Both the high degree of emotional response to the Russian media image of President Erdogan and the understandable acuteness of the current geopolitical situation have led to a situation when Russian society is now awaiting the Turkish elections with only slightly less excitement than Turkey itself, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.
The presidential elections in Turkey are scheduled for mid-May. For all their undoubted importance for Turkish society, one cannot fail to note the fact that these elections are now attracting close and sometimes highly emotional attention in Russia as well. In the most apocalyptic forecasts, one can read that if Erdogan loses, then Russia’s last window of opportunity will close, and the situation will become completely gloomy. At the same time, there is an opinion that if Erdogan wins, then Russia should not expect anything good either. The Turkish president has been skilfully kept Russia on a string for years, and after such a victory he will continue to do so with even greater pleasure.
In general, the assessments are polarized; one might even say bipolar. In any case, they are dialectical. Only time will tell whether these forecasts are true are not, but, perhaps, we must admit that with regard to broad public opinion in Russia (and not just local experts), it is very significant that the public is paying such attention to foreign elections. It seems that only the last several presidential elections in the United States have evoked the same emotional response and a sense of connectedness from the Russian audience at large. At the time, Russians were worried about “our candidate” Trump. Now it seems like the pro-Russian candidate is Erdogan, but this could be a false hope.
This intensity of the situation, on the one hand, is caused by the understandable geopolitical balance of forces. The role of the president of Turkey as a key mediator in attempts to resolve the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, as a kind of “honest broker” akin to Bismarck, is indeed extremely important for Russia. Given the current situation, more than a year into the conflict, he seems irreplaceable. It must be acknowledged that no other world leader who has tried to mediate between Russia and Ukraine has been able to achieve anything even close to what Erdogan has.
Here, however, we should note that among self-described Russian patriots, one can quite often come across the point of view that Russia made unjustified concessions at these negotiations, receiving nothing in return. As a result, the very term “Istanbul deal” has already gained an almost negative feeling in this segment of Russian society, which reflects the lack of a will to win among the Russian elites and their desire for various kinds of shady conciliations. But even if we assume that all this is true, it is unlikely that President Erdogan is to blame here. He really acted as an honest broker, and everything else can be blamed on our internal Russian issues.
In addition to mediation, the role of Turkey as the main remaining “window to the world” for Russian society is equally indispensable, this must be directly recognised. Naturally, there are others, both in the post-Soviet space and beyond, in the Arab countries of the Gulf, for example. But geographically, logistically, and from the point of view of some cultural familiarity and “normality” for Russians (developed over many years of mass tourism to Turkey), Turkish cities and coastal resorts are indeed the No. 1 window to the world for modern Russia. It is clear that only a few people in Russia want to see this window shut. Here, the interests of both supporters and opponents of Erdogan among Russians often converge.
In addition to modern realities, on the other hand, the high emotional intensity on the eve of the Turkish elections in Russia can be explained by the extremely controversial media image of the Turkish president in the Russian media and social networks. This applies not only to the last year and to the current conflict, but largely to the previous situation.
Suffice it to recall that, perhaps, no foreign politician other than Erdogan has received such polar (and at the same time constantly changing) epithets and assessments in the Russian mass media. From 2014, amid news of Crimea and Syria, at first it was “friend Recep”, again, almost the only one. Then, after the downing of a Russian military aircraft, the friend turned into an enemy. Then, (I must say, quite unexpectedly for the broad strata of the Russian people) he again went from being an enemy to being a friend.
If we take into account the phenomenon of the Russian TV political talk shows, with their extremely acute emotional component, a certain totality and lack of nuance in the presentation of material, then a simple Russian TV viewer practically witnessed all this dialectical ambivalence in the presentation of Erdogan from friend to enemy, and then again into a friend. Naturally, this brought with it its own consequences. As a result, the emotional response to the personality of Erdogan, at least among the Russian television audience, is now indeed one of the strongest and at the same time contradictory.
The media coverage of the Karabakh conflict in the Russian media, again, primarily on television, also played a role. From my subjective point of view, here, first, it was possible to keep the situation from slipping into a simple black and white choice, and there was no total presentation of one side as “light” and the other as “dark”, despite attempts of this kind, in my opinion, being made. But, second, I got the impression that there were extremely active attempts to manipulate the Russian media. As a result, Russian television became another battlefield for the two sides of the Karabakh conflict. Taking into account the aforementioned emotional acuity of our television talk shows, the ordinary viewer then simultaneously received mutually exclusive and uncompromising assessments of Erdogan: as an angel and as a demon.
As a result, both the high degree of emotional response to the Russian media image of President Erdogan and the understandable acuteness of the current geopolitical situation have led to a situation when Russian society is now awaiting the Turkish elections with only slightly less excitement than Turkey itself. However, we don’t have long to wait, and time will tell.