Is Erdogan really going to expel western envoys?

As always, it's worth examining the real reasons behind the Turkish president's latest threats

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the Parliament during the opening of new legislative year, at the Grand National Assembly of Turkey in Ankara, earlier this month. AFP
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The air is sure to be heavy when US President Joe Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meet at the G20 in Rome this weekend after the latter threatened to expel the ambassadors of the US and nine other western states for signing a letter urging Ankara to release a particular political prisoner.

“I gave the instruction to our foreign minister and said 'you will immediately handle the persona non grata declaration of these 10 ambassadors',” Mr Erdogan said on Saturday, using a Latin term for a diplomatic status that generally requires the person to leave the country.

As of this writing, some 40 hours later, the embassies of the offending states – Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Finland, New Zealand and the US – had received no official word of their ambassadors getting the boot. They may well be forced to leave Turkey in the coming days, but a review of Mr Erdogan's recent history suggests he may not have been presenting his plan of action, but a mere diversion.

Consider the circumstances. The prisoner mentioned in the letter, Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala, has been imprisoned for four years without a conviction and faces charges a top rights watchdog has described as "farcical". The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly called on Turkey to immediately free Kavala, and it was these rulings that the ambassadors urged Ankara to heed.

More pressing is the long decline of the Turkish lira, which neared 10 per US dollar last week and continues to erode confidence in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). It’s probably no coincidence that Mr Erdogan first hinted at expelling the ambassadors the day after the release of polls showing, for the first time in years, more support (40.1 per cent vs 39.3 per cent) for the opposition alliance (CHP and IYI parties) than for the AKP and its parliamentary partner, the Nationalist Movement Party.

Time and again, when the Turkish leader has found himself amid a serious political crisis or a crucial election campaign, he has seen fit to utter the most sensationalist and news-worthy of statements. In November 2015, he faced both, parliamentary elections and a massive refugee wave that had passed through Turkey before pouring into EU states. The two sides had just begun talks on a deal to end the migrant crisis. “How will you deal with refugees if you don’t get a deal?” Mr Erdogan asked the EU at the time. “Kill the refugees?”

Some 16 months later, Mr Erdogan feared the vote on a referendum to reshape Turkey’s government would be close and pushed back when Germany and the Netherlands barred AKP officials from visiting to campaign for diaspora votes. First, he called Dutch officials “Nazi remnants and fascists”. A week later, he warned: “If you continue this way, tomorrow no European, no westerner anywhere in the world will be able to step onto the streets safely.”

Perhaps he is blowing off steam, but Mr Erdogan also seems to view this as political sleight-of-hand: presenting the proverbial “bright, shiny object” and betting on an almost Pavlovian response from two key groups. The first is the international media, which seems to jump at the chance to write about his "shift away from the West”. As Turkey watchers and other talking heads debate the implications on opinion pages, podcasts and cable news, Mr Erdogan gains a bit of breathing room to deal with the crisis at hand.

The second group is his conservative Muslim base, which has long questioned western ideals, having experienced first-hand how the supposed secularism of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk marginalised their ilk. Presumably, Mr Erdogan’s hope is that they hear these statements, put their financial concerns aside and remember why they backed him in the first place.

That may sound like a stretch, but we are talking about a politician who has never lost a head-to-head or national vote. If it works, he is effectively killing two birds with one stone, and possibly paying little price. His past verbal assaults have ruffled features but had minimal lasting impact. Also, his timing this time around is better than it might seem.

Biden administration officials would be wise to examine the Turkish president’s proclivity for speaking out when cornered

Thanks to a litany of contentious issues touching on Russian missile systems, maritime borders, a supposed coup plot leader, and Iranian sanctions evasion, Ankara’s relations with the US and other Nato allies have been deeply troubled for years. As a result, as long as this latest statement remains merely a threat, it seems unlikely to make matters worse.

Upon taking office in January, Mr Biden vowed to make human rights advocacy a crucial element of his foreign policy. He refrained from speaking to the Turkish leader until mid-April, when he called to deliver the news that he would oppose Ankara’s view and acknowledge "the Armenian genocide".

The two finally met on the sidelines of a Nato summit in June. Mr Erdogan, who has for the past year taken steps to improve ties with several western and Arab states, sounded nearly buoyant afterwards. "We have opened the doors to a new era based on positive and constructive ties," he said the next day.

But now, Mr Biden’s human rights-focused policy has led to the Kavala letter, spurring Mr Erdogan to put the longtime allies on the verge of a diplomatic standoff. Preparing for the meeting in Rome this weekend, Biden administration officials would be wise to examine the Turkish president’s proclivity for speaking out when cornered, and take his latest with a grain of salt.

Predicting what’s to come is a fool’s game, but to this columnist, it sounds like the Turkish leader intended to put the 10 ambassadors on notice, rather than send them packing. "The day they do not know and understand Turkey," Mr Erdogan added on Saturday, "they will leave."

Published: October 24, 2021, 2:55 PM