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Who is the “rag”? Medvedev & Putin, Ismet Inonu & Ataturk · 3 March 2008

Anatoly Sobchak, the late reformist mayor of Saint Petersburg with whom Vladimir Putin worked after he left the KGB in 1990, once suggested that Putin might be Russia’s Napoleon Bonaparte. And, in many ways, Sobchak got it right.

However, there is also an element of Kemal Ataturk in many of Putin’s actions and in his relationship with Dimitry Medvedev.

The creation of a Just Russia as a loyal “opposition” party to the dominant United Russia echoed Ataturk in 1930. After previously suppressing the genuinely popular Progressive Party, he decided that Turkey needed a party in opposition to his own governing People’s Republican Party in order to both give the appearance of democracy and to train the population in it. He thus organized the establishment of the Free Republican Party under the leadership of Fethi. Ataturk knew he could trust Fethi to ultimately do his bidding. But, the Free Republican Party was actually too popular for the liking of both Ataturk and Fethi, and it was dissolved within three months.

Falih Rifki Atay, a close companion of Ataturk, explained why Ataturk chose Ismet Inonu as Prime Minister in 1923: “Aside from not feeling any personal competition towards Ataturk … he was a hard-working, serious administration man. He was an intellectual who believed in Ataturk.” Ataturk knew he had a very loyal and capable lieutenant, and a few years later said that “it is thanks to Ismet that I am free from care in Cankaya” (his official residence).

In 1937 Ataturk criticised his occasionally independent minded Prime Minister (and friend) at a Cabinet meeting (notably, when Inonu was absent), saying: “I can take a man and raise him up. But if he can’t understand this and thinks he has risen by his own worth, I can fling him away, like a rag.”

Indeed, he soon did when Ismet Inonu lost his temper and criticised Ataturk’s heavy drinking. Ataturk replaced him with Celal Bayar, but seems to have regretted it, eventually commenting: “With my new Prime Minister I can no longer sleep calmly at nights.”

But as president of the republic, Ataturk always retained the legal trump card. When someone commented that Bayer had skilfully handled an issue, Ataturk reminded everyone who was ultimately in charge: “The government is in my hands, my hands.”

Ataturk was essentially in a psychological master-servant type relationship with the capable Inonu. It appears that Putin is in such a relationship with the capable Medvedev. However, in Russia, Putin has reversed the legal relationship – he has surrendered his legal trump card and potentially could become Medvedev’s “rag”.

Psychologically, Medvedev will remain Putin’s servant (as with Inonu, ”puppet” is too strong a word) for some time. As Medvedev exercises power he will begin to like it and become less the servant — and, initially at least, Putin is likely to take some pride in Medvedev as a capable (and I think he will be) president.

Over time, however, Putin will need to accept various indications of his decline in formal and informal power — and will, at times, have to swallow his pride. However, Putin is not as focused on “self” as Ataturk and will accept this for a time. Nevertheless, tensions will grow.

This might suggest that eventually Putin will attempt to reverse the situation. In a different era this may have been the case. However, in this era Putin is too sophisticated for this. (Many years ago a young scientist who did not particularly like being a scientist told me that highly intelligent and ambitious Russians once had only two career choices — science or the KGB! The much discussed issue of “soul” by some US presidential candidates only betrays their ignorance.)

Putin is not totally dismissive of the views of the outside world, and will know that educated Russians want more say in running their country. Putin will only attempt to prevent Medvedev serving a full four year term if he feels that Medvedev is failing very badly in his task. But by that time, Medvedev may have already built his own power base.

In sum, I think that both Medvedev and Putin will both have to overcome some significant psychological barriers. Medvedev will be more liberal than Putin — but Putin knows this and has, I would think, prepared himself to accept much of this. However, Putin will still expect his views on major issues to be heeded. In regards to this, by the way, do not think that liberal ideas are inconsistent with nationalism.

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