NEW YORK – Many historians and economists insist that we live in an age shaped by vast and impersonal forces. The actions and decisions of one man or woman, no matter how powerful, cannot determine the destiny of nations. This may be true much or most of the time. But there are moments when an individual leader’s choices can change the course of history. That has certainly been true in Russia, and it may soon turn out to be true in Turkey as well.
In Russia, the very existence of the regime constructed by President Vladimir Putin can be traced to a single decision taken by a single man, Boris Yeltsin, for purely personal reasons. As Yeltsin prepared to stand down as Russia’s first democratically elected president, he sought a successor who would protect his personal safety and wealth, and that of his family, in his dotage. Putin, the gray ex-KGB man, seemed much better equipped to fill that role than more democratically inclined figures like, say, Sergei Stepashin, another of Yeltsin’s prime ministers, who had showed little enthusiasm for the First Chechen War in 1994.
Yeltsin’s choice may have fit his personal agenda, but it consigned Russia to a return to authoritarianism. In a sense, then, Yeltsin was responsible both for opening Russia to a democratic future and for closing that chapter in the country’s history.
Turkey’s future, too, is now seemingly in the hands of one man: former President Abdullah Gül. With Turkish voters headed to the polls on November 1 for the country’s second general election this year, Gül must decide whether to stand behind President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. His choice may determine whether Turkey remains on a democratic path or veers toward a future shaped by Erdoğan’s own brand of Putinism.