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Russians Watch As Turkey Moves to Presidential Runoff

Political uncertainty, fewer approved residency permits, and inflation are making Turkey a less welcoming place for Russians fleeing home.

Words: Hunter Williamson and Alperen Kul
Pictures: Hunter Williamson
Date:

Artem waits.

It has been three months since the 25-year-old lawyer applied for a residency permit in Turkey. With so many Russian applicants being declined, he hopes that his will be approved.

He has been away from home for over a year.

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Artem packed his bags and left Moscow. Sick of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government, he traveled to Armenia. After several months, he moved again, this time to Turkey.

Historically, Turkey had been a safe haven for Russians fleeing their home. In the wake of Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, that precedent held true. Last year, 5.5 million Russians traveled to Turkey. More than 154,000 received residency permits.

But in late December, things suddenly began to change. The number of Russians being approved for residency permits declined dramatically, according to people interviewed for this story. The reason why was unclear, but it has started to change Russians’ perception of the country. And with Turkey facing economic challenges and political uncertainty, many Russians are leaving. Others are hoping pivotal elections will bring much-wanted change and once more make the country a safe haven for Russians.

Cafe-scaled
A woman walks past a cafe regularly frequented by Russians living in Istanbul on May 17, 2023.
Crushed Hopes

Last year, thousands of people fled Russia.

Maksim, a programmer from Russia’s Siberian region, was one of them.

In September, he went to Turkey after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial military mobilization. After months of heavy battlefield losses in Ukraine, Putin needed more troops for his military. Maksim feared that he would be called up for military conscription.

“I was panicking a little bit,” the 31-year-old said. “I was shocked.”

He took a bus to Kazakhstan and then flew to İstanbul. Upon arriving in Turkey, Maksim hoped to begin the new life that he had long dreamed about but had been too afraid to pursue. Mobilization orders, it turned out, were the push that he didn’t know he needed.

Maksim and his girlfriend, Maria, found Turkey nice. After some time, they decided to look for an apartment and apply for tourist residency permits. Turkey seemed like a good country to start fresh, even if just temporarily. They weren’t alone in their thinking. Many anti-war Russians found safe haven in Turkey last year.

After finding an apartment, Maksim applied for his residency in early November. He brought what he thought was the needed paperwork, but the migration office told him to bring additional documents like bank statements and tourism plans. Maksim wanted to bring them as soon as possible, but he was told to wait until the end of the month. Meanwhile, a Russian friend who applied for residency at a different office in İstanbul wasn’t asked to bring additional paperwork.

Eva-scaled
Eva Rapoport, the Istanbul coordinator at The Ark, an organization that provides assistance to Russians, speaks during a Russian poetry event in Istanbul on May 11, 2023.

Russians interviewed for this story expressed frustration with the way that offices differ in their requirements, with some demanding additional documents while others do not. “Nobody knows what is required of them,” said Eva Rapoport, the İstanbul coordinator at The Ark, an organization that provides assistance to Russians in Turkey and other countries. “It has been changing and not for the better with immigration… It’s super random, super non-transparent. Nobody knows how to play this game to win it. Some people apply and get residency; some people apply and don’t get it.”

Rapoport said that many first-time applicants have been denied residency, while others seeking to renew their permits have also been rejected. The fewer and seemingly arbitrary nature of approvals has led some Russians in the country to leave without even attempting to renew their permits, she added. “This is the sad part of the situation here, that by now we’re really noticing that a lot of people are leaving, not so many new people are coming in,” Rapoport said.

Last week, Turkey’s Presidency of Migration Management, which oversees immigration matters, published figures showing that nearly 8,000 fewer Russians hold residency permits compared to January of this year.

It’s not clear why fewer Russians are being approved for residency. Rapoport said that many rejected applicants are told that they did not provide sufficient documentation. Many Russians note that the change followed a phone call between Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in December. In the call, Erdoğan asked for Russia’s support in northern Syria, where Turkey has been carrying out military operations against Kurdish-led forces backed by the US.

The leaders have maintained close ties despite Western pressure on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Under Erdoğan, Turkey, a NATO member, has refrained from joining in Western sanctions against Russia. While Turkey has supplied drones to Ukraine — a policy that has boosted its defense industry and been a campaigning point for Erdoğan — it has maintained robust trade ties with Russia, a country on which it is reliant for energy imports. Erdoğan has also positioned Turkey as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine. It helped broker and maintain an important UN-backed agreement to allow grain exports from Ukrainian ports.

