Türkiye: Russia’s safe haven
Since Moscow’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Russian oligarchs, tourists and draft dodgers have been flocking to Türkiye
Türkiye has continued to be a very popular summer destination for Russian tourists. And, it has also become a safe haven and semi-permanent home for many Russians following Moscow’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February last year. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of Russians, from every walk of life, including billionaire oligarchs seeking to avoid US-led sanctions to young men fleeing conscription have found refuge there.
Türkiye has become a top destination for Russians because a visa is not required and short-term residency permits can also be obtained. In addition, and unlike the European Union that closed its airspace for flights to and from Russia after February 2022, this was not the case for Türkiye. Despite being a NATO member, Türkiye also rejected Western sanctions and still maintains close ties with Russia. Paradoxically, it also supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity and supplies Kyiv with large amounts of weapons, including drones, that have created mayhem for the Russian military.
Besides easy entry regulations, making Türkiye also attractive for Russians is the weak Turkish currency, which now sits at 28 TL to one US dollar. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the exchange rate was 14 TL to one US dollar. Of course, the Russian Ruble has not faired well either, but if Russian visitors have US dollars at hand, the prospects of living in Türkiye for extended periods has improved.
The number of Russians escaping conscription varies, but certainly spiked after the Kremlin’s April mobilization announcement that made it harder for Russians to dodge military service. On the other hand, the number of tourists arriving and departing Türkiye, including Russian tourists, is well known.
According to September figures from the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism, over 33.4 million foreigners visited Türkiye from January through August, marking a jump of 13.95% year-over-year. In this significant number were 4.3 million Russian tourists, up almost 45% from last year.
The high number of visitors comes as a relative relief for the Turkish economy, with its soaring inflation and a collapsing currency. In particular, Türkiye relies heavily on foreign visitors and revenues from the tourism sector to tackle its current account deficit. In fact, Türkiye’s current-account deficit shrank by almost 90% in August from the previous month, as a boom in tourism helped offset a very wide gap in trade.
According to the Antalya provincial governor, in the first eight months of this year, the highest number of tourists visiting the popular resort destination came from Russia with almost 1.9 million soaking up the sun, followed by German and British holidaymakers. Some Russian tourists are also opting to stay indefinitely in Turkey.
But the good old days for Russians with lower incomes appears to be over as the Turkish government has increasingly been rejecting their requests for residency permits, making it harder to live and work in the country legally.
Eva Rapoport, a photographer and cultural anthropologist, is one of the coordinators of the Istanbul branch of “The Ark”, a charity providing temporary shelter, language courses, and immigration advice to Russians in Türkiye. She recently said that from December onwards it had become more difficult to receive short-term residency permits. However, “right now, it seems that more people [Russians] are approved rather than rejected,” she told Open Canada in a telephone interview.
A short-term residency permit is required for any stay longer than 60 days in Türkiye, while a full residency permit covers one to two years stay, provided a short-term residency permit is obtained first. However, it has also become harder to obtain longer term residency permits not only for Russian nationals but also for other foreign nationals.
Nevertheless, according to Türkiye’s Presidency of Migration Management, Russians still top the list of short-term residency holders in the country with 97,299 Russian nationals currently holding permits. Another 126,316 Russians also hold longer-term residency permits placing them in top spot while just over 9,000 Russians have family residence permits.
While Russian tourists and exiles still flock to Türkiye a concern for many is accessing money after Western sanctions rendered their Russian-issued Visa and Mastercard credit cards unusable.
In its place, Russia developed the Mir card system for electronic fund transfers, however last year Turkish banks stopped processing payments after the US threatened to level sanctions against them. However, new alternatives have since been created that allow Russians to access and spend money in Türkiye other than using cash.
Besides ordinary Russians escaping the war, for one reason or another, Türkiye is also a safe haven for Russian companies and wealthy individuals looking to evade Western sanctions. Russians, as well as other wealthy foreign nationals, can also secure a longer or permanent stay in Türkiye by obtaining residency permits or even Turkish citizenship in exchange for investments.
For example, foreigners, including Russians are eligible for Turkish passports if they purchase property worth at least $400,000 USD. Other options include investing at least $500,000 USD in government bonds, companies, investment funds or a local bank account or creating at least fifty jobs in Türkiye. When it comes to purchasing property, Russians topped the list of foreign buyers last year, purchasing 16,313 houses, mainly in Istanbul and Antalya according to the Turkish Statistical Institute (TUİK). This year will also see Russians at the pinnacle of the house buying frenzy in Türkiye while others choose to set up various businesses at record rates according to the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Türkiye (TOBB).
The most popular safe haven destination for Russian oligarch-owned super yachts is also Türkiye. Recently, according to a New York Times analysis, at least 32 yachts owned or associated with Russian oligarchs and sanctioned entities have found shelter in Turkish ports along the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts.
With so many refugees from the Middle East in Türkiye, and now Russians in growing numbers, public discontent is particularly on display in Antalya, which hosts a sizable Slavic population of Russians and Ukrainians. Skyrocketing housing and rent prices, fueled by the increasing demand, is one of the main reasons behind the complaints of locals.
In particular, rent prices in Antalya have increased by over 300% in some cases and an online petition initiated by Türkiye’s Change.org late last year was signed by over 20,000 people. It called for banning the sale of housing to foreigners in Antalya where one in every three houses sold was bought by foreigners.
Adlihan Dere, the president of the Antalya Union of Chambers of Tradesmen and Craftsmen, also said recently that some 100,000 foreigners living in Antalya were employed in different professions. In particular, Russians with temporary residence in Antalya and in need of money, were increasingly working as unregistered taxi drivers or running unregistered businesses like beauty salons and restaurants. Others had purchased houses in Antalya that they rented out to their countrymen, which local owners said was affecting their business.
But policy wise, the fact is the Turkish government is unlikely to impose sanctions on Russia, remaining the only NATO members not to do so. Nor is Ankara likely to prevent or slow the number of Russian’s seeking the sun or refuge. Indeed, facing an unprecedented economic crisis, Türkiye’s trade ties with Russia are crucial. Bilateral trade,for example, increased to $68 billion USD in 2022, from $34 billion USD in 2021. Ankara is particularly reliant on Russian energy imports. For example, oil imports from Russia more than doubled last year. Natural gas flow continues without interruption.
Moving forward, and given the tough economic conditions in Türkiye, a decline in public approval rates of foreigners residing or seeking refuge in Türkiye appears inevitable. Turkish municipal elections in March next year, as a result, could certainly see Turkish politicians respond to nationalist sentiments and life for Russians in Türkiye potentially becoming far less hospitable. A lingering issue is when might the US finally grow tired of Ankara’s overt support to Moscow, which is helping to prop-up the Russian economy and thereby prolonging the war.