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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Kemalist in the Kremlin

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The Yukos crisis has rekindled debate about President Vladimir Putin's ideology. In 2000, befuddled analysts, dusting off Churchillian cliches, dismissed him as a mystery inside an enigma. After Sept. 11, 2001, they pronounced him a Thatcherite and, more recently, "Moscow's Caligula." These descriptions are inaccurate. Putin's ideology has been clear and consistent. He is a Kemalist.

Like Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, Putin is a modernizer and, ultimately, favors integration with the West. Ataturk's reforms included abolition of the caliphate, replacement of the fez with hats, use of the Latin alphabet and introduction of civil codes based on Swiss law. Putin, vowing to put Russia's GDP on a par with Portugal's, has implemented a flat tax, legalized private ownership of most land, introduced new labor laws and promised to lift the "ring fence" that makes Gazprom shares disproportionately expensive for foreigners. Importantly, Putin has shunned calls to orient Russian foreign policy toward China or India.

Both leaders learned from exposure to foreign ideas early in their careers. Ataturk was born in Salonica, now a Greek city but at the time an ethnically mixed hotbed of revolution, particularly among "Young Turk" Ottoman army officers who absorbed French political philosophy while stationed there. Putin hails from another revolutionary city: St. Petersburg, Russia's window on the West. Just as Ataturk studied military doctrine on a delegation to Picardy, Putin spent his formative years in East Germany, the most efficient Warsaw Pact economy.

Although reformers themselves, both leaders distrusted their revolutionary predecessors. The Young Turks snubbed Ataturk; the Yeltsin Family ostracized Putin's siloviki. Consequently, both men distanced themselves from their predecessors soon after assuming the mantle of leadership. Faced with bureaucracies hostile to their reforms, both leaders adopted a centralization strategy to foist top-down modernization on conservative critics. Paradoxically, both saw centralization as consistent with modernization. In Turkey, local warlords undermined Kemalism, and in post-communist Russia, parochial regional governors stymied civil liberties and economic reform. Ataturk responded to these regional challenges with moves highly reminiscent of Putin's recent abolition of gubernatorial elections.

Ataturk was a career army officer, Putin KGB. Both leaders drew on the military and law enforcement to co-opt and silence potential rivals. For instance, from 1925 to 1929, a "Maintenance of Order Law" allowed Turkey's government to close "subversive" organizations and newspapers. In 1930, Ataturk created a controlled opposition, the Free Republican Party, but immediately disbanded it when it attracted unexpected support. Similarly, it seems Putin encouraged Dmitry Rogozin to form the Rodina party and siphon votes from the Communists during the 2003 elections.

Lastly, Ataturk and Putin were nationalists, but not jingoists. Putin's explanation for the Beslan tragedy -- "Russia is weak, and the weak get beaten" -- could have been Ataturk speaking of the partitioned Ottoman Empire after the humiliating Treaty of Sevres. Ataturk embraced the independence of non-Turkish Ottoman provinces, such as the Balkans and Arab world, but he fiercely resisted foreign influence over -- and separatism within -- the Anatolian heartland. Similarly, Putin shows little interest in the non-Slavic former Soviet republics, consenting to U.S. military deployments in Central Asia and Georgia, and even acquiescing to President Mikheil Saakashvili's assertion of Georgian sovereignty over Adzharia. However, as his hawkish Chechnya and Ukraine policies illustrate, Putin sees Russia's present borders as sacrosanct and the Slavic republics as areas of vital Russian interest.

What other policies might Kemalist Russia pursue? First, economic liberalization will continue, but the government will promote national champions. For instance, the Gazprom-Rosneft merger is consistent with Kemal's statist economics. Second, in the medium term, government will be "constitutional in form, authoritarian in practice." It will, however, be authoritarianism "without the uneasy over-the-shoulder glance and the dark menace of the concentration camp," as Bernard Lewis described Ataturk's statecraft. Moreover, Ataturk intended Turkey to evolve into a liberal democracy, as it has, erratically, since 1950. Putin too speaks of "managed democracy." His ideology may mean democracy delayed; it will not mean democracy denied.

Christopher B. Stone, an attorney who frequently does business in Russia, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.