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A man in Istanbul throws a carnation into the river in honor of the late Alexey Navalny. February 16, 2024.

‘Even in Russia, people are permitted to lay flowers, but not here’ Istanbul police have allowed pro-Palestinian demonstrations. They’ve allowed rallies in support of Ukraine. But they stopped Navalny’s mourners.

Source: Meduza
A man in Istanbul throws a carnation into the river in honor of the late Alexey Navalny. February 16, 2024.
A man in Istanbul throws a carnation into the river in honor of the late Alexey Navalny. February 16, 2024.
Emrah Gurel / AP / Scanpix / LETA

On February 16, several dozen people gathered in Istanbul to honor the memory of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, whose death prison officials announced hours earlier. The memorials took place in two districts of the city, Kadıköy and Taksim. Though most attendees did not hold any posters or chant slogans, the local police designated the public assembly as an illegal political protest.

The Russian consulate in Istanbul is located on Istiklal Street in the Taksim district. A memorial for Alexey Navalny was scheduled here at 7 p.m. on Friday, February 16. By that time, there was an additional fence line blocking the consulate’s gate, arranged in front of its double-headed eagle emblem.

Former Moscow city council candidate Ian Koynigan and another person who approached the consulate two hours before the rally began were the first to end up in police custody. Officers tore up their signs that read, “Tell the truth about Navalny” and “Murderers always finish the job.” Next, the police detained Svetlana Makhokhei and her husband when she unfolded a sheet of paper scribbled with the words “Putin is the killer.” The demonstrators later told Meduza that the officials who received them at a district police station were more understanding than the officers on duty outside Russia’s diplomatic mission. Within a couple of hours, all four individuals were released without charges.

Svetlana Makhokhei’s personal archive

Police drove the other mourners away from the Russian consulate’s gates, citing a government decree that prohibits public assemblies on busy pedestrian streets. Forced to the opposite side of the promenade, people stood silently in the rain, clutching flowers, unsure what to do next.

Meduza’s correspondent estimates that roughly 20 people came to the rally. The authorities soon declared the mourners to be “loitering” illegally and dispersed the crowd completely, leading to altercations with some of the demonstrators who argued with the officers. “Even in Russia, people are allowed to lay flowers, but not here,” said one person.

Andrei Davydov, the local coordinator of the Ark project, which offers assistance to Russians who oppose the invasion of Ukraine, watched these events from a distance, warning those coming to the consulate building of the possible risks. “We all know that Turkey is not the most democratic state. This is not the first time we are faced with the problem that Russians cannot freely express their opinions here, just like Turkish citizens,” Davydov told Meduza. “This is not news to us, and, unfortunately, it was expected.”

Meanwhile, in Istanbul’s Kadikoy district, a larger group of about 50 people attempted a makeshift memorial honoring Navalny near the Bull Statue, at one of the busiest intersections in this part of the city. When riot police ordered the crowd to leave the area with the flowers intended for the memorial, some mourners threw their carnations into the nearby Kurbagalidere River.

Flowers mourning Alexey Navalny in Istanbul’s Kadıköy neighborhood.
Telegram group Help in Istanbul
Flowers mourning Alexey Navalny at the Mehmet Ayvalıtaş monument.
Telegram group Help in Istanbul

A few blocks away, another group left flowers, candles, and memorial notes at a bust of Mehmet Ayvalıtaş, the young man who was run over by a police car during opposition protests in Gezi Park in 2013. Many who came to honor Navalny’s memory held posters inscribed with one of his quotes: “I’m not afraid, and I call on you not to be afraid.” One emigre in the crowd told Meduza, “Each one of us should do something, even a little thing, but do something. Do something and fight, like Navalny was saying.”

Flower released into the Kurbagalidere River by Navalny’s mourners. February 16, 2024.
Emrah Gurel / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Istanbul’s police tailor their response to public demonstrations depending on the reason for the protest. For example, officers have made no arrests at peaceful rallies in support of Ukraine, thanks in part to the Ukrainian consulate’s advance negotiations with the Turkish authorities for noninterference.

In the past several months, Turkey has also witnessed several protests in support of Palestine. Some included violence: participants threw stones, broke restaurant windows, and launched fireworks at law enforcement. At a demonstration on October 17, 2023, roughly 40 police officers were injured. But the number of people arrested at these street protests didn’t exceed five people. Coincidentally, President Erdoğan has repeatedly criticized Israel's actions.

No one in the Turkish government, including the president, has commented publicly on Alexey Navalny’s death, and Erdoğan remains one of Moscow’s few partners in NATO. To this day, Russia has not added Turkey to its list of "unfriendly" countries. 

After the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Turkey became one of the key destinations for Russian emigration, but the situation for emigres grew less stable in 2023. According to the local press, 40,000 Russian nationals moved out of the city of Antalya (the most popular Turkish city for Russian emigration) largely because they were refused residence permits. In just the last few days, the bank Denizbank started sending a mass letter to clients from Russia who opened accounts without residence permits. The bank is now demanding proof of their right to reside in Turkey.

Story by Melisa Ishbitiren

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