TSG IntelBrief: Continental Drift: Turkish and Russian Talk of Old Empire
CONTINENTAL DRIFT: TURKISH & RUSSIAN TALK OF OLD EMPIRE
Bottom Line Up Front
• Both Russian President Putin and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan are creating and harnessing a form of “empire-ism” to build domestic support and international notice, each with different goals in mind
• It is reasonable to assess, given increasing tensions in eastern Ukraine, that Putin’s actions and evocation are not mere rhetoric but rather clear statements of territorial intention, with ominous implications for Ukraine, at least in the near term
• Putin’s theme of return to illusory empire may be intended to distract from a vulnerable petro-dependent economy, but assessing his actions as only domestic grandstanding is simply guessing
• Erdogan’s actions and evocations of an “Ottoman slap” is also an appeal that reaches past Turkey as a modern nation-state to its sultanate glory, though Erdogan has political and ideological rather than territorial goals in mind.
While the member nations of the European Union (EU) work to improve their respective and collective economies and policies, the continent’s two most significant non-members are drifting further from the center. In recent weeks, the leaders of Turkey and Russia have explicitly evoked their respective former empires as the means of generating domestic support and international regard.
Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and Russian President Putin are using a similar playbook, though with different reasons and goals. A leader speaks of historic injustices or current plots by outsiders, and of the need to return to now-faded glory based not on modern borders or realities but rather on mythic nostalgia and remembrances. The people are deliberately reminded of a culture and not of a nation, one that transcends current borders and recent history and is under attack from antagonistic foes.
During his speech following his party’s strong showing in last week’s municipal elections, Prime Minister Erdogan said the results were an “Ottoman slap” to the face of those he claims represent a treasonous threat to the country. He didn’t say a “Turkish slap” because Erdogan is not leveraging nationalism but rather empire-ism, a calculated attempt to harness pride and nostalgia with his aspirational pan-Islamic base of support.
Likewise, President Putin was explicit in his speech after the annexation of Crimea, declaring Kiev “the mother of all Russian cities,” reaching past the nearly 100 years of Soviet and post-Soviet history to the time of the Tsars.
While the use of nostalgia and cries for a return to glory are standard tools in the demagogue’s toolbox, Turkish and, in particular, Russian maneuverings are far from recent standards. Erdogan is attempting, with great success, to present himself and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) as inheritors of the Ottoman mantle, and his opponents as literal “assassins.” Language, when combined with action, provides important insight for assessing a leader’s intentions. Erdogan has a long history of demonstrative and somewhat outlandish rhetoric, but his recent pasha-like actions in manipulating the judiciary and police, and banning modern communication platforms like Twitter and YouTube, give more weight to his talk of Ottoman power. His high-profile hand-gesture of “rabia” at his rallies (a four-fingered sign that denotes solidarity with the Muslim Brotherhood) provides further evidence to supporters and detractors of the high water mark for political Islam that the AKP and neo-Ottoman politics represent. Erdogan’s recent actions have caused Turkey to move further from the EU center, but it remains uncertain as to the distance the country—which stalled talks of EU membership—will drift.
Russia is not so much drifting from Europe as it is marching. While invoking similar themes of empire, Putin’s use of empire-ism is different. The Russian president’s statements and actions are unlike anything Europe has seen in recent decades. Putin’s description of Crimea as part of Russia is historically accurate only if one ignores the last 60 years of history, a short-term amnesia that fits with the Russian leader’s focus on long-ago glory. As with Erdogan, language is important when assessing Putin’s intentions. He has repeatedly talked about defending ethnic Russians in the former Soviet republics and satellite states, stressing the Russian culture and language as needing protection. He doesn’t talk of restoring the Soviet Union but rather of restoring Russia to its proper role as ruler in Eurasia.
Under the pretext of protecting Russian culture and language, Putin has set the stage for this week’s coordinated protests and calls for annexation of eastern Ukrainian cities such as Donetsk and Kharkiv. During his Crimean annexation speech, Putin said “there was no need” for Russia to take any more of Ukraine. This was not a denial of territorial ambition but a sign Putinist Russia would leverage eastern Ukraine’s apparent “demand” to join Russia or at least leave Ukraine. This is now happening. And since Putin has invested much in Russia’s return to empire and influence, he will act as if he has no choice but to step in and save his fellow Russians from persecution. Current Moscow leadership looks to the creation of a ground-truth reality exceedingly difficult for the West to counter.
While the neo-Turkish and Russian empire-ism are different in scope and design, they are an indication of a continent at drift, with a new focus not on nationalism (a significant continental fear since the end of World War II that organizations such as the EU were designed to counter) but on culture and nostalgia for the glories of former empires.
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