By Daisy Sindelar
Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to Ankara on December 1 for talks with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on foreign policy, energy, and a potential trade deal worth $100 billion.
The talks come as the two leaders are divided on a number of foreign policy issues, most notably Syria — where Putin stands virtually alone in defending entrenched leader Bashar al-Assad — and Ukraine, where Erdogan has expressed concerns over the fate of Tatars in Russia-annexed Crimea.
Such disagreements aside, there are more similarities than differences between 62-year-old Putin and Erdogan, 60.
Both Grew Up Poor And Playing Sports
Putin grew up in a communal apartment in postwar St. Petersburg — then called Leningrad — and has been quoted as saying he had to hunt down rats crowding the stairwell. A rowdy youth, Putin first took up sambo and judo as a teenager, ultimately earning a black belt and issuing an instructional video called “Let’s Learn Judo with Vladimir Putin.”
Erdogan grew up in the modest Kasimpasa district of Istanbul, where he sold lemonade and sesame buns for pocket change and reportedly still returns for haircuts with a local barber. He spent 13 years as a semiprofessional soccer player for the Kasimpasa side and recently scored a hat trick in an exhibition match during his presidential campaign.
Both Have Forged Political Careers On ‘Great Nation’ Rhetoric And Vilifying The West
Erdogan and Putin have both tinkered with their country’s constitutions to extend their political life spans by shifting between presidential and prime ministerial posts, and adjusting the balance of powers accordingly.
Their prolonged careers — Putin has effectively remained in power for 15 years, Erdogan for 11 — have been accompanied by a steep rise in political exceptionalism, with both Russia and Turkey chafing at what they see as Western scolding over Syria, Ukraine, and poor democratic principles.
Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) has sought to impose Islamic governance on traditionally secular Turkey, has hinted his country will drop its bid to join the European Union in favor of the Beijing- and Moscow-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Putin, who has defended Russian interest in Ukraine as an attempt to prevent NATO aggression, has accused the West of provoking a new Cold War.
Both men have used their religions — Sunni Islam in the case of Erdogan, Russian Orthodoxy in the case of Putin — to strengthen their influence.
Both Have Palaces
Much attention has been paid in recent weeks to Erdogan’s newly unveiled White Palace, an Ottoman-themed presidential residence built on 150,000 square meters of formerly public parkland in the capital, Ankara. The compound, which boasts a thousand rooms, marble floors, and a sophisticated security system, cost a reported $615 million. But supporters say the palace is meant to signify the country’s prosperity and reflect Erdogan’s importance as the man remaking modern Turkey.
Unlike Erdogan’s highly public palace, Putin’s reported refuge is a far more private affair — a lavish Black Sea mansion allegedly built with $1 billion in diverted funds. “Putin’s Palace,” as the property is known, is built in the Baroque style of St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace and features elaborate landscaping, a casino, swimming pools, and numerous helipads.The Kremlin has repeatedly denied any connection between Putin and the palace, whose Italian architect, Lanfranco Cirillo, received Russian citizenship in August.
Both Have Crushed Popular Protests
Russia saw massive public protests in 2011-12 as Putin ran for his third term. After the vote, the Russian leader used his newly restored presidential powers to launch a sweeping crackdown against civil society, nonstate media, and participants in the Bolotnaya Square protests against rigged parliamentary elections and Putin’s reelection bid. Over 400 people were arrested and beaten in the wake of the protests; more than a dozen protesters are in prison or still awaiting sentencing.
In Turkey, Erdogan’s plans to demolish Istanbul’s Gezi Park to make way for real-estate construction sparked rallies countrywide in 2013-14, with more than 3 million Turks turning out to protest the government’s growing authoritarianism and attacks on secular principles. Erdogan responded with force, authorizing police to suppress the protests with tear gas and water cannons. A dozen people were killed; more than 5,500 are being prosecuted.
In both Russia and Turkey, the crackdowns have all but silenced the political opposition, with Putin now contemplating a fourth presidential term and Erdogan becoming Turkey’s first popularly elected president in August.
Neither Is Going To Win Feminist Of The Year
Erdogan made waves last week in Turkey when he said motherhood should be a woman’s priority under Islam and that gender equality “goes against the laws of nature.” It’s not the first time the Turkish leader has sought to impose his conservative religious views on the female population. Erdogan has also declared that Turkish women should have three children and has sought to limit access to abortion and birth control.
Putin, for his part, recently shocked onlookers when he reverted to an off-color joke in a debate with German Chancellor Angela Merkel over the EU’s options in supporting its currency union, saying, “No matter how you do it on your wedding night, the end result is the same.”
Putin also adopted a patronizing tone when dismissing a remark in June by former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton comparing his actions to Hitler’s. “It’s better not to argue with women,” he said, going on to suggest that weakness was a desirable quality in females.
The recently divorced Russian leader once also reportedly said, “Anyone who can live at least two weeks with [ex-wife] Lyudmila deserves a monument.”
Courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) is a broadcasting organization that provides news, information, and analysis in 21 countries where free press is banned by the government or not fully established.
Copyright (c) 2014. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.