Protests in Russia and Turkey: Exactly the Same or Completely Different?

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Many observers have compared the recent Turkish antigovernment protests to those in Russia in late 2011 and early 2012. In both cases, the social unrest followed a serious decline in civil liberties and political freedoms under increasingly imperious national leaders, prompting some to warn of the “Putinization” of Turkey. While there are a number of notable similarities between the two cases, there are also important differences that will likely lead to divergent results.

The formal reasons for public dissatisfaction varied. In Turkey, the immediate pretext was the planned construction of a shopping mall on the site of a favorite Istanbul park. In Russia, evidence of fraud in the December 2011 parliamentary elections triggered the unrest. However, the deeper reasons for the protests in the two countries are quite similar: the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of President Vladimir Putin in Russia and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey. Freedom House still classifies Turkey as a Partly Free country, but its civil liberties rating declined in the most recent edition of Freedom in the World. Russia has been in the Not Free category since the 2005 edition, and the situation keeps getting worse.

In addition, the characteristics of the protesters themselves are alike in the two countries. As Russian and Turkish polls indicate, the protest participants receive most of their information from social media, have predominantly political demands, belong to the middle class, are relatively young, and were politicized relatively recently and fairly quickly. In both cases, the movement has a typical internet-era diffused structure without a clear political leader or an articulate program of reforms. The protesters are dissatisfied with the national leader’s authoritarian attitude, the violation of democratic rights, and the lack of media independence. For example, Erdoğan’s government has been conducting mass prosecutions against military officers, scholars, journalists, and politicians, who are accused of involvement in a deep-state conspiracy to bring down the government (the so-called Ergenekon trials). Similarly, Putin’s government has eliminated independent media, ruined the judicial system, and prosecuted opposition leaders, businessmen, and journalists.

Erdoğan and Putin have also mounted similar responses to the protests. While Putin tends to fully ignore democracy, Erdoğan once referred to it as a train from which you get off once you reach the station. In 2011, Putin condemned protesters’ “mercenary agenda” and even went so far as to compare their symbol—a white ribbon—to a used condom. Later, the police arrested many of the participants, multiple trials were opened against the opposition, and a raft of prohibitory laws were issued. Erdoğan too has denounced his critics, accused social media of engaging in an antistate conspiracy, prosecuted journalists, and dismissed the protesters’ demands. Just as in Russia, the police in Turkey have used harsh tactics to suppress the demonstrations, leading to thousands of injuries—nicknamed “Erdoğan’s kisses”—and several deaths.

However, any comparison of these two countries has to include their very different institutional structures. While Turkey is an established parliamentary system with genuine, if lopsided, party competition, Russia is a presidential republic with few checks on executive authority and thoroughly coopted mainstream political parties.

Although Turkey may be drifting in an authoritarian direction, its array of political institutions suggest a much more complex and pluralistic system than exists in Russia. Erdoğan’s AK party won, with a rising share of votes, three consecutive parliamentary elections without significant violations. In addition, unlike the Russian case, Erdoğan’s personal power is still limited by various constraints. There is an enduring secularist component in society and politics that opposes his party’s Islamist orientation. And while his government has been quite successful in reducing the autonomy of the military, the judiciary, and the media, the latter two at least remain relatively independent actors when compared with Russian counterparts. For example, a court in Turkey was able to rule against Erdoğan’s construction plans in the Gezi Park dispute.

Erdoğan is also constrained to some degree by his own party. AK officials have increasingly voiced discontent with the prime minister’s hard-line approach, raising the possibility of intraelite conflict and perhaps the defection of some party leaders or supporters to the opposition. Since the protesters’ frustrations are focused in large part on Erdoğan’s personality, the AK could even remove him to protect its larger interests. The political system is sufficiently robust that replacing the leader would probably be enough to restore the legitimacy of the institutions. In light of these conditions, a degree of compromise with the protesters seems likely at some stage.

Russia has a far weaker level of institutionalization, characterized by the absence of significant constraints on Putin’s personal power. Historically, the Russian military has never been a major threat to the leader, and the Kremlin has been subsidizing the armed forces of late to ensure their loyalty. In 2012 Putin pledged to spend 23 trillion rubles ($770 billion) on strengthening the military over the next 10 years.

In a similar vein, the loyalty of the Russian Orthodox Church is guaranteed through a flow of state subsidies and various concessions designed to further integrate the church and the state. As the result, the church has extended its influence into a broad spectrum of public life: schools, courts, the army, and politics. Restrictive laws limit the spread of alternative religious movements and ensure the monopolization of religious life by the established church. There is little or no organized opposition to this trend.

Russia’s party system is extraordinarily weak, featuring a fragmented opposition movement that has largely been excluded from public office. None of the four political parties that won seats in the 2011 parliamentary elections can be regarded as a genuine opposition group. Putin’s United Russia party holds a majority of 238 seats in the 450-seat lower house, and unlike Erdoğan’s AK party, no member of United Russia dares to contradict Putin.

In poorly institutionalized autocracies, the leader almost never loses power through a split among the ruling elites, who have little structural cohesion or popular legitimacy of their own. Most often these dictators are deposed through bloody revolutions or under pressure from outsiders. Absent such forces, protests can be instantly and harshly suppressed by the authorities, as was the case with Russia in 2012. The success of his recent tactics and the weakness of institutional constraints on his authority mean that Putin is very likely to continue his current policies in the near future.

Overall, despite the similarity of the protests themselves, dramatic differences between the Russian and Turkish political systems will lead to very different outcomes. There is still a good possibility that Turkey will sustain its democratic development with the help of multiple formal and informal checks on the authority of the prime minister. Russia is in a tougher situation. The lack of institutionalized constraints on Putin’s authority will make it very hard for the opposition movement to gain traction. The prospects for democratization may depend on remote possibilities like a revolution or a major deterioration in Putin’s health. In the meantime, the voices of Russia’s protesters are unlikely to be heard.

Maria Snegovaya is a PhD candidate at Columbia University and a researcher at Freedom House.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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