Wary of Western Sanctions, Turkey's Banks Resist Russian Customers
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ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Russians newly arrived in Turkey are struggling to make deposits and transfers at banks that are taking a careful and sceptical approach for fear of contravening Western sanctions imposed on Moscow over the war in Ukraine, according to several sources.
Private lenders especially are resisting some customer requests and running others through extra layers of compliance to ensure they are abiding by international and domestic law, four bankers and two Turkish officials told Reuters.
All of this is frustrating some Russians who have arrived in Turkey since Moscow invaded Ukraine more than three weeks ago, many with wads of cash in hand. Scores have left home either opposing the war or avoiding new restrictions in Russia, travelling mostly to Middle Eastern or Caucasus countries.
Turkey is one of the few countries still operating direct flights with Russia.
Some Russians in Istanbul told Reuters it was difficult to do basic banking, in part due to Visa and Mastercard suspending operations for them as part of U.S. sanctions meant to punish President Vladimir Putin for the invasion.
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"I managed to bring dollars from Moscow and trade them here. But I don't have a card yet," said Filipp Chekhunov, a Russian who works in animation and arrived in Istanbul in recent weeks.
Another Russian, Maria, said she had even faced difficulty buying a cup of Turkish tea after trying to use her Visa card.
"I tried to pay for my tea at a café, but the payment was denied," said the 33-year-old documentary filmmaker, who declined to give her last name for safety reasons.
"The waiters looked at me with sympathy, shook their heads and said: 'You are Russian!'"
Seeking workarounds to pay for things like accommodation, many Russians have sought to open accounts and deposit funds at local banks, given Turkey has good ties with Russia and opposes the sanctions imposed by many of its NATO allies.
But even though they technically face no more hurdles than other foreigners, visits to bank branches have not been easy.
"Especially the private banks are very careful on new Russian deposits and are afraid of sanctions," said a senior banker who requested anonymity.
"The problem is not opening an account but rather how will the money come and what will happen if any sanctions come," the person said. "Banks are very careful in terms of new accounts."
The BDDK banking regular said authorities and financial institutions are closely following the sanctions applied on Russia. But "our organisation does not have any instructions to limit citizens of any country that is not in the scope of sanctions decisions," it told Reuters.
It is unclear how many Russians have arrived in Turkey since the invasion began.
Their inability to use Visa and Mastercard abroad has spurred demand for the home-grown Mir card payment system, which works in Turkey, Armenia, Vietnam and some other countries. 'Mir' means 'world' or 'peace' in Russian.
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Russia's Otkritie Bank, hit by U.S. and EU sanctions, said it had issued six times more Mir cards over the past two weeks than in the same period in previous months.
Three Turkish banks accept the Mir payment system: Isbank, Vakifbank and Ziraatbank, and a Turkish banker told Reuters that "the revenue from transactions via Mir for these three banks increased exponentially" after Visa and MasterCard's pullout.
"However, they face some hurdles to collect these revenues from the Russian side due to capital controls and other restrictions" in the fallout from sanctions, said the banker, who wished to remain anonymous.
Some Russians have sought to join China's UnionPay system, accepted in 180 countries. Demand for UnionPay cards has also soared, Russian banks said.
Many Russians in Istanbul have been observed paying hotel and restaurant bills with Turkish lira, which is cheap after sliding more than any other emerging market currency last year.
"I only have cash," said Chekhunov, the Moscow native.