Saint Petersburg, Russia – Before starting his one-man rally in front of the Turkish consulate in early December, Timur Bulatov consulted police officers guarding the building in the historic area of Russia’s second-largest city.
He showed them a photo of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with Turkey’s moon-and-star national emblem turned to the side so that the crescent formed two horns above the mustachioed politician’s head.
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The officers warned Bulatov that a public display of the offensive image would get him arrested.
But the bespectacled and outspoken activist of the People’s Council, a pro-Kremlin, neo-conservative vigilante group, still posed with the photo – proclaiming Erdogan a “non-Muslim” and “the son of Satan” – and walked on undeterred.
Similarly any Russian who lambasts Erdogan and his country after the Turkish air force downed a Russian Su-24 bomber on November 24 appears to escape sanction. This is despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s own rhetoric. In his national address earlier this month, Putin was very forward about distinguishing between the “back-stabbing” Ergodan and average Turks.
“The Turkish people are kind, hard-working and talented,” the president said. “I’d like to emphasise, they have to know that we don’t [hold] them and part of [Turkey’s] current leaders directly responsible for the death of our servicemen in Syria.”
But it seems like nobody in Russia heard this part of his speech – and paid attention only to Putin’s threat that Turkey “won’t get away with tomatoes or some restrictions in construction or other industries”.
“They will regret what they’ve done many times,” Putin said. “We know what to do.”
Russian officials, public figures and Kremlin-controlled media surely knew. Within days after the plane’s downing, they seem to have started a competition for the harshest anti-Turkish measure, tirade or prank.
Turkish nationals throughout Russia have been kicked out of universities, searched, detained, interrogated and had their visas discontinued, Russian media reported. Turkish-owned plants have been searched or ordered to suspend their work, and the customs service started suspending Turkish goods, the reports said.
Russia's foreign policies have never been this bad, never.
The NTV television network purported that Turkey buys cotton from ISIL-controlled areas and provides them with high-speed internet connections.
In other NTV reports, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was said to have received medical treatment at a Turkish hospital – and a bearded Greek monk “predicted” that Turkey “will fall into Russia’s hands and split into three or four parts”.
Russia’s top brass accused Erdogan’s family of buying oil from areas controlled by the ISIL. A group of Cossacks, descendants of frontier warriors that once spearheaded Russia’s wars with Turkey, burned Turkish and US flags and rag dolls of Erdogan and Barack Obama.
A nationalist Russian politician said that Turkish sweets should be banned because they may cause cancer. Restaurants started removing or renaming anything Turkish from their menus. And Mikhail Turetsky, the head of a popular Russian choir, joked that he would change his last name because it means “Turkish.”
Georgians, Ukrainians and Tatars
Little seemed unusual about the anti-Turkish campaign in Putin’s Russia, because in the past decade, massive detentions, deportations and harassment of people from ex-Soviet Georgia, Tajikistan, Poland and Ukraine began right after the Kremlin’s diplomatic spat with their governments.
The current anti-Turkish hysteria “is not just reminiscent” of these past campaigns, it has “surpassed them” and reflects Moscow’s recent conflicts with many former allies and neighbours, said the Russian opposition leader Gennady Gudkov.
“Russia’s policies are now aimed at isolation and confrontation, because one has to try really hard to fall out with everybody,” he told Al Jazeera. “Russia’s foreign policies have never been this bad, never.”
The Kremlin is using tried-and-tested propaganda tools to besmirch Turkey and revive the old image of vile Ottomans, archetypal foes of anything Russian. Over the past five centuries, tsarist Russia and Ottoman Turkey were at war a dozen times. Tsar Nicolas called the Sublime Porte a “sick man of Europe” right before the Crimean war that pitted Istanbul and Western powers against Russia in the 1850s.
A century and a half later, Moscow’s annexation of Crimea prompted another conflict between roughly the same players – and Crimean Tatars, a Muslim minority with close linguistic and cultural ties to Turkey, have been accused of siding with the new, old enemy.
Sergei Aksyonov, Crimea’s Moscow-appointed prime minister, reportedly claimed that hundreds of Tatars who studied in Turkish universities and madrassas are potential spies, and promised to rid the peninsula of “Turkish companies, Turkish businesses and public Turkish-Tatar organizations”.
Mustafa Dzhemilev, a Tatar community leader exiled to Ukraine, said in a statement that the “wild anti-Turkish bacchanal led by Putin has affected” the Tatars on top of other harassments they face under Russian rule.
Putin gains, Russia loses
Only days after the downing of the plane, Moscow imposed economic sanctions on Turkey that included bans on fruits and vegetables, charter flights and employment of Turkish nationals in Russia.
The Kremlin did not care that the sanctions affected the dinner tables, wardrobes and holiday plans of countless Russians.
A vacation in Antalya was the most affordable option to millions of Russians – until the Kremlin banned charter flights and ordered holiday companies to “evacuate” tens of thousands of tourists.
A year ago, Turkish fruit and vegetables replaced the European produce Moscow banned in response to Western sanctions over Crimea, and Turkish clothes and shoes have for years competed here with Chinese goods.
But these days, there are no more figs or oranges with a star-and-crescent logo on price tags to be found on the shelves of Russian supermarkets – and some businessmen pledge to reduce their purchases in Turkey.
“In the nearest future, we will reduce the import of shoes from Turkey,” Andrey Pavlov, who owns a network of shoe shops that sold some 500,000 pairs of Turkish shoes in 2014, said in televised remarks.
The conflict has also jeopardised the interests of Russia’s largest state-run companies for the sake of hurting Turkey by any means necessary.
Gazprom, Russia’s mammoth natural gas exporter desperate to wean itself off the pipelines across now-unfriendly Ukraine, said in January that it would build a 1,100-kilometre pipeline to Turkey, along with a distribution hub for the European Union.
In early December, however, Gazprom suspended the project that otherwise would have given Turkey “economic development, because it’s a big construction project, plus a very important role in Europe as a hub, plus discounts on gas”, Leonid Grigoriev, a chief Kremlin adviser on energy issues, told Al Jazeera.
Rosatom, a state-owned nuclear corporation, stopped the construction of a 20-billion euro ($22bn) nuclear power station in the southeastern Mersin province designed to decrease resource-poor Turkey’s dependence on imported energy.
Even the staunchest pro-Putin stalwarts admit that the sanctions hurt Russia more than Turkey.
“They are negative for the Russian economy. Moreover, they are negative for Russian citizens,” Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst, told Al Jazeera.
“Sanctions are not very well thought-out, because their adoption was mostly driven by emotions, but what’s there to do? Russia had to respond on the go.”