Two days after the phone call, the head of Russia’s parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, met with Erdoğan and his Turkish counterpart in Ankara. In a statement, Volodin said that the countries’ parliamentary bodies “should do everything to provide legislative support to the decisions taken by the leaders of our states.” In a separate statement, Volodin noted “close contacts in the field of tourism,” and that Russian citizens “are treated well (in Turkey), they can stay safely there.”

Cengiz Taşkın, a representative at a consultancy firm in Turkey that helps foreigners applying for residency, said that the approval rates for Russian applicants changed toward the end of 2022. “Before December 26th, all of them were getting approved,” Taşkın said. “After the 26th of December, 90% of them are getting rejected.” He’s not sure why. “There aren’t any laws, any declarations, nothing,” Taşkın said. “Probably it has started to be rejected with an unwritten order.”

He stated that the few lucky ones who have obtained residency permits tended to be homeowners in İstanbul. With a soaring 137% inflation according to independent researchers, the average house costs more than $120,000 in the city.

Taşkın also noted that far fewer Russians are applying for residency, possibly because fewer are leaving Russia and coming to Turkey. “We used to get through approximately 50 to 60 different cases,” he said. “Right now it is down to four to five.”

The Turkish foreign ministry and immigration office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

On Jan. 2, Maksim received his decision from the immigration office. His application had been rejected because he did not meet one or more of the conditions outlined in Article 32 of Turkey’s Foreigners and International Protection Law. One of the article’s clauses has a vague prerequisite regarding health and safety standards that essentially affords immigration authorities full discretion on whether the applicant meets the requirements. With no clear definition of the standards, such discretion makes the approval process largely arbitrary.

When Maksim visited the office in person, he was told that he didn’t have sufficient grounds to be eligible for a touristic residency permit. Less than two weeks later, Maria’s application was also rejected. The couple appealed the decision, but the result was the same.

Meanwhile, Maksim’s friend who had applied at a different office had been approved for residency.

Parallels Between Russia And Turkey
Posters-scaled-2
Eva Rapoport, the Istanbul coordinator at The Ark, an organization that provides assistance to Russians, speaks during a Russian poetry event in Istanbul on May 11, 2023.

Maksim and Maria now live in Thailand. Maksim said they might only return to Turkey to pick up belongings that they left with friends. The seemingly arbitrary approval process for residency permits and the deteriorating situation in the country left a bad impression on the couple. “You don’t know what the system will demand from you,” Maksim said. But it wasn’t just his experience with the residency permit process that affected his perception of Turkey. Rising prices and democratic backsliding slowly became more clear to him too. “I was disappointed and not so happy about the country in general. I started to notice the drawbacks and cons of Turkey. This became noticeable especially after New Year’s when they corrected the prices because of the inflation.”

And then there was Erdoğan, Turkey’s decades-long forefront politician who seemed not so different from Putin in Maksim’s eyes. “In essence, I moved from one totalitarian country to another,” Maksim said. “I don’t like it there in Russia. I don’t like [Putin’s] regime. So why have I moved here? Yes, it was easy to get the residency permit, but when I didn’t get one, [I asked myself] what am I still doing here?”

As president, Erdoğan has taken a number of measures labeled autocratic by critics. He removed the position of the prime minister and expanded the prerogatives of the presidency. He stripped the central bank and judiciary of their independence. He has jailed opponents, critics, and journalists. And he has personalized Turkey’s foreign policy apparatus.

The moves have raised concerns about Turkey drifting toward autocracy. They’ve worried Russians in the country too. “Because of the history in my country, I really, really, really want Turkey to choose another road, choose another path, and not to be an authoritarian regime,” said Yana, a friend of Maksim who came to Turkey last year after being detained in St. Petersburg for participating in anti-war protests. The parallels that Yana sees between Russia’s political situation and Turkey’s have made her quite interested in Turkey’s presidential race. She’s not accustomed to elections whose results are not a foregone conclusion. “This is amazing to be honest because we didn’t see that for a long time,” the 32-year-old said while eating at a cafe frequented by Russians in İstanbul last week. “There’s no point for us, for example, to discuss anything, because we know who will win in our case. But [Turks] still have hope.”

While still living in Russia, Yana actively participated in civil society. She joined protests against the arrest of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny in 2021. There were several thousand protesters then, she said. When anti-war demonstrations erupted a year later, the numbers were much less, a few hundred at most. Police outnumbered protesters and cracked down on the demonstrations even more ruthlessly than before. “It was very silent protests,” Yana said. “We just gathered in a place and stood there silently. When we stood silently, they didn’t touch us. But the moment we started to chant something, or someone would show up with a sign, they would immediately arrest this person.”

