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22 July 2016

The Turkish “coup”: a view from Russia

Reaction of Russian internet users and Kremlin “trolls” to the attempted coup in Turkey

The failed coup d’état in Turkey sparked public outcry amongst Russia’s online community and on social media, sidelining discussions about the terrorist attack in Nice, France. As expected, Runet users could be divided into two camps according to their views: President Putin’s adherents were more inclined to sympathize with Erdogan, whereas critically-minded commentators, on the contrary, bled for the participants of the failed coup. It is therefore worthwhile to analyze dominant views conveyed in the posts of members of these provisional groups and the reasons underlying them.

The reaction of the online “majority”

Let us assume that the “majority” delineates Internet users with a pronounced pro-Kremlin stance, including so-called “trolls”. In general, conspiracy theories about those behind the coup attempt are dominant among this group. Given the anti-American sentiments created and fomented by Kremlin media, the popularity of the theory which has it that America was behind the Turkish events comes as no surprise.

Numerous publications accompanied by carefully selected expert quotations guided Russians towards such a conclusion. Let us cite just a few examples: Political analyst and member of the Pubic Chamber of Russia, Sergey Markov, told the “Vzglyad” newspaper that the United States was involved in the coup attempt. Member of the Presidential Council for Civil Society Development and Human Rights, Maxim Shevchenko, relayed the same story to the Federal News Agency which was also reiterated by Vladimir Kireev, an expert of the Fund of the Development of Civil Society Institutions “Public Diplomacy”. According to the latter, “the attempt was carried out by local military with the active support of America who provided opposition forces with assistance in various ways, in particular by giving guidance and guarantees that in the case of a successful coup, the Turkish military would be backed by the U.S. and the legitimacy of their actions would be recognized”. President of the Russian Geopolitical Academy, Konstantin Sivkov, cited by “RIA Novosti”, saw evidence of the readiness “of the U.S. to use technology of hybrid wars not only against opponents outside of NATO but against countries within the Alliance” in the Turkish events. And political analyst William Engdahl puts forward the idea that the U.S. wanted to establish a regime “akin to [Ukrainian President] Poroshenko’s regime” in Turkey in his interview entitled “A clumsy coup attempt in Ankara – the CIA’s desperate ploy to maintain influence in the Middle East” published in “Vechernyaya Moskva” (Evening Moscow). A number of “patriotic” media outlets which emerged following the 2014 events echoed this narrative.

The idea of “the American trace” has also been instilled via an extensive network of sponsored commentators (“trolls”) who have temporarily discarded their usual masks of castigators of Ukrainian “fascists” and become Turkologists and experts in American policy in the region. Posts by “trolls” can be distinguished from comments made by regular users influenced by Kremlin propaganda based on a number of telltale signs: almost identical posts can also be found on other sites; the “troll” does not post more than 3-5 comments in any given discussion thread; the “troll” cites relatively obscure “patriotic” news sources etc.

A cursory glance at posts made by alleged trolls indicates that narratives which sit well with the propaganda agenda of recent years are used as “the body of evidence” to prove America’s involvement in the coup attempt. To begin with, trolls emphasize that the CIA allegedly supports Fethullah Gulen and that the majority of those involved in the Turkish coup were educated in US or NATO associated establishments. Hence, the prevalent view in Russia regarding the impossibility of the existence of active domestic opposition without help from “sponsors” and “masterminds” abroad has clearly been communicated. Secondly, the thesis about the desire of the U.S. to “rile” Russia has been cited. Allegedly, the coup was ordered as a response to Ankara and Moscow’s recent reconciliation. Thirdly, propagandists have resorted to the tactics of appealing to readers’ emotions by underlining the fact that the pilot who downed the Russian Su-24 took part in the coup. All of this is used to conclude that not only was the coup itself organized by the U.S., but also that our aircraft was shot down by the Turkish military specifically on American orders and without Erdogan’s knowledge. The purpose behind this ploy is obvious: to demonize Washington and attempt to exonerate the Turkish president whose reputation was so zealously discredited by the very same trolls during the cooling of Turkish-Russian relations (quite a logical step now that Turkish-Russian relations are returning to normal). And, finally, the fourth message which is put forward: “the American media is an obedient stooge of the White House”. “Troll factory” workers have reinforced this position through disinformation stating that Erdogan did not try to escape and that reports about his nocturnal to-ing and fro-ing are nothing more than false rumors spread by the American media.

Clearly, Russian propagandists are using (and will use) any major political event abroad in order to “prove” two key positions to Russians over and over again: 1) the United States destabilizes the global geopolitical situation and pursues anti-Russian policy; and 2) the U.S. Department of State, CIA, etc. are always behind any coups, revolutions or Maidans, and it is they who sponsor and guide the Russian opposition.

The reaction of the active “minority”

Entirely different sentiments have been adopted in the milieu of Russian Internet users who can vaguely be described as the opposition. The imposition of Turkish events on Russian reality has been their common denominator.

