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Jitters in Russia as Putin lashes out at Turkey

Juri Rescheto / ccDecember 1, 2015

President Vladimir Putin has ordered a severe curtailment of bilateral relations with Turkey after the downing of a jet. Russians are worried about the consequences, Juri Rescheto reports from Moscow.

Russland Wladimir Putin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Metzel/TASS

Suddenly, everyone's talking about Turkey. But most people don't know what exactly they're talking about, because many things are still unclear. Yesterday my friend Maksim came round for a beer and brought with him a bottle of Stary Melnik. Stary Melnik and Zolotaya Bochka are Russians' favorite beers. They're also two of the 25 brands here that belong to the Turkish producer Efes, for whom Maksim works. That's 25 brands manufactured by Turks, representing 17 percent of beer consumption in Russia.

Maksim's enjoyment of his beer was spoiled when he heard about a decree signed by President Vladimir Putin that "limits the commercial activity of Turkish firms in Russia." If Efes isn't allowed to brew beer here anymore, Maksim will be out on the street.

My friend isn't the only person suddenly realizing that Turkey is big in Russia, especially in the capital, if the skyscrapers of the new Moscow City business center are anything to go by. The glitzy Evolution tower was built by the Turkish firm Renaissance Construction. There are more than 100 Turkish construction companies in Russia, many of which were involved in prestigious projects such as the venues for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the renovation of the Duma, the M11 Moscow-St. Petersburg highway and the new airport terminal in St. Petersburg.

Pilot's body
Turkey returned the body of the pilot it killed to RussiaImage: Reuters/Stringer

Turkey as destination

While Maksim worries about how he's going to earn money in future, 4.5 million of our fellow Russians are wondering where they're going to spend theirs. That's how many went on holiday to Turkey last year. I don't know any who didn't love it. Turkey is big among Russians - really big. Or was. What now? We do a quick poll on the streets of Moscow. "We're supposed to try Crimea," one young woman sighs. "Of course Turkey's better. But what can we do?"

The Israeli tourism authorities know what to do. They're wooing new customers. There are posters all over Moscow enticing potential Dead Sea fans. Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are on the up. Israel speaks Russian; people know that. "But it'll be difficult to find a real alternative to Turkey," said Larisa Akhanova, of Tez Tour, one of the bigger operators. "There aren't enough hotels in Russia; we don't have the infrastructure for so many people to suddenly holiday at home."

Akhanova said Abu Dhabi, Cyprus and Tunisia might also be seen as alternative destinations. And Germany is always popular among Muscovites and Peterburgians - third on the list in terms of visitor numbers, after Egypt and Turkey. Berlin is just 2.5 hours away from the Russian capital, and the flights are affordable.

Many industries affected

The decree that is making my friend Maksim and many others so unhappy states that from January 1 there will be no more visa-free travel between Russia and Turkey and no more charter flights either. Scheduled flights are not affected. Not yet. If they were, Turkish Airlines alone would have to cancel 88 flights a day. Goods "made in Turkey" are to be kept out. These are primarily citrus fruits and tomatoes, but also textiles and car parts. Rumor has it that some local authorities are being prematurely obedient and have already started implementing the presidential decree without waiting for the relevant laws to come into force. For example, we hear on the radio about a whole convoy of trucks carrying Turkish imports that got stuck indefinitely at the Russia-Belarus border, or about 39 Turkish businesspeople who were thrown out of the Krasnodar region because their entry papers supposedly weren't in order.

Media sympathetic to the government, like the newspaper Izvestia, are busy reassuring people. It's not that bad, they report, no one will even notice. The paper quotes Agriculture Minister Alexander Tkachyov as saying that "the citizens of Russia will not feel that Turkey is no longer represented on the Russian market," and it cites other potential sources of imports: Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Morocco and Israel.

Uzbek grapes may be sweeter, Moroccan tomatoes more juicy, but they can't save Maksim's job. "On the other hand," he says with philosophical fatalism, "if 17 percent of Russia's beer consumption goes because Efes is banned, will it mean we Russians will drink 17 percent less beer? That'd really be something! Or will we just drink more vodka again?"