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[ANALYSIS] Russia’s new foreign policy concept and its implications for Turkish elections

Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the government via a video conference at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, outside Moscow, on April 19, 2023. Gavriil GRIGOROV / SPUTNIK / AFP

Fatih Yurtsever*

The Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation, which outlines the country’s foreign policy direction, strategic goals, main objectives and priority areas, was recently approved by a presidential decree and is now in force. Since the Soviet Union’s collapse, six foreign policy concept documents have been published, with the latest one placing Turkey in the “Islamic world” category.

In a world transitioning from unipolar to multipolar, the Islamic world, which aspires to become an independent power center, is considered an essential partner for Russia. Relations between Russia and Islamic world countries are improving as they address regional security, stability and economic development. Russia aims to enhance comprehensive cooperation with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Member States, respecting their social and political systems and traditional spiritual and moral values.

Russia’s foreign policy concept highlights the importance of building comprehensive and trusting relationships with Iran, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other OIC members. Given their respect for sovereignty and constructive engagement, the Russian Federation sees these nations as potential partners in the Middle East and North Africa.

Turkey is a vital partner for Russia in strengthening its relations with Middle Eastern and North African countries. The personal relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has solidified this alliance. The close cooperation of Erdoğan, a political leader having an Islamic identity, with Russia is crucial for building strong ties within the Islamic world. Russia’s inclusion of Turkey in its foreign policy concept, particularly under the “Islamic world” heading, highlights the strategic importance of this relationship.

Furthermore, it is crucial for Russia that Erdoğan win the upcoming presidential election on May 14. This would allow Russia to continue avoiding some sanctions imposed after the start of the Ukraine war through Turkey, sell Russian gas to Europe via Turkey and occasionally slow down NATO’s decision-making mechanism by leveraging Erdoğan. Consequently, Russia may attempt to influence the May 14 election in favor of Erdoğan by employing troll farms, as was seen during the 2016 US presidential election.

According to NATO, a troll is a person who provokes conflict by raising sensitive issues or insulting other participants, while a troll factory or farm is an organization that engages in online deception and propaganda. This activity is often disguised by an inconspicuous name, a P.R. firm, an internet research center and the like. As a rule, troll factories focus their activities on the political or economic sphere. The goal of the operation may be to attack political opponents, unfairly attack a competitor or perform some other action specified by the client. Troll factories achieve their goals with fake news and hate speech, among other things.

Troll factory employees create false identities and manage their social media presence. It is necessary to make it appear that the account created is real; therefore, not only things related to the troll factory’s goal are posted here, but also materials that give credibility to a fictitious profile, such as information about private life. The profiles contain photos from pre-existing internet archives altered to fool internet search engines. Since the troll factory employs hundreds of people and each employee has multiple accounts, it is easy to build a social network that links fake profiles together and gives the appearance of a real network. The longer the accounts are kept, the easier it is to create the illusion of reality. The employees of troll factories often work in shifts so that their messages can be posted 24 hours a day.

The activities mentioned above of internet trolls are facilitated by bots, which are computer programs that automatically send messages, for example, in response to the appearance of a phrase. However, while the messages sent by bots are unreliable and can easily be classified as spam (language problems, duplication of statements), the content transmitted by troll factories can appear more credible, making disinformation efforts more effective. Through coordinated efforts, troll factories can spread disinformation and manipulate public opinion effectively.

In the lead-up to the May 14 elections in Turkey, thousands of Russian and Hungarian-language Twitter accounts have been reactivated as Turkish users, raising concerns about potential election interference through social media. Ahmet Turan Han, the general manager of political consultancy and research company Datailor, said these accounts have been monitored for a while and that many have shifted their focus to Turkish content and politics. “In recent months, we have detected that Russian and Hungarian-linked accounts have been intensively orientated towards Turkey. These accounts have started to produce Turkish content by deleting their past content. Political content production has increased since the election process started. We saw some of these accounts during the campaign of presidential candidate Muharrem İnce. Through these accounts, Muharrem İnce’s discourses trended very quickly. We detected that some of the accounts that featured Muharrem İnce were used in AK Party campaigns in the past. Many accounts used in AK Party campaigns in 2021-22 have deleted their old content and turned into accounts supporting Muharem İnce,” he said.

Pelin Ünker from DW Turkish reported that according to social media expert Tuğrulcan Elmas, social media manipulation through bot accounts is predominantly employed by the Erdoğan administration. For instance, a manipulated photo of the opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu stepping on a prayer rug with his shoes on was introduced and spread through bot accounts.

The emphasis on the development of multilateral cooperation with Turkey in the Russian foreign policy concept published at the end of March clearly shows that Russia has made its future plans for Turkey based on the assumption that Erdoğan will be re-elected president in the May elections. Although Russia and Turkey are strategic partners, Russia has always viewed Turkey as a country to be closely monitored and controlled. Russian intelligence is active in Turkey and understands the country’s social fabric and voter behavior. Putin will likely use all available tools, including troll farms and intelligence agencies, to ensure Erdoğan’s re-election and maintain Turkey’s pro-Russian stance.

* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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