Depending on the messaging of social media posts, all  internet “minorities” can be divided into three categories:

- Considerable part of the opposition minded internet users have concentrated their attention on the possible consequences of the failed Turkish coup for Russian domestic policy, anxious that Putin will “tighten the screws” further in fear of another sticky situation. These fears are wholly understandable and are associated with recently adopted repressive laws designed to quash potential protests: the Yarovaya law sets out harsher punishments for those actively or passively involved in protest activities which result in riots (it should be recalled that in the case of protests on May 6, 2012, the “riot” which started as a peaceful rally was provoked by law enforcement officers) whereas the Law “On the Fundamentals of the System of Delinquency Prevention of the Russian Federation (RF)” legitimizes the collection of data on RF citizens who have no criminal or administrative record and introduces a broadly defined notion of “antisocial behavior”.

- The second group was far more radical and has directly spoken of a possibility (or even the necessity) of a similar coup in Russia. The tweets by Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Yevgeny Chichvarkin, for example, could even be interpreted as calls for a violent change of power which is precisely how Kremlin propagandists have presented them. Such messages constitute a real gift for them as well as an opportunity to discredit Russian opposition yet again.

But such a reaction is primarily prompted by the fact that those who are tired of the increasingly repressive domestic Russian environment and Putin’s ignorant economic policy, became hostages to psychological “projection” having attributed their own good intentions to the Turkish military. Witnessing how room for maneuver in terms of legal means by which to negotiate the current political impasse is narrowing in Russia, some critics of Putin’s regime have become internally reconciled to the idea of a violent change of power as a potentially acceptable mode of combat. However, the majority need a recent, successful example for this idea to gain a foothold. Ukraine cannot serve as such an example since there is no consolidated civil society in Russia which would agree to take on responsibility for a change of power. Yet Turkey could not become such an example, either, even following a successful coup and the country’s subsequent return to the principles of Ataturk.

-The third group was largely skeptical of both the events in Turkey and the reaction of their colleagues who romanticized the coup and wanted to “do it again”. A clear example of the motives of this entire group is the Grigory Yavlinsky. In his article attributed to the attempted coup, he concludes: “During the night hours of the coup attempt, there were a number of Russian citizens who cheered the Turkish military. This clearly demonstrates that for some supporters of democracy in Russia a military coup is an acceptable mean of fighting the regime. But this is a gross and inexcusable error. Democracy is not introduced by tanks! Especially Russian tanks. Calls to "repeat the Turkish military coup in Russia" voiced in the Russian segment of social networks in the first hours of the coup are irresponsible and dangerous, even foolish. The events in Turkey are a good occasion to remind once again that democratic reforms in Russia are possible only through peaceful means, only as a result of the elections, no matter what ugly form they represent now”.

Flimsy comparison of Russia and Turkey

It is true that both Putin and Erdogan’s “hybrid” regimes have a lot in common: an incremental shift from moderatism to a dictatorship; reliance on bizarre concepts akin to ideology (a mixture of nationalism and Islamism in Turkey, and a mixture of imperial nationalism and Orthodox Christianity in Russia); persecution of opposition and disloyal media, etc. However, unlike Russia, Turkey seems to have a past ideal it can reference; a legacy worth fighting for. Ataturk’s laic, secular and democratic precepts are still shared by many in the country and a return to these roots could win over a large swath of Turkish society. Unfortunately, Russia’s past bears no such ideal. The 1990’s were a time of hope which, nevertheless, did not bring about the desired results. It is therefore futile to appeal to these hopes for the purpose of legitimization in the eyes of Russia’s citizens.

Besides, there exists no established group of people in Russia who would take on responsibility for the situation in the country. The Russian military is one of the main beneficiaries of Putin’s foreign policy and the influx of rapidly depleting financial resources into the defense sector. Their loyalty is bought with the years ahead in mind. The same goes for security and law enforcement agencies. At the same time, the categories of citizens affected by the reallocation of public expenditure in favor of military needs – physicians and educators – do not have the required mobilization potential, nor do they have an agenda which could attract the sympathy of others.

Taken as a whole, Russian society is so amorphous, passive, and divided today that one does not expect to witness the sudden emergence of an insistent propensity for change. For years, a thought has purposefully been instilled in the minds of this society: there is nothing that society can do to change the situation, the authorities know how best to guide the country, it is safer not to criticize and to sit it out. This society does not self-reflect, does not demand anything and waits in anticipation no more. It simply realigns itself in order to side with those who are fortunate and powerful in the present.

This social hibernation currently ensures passive loyalty to the present regime. However, this status quo could also have future negative consequences for the regime: had the coup attempt occurred in Russia instead of Turkey, the passive majority created by Putin would have preferred to resort to acquired rules of adjustment and would have merely followed the events on TV. You would not have masses of people defending the regime or standing in the way of a tank.

Finally, let me note that a violent change of power is unfeasible in today’s Russia for a variety of reasons. Instead of hypothetically considering its possibility, the active “minority” should seriously address the issue of elaborating its vision of the future of Russia, a vision which will eventually become a strategy of change capable of attracting even those who are now enchanted by simple answers and solutions presented in propaganda. 

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