After a few weeks of participating in protests, Yana was detained, seemingly randomly after arriving late to a demonstration. She spent 48 hours in detention, she said. But she was lucky. Instead of prison, a judge — who presided over her case for 10 minutes — issued her a 20,000 ruble (approximately $166 at the time) fine. After leaving the court, she was chased by what she believes was a plainclothes police officer threatening to arrest her if she didn’t go to a police station to give her fingerprints. Refusing, Yana hopped in a taxi and went to a friend’s home. She made it there safely, but it was the final straw. “There’s no laws, nothing that can protect me,” Yana said that she realized. “It was so revealing to me and it was awful. That’s what made me leave the country.”

With the help of her company, where she works as an IT manager, Yana moved to İstanbul. While her residency has been approved and renewed, Yana says she knows two other Russians — in addition to Maksim and Maria — whose applications were denied. She said that Russian Telegram channels in Turkey have reported extremely high rejection rates. She believes that the denials are somehow related to Erdoğan and hopes that Turkey will once again become a safe haven for Russians if his main opponent in the presidential race wins the elections.

A six-party opposition coalition, led by former bureaucrat Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, while not denouncing Russia, has promised to take something of a more pro-Western stance. In the lead-up to the first round of voting on May 14, Kılıçdaroğlu accused Moscow of meddling in the elections by producing “Deep Fake content.”

“If you want the continuation of our friendship after May 15, get your hands off the Turkish state,” he tweeted. “We are still in favor of cooperation and friendship.”

Russia denied interfering in the elections, and Erdoğan criticized Kılıçdaroğlu for the comments while expressing support for Moscow.

“If Kemal wins, we’re hoping that it will be easy for us to stay, that the rejections will stop,” Yana said.

Artem-scaled
Artem, a 25-year-old lawyer from Moscow, poses for a photo in front of the Bosphorus Strait on May 17. Last year, he joined tens of thousands of other anti-war Russians who fled the country. He came to Turkey in December 2022.
The Wait

While Russians in some countries have said they’ve faced discrimination for their nationality, Artem said he has felt welcomed in Turkey. He likes the country, especially İstanbul, and the metropolitan nature of the city. “Come on, like, here’s the Bosphorus,” Artem said, laughing as he relaxed in a park in İstanbul’s Asian side this week. “We’re sitting on the seaside near the Bosphorus, you’re petting a dog and I’m drinking beer and there’s no police so far. Literally, no one is trying to do anything harmful to us… in Russia, for example, [this] would be impossible.”

Unlike Yana, Artem is more skeptical about an opposition victory. Although he also hopes Kılıçdaroğlu will win, he is not sure whether anything would change regarding residency applications. “If I was Turkish, I probably would vote for Kemal, but not because I like him – mostly because I just want to have some changes,” Artem said. “I’m not sure that if Kemal is going to win that everything could change for me. Really, how could I say?”

Despite expectations otherwise earlier this month, it’s not certain at this point that Kılıçdaroğlu will win. Voting over the weekend saw Erdoğan fall just short of the 50 percent threshold needed to clinch victory in the presidential race but still several points ahead of Kılıçdaroğlu. Erdoğan’s Islamic conservative party, meanwhile, won the majority in the parliament. A second round of voting for the presidential race is scheduled for May 28. While the opposition is still hopeful for a victory, the odds seem to be in Erdoğan’s favor. Experts expect largely a continuation of Turkey’s current foreign policy if Erdoğan wins.

Last week, Artem’s bag was stolen. Inside it, among other belongings, was his passport. He’ll visit the Russian consulate in İstanbul soon to apply for a new one. He’s hopeful that he’ll be able to get it in Turkey and not have to return to Russia. He worries about what could happen if he goes back

“I want to settle down a little bit here, like for a year or so,” he said. “But I’m not worried as hell that my life is going to be good or bad [based on the outcome of my application].”

In everything, even the theft of his bag and belongings, Artem keeps a positive mindset. If his residency application is declined, Artem said he plans to go to another country, possibly Serbia.

Still, he hopes he will be able to stay in Turkey. He enjoys it here.

But until he hears back, Artem waits.

All photos by Hunter Williamson.

Cover image: During a Russian cultural event in Istanbul on May 11, 2023, a woman picks up a patch of a flag symbolizing opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Hunter Williamson and Alperen Kul

Hunter Williamson is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon. He covers the Middle East and Ukraine. Alperen Kul is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. He covers Istanbul and Turkey.

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