Pres. Erdogan withdraws empty threat to expel 10 western ambassadors

Turkish president Erdogan, February 16, 2021 (Photo: Presidency of the Republic of Turkey)

Once again, Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made empty threats. He boastfully proclaimed on October 20 that he would expel the ambassadors of 10 western countries, including the United States, for issuing a declaration urging the release of a Turkish human rights activist. Erdogan harshly criticized and threatened to expel 10 foreign ambassadors who made a joint declaration on Oct. 18, urging the Turkish government to release philanthropist Osman Kavala immediately from jail. The 10 countries are: the US, Germany, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden. On the fourth anniversary of Kavala’s jailing, the ambassadors encouraged Turkey to find a “just and speedy resolution to his case.” They warned that Kavala’s continued detention “cast a shadow over respect for democracy, the rule of law and transparency in the Turkish judicial system.”

Osman Kavala has been wrongfully jailed since 2017 without any conviction. After his initial arrest in 2017, Kavala was acquitted in 2020 of the accusations against him, but was rearrested on new baseless charges. Turkey ignored the 2019 ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) calling for the immediate release of Kavala. The European Council warned Turkey that if it does not comply with the European Court’s ruling by Nov. 30, 2021, it could suspend its voting rights or even membership in the Council.

Here are the twists of Erdogan’s irate words. Erdogan lashed out at these ambassadors, saying, “Is it within your boundary to teach such a lesson to Turkey? Who are you? I told our foreign minister that we cannot have the luxury of hosting them in our country.” He continued, “They go to bed, they get up, Kavala, Kavala…Kavala is the Turkish branch of [George] Soros. Ten ambassadors come to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for him. What kind of rudeness is this? What do you think this place is? This is Turkey, Turkey. This place is not what you think—a tribal state. This is glorious Turkey. You can’t just get up and come to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to give instructions. I gave the necessary instructions to our Minister of Foreign Affairs. I told him what to do. I said, ‘You will immediately deal with these 10 ambassadors declaring them persona non grata [an unwelcome person] as soon as possible.’ They will know Turkey. The day they do not know or understand Turkey, they will leave this place.”

After their declaration, the 10 ambassadors were summoned to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Afterwards, the Ministry said that “the ambassadors were warned.”

The real question is: Who the hell does Erdogan think he is to warn the envoys of these countries? By making such a threat, Erdogan just added another wrinkle to the existing problems with Pres. Joe Biden on the eve of the G20 summit in Rome, where the two leaders are supposed to meet. Contrary to Pres. Donald Trump, who went to great lengths to accommodate Erdogan’s wishes, Pres. Biden has taken a much tougher line on Turkey. Not surprisingly, The New York Times reported that “the Biden administration was the driving force behind the letter, in keeping with the president’s policy of publicly calling out states over human rights violations.”

Seven of the 10 countries that had signed the letter are members of NATO, while six are European Union members. European Parliament President David Sassoli issued a hard-hitting statement, which reads, “The expulsion of ten ambassadors is a sign of the authoritarian drift of the Turkish government. We will not be intimidated. Freedom for Osman Kavala.”

By threatening to expel the 10 ambassadors, Erdogan is engaging in his usual trick of demagogy. His political rating has plummeted, risking his reelection in 2023. He prefers to raise his own popularity while damaging Turkey’s reputation around the world. He frequently creates artificial external crises to deflect the public’s attention from the dire internal conditions. Meanwhile, the Turkish economy has hit rock bottom, with massive unemployment and poverty. The Turkish lira has dropped to a record low of almost 10 liras per dollar from 1.3 lira per dollar from when Erdogan became Prime Minister in 2003.

Even though Erdogan refuses to heed anyone’s advice, he finally came to his senses, realizing that he cannot go forward with his threatened expulsion. He was caught in the horns of a dilemma: if he reversed his decision and allowed the ambassadors to stay, he would lose face in front of the Turkish public. However, should he have proceeded with his expulsion order, he may have caused irreversible damage to Turkey’s economy and relations with the West.

Erdogan was quoted on Oct. 21 as saying that the 10 ambassadors would not release “bandits, murderers and terrorists” in their own countries. Thus, Erdogan was urging Western countries not to interfere with Turkey’s judicial system. While Erdogan makes such provocative statements, he himself repeatedly pressured Pres. Trump to quash the investigation of the Turkish Halkbank, which is accused of assisting US sanctions against Iran through money laundering and conspiracy. Erdogan was trying to cover up his own ties to the Halkbank scheme.

Pres. Erdogan’s aides explained to him the catastrophic repercussions of his threatened expulsion of the 10 ambassadors. Naturally, these 10 countries would have retaliated by expelling Turkey’s ambassadors. There were dozens of incandescent articles in the United States and European countries stating that they were fed up with Turkey’s hostile behavior and illegal actions.

That same message was relayed to Turkey through private diplomatic channels. Finally, a compromise was found to deescalate the crisis. The US Embassy in Ankara tweeted on Oct. 25, “In response to questions regarding the Statement of October 18, the United States notes that it maintains compliance with Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.” Other embassies, including those of Canada, New Zealand and the Netherlands, posted similar messages. Germany and France retweeted the US Embassy’s tweet. Article 41 of the Vienna Convention bars ambassadors from interfering in the domestic affairs of host countries.

The Turkish Anadolu news agency gleefully tweeted in response, “The US Embassy in Ankara has given in,” adding that Erdogan welcomed the US tweet. Erdogan announced after a cabinet meeting on Oct. 25 that the ambassadors had backtracked on their “defamation of our judiciary and our country.”

The US official who decided to send the second tweet, which was interpreted as “backing down” from condemning Turkey’s violations of human rights, should be immediately fired. How can the US government send one message and then turn around a few days later and contradict it? What happened to Pres. Biden’s policy of publicly calling out states over human rights violations? A US State Department spokesman responded by saying that its second tweet was meant to underscore that the US envoy’s actions were in keeping with the Vienna Convention.

Unless the US government keeps its promise to come to the defense of human rights around the world, Erdogan and others will keep on violating with impunity the basic rights of their people. There should be no backing down and no contradictory messages in this regard. It is now up to the ECHR to hold Erdogan’s feet to the fire.

Harut Sassounian

Harut Sassounian

California Courier Editor
Harut Sassounian is the publisher of The California Courier, a weekly newspaper based in Glendale, Calif. He is the president of the Armenia Artsakh Fund, a non-profit organization that has donated to Armenia and Artsakh one billion dollars of humanitarian aid, mostly medicines, since 1989 (including its predecessor, the United Armenian Fund). He has been decorated by the presidents of Armenia and Artsakh and the heads of the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches. He is also the recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.

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