ISTANBUL — Turkey, where Russians can travel visa-free and obtain a short-term residency, has been one of the top runaway destinations for those fleeing Russia since the start of Moscow's war in Ukraine last year — until recently.
Eva Rapoport, coordinator of the Istanbul branch of the Ark, a global crowdfunding charity organization that provides temporary shelter, language courses and immigration advice to Russians in exile, said that there are more Russians now who were unable to obtain “ikamet" (short-term residency) than those who did obtain the permit.
“It's not an official number, but we believe only about 30% of Russians are getting approved now; the majority are rejected without proper explanation,” she told Al-Monitor.
The estimated number of Russians fleeing the country varies, but the figure has drastically increased after the Kremlin’s mobilization announcement in September, reaching hundreds of thousands. Turkey has been among the top destinations since it demands no visa from Russian citizens, unlike the European Union that sealed off its airspace for flights to and from Russia. In addition, a weak Turkish lira makes the country attractive to settle down for those who have a few thousand dollars in their pockets. According to official figures, Russians top the list of short-term residency holders in Turkey as of January 2022, with 133,495 Russian nationals on short-term permits.
Obtaining a short-term residency permit for touristic reasons has been relatively easy for foreigners.
One of the exiles staying at the Ark's shelter in Istanbul is Denis Galitsyn, a photojournalist who arrived in Istanbul in October and has been rejected an ikamet recently. “I collected all the documents needed: insurance for a year, paid taxes and customs fees, information about where I would live and the consent of the owner, a lease agreement, and so on. But I received a rejection,” he told Al-Monitor. He is now looking to seek refuge in another country.
Flights out of #Russia sell out, 'How to Leave Russia' top Google trend after Putin orders partial call-up. Direct flights from Moscow to Istanbul in Turkey & Yerevan in Armenia, both destinations that allow Russians to enter w/o a visa, were sold out on. https://t.co/O4brlX4rdZ pic.twitter.com/kqnqiXtPwz— Holger Zschaepitz (@Schuldensuehner) September 21, 2022
"10 days to leave the country"
Artemii Vladimirovich, whose family members have recently been denied a permit, talked to Al-Monitor about the required documents. “They have now started asking for extra documents such as a solid proof of income. [My family members] are not given extra time to complete the paperwork. So they only have 10 days to leave the country,” he said.
The increasing number of rejections have also fueled conspiracy theories among Russian nationals with some believing “a request” by Russian President Vladimir Putin from Turkey might be underlying the recent refusals. Others think the situation is an ominous harbinger of an upcoming fresh “mobilization” announcement by the Kremlin, and that the rejections aim to force Russians in exile to return to fight in Ukraine.
“These were more like scary rumors floating around but without any substance," Rapoport said.
Those who have been rejected are preparing to travel to other destinations. “More than a dozen people from my own social circle and those who stayed with the Ark have been rejected in the past weeks. They are now planning to go to countries like Georgia, Armenia, Montenegro and Serbia,” she said.
These four countries offer visa-free travel for Russians and have also been popular destinations for those fleeing Russia.
Up until recently, the rejection of Russian nationals was a rare incident, according to Rapoport. “Overall we have helped up to 600 or even 700 people in our shelters in Istanbul since March. I don't personally know of anyone who applied for ikamet and was rejected — until December,” she added.
The Turkish authorities have not made any comments on the rising number of rejections so far.
Ad for a (UAE-owned, formerly Russian) Turkish bank in Russian for Russians living in Turkey pic.twitter.com/vhEFRp82bH— Shona Bhattacharyya (@shonawondersif) January 28, 2023
Growing local complaints about the increasing number of Russians in some Turkish provinces might have prompted the Turkish authorities to take action.
Public discontent is particularly on display in Turkey’s Mediterranean province of Antalya, which hosts a sizable Slavic population including Russians. The skyrocketing housing and rent prices fueled by the increasing demand stand out as one of the main reasons behind the complaints of locals, with Russian citizens having bought over 16,000 properties in 2022, according to official figures.
Mehmet Pekgelengen, who lives in Antalya with his family, told Al-Monitor that the Russian community is noticeably growing. “If the government has taken the decision to limit ikamet, I think it’s a little too late. They have already bought so many houses; the neighborhood I live in is full of Russians,” he said.
“They are not all the same, but some are really snobbish. They look down on Turkish people because they live in the most expensive parts of the city as they are rich,” he added.