On March 30, 2023 Nezavisimia Gazeta, one of Russia’s leading newspapers, published in a supplement an analysis of how the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan effectively managed public anger and reaction after earthquakes struck the country’s south and southeast on Feb. 6. The article examines how various actors within the government coordinated psychological operations (PSYOPS) to change public sentiment. The timing of the publication, just before parliamentary and presidential elections on May 14, raises several questions: What specific statements does the analysis make about the Erdoğan government’s post-earthquake psychological operations? Given the close personal relationship between Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, what does the publication of such an article in a prominent Russian newspaper mean for the May 14 elections and possible developments following them?
A careful examination of the Republic of Turkey’s political history reveals that significant changes in the geopolitical landscape have often led to shifts in Turkey’s domestic political life. The transformation from a single-party to a multi-party political system in 1946 is a prime example, marking a significant change in the nation’s political landscape. Before this change, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) had dominated the political scene since the founding of the republic in 1923. The decision to transition to a multi-party system was largely influenced by external factors, particularly the growing threat posed by the Soviet Union in the aftermath of World War II. Similarly, the upcoming May 14 elections coincided with the world’s evolution from a unipolar to a multipolar order. As such, the polls on May 14 will not only determine who governs Turkey for the next five years but also how Turkey will be positioned within the emerging multipolar world system. For this reason, it is both standard operating practice for Russia to closely monitor the elections in Turkey and attempt to influence the outcomes and subsequent developments using all the resources and opportunities available.
What exactly is Nezavisimia Gazeta’s analysis about?
According to a claim in the analysis, Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) executed a PSYOP to enhance President Erdoğan’s popularity in the wake of the earthquakes that had revealed deficiencies in disaster preparedness and response. The operation was centered around a polarizing Islamist and nationalist narrative, a significant theme in Erdoğan’s campaign for the upcoming presidential election.
MİT agents were directed to emphasize religious themes in the government-controlled media, attributing the earthquakes’ destruction to “fate and God’s work” instead of poor construction and insufficient government oversight. These agents were also deployed to religious communities, rescue teams and the earthquake zone to underscore these themes during rescue operations. Religious slogans were chanted during live television broadcasts to provoke a critical response from the secular political opposition, ultimately benefiting President Erdoğan.
The government’s religious arm, the Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet), was mobilized as well. Employing around 140,000 people, including imams who control nearly 90,000 mosques, the Diyanet increased the frequency of Salah prayers recited from minarets, breaking a longstanding tradition in Turkey. Salah is usually recited across the country only on Fridays, an hour before the central prayer, or locally on the occasion of mourning.
Concurrently, the Vatan Party launched an anti-American campaign asserting that the US was planning to invade Turkey under the pretext of providing aid, in response to a Pentagon statement saying that the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea had been ordered to sail closer to Turkey.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu commented on the situation. “We decide who can enter Turkish territorial waters. There’s no need for that. Why do we need this warship? There’s no need for a US warship to enter our territorial waters,” he told reporters. He added that Turkey would not allow an American aircraft carrier to enter Turkish waters if the US requested permission.
Amid these events, some neo-nationalist leaders, including Cihat Yaycı, a former admiral who helped President Erdoğan purge the army of most pro-NATO officers in 2016, expressed concerns about foreign intelligence infiltration in rescue teams. Yaycı advised the government to be cautious since spies could be among the foreign rescue teams arriving in Turkey. Metin Külünk, a confidant of the Turkish president, further claimed that Christian missionaries had infiltrated the rescue teams and suggested that Turkey’s Diyanet network monitor them.
Ümit Özdağ, leader of the far-right Victory (Zafer) Party, toured cities affected by the earthquakes, directing public anger at Syrian and other migrant groups. He accused migrants of looting areas impacted by the quakes and called on the government to give the order to shoot looters.
Thanks to the coordinated execution of the PSYOP, public anger and reaction were directed away from the Erdoğan administration. The developments in the aftermath of the earthquakes and the narrative that Erdoğan is currently using in his electoral campaign show that the analysis is essentially correct. Through this analysis, Russia has opened a Pandora’s box and exposed other partners of the Erdoğan regime.
Russia revealed this information likely due to the complex relationship between Putin and Erdoğan. While they maintain a close connection, Putin does not entirely trust Erdoğan. Russia relies on Turkey’s support to bypass and counter the sanctions imposed by the EU and US in response to the war of aggression against Ukraine, making Turkey indispensable. Under normal circumstances, Erdoğan might struggle to win the May 14 presidential election. However, since he has limited options, he may use all available means, including illegitimate ones, to secure victory. The PSYOPS conducted after the earthquakes indicates the potential tactics Erdoğan could employ on election night.
Erdoğan’s legitimacy in the eyes of NATO, the EU and the US is derived from his status as an elected leader. A refusal by the US or the EU to recognize a potentially fraudulent victory in the May 14 election could jeopardize this legitimacy. Russia currently suspects that Erdoğan is negotiating with the US and the EU to ensure acceptance of the election results. Turkey’s ratification of Finland’s NATO accession alarmed Russia, prompting them to remind Erdoğan of their interests in negotiations and their leverage against him before and after the elections.
In conclusion, actors seeking Turkey’s allegiance in a multipolar world are negotiating with Erdoğan, leveraging the information and documents they have against him to influence Turkey’s future.
* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.