One started his career in the KGB, the other in the IETT (Istanbul Municipality Bus Company). Yet today each stands at the pinnacle of political power in his respective homeland. One breaks "oligarchs" — that is, business giants — via jail or exile, the other imprisons more journalists than any other politician on the planet. One pockets kickbacks from construction at the Winter Olympics, the other winks at workplace safety violations in his crony's coal mine until a disaster like the recent death of 300 miners forces a wake-up. Both are examples of what has been called "managed democracy," the use and abuse of elections by strongmen who see the institutions of political freedom as nothing more than "streetcar stops" on the road to power, as one of them memorably put it.
Each one flaunts aggressive masculinity. The often bare-chested, horse-riding Putin holds a black belt in judo and his publicists make sure everyone knows it. As for Erdoğan, as a young man he played semi-pro soccer in a rough neighborhood of Istanbul that now houses Erdoğan Stadium. But their real talent was for amassing political power, and they show no signs of letting go.
Putin and Erdoğan each appeals to his nation's affinity for a strongman who brings order and prosperity even at the price of liberty. They each have had dramatic economic success, Putin in making Russia a petrochemical giant, Erdoğan in overseeing the greatest manufacturing, investing and building boom in Turkey’s history. Meanwhile, they have persecuted opponents, muscled their way into control of television and increasingly digital media too, broken up demonstrations with brutal force, and funneled wealth and power into the hands of their cronies and supporters. Each dreams of a lost empire — Putin, the Soviet Union, and Erdoğan, the Ottoman Empire, and each wants to make his country great and powerful again.
Putin is the more chilling because of his ability to project power abroad. Not that Erdoğan hasn't tried, but he hasn't had much success into turning Turkey back into the arbiter of the Middle East, as it was in Ottoman days. Putin uses Russia's mineral wealth to buy influence in Europe. As Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) put it pungently, "Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country." Putin has been frustrated by Ukraine's streak of independence and democracy, but he has simply lashed back with his growing military force. He has gotten away with aggression in Crimea and he is likely to dominate eastern Ukraine if not annex it outright. Worse still, neither he nor Erdoğan is going away any time soon.
Putin has been either prime minister or president of Russia since 1999. His current, six-year term of office ends in 2018 and he is eligible to run for reelection. In 2024, term limits will kick in but Putin, who will be 71 then, could simply switch to prime minister, as he did in 2008, when he had no trouble maintaining his dominance of the state, since the de jure president was his protege Dmitry Medvedev. In short, Putin is well on his way to being president for life. It's hard not to suspect that Erdoğan has a similar ambition.
Erdoğan has been Turkey's prime minister since 2003, but term limits will soon put an end to that. Few doubt but that he will run in August in his country's first direct election for president. Although stymied in his attempt to change the constitution to grant more authority to the president, Erdoğan will surely find other ways to turn the presidency into a power base if he wins. The president holds office for five years and is eligible for a second term, which would bring Erdoğan to 2024 if he succeeds twice, at which point he would be 70.
Why do they Putin and Erdoğan each insist on holding on to power? As Mel Brooks said, "it's good to be the king," especially when the king has an agenda. No doubt each one has unfinished business to carry out, and surely each is convinced — or assured by his toadies — that he is indispensable. But they may well feel they have no choice. Once a strongman puts down the reins of power, he has to face his enemies' knives, metaphorical or otherwise. A similar logic long ago pushed Julius Caesar across the Rubicon and into war with the Roman Senate rather than give up his command. As Caesar later learned, it is unsafe for a dictator to give up his bodyguard, much less his office.
Strauss is the Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor in Humanistic Studies at Cornell University.