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Russians Are Eager to Embrace Turkey Again

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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In the few days since Russian President Vladimir Putin's decree allowing travel agencies to sell trips to Turkey again, Turkey regained its status as Russians' favorite holiday destination. The speed of the turnaround has astonished some nationalists in Russia and showed that public reactions to Putin's foreign-policy somersaults are only skin deep.

In November, the Turkish air force downed a Russian plane that briefly intruded into Turkey's airspace from Syria. Putin called this "a stab in the back delivered by terrorist supporters," demanded an apology and, after he was rebuffed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ordered sanctions against Turkey. On Nov. 28, Putin banned charter flights to Turkey and "recommended" that travel agencies "refrain" from selling trips to the newly hostile nation.

QuickTake Vladimir Putin

In the first nine months of 2015, 2.4 million Russian tourists had visited Turkey, the number one foreign destination for Russians, according to the Federal Agency for Tourism. The Putin decree, whose official purpose was to "protect Russian Federation citizens from criminal and other illegal actions," effectively stopped the flow, causing severe damage to the tourist industry in Antalya on Turkey's Mediterranean coast, much of which was geared toward Russians. 

The safety concerns were quite real. Tourism from Germany, the U.K. and other European countries where Turkey has been traditionally popular also dropped. The overall number of tourists was expected to fall at least 40 percent this year.

Then Erdogan apologized for the plane incident in a letter to Putin. There was something of a controversy about the wording of the missive: Did Erdogan really apologize or just express regret? It didn't matter to Putin, though. Erdogan's message contained the word "sorry," and Putin realized Erdogan couldn't have made his apology any more abject for domestic political reasons. Amid the celebration of a foreign policy victory by Putin supporters on the social networks, the Russian leader decided against playing hard to get. Both he and Erdogan, with their similar leadership styles, need more allies and fewer enemies now -- both for economic reasons and because of their fragile interests in Syria. 

Putin was quick to take practical steps showing his acceptance of Erdogan's apology. Despite a major terrorist attack that killed 36 people at the Istanbul airport last week -- possibly organized by a Russian-speaking Islamic State operative -- the security concerns have mysteriously disappeared, and a new Putin decree canceled the "recommendation" for travel agencies and ordered the government to arrange the resumption of charter flights. They will restart Thursday.

Nothing could have made the Russian travel industry happier. With Egypt and Turkey off limits, it had been stuck with selling more expensive packages to Spain or Bulgaria,  which had less to offer. Many Russians decided against overseas travel this year, opting for the Black Sea resort of Sochi and for annexed Crimea. But in the first three days after the decree, Turkey accounted for 35 percent of some operators' turnover -- up from single digits before the decree. According to Yandex Travel, the market run by Russia's biggest search company, Turkey is again the most popular country among Russian tourists.

It's as if Russian officials hadn't rounded up Turks and sent them home from Russian cities, as if a Turkish research center and library hadn't been abruptly closed in Moscow. More interestingly, public opinion seems to have immediately softened. In February, after months of TV propaganda depicting Erdogan as an Islamic State sympathizer, a poll showed 63 percent support for economic sanctions; , and in early June, 29 percent of Russians -- up from 1 percent a year ago -- considered Turkey the most hostile nation toward Russia. Only the U.S. and Ukraine ranked higher on the hostility scale.

And yet one polite letter from Erdogan and a Kremlin decree were apparently enough to reverse this. Zakhar Prilepin, a bestselling author and a staunch Russian nationalist, was dismayed. "I think Russians ought to have some dignity," he wrote. "Grass hasn't grown yet on Russian heroes' graves." And then: "Rushing to Turkey the very next day as a huge horde, as if you'd been held back by force, is, you know, a little bit wild."

I'm more inclined to see Russians' embrace of Turkey as a hopeful sign, though. It might not take much more than a diplomatic exchange and a few handshakes to reverse the unpopularity of Europe, Ukraine and the U.S. in Russia. Deep down, Russians are not really anti-Western or anti-Ukrainian -- they're just told by their state-controlled TV that they should be. 

Ordinary Russians are curious about the world, and love their creature comforts, having been deprived of the most basic conveniences for decades. They are materialistic, distrustful of ideologies and not impressed with unnecessary appeals to their patriotism when the motherland clearly isn't really in danger. They are likely to see Putin's grim "fortress Russia" as more Potemkin village than real world. Just as the hostility between Russia and Turkey in Syria can be turned into a kind of cautious cooperation, so Putin's "conservative" project can be softened if he find it to his political and economic benefit to do so.

A true reversal, however, would require a new leader who sincerely wants Russia to open up to the world. The people, whom Prilepin finds too airily unpatriotic, might just heave a sigh of relief.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net