The Washington Post Column

Erdogan, Putin and the strongman ties that bind

On a crackly Skype line from Ankara, Turkey, the story I heard was both new and strangely familiar. I was speaking to an academic, a man with a belief in freedom and free markets, and he was telling me about the arrests, detentions and firings of his colleagues. Sahin Alpay, a 72-year-old liberal journalist with wide European contacts. Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a human rights activist and journalist. Ihsan Dagi, a professor of international relations and theorist of democracy. Lale Kemal, a journalist who writes about the military and security. And there were others.

None of them, he told me, had supported the failed coup in July. None of them were “Gulenists,” followers of the reclusive Islamic cleric, Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania resident whom President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames for the coup attempt. Some of them had written in the past for a newspaper, now shut down, that Gulen supporters had owned; others had not. What linked them was something different: All of them were “democrats” or “liberals,” in Turkish terms — a category of people whom the Turkish president finds threatening. Liberals have questioned his attacks on the media and judiciary. Liberals have investigated him for corruption. Liberals want to reduce the power of the state that he directs.

The identification and elimination of whole classes of “enemies” is an old totalitarian practice; so is the arrest of people not for what they have done, but for who they are. It’s not a sign of strength. On the contrary, it’s what dictators do when they are afraid or paranoid, when they feel isolated, when they worry that the sycophants around them might be secretly plotting their overthrow. They use violence because they fear that they are losing support.

Dictators who fear their enemies also look for allies. But they don’t want allies who will criticize what they are doing, either out loud or by example. And so, in the wake of the failed coup and the successful crackdown, Erdogan naturally sought out the company of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. In St. Petersburg this week, the settings at a luncheon for the two men included porcelain plates decorated with their portraits.

At least until now, Putin’s model of suppression has differed from Erdogan’s strategy. Instead of mass arrests, he has used targeted violence. To intimidate journalists, he ensures that one is occasionally murdered; to scare oligarchs, he locked up one of them for a decade. He controls the economy through a system of cronyism and kickbacks on a breathtaking scale.