Russia, things only seriously started to turn against the "big tent" approach for Putin when he announced his candidacy for the presidential elections of 2012. When that happened, and the financial crisis finally started to seriously eat into Russia long "oil boom", Putin faced his first serious signs of dissent in December 2011. This made him re-make "United Russia" into a party of low populism, using the renaissance of the power of the Russian Orthodox Church, and appealing to the innate distrust and hostility towards the values of the West.
In this way, the members of "Pussy Riot" were almost a gift sent from God, validating all the Kremlin's propaganda about Russia's liberal opposition being a group exclusive to the swanky parts of Moscow, with values alien to most Russians, and never venturing into "real Russia" over the Volga or the Urals. Putin's thousands of miles of travel across Russia are as much a way to give the impression of standing up for "real" Russia, instead of the perceived narrow perspective of the Moscow or St Petersburg liberals.
And again, with the onset of the Ukraine Crisis, this is another almost God-sent opportunity for Putin to decry as another Western plot to demasculate Russia's influence, allowing him to ride of a wave of popular nationalism. For Putin, ruling Russia is about him, or who else? Only Vladimir Putin is truly "one of us", he wants Russians from Vologda to Vladivostok to think. Russia may be corrupt and inefficient, but could anyone else do things better?

In Turkey, Erdogan's popularity began to wane gradually after the financial crisis. The ineffectiveness of the secular opposition perhaps allowed Erdogan to think he was almost untouchable; there is little to suggest otherwise. His government passed progressively more authoritarian laws, neutering the historic power of the military so that it was full of AKP yes-men, as well as the judiciary, and making journalism a career where it was dangerous to criticise the Prime Minister too openly. As a result of this, Turkey had the highest number of journalists in jail in any developed country. Journalists didn't get killed, like in Russia; they were simply thrown in prison instead.
This all came to a head with the dispute over "Gezi Park" in May 2013. Like Putin, Erdogan, after initially being unsure about how to act, followed the same strategy as Putin, calling his opponents Western puppets. In a more incendiary manner than Putin, however, the result of the "Gezi Park" protests has been a radical polarisation of society between secularists and AKP-minded Islamists. While the opposition in Russia has been quite effectively marginalised by its own flawed strategy, the Turkish opposition has shown itself to be more ingenuous. This has resulted in a harsher, more polarising strategy from Erdogan. His rhetoric, like that of Putin, comes from low populism (with a whiff of Islamic values). The AKP is popular in the working-class suburbs of the major cities and the regions of Turkey, especially in the East. A similar point could be made about Putin's "United Russia". The corruption scandal that emerged in Turkey in December last year was seen by his supporters as another example of a Western conspiracy.
So far, Erdogan's "divide and rule" strategy has worked well, following from successful recent local elections. The talk of Turkey's role in Syria has led some in the opposition to fear that, like Putin, Erdogan may also want to flex his muscles...

The new role model?

Nationalism and authoritarianism has always been an ideology based on the root of populism. The rise of nationalism in Europe is seen as a rejection of the "metropolitan liberalism" of the ruling establishment, be that in Westminster, Brussels, or Paris. The politics of UKIP, for example, are clearly populist, as well as seeming economically libertarian. They are Britain's newest "working class party", as unlikely as it may seem. The same can be said of the FN in France, or many of the other nationalist parties in the European parliament. After creating a "liberal consensus" across Europe, the EU establishment has itself created the conditions for authoritarian nationalism to thrive; this form of populism is seen by many as the only effective way to oppose the status quo.

Putin and Erdogan have shown themselves to be "role models" for nationalist parties in Europe. Dismissing the "establishment" in Europe or Westminster as out-of-touch with the concerns of everyday people, nationalists across Europe look at the actions of Putin and (to a lesser extent) Erdogan with envy. "Intellectualism" and "bleeding heart liberalism" is increasingly scoffed at across Europe.  It's no wonder that the likes of Nigel Farage have a sneaking admiration for Vladimir Putin's gall in Ukraine: he is showing them how authoritarianism is done.

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