Turkey’s decision to launch a Russian news website amid deteriorating bilateral relations has raised eyebrows, but the man behind the project insists it doesn’t intend to damage Russia’s government.
Turkish public broadcaster TRT announced earlier this week that it has transformed its Russian-language news site, which occasionally translated Turkish content, into an ambitious platform that would host TV programmes and provide exclusive reporting and commentary on Russia and the region around it.
The timing of TRT Russian‘s launch has drawn special interest among foreign policy observers who were quick to point out that Moscow and Ankara have been striving to preserve their contradictory interests in Syria and Libya in recent months, often inching closer to an actual armed fight.
In an interview with the Middle East Eye, Serdar Karagoz, the deputy director-general at TRT who is responsible for the broadcaster’s international channels, downplayed the timing of the project and said the company has recently been expanding its operations. For example, he said, TRT Deutsch began to operate in Germany in January.
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“We will also develop a strategy regarding the Balkans, Africa and China in the upcoming days,” he said. “Our objective is to reach 300 million Russian speakers who also live in Central Asia, the Caucasus, Western Europe, and even in Israel.”
Turkish-Russian relations for the past four years have been on a roller-coaster ride. Once Russian news channels accused President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of backing the Islamic State (IS) group. Now they celebrate the bilateral partnership, such as heralding images of him and Vladimir Putin eating an ice cream in Moscow in August.
However, since late February, when clashes in Syria’s Idlib province between Turkey and the Russian-backed Syrian government killed dozens of Turkish soldiers, tensions have once again increased.
Acrimony is often played out through the media. An article published by the Russian state news agency Sputnik International at the time declared Turkey’s Hatay as a province “stolen” from Syria, creating an uproar on Turkish social media.
Next, police raided the Sputnik Turkey offices in Istanbul and Ankara and detained several reporters including the editor-in-chief. The matter was resolved following a phone call from Moscow.
Turkish officials were always bothered by Sputnik Turkey’s editorial stance, which at one point directly accused Erdogan’s family of buying oil from IS – before a reconciliation agreement between the two states in 2016 put an end to the accusations.
The website, with nearly 1 million followers on Twitter, nevertheless continued to criticise Erdogan through its prominent hosts on radio, YouTube shows, and sarcastic reporting.
Sputnik’s criticism has, however, cooled as Russian relations with Erdogan warmed; and last summer the agency fired several prominent journalists who are known for their opposition views.
Karagoz says TRT’s aim is not to establish what he calls a “propaganda centre”, like Sputnik Turkey.
“We don’t endorse Sputnik’s editorial stance. [TRT Russian] will never be a propaganda machine like that,” he said. “But we will respond to Sputnik’s disinformation and manipulation [campaigns].”
TRT Russian plans to open a bureau in Moscow and hire local journalists in Central Asia and Ukraine, with staff concentrated on the region led by an editor-in-chief.
The broadcaster’s officials say their main motivation is to provide coverage on economic and social life in Russia and the region around it, as well as closely tracking issues on rights and freedoms – both positive and negative developments.
“You won’t see an editorial policy that harms Turkish-Russian bilateral relations,” Karagoz said. “Our objective is not to damage the Russian government. But it will be possible to run critical reports that are opposing the Russian policies on this platform.”
Several articles published on TRT Russian read like non-political news.
In the popular news section, one story reports that Putin decided to hold Russia’s famous victory parade on 24 June and another looks at a new trend in post-Soviet countries where people increasingly change their last names.
Yet on Wednesday, the main headline on the homepage was a column by Moscow-based political analyst Кirill Semenov on Putin’s relationship with his ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which is said to be currently strained.
At times, the article criticises the Russian position on Syria. It notes Russian state television RT Arabic was forced to remove an interview with a Syrian opposition figure after direct pressure from Damascus. “It turns out that freedom of speech does not extend to the Russian media and their interviews criticising the Syrian regime,” Semenov writes.
The article then says Moscow is often “forced to act as a slave and support Damascus” in adventures where Putin has nothing to gain. And finally, it declares: “In turn, Syria and partnership with Turkey remain the only achievement of Russian Middle East policy.”
‘It will make more Russian speakers aware of Russia’s reckless behaviour in places like Syria or Ukraine’
– Luke Coffey, the Heritage Foundation
A note at the end of the article says that it does not represent TRT Russia’s editorial policy.
Experts say TRT Russian may function as a gateway to some stories that Russian citizens often don’t see in their local languages.
“It will make more Russian speakers aware of Russia’s reckless behaviour in places like Syria or Ukraine,” says Luke Coffey, director of the Foreign Policy Center at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington DC-based think tank.
“Turkey wants to inform a Russian-speaking audience of what Moscow is doing.”
Others believe TRT Russian is another Turkish government initiative to increase trade and tourism between the two countries. Over seven million Russian citizens visited Turkey last year, a 17 percent increase.
“We shouldn’t just declare this as something related to bilateral problems,” says Onur Isci, director of the Center for Russian Studies at Bilkent University.
“It is another way to diversify the relations. There are many positive stories on the website. This relationship is mainly about economic cooperation.”
For example, one article advertises that Turkey guarantees the safety of charter flights of Russian tourists amid the coronavirus crisis.
Isci notes that both countries have been insistent on maintaining their relationship one way or another since the 1920s and avoid direct clashes.
“This won’t be a place to amplify the political differences.”