The contrast was not lost on me as my Turkish Air Flight touched down at Atatürk International Airport. I had just left Athens, the birthplace of democracy, and arrived in Turkey to witness democracy on its deathbed. Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is rapidly consolidating power, is not alone. Across the world, liberal values like free speech and representative government are on the retreat. Vladimir Putin in Russia sees himself as a 21st century tsar. China’s Xi Jinping is the most powerful leader of his country since Mao Zedong. All three of these men have been able to seize large amounts of power because their people put faith in men, as opposed to the institutions those men are meant to serve. Add dash of fear and nostalgic longing for past greatness, and people are very quickly willing to surrender the rights they ought to treasure.In China, General Secretary Xi assumed leadership of his country after a decade of China opening its markets to the Western world. Xi, the son of a revolutionary who fought alongside Mao, has made it clear he feels that too many of the Chinese elite have lost loyalty to their Maoist creed. As Qiushi, the main ideological journal of the Chinese Communist Party, explained earlier this year: “there is no 99.9 percent loyalty, it is 100 percent pure and absolute loyalty and nothing less.” Xi has moved swiftly against institutions he feels do not show such overwhelming support. In Turkey and Russia as well as China, a social media post even somewhat critical of the government can land someone in prison. This chokes the spread of ideals that would push autocratic nations in the direction of freedom: ideals that would be considered dangerous to tyrannical strongmen.
Putin, in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, saw a once mighty empire brought to heel by the West and its ideals. Putin has used this longing for a return to greatness similarly to Erdoğan and Xi. He has artfully re-assumed control of many industries from the oligarchs who bought them immediately after the fall of the USSR, imprisoning many of them in the process. With his control of the media, he has sold Russians on the idea that he alone can restore Russian greatness. As said by Chairman of the State Duma Vyacheslav Viktorovich Volodin, “if there’s no Putin — there’s no Russia.” Putin has crushed any opposition and nobody doubts that he will be the victor of the next so-called “election.”
Erdoğan in Turkey is famous for saying “democracy is like a train, you get off once you have reached your destination.” Such a statement should send shivers down the spines of not only liberal reformers but all people in a free society — as Turkey once was. Unfortunately, nearly half of Turks are Erdoğan loyalists, and nearly 80 percent of Russians support Vladimir Putin with an almost cultish worship emerging around him. Blind faith in people over institutions is dangerous because it disregards human nature: easily corruptible by personal ambitions and lust for power. Turkey and Russia’s descents into a modern day sultanate and Tsardom were not inevitable. As with all places where liberalism is on the decline, it was brought on by calculating and ambitious opportunists who leveraged their people’s desire for a strong leader. Citizens effectively trust an alcoholic with their liquor cabinet when they chose loyalty to a person or party before loyalty to their country and universal human rights. These versions of nostalgia envision recreations of the Russian, Ottoman, and Chinese empires, with all three countries assuming a dominating role on the world stage.
The obligation to secure freedom has always fallen to citizens who are informed and vocal. These twenty-first century dictators arose only in the absence of the democratic impulse that has waned in the past decade. Liberal values are the immovable, unalterable bedrock on which our societies lie. We, the free people of the world, support the right to free speech, open-markets, and self-government. Our rights are sacred. Our rights are susceptible to attack. Our rights are ours — if we are willing to fight for them.