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Russian Expats In Turkey Fear Politics Could Destroy Harmony

Russian expat Alina, who lives in Antalya with her Turkish husband and 4-year-old daughter, says most Turks have gone out of their way to make her "feel welcome."
Russian expat Alina, who lives in Antalya with her Turkish husband and 4-year-old daughter, says most Turks have gone out of their way to make her "feel welcome."

ANTALYA, Turkey -- Inside the Shemall shopping center here in this coastal resort city, dozens of children from Turkish and Russian schools, in traditional garb and with hands clasped, sing together animatedly.

The public show of solidarity is part of the Friendship and Peace Festival, one of a number of cultural events being held across Antalya on this December day, amid a deepening political feud between Ankara and Moscow.

With the Turkish community in Russia reporting incidents of harassment since Turkey shot down a Russian jet near the Syrian border last month, leaders of Antalya's 40,000-strong Russian expatriate community are making a concerted effort to prevent a repeat of the ugly scenes in Moscow.

Most of the Russian community here expresses hope that the political bickering will subside, but there is also an outpouring of concern that politics might encroach on their daily lives in Turkey.

A Big Family

"We are like a big family," says Larisa, an organizer at the festival. The mother of two, who like many Russian women living in Antalya is married to a Turk, maintains that Russians "don't have any problems here."

"The relationship [between the communities] is growing year by year," says the tall blonde. "It can't be destroyed in a moment. That's impossible."

Irina Balci walks her dog along a beachfront promenade. For eight years, the head of the Russian Arts and Culture Association has called Antalya "my home."

Irina Balci says it was love that brought her from Russia to Turkey.
Irina Balci says it was love that brought her from Russia to Turkey.

The soft-spoken mother of four says Russians in Antalya are well-integrated, with intermarriages playing a big role.

"A big amount of Russian people here are married to Turkish people and have created families," Balci says. "Russians who are married to Turks are integrated into Turkish families and in Turkish neighborhoods. We don't see any danger from Turks here."

Hers is a classic love story in Antalya. She visited the Mediterranean resort on holiday, fell in love, and married a local. She has been living here ever since.

As a symbolic gesture of harmony, Balci named her recently adopted puppy Mira, derived from the Russian word for peace.

Fellow Citizens

Many Turks in Antalya, which has a large number of foreigners living or vacationing in the city, see the Russian expatriates positively.

"Russians are our citizens and our friends," says Emel Cakmak, the co-director of the Foreigners Culture and Solidarity Association, a cross-cultural group that helps Russian nationals integrate in Antalya.

"There are no problems between us," adds Cakmak, a short, energetic woman. "We are living happily side by side."

Many Russians in Antalya speak Turkish and mingle with their hosts, she says.

Many work in the tourism industry and have set up dozens of businesses and bought property in the picturesque resort. Mixed children often attend international schools where they study both Russian and Turkish.

Growing Fears, Uncertainty

But while Russian expats are keen publicly to play down any fears amid the diplomatic spat between Ankara and Moscow, privately they express growing fear and uncertainty.

"They said, 'Stupid Russians, go back to Russia. It's really nice that your plane crashed in Egypt. We hate you,'" Alina, a 29-year-old Russian expat, recalls of a recent encounter with a group of Turkish teenagers in Antalya's city center.

She also cites another incident in which a friend was confronted by a group of Turkish men who shouted obscenities and threatened to hit her.

Alina, who has a Turkish husband and a 4-year-old daughter, says such people represent a minority. She says most Turks have gone out of their way to make her "feel welcome" since political tensions first erupted last month.

Infographic: How Important Is Russian Tourism For Turkey?

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An outwardly confident woman who works as a translator, Alina also says she is afraid to go to Russia because she might be harassed over her Turkish surname or her daughter's Turkish passport. She also fears she might not be allowed back to Turkey by Russian authorities.

Her worries are mirrored by other Russians living in Antalya.

"There are some worries, I have to confess, because my family is in Russia and I like my father and brother to come here with their families," says Svetlana, a native Muscovite who moved to Antalya 13 years ago.

"If we will have a visa regime again, it's going to be harder," she adds, referring to one of the punitive measures announced late last month by the Kremlin. "There is also an issue of dual citizenship, and maybe at some point one of the countries will tell us to choose."

Svetlana, who is sitting on a bench outside a shopping mall in downtown Antalya, calls over her daughter, Margarita, who attends an international school in the city.

"It will be very difficult for my child because she is really half-Russian, half-Turkish," she says, hugging the little girl. "She has two motherlands."

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the regional desk editor for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2012, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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