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Fear, Uncertainty In Russia For Turkish Expat Families

  • Tom Balmforth

Russian protesters hold up a poster showing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a puppet of Islamic State militants during a rally in front of the Turkish Embassy in Moscow on November 25.

Russian protesters hold up a poster showing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a puppet of Islamic State militants during a rally in front of the Turkish Embassy in Moscow on November 25.

MOSCOW -- Turkish nationals in Russia have been grimly exchanging horror stories ever since Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber near the Syrian border on November 24, an incident that has spurred a furious Russian response.

Scores of Turks have been detained by immigration police at construction sites and Turkish factories have been hit by unscheduled tax-police raids. Hundreds of angry Russians gathered outside the Turkish Embassy and threw rocks at the windows. And Turks say they fear police harassment and are avoiding the subway.

But perhaps worst of all for Russia's community of up to 90,000 Turkish nationals -- many of whom work in construction -- is the realization that they may have to uproot themselves and their families as the Kremlin's retaliatory measures against Turkey begin to bite.

On November 28, four days after the downing, President Vladimir Putin signed a raft of measures designed to enhance Russian "national security" and the "protection" of Russian citizens. They included scrapping Russia's visa-free regime with Turkey, ending charter flights between the two countries, and banning Russian companies from hiring Turkish workers for projects commissioned after this month.

Even Turkish nationals who are spared the sanctions' direct effects are likely to feel the chill.

It seems likely to spell the end of the Moscow years for 34-year-old Umut, who works for a Russian construction company selling equipment to Turkish companies.

He has called the Russian capital home for over a decade and has a Russian wife, Anna, and a 1-year-old son, Roman, who's also a Russian citizen.

"She is afraid, she doesn't know what will happen," Umut says. "She always thought we would stay here and that Roma would grow up here. I can't see the future here anymore. We need to make plans to leave -- in either the next six months or the next year."

How long they have left depends mainly on how Putin's sanctions play out.

Details of the bomber incident are disputed, but both states continue to dig in their heels.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov said on November 30 that construction contracts signed before the end of the year will not be affected, which Umut believes should give him another year in Russia.

But Svetlana Gannushkina, a leading human rights worker who specializes in migration cases for the NGO Civic Assistance, warns that the sanctions are vaguely defined and expresses pessimism about the future for Turkish nationals in Russia.

"I think they will all be forced to leave the country," Gannushkina says. "I don't really understand what legally is supposed to happen -- it is absolutely unclear [in legal terms], but in practice, we see what [frequently] happens."

Since the bomber was downed, Russian border guards have barred entry to scores of Turks even though the visa-free regime with Turkey is supposed to remain in place until January 1. Gannushkina says she was awakened one night earlier this week by acquaintances complaining that their friend, a young Turkish woman living in Budapest, had been turned away at the border.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov says the families of Turks living in Russia number up to 200,000.

Hitting Home

The Russian wives of Turks are circulating an online petition seeking help from Russia's president.

The document, which had garnered nearly 4,000 signatures by December 2, sought help to allow law-abiding Turks with Russian families to keep their Russian jobs and to discourage the Federal Migration Services from creating unwarranted problems for them, and urged a stop to a perceived anti-Turkish campaign on state media.

Many Turkish companies effectively put their operations on standstill in hopes the crisis might be defused if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Putin met at the UN Climate Change Summit in Paris, where both leaders were in attendance for the opening on November 30. But they did not meet.

Ankara insists the downing came after multiple warnings over the plane's incursion into its airspace, while Moscow says its Su-24 never left the skies over Syria, where Russia continues a two-month-old bombing campaign to prop up Syria's government and strike at alleged terrorist targets. Russia has buried the pilot, who was apparently shot and killed by militants as he parachuted into the war zone, and a Russian service member killed during a rescue mission to retrieve the pilot and navigator.

End Of An Era?

The dispute appears to spell the twilight of Turkish business in Russia and the country's dominant role in the construction sector. Experienced Turkish companies rapidly carved out a niche for themselves 15 years ago, when Russia entered a construction boom in the early years of Putin's rule as the price of oil climbed precipitously, flooding the country with cash.

Turkish builders occupy prominent space in the capital. Renaissance Construction, a major Turkish company, is currently building its own skyscraper in Moscow City, the Russian financial center.

"When the plane crashed, the work simply stopped -- suddenly," says Umut. "We are not working."

For several years, Umut has used his contacts within Turkish companies in Russia to help rake in millions of euros in profits for the Russian construction company where he sells construction equipment. His clients have frozen operations, though, which means he currently has little to do.

Mustafa, 34, a longtime Moscow resident who also doesn't want his surname revealed, has imported Turkish construction equipment for sale in Russia for several years. But his operations have been thrown into disarray as equipment is stopped by Russian border guards.

Having worked his whole adult life in Russia, Umut is not relishing the prospect of moving. "If I go to Turkey, I can't do anything. In Turkey the job I do is done by trained engineers. I have this job in Moscow because I came at the right time," he says. "Maybe I can open up a cafe. That's the only thing that I can do."

Lying Low

Turkish expats in Moscow say they have been unnerved by the wave of anti-Turkish sentiment, which has shown echoes of the anti-Ukrainian fervor that has dominated Russian media since the Euromaidan unrest that unseated a pro-Moscow leader in Kyiv in early 2014.

It is also manifesting itself in peculiar public gestures. Local media in Saratov report that a restaurant chain called Turkish Tandoor has ordered its branches in the central Russian city to cover up the word "Turkish" in its restaurant placards.

But it is a major cause of concern for Turks. Can, 29, a mechanical engineer in Moscow from the Turkish city of Ismid, no longer takes the subway out of fear that police will harass him for his documents -- a problem often encountered by Central Asian labor migrants.

One of Can's Turkish friends was kicked out of a taxi recently after he responded honestly to the cab driver's question about his nationality.

Mikhail Fedotov, head of the Kremlin Human Rights Council, on December 1 warned the country in comments carried by Interfax to dial down rhetoric against Turkey. "I entirely understand the perturbation experienced because of the attack on the Russian warplane, which is a crime and a tragedy, but this is not a reason to stoke this anti-Turkish atmosphere."

Turkish nationals in Russia who have been caught in the crossfire between Erdogan and Putin variously blame both men for the current situation.

But Umut says he hopes that with Russia hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2018 and committed to some ambitious construction projects, the Kremlin might quietly remove barriers to Turkish construction companies operating in Russia.

"I have hope," he says, "but then Putin can just [ban us all anyway]. He's like Erdogan, they're the same. Their character is the same; they're dictators."

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