Russia past and present, from a historian in Cambridge
Turkey and Russia share aspects of the past. In the middle ages, Ottomans and Muscovites alike depended on cultural inheritances from Byzantium. Over several centuries, the Ottoman and Russian Empires both expanded dramatically, creating political spaces in which people of different ethnicities and religions found ways of coexisting. Soon enough, the two great powers clashed. They fought repeatedly over Black Sea hotspots and contested holy places.
Turkey and Russia are much friendlier today. Precisely because, apparently, they have so much in common.
For sure, Turkey and Russia have quite different economies (see the OECD data here and here). They have contrasting religious cultures, although Russia has a very substantial Muslim minority of centuries’ standing. But the two countries seem to face similar geopolitical challenges. And, crucially, they are meeting these challenges with similar political responses.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin proclaim friendship and common interests. Both have dominated their countries for long stretches (Erdogan has been in office since 2003, Putin since 1999). Both were friendly with the United States and European Union for a long period, before relations hit the rocks. And both seem now to be manipulating their countries’ pasts for authoritarian ends, while they ignore claims made against them of personal corruption.
Turkey and Russia famously look two ways. History and geography have made them great Eurasian civilizations. Russia has an anchor in the Far East; Turkey is partly shaped by the pressures and lifestyles of the Middle East. But their history is European, too. As recently as 1683, the Ottoman Empire stretched to the edge of Vienna. In 1814, Russian troops were the toast of Europe, the victors against Napoleon. The history of Europe’s diplomacy, economy and culture make no sense without the Turkish and Russian lands. Historians instinctively make them part of textbooks and courses on the European past.
And yet today’s European institutions have failed to incorporate either Turkey or Russia. In the 1990s, historic opportunities were missed to craft a European institutional architecture that included an outward-looking if anxious Russia. In the first decade of this century, the European Union missed an open goal. A Turkey that was secular, liberalizing, and modernizing was desperate to join. Instead, it was rebuffed and humiliated.
Meanwhile, if the Conservatives win the election in May, there is at least a chance that British people will be asked to vote in 2017 in a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. To win, political elites will surely have no choice but to terrify a sceptical population about the risks of leaving the EU.
Of course, you can argue about cause and effect. Some will maintain that Turkey’s latent Islamism caused its rejection by the EU; others are sure that the current problems in Russia and Ukraine have no connection at all with the development of European institutions since the fall of the Berlin Wall; and many will claim that a British rejection of the EU could only be a result of ignorance and chauvinism.
Or you could think: what about a supranational European framework which is less prescriptive in policy and exclusive in approach: one that is not defined by half-a-dozen governments but is more ambitiously European in vision?