ISTANBUL—in a favorite Russian corner of old Istanbul, Laleli, the streets and stores are eerily quiet. The little boutiques, stores, stands and outlets selling leather and fur coats are just about empty. The prostitutes from the former Soviet empire and from Africa are lonely as well.
Until recently there were crowds of Russian shoppers and Russian clients here. Now, in vain, shop assistants run out of their stores yelling, “Devushka, kurtki, dublenki!” They’re begging a woman to buy a fur coat, in hopes of attracting Russian clients, famous for their generous purchases. But there are none.
Such are the local symptoms of the growing cold war between two countries, or perhaps better said, two leaders who seemed until recently to be fraternal allies.
Yes, one of them is the commander in chief of NATO’s second biggest military, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the other is Russian President Vladimir Putin, but over the years they had found so many common interests, from tourism to oil shipments, that they seemed almost inseparable.
Then Putin entered the Syria war to defend his client, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Erdogan is sworn to depose. And on Nov. 24, one of Erdogan’s American-made F-16s shot a Russian Mig-24 out of the air on the serrated edge of the frontier between Syria and Turkey.
And, so, the Turkish-Russian cold war began, and is growing worse.
On Thursday, speaking at a press conference, Putin said that at the state-to-state level the relations between the two countries were damaged beyond repair. The Turkish leadership, he said, “decided to lick Americans in a certain place.”
Putin’s coarse language, reminiscent of his threats to hang other regional enemies “by the balls,” picked up on weeks of vitriol spewed at Erdogan. The ever-vituperative State Duma deputy, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, claimed that if Turkey “acts as a hooligan” its northern neighbor would answer with destructive bombing, “so that half of Turkey would lie in ruins.”
The Kremlin punished Turkey as best it could, first by banning its cheap and popular tourism and essentially depriving millions of Russian citizens of the chance to enjoy Turkish resorts and cheap shopping; then by sanctioning Turkish agricultural and manufactured goods. Moscow also threatened to cut off supplies of Russian gas to Turkey. That would be painful — over 50 percent of the country’s energy depends on Russian supplies.
But Turkey is not the little nation of Georgia, say, or even Ukraine, to be pushed around by Moscow. Turkey’s GDP is almost as great as Russia’s. (They rank 17 and 15, respectively, on the global charts.) And Erdogan is proud almost to a fault.
Moscow demanded an apology from Ankara for shooting down the plane. That was the first condition for restoring normal relations. But Erdogan wasn’t, and isn’t, about to say “sorry.”
Then the plot thickened, when Moscow accused the Turkish leader’s children of involvement with the shadowy oil trade with ISIS, a charged vehemently denied by Erdogan’s supporters.
“It is a deadlock situation,” says Vügar İmanbeyli, with the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research in Turkey. Vügar has written books about Russian geopolitics, but still struggles to understand the Kremlin’s collective mind
“Our [Turkish] leadership wants to solve the conflict diplomatically,” Imanbeyli told The Daily Beast. “They say they want to sit down and talk with Russia; but it seems that Putin deliberately does everything to escalate the conflict.”
Turkish students were expelled from Russian universities. Russia suspended or cancelled exchange programs with 41 Turkish universities,
And then, last weekend, a Russian frigate fired warning shots at a Turkish vessel, to avoid a collision, Moscow explained.
“The relations between Putin and Erdogan deteriorated in the last two years,” Ahmet Han, an expert with ORSAM, Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, told The Daily Beast, “There will be no apology from Turkey. Even if business gradually improves, Turkish-Russian relations will never be the same as before the war in Syria, and that is our main concern.”
The Lalelis area should be one of the first stop for anyone interested in how this crisis is playing out on the ground.
Less than a month ago, Laleli and the rest of Turkey shipped tons of food, equipment and clothes to Russia. Every year, between 3 and 4 million Russians visited Istanbul and Turkish beaches in Antalya; each visitor would spend around $1,000 per trip, leaving Turkey with billions of dollars. But then Ankara brought down that Russian Su-24 military jet, and Putin declared he felt “stabbed in the back.”
This week in Laleli, pedestrians hurried past wholesale markets. Businessmen, depending on their political views, blamed either the Turkish or Russian presidents, Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, for dooming Laleli’s business, along with the entire well-established Turkey-Russian partnership.
By a stand with hats at the corner of what some local workers referred to as Lenin Street, a shop assistant named Aziz compared the guilty “tough machos” Erdogan and Putin.
Asiz believed both were stubborn and proud. “Putin tells Erdogan, ‘I will sanction all your goods, cut off my aid to you, and forbid Russians to go to Turkey.’ And Erdogan answers him, ‘Go ahead!,’” Aziz told The Daily Beast.
The conflict was painful for both countries, both were losing money. Back in Russia, a Bosch-Siemens factory producing washing machines and refrigerators closed down—it could not operate and continue to pay hundreds of its employees without Turkish-made parts.
And here in Turkey, both transport companies and suppliers lost contracts, money, jobs. “Hundreds of trucks with Turkish goods are stuck on the Russian border, sent for additional inspection or turned around. Business is dying, time to pack and go home,” the head of a transport company, Gleb Trifonov, who had been working in Turkey since 1997, told The Daily Beast.