On July 15th and July 16th, Turkey saw extreme political violence – tanks on the streets and jets in the skies of Istanbul and Ankara, street warfare and almost 200 fatalities followed the failed attempt of the military to take power. Could such events repeat in the post-Soviet space? The reemerging reality of the military coup in world politics is causing doubt in the perception of stability in Moscow and Kiev.
The military coup attempt in Turkey elicited a strong reaction in Russia and Ukraine. Among the publicized fears there is one particularly interesting – the projection of the Turkish events on post-Soviet soil. The Russian-speaking Facebook, Vkontakte, has a new meme rapidly gaining popularity: A Russian tourist is asked why he does not want to evacuate from Turkey and explains: “It is warm and sunny here, and the coup is already finished, while in Russia it is cold and rainy, but most importantly, the coup didn’t yet even start!”
Psychologically, such anxiety is very predictable and natural. In Security Studies this would be considered a classic security bias or heuristic effect – a set of psychological mechanisms related to threat perception and going beyond rational models by applying emotional ones (Paul Slovik, Lawrence Woocher). Indeed, tanks on the streets, political violence, and a radical shift in social life are very emotional because they are so easy to conjure up in the mind of a Russian or Ukrainian.
However, could there be an actual rationale for this fear – something going far beyond the emotional response? Could anything like the events in Turkey happen on the streets of Moscow or Kiev in the next few years?
An immediate analytical response would be most likely – no.
Unlike the former Soviet Union, Turkey has military/political violence and politicization of the military as an ingrained element of politics, according to Kemal Karpat – one of the most influential Turkish historians. 1960, 1970, 1980 – are the dates of successful coup d’etats in Turkey with five more unsuccessful attempts, not including the recent one.
On the other hand, the Soviet Union modeled its civil-military relations through the traditional scheme of separation between the army and politics. The only exception was the Great Patriotic War, when the existential threat to the Soviet nations required extreme mobilization of all popular strengths, and the Red Army became a political body in itself. Soon after the death of Stalin, in June 26, 1953 Nikita Khrushchev used the military led by Marshall Zjukov to depose Lavrentiy Beria – the supporter of Stalinist policies. This was the closest the Soviet/post-Soviet military ever came to a successful coup d’etat. Naturally, after these events, the Politburo returned to its policy of depoliticization of the military with twice the fervor.
However, times have changed and these traditions could be irrelevant in the 21st century. Many details are still unknown, but what is already clear from recent Turkish events is that new social technology is becoming a game changer. Of greater regional consequence, the post-Soviet structures of civil-military relations strongly differ from their predecessors.
In Security Studies it has been found that violence could be instigated based on the probability of success (James Fearon, Paul Collier) or on the probability of risk (James Fearon and David Laitin). Both of these effects would be at play for Russia and Ukraine in the context of a military coup.
First of all, the Russian and Ukrainian militaries have become increasingly politicized of late. For Ukraine it was due to the massive support for the army during the Ukrainian conflict and the popularity of the volunteer battalions movement, whose leaders became parliament members in the Rada. Interestingly, one of the most influential commanders/parliament members Semyon Semenchenko (leader of the ethnic Russian, pro-Ukrainian Donbass battalion) describes the coup in Turkey on his Facebook page in terms of Ukrainian geographical and political topography, literally copying Turkish events on Ukrainian soil.
For Russia, the military is not as politicized, but current servicemen know how convertible their military background could be into political capital. The classic example is General Lebed’, who became a presidential candidate in 1996 and completely changed the election competition, eventually deciding the result of the elections by giving his backing to President Yeltsin. And Lebed’s case is far from unique – Makashov, Ruckoy, Troshev, Kazancev, Shamanov are just a few of several other generals who acquired strong political power after transferring from the armed forces into the civil service.
Moreover, the Ukrainian conflict led to an extreme militarization of political rhetoric, which inevitably led to the militarization of Russian society. Unlike the rhetoric, this movement is difficult or even impossible to control. Deep social impact caused by militarization along with the encouraging experience of generals becoming politicians could convince the military that they would receive public support in a push for power.
On the other hand, the Turkish events show that risk factors for a military coup are different in the modern era. In a sense, Erdogan was saved by social media and the massive peaceful demonstrations that resulted. It is hard to imagine President Putin receiving such support. The experience of pro-Putin rallies, where people were brought under threat from employers, as well as recent anti-terrorist legislation sparking resistance from Internet activists and frequent attacks on free media could provoke citizens to back the coup and provide it with legitimacy.
The failed coup in Turkey shows that traditional security challenges could reemerge in the contemporary environment but develop in a completely new shape, impacted by such new trends and factors. To preserve stability Mr. Poroshenko and particularly Mr. Putin should introduce a more holistic and flexible security doctrine, which could answer not only the threats of terrorism or hybrid warfare but the social developments within their political systems. This approach would halt the militarization of society as a sustainable solution, which could dangerously empower the narrative of a military capable of solving all social threats and thus giving additional incentive for tactical action by the generals.
Elisey Boguslavskiy specializes in security and political risks in the former Soviet Union and Middle East. He works as an analyst for a private security firm in DC and holds a Master’s Degree in Security Policy Studies from the George Washington University. He also obtained a Bachelor Degree in Near Eastern Studies from the Moscow State University and has recently published a book on Turkish, Israeli, and Iranian security services.
Photo Source: The Independent