Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin was a Russian general who was one of the architects of Russia’s 18th century expansionism. He was also a statesman and one of the lovers of Czarina Katerina II. He was devoted to establishing a new Byzantine Empire under the rule of Russia with Czarina Katerina II by dismantling the Ottoman Empire; mainly because he wanted Istanbul as its capital. After the Russians annexed the Crimea, which was then a province of the Ottoman Empire, Potemkin was appointed as the regional governor. While the Crimea was being destroyed, the Tatars, the native people of the Crimea, were branded as a fifth branch of the Ottoman Empire. Potemkin wanted to bully the settled people, to change the demographic structure of the region and to settle Russians to the ghost towns.
Fake “Potemkin villages”
In 1787, in the wake of another Ottoman-Russian war, Catherine the Great went on a six-month trip to the Crimea and the region. While one of the purposes of the trip was to impress Russia’s allies before the war, the Czarina also wanted to inspect the newly conquered lands with her own eyes. Potemkin, who was the District Governor at the time, is said to have established “fake villages” on the banks of the river, where the boat carrying the royal delegation would pass. The villages were established some time before the boat approached and populated by Potemkin’s men in villager clothing to make sure everything looked “real”. When the boat sailed off again, the temporary structures were quickly dismantled and re-established on the lower banks of the river. Whether the story is completely true or not, the phrase “Potemkin Village” was added to the international political lexicon.
Putin’s Potemkin DNA
Shortly after the Russian occupation of Ukraine, former Foreign Minister Andrei Kozirev referred to the Russian Armed Forces as the “Potemkin Armed Forces” on his Twitter account, stating; “the Kremlin spent the last 20 years trying to modernize its military. Much of that budget was stolen and spent on mega-yachts in Cyprus. But as a military adviser you cannot report that to the President. So they reported lies to him instead.”
Another recent example was a White House official referring to the reopening of the Moscow Stock Exchange as a charade and a “Potemkin Market Opening”.
Turkish Potemkin politics
Since recently, Turkey’s politicians also seem inspired by Potemkin in almost every policy area. While political polarization is nothing new, this trend has created an unprecented level of societal unease that will likely take years to repair.
Initiatives Turkey has taken in recent years to end its self-inflicted international isolation is not creating the effect pro-government political pundits were expecting. Frankly, the Government no longer enjoys the credibility to support such expectations in an environment where international counterparts openly raise doubts about Turkey’s sincerity. While some of the problems in our bilateral relations with Greece and our considerations regarding Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership are based on legitimate security concerns, the government’s rhetoric on these issues aims to win domestic votes rather than solve the problems themselves. Similarly, the military operations in Tel Rifat and Manbij in the North of Syria, and rumors about annexation of the Turkish Republic of Nothern Cyprus are generally perceived as attempts to appease domestic audiences.
Lavrov’s speech in Ankara
Unfortunately, the government also seems to be losing its ability to serve as a fair and balanced interlocutor between Russia and Ukraine. Genuine attempts to reach a consensus between the parties and end the war have also been replaced by domestic political grand-standing. In this environment it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Russia’s Foreign Minister, Mr. Sergey Lavrov, wasn’t ashamed to lie to the face of our Foreign Minister, Mr. Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, when he said that Russia only invaded Ukraine to save it from the Nazis. During his recent visit, Lavrov, again in the presence of our Foreign Minister, was allowed to insult the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. While Turkey failed to prevent these transgressions of international diplomatic protocol, it also failed to secure conclusive Russian support for the planned military operations in Syria.
Leveraging the crisis
It seems that the government is trying to leverage the war in Ukraine, to negotiate Russian support for its Syrian ambitions. If this widely reported expectation is an accurate description of the government’s intentions, they are risking what’s left of their reputation on the words of Potemkin’s ancestors. While the Russian interest in leading on Turkey is painfully obvious, I pray the government realizes that Russia’s only interest is to distance Turkey from the West for once and for all. The government should not allow Russia’s President Putin to succeed in such an attempt. While the bilateral history between Russia and Turkey is very old and deserves our best efforts, we should not be tricked into “reviving the lands of Czarist Russia”.
Sweden, Finland and elections
While the European security infrastructure is being renogatiated and NATO enlargement is on the agenda, and with our export approval requests for certain critical weapon systems still pending, we cannot apppear anti-western in any way, shape or form. It is past time for Turkey to state its demands with the appropriate method and at the right time. The elections we expect will be held next year in Turkey and the economic problems we are currently facing may explain the drift in our domestic and foreign policy. However, it is clear that this situation is not sustainable. “Potemkin Politics” might serve to whitewash a few mistakes in the eyes of your political base, but short-term political calculations and false optimism will not bring permanent solutions to structural problems in either domestic or foreign policy. When the cardboard villages start to disintegrate and the actors retire, the ruined landscape will show its ugly face for everyone to witness.