Erdogan won Turkey’s presidential election. What does this mean for the future of Russo-Turkish relations?

The Bell

It was close, but Turkey’s incumbent president Recep Erdogan secured 52% of the vote in the second round of presidential elections over the weekend. Moscow, which openly supported Erdogan, made no secret of its satisfaction with the outcome. We have written in detail about why the Kremlin supports Erdogan and how Putin’s regime has close financial and economic ties with him. Before the second round vote, we spoke with renowned Turkish-born economist and sociologist Timur Kuran about what an Erdogan victory could mean for Turkey and what Russia might learn from it.

Here is an extract from the interview — about the similarities and differences between Russia and Turkey. You can read the whole interview here.

Where does Erdogan's popularity come from?

Just as Russia has a history of being a major imperial power, Turkey has had long periods of global prominence. And, like Putin, Erdogan has kindled hopes among some people that Turkey will again become a major power: a power akin to the Ottoman Empire at its peak in the 16th century. Some Turks believe, in fact, that he's taking Turkey in that direction. His allies in the media constantly produce programs that make it seem that Turkey is returning to days of glory. Erdogan-friendly media say that the rest of the world looks up to Turkey, that it’s advancing scientifically and that its exports and economy are growing.

Some of the people who believe stories of Turkey’s advances are completely convinced that Erdogan and his family are highly corrupt. They still support him because it makes them feel good when he stands up to foreign leaders and when he challenges the United States or other foreign powers.

Many of Trump’s supporters in the United States disapprove of Trump’s lifestyle. They also know he is highly corrupt. But he gives them hope and dignity. They believe that, unlike most other Democratic or Republican leaders, he puts America's interests above foreign interests.

Putin seems to be using the same playbook as Trump and Erdogan. In any society, large numbers of people who are suffering economically and have lost social status don't feel good about themselves. Doing things that make them feel good (in Putin’s case, trying to rebuild the Russian Empire) is a winning strategy.

What can the opposition do about this?

The best counter-strategy is to show voters that the leader is not improving the country's international standing, that he is actually doing harm. Russia does not become stronger if neutral countries join NATO.

Turkey’s economy suffers in the long term when you destroy its premier public university. Being highly dependent for energy on Russia — a large and nuclear-armed maritime neighbor — is inconsistent with the narrative of Turkey becoming a great power. Kilicdaroglu reminding voters of Turkey’s dependence on Russia undercuts Erdogan’s narrative that he is making Turkey great again.

The Russian opposition is demoralized and its leaders are in jail. Many in Russia are either afraid to speak out against the war or else they support the Kremlin. And we don't know how many people support Putin and the war because opinion polls are not a very reliable way to measure support in an autocratic regime. What can be done to break this spiral of silence?

One thing that can be done is to obtain more accurate information on domestic opposition to the war and about the sense that Russia is failing. There is a need for reliable information on whether people understand Russia’s economic failures and its international standing.

You're not going to get reliable answers from polls that ask people what they themselves think or prefer. The respondents will mistrust pollsters, fearing that they are government agents trying to identify pockets of dissent. If they answer truthfully, their answers may come back to haunt them.

For more reliable answers, one can ask them about what they believe their neighbors think. In this case, people are much more likely to answer truthfully because they don't have to take responsibility.

There is also a list experiment, which gives respondents a series of experiences or statements. Respondents are asked to say how many pertain to them. The experiment is divided into two groups: a control and a treatment group whose list contains a sensitive question. Since the respondents are asked to give a number without saying which of the items in the list pertain to them, the difference between the average numbers of the control and treatment groups gives the proportion of people who share the sensitive view. In this context, the sensitive view might be that Russia’s war with Ukraine was a mistake.

It appears that even among those Russians who oppose the war in Ukraine, there is often condemnation and criticism. For example, those who have left the country may condemn those who remain because they continue to pay taxes. Which strategy is more effective for an opposition: emphasizing polarization or adopting a more moderate approach?

I don't think that stigmatizing people who are living in Russia and dealing with the government is a viable strategy. Nor do I think it's a fair strategy because Russian citizens trying to feed their families may have no alternative to working for the government. For self-survival, they may have to do things that they don't like. They may not have the luxury of leaving Russia. If they were able to get out, there might not be a suitable job abroad. People may have elderly parents. There are many reasons why people may not be able to leave. To stigmatize Russians who have no choice but to live under Putin will drive them into Putin's camp.

I think one has to draw some lines and to give the Russian people examples of the sorts of behaviors that they should not undertake when they have a choice. They should choose not to support the government in ways that are avoidable. But it is not wrong to remain employed at a government-owned bank or to even to serve in the military if they are trapped. To form a broad-based coalition, one has to avoid stigmatizing potential allies. And one must understand where they're coming from. One must reach out even to people currently supporting Putin. Some of them may be amenable to changing camps.


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