Skip to main content

Turkey: Erdogan's critics say expulsion call is distraction from economic woes

Diplomatic crisis over move to expel 10 envoys coincides with investor worries about the Turkish lira's fall to a record low
Opposition CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu says Erdogan is "rapidly dragging the country to a precipice" (AFP)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's political opponents have said his call to begin the process of expelling the ambassadors of 10 western allies is an attempt to distract attention from the country's economic difficulties.

The foreign ministry has not yet carried out the president's instruction, which would open the deepest rift with the West in Erdogan's 19 years in power, and diplomats hope the expulsions might yet be averted.

Turkey: Erdogan takes first step to expel 10 envoys who backed activist
Read More »

On Saturday, Erdogan said he ordered that each of the envoys, including from the United States and Germany, be declared "persona non grata" for seeking the release from prison of activist and philanthropist Osman Kavala. 

The diplomatic crisis coincides with investor worries about the Turkish lira's fall to a record low after the central bank, under pressure from Erdogan to stimulate the economy, unexpectedly slashed interest rates by 200 basis points last week.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition CHP, said Erdogan was "rapidly dragging the country to a precipice".

"The reason for these moves is not to protect national interests but to create artificial reasons for the ruining of the economy," he said on Twitter.

'Bandits, murderers and terrorists'

Kavala, a contributor to numerous civil society groups, has been in prison for four years, charged with financing nationwide protests in 2013 and with involvement in a failed coup in 2016. 

He denies the charges and has remained in detention while his trial continues.

"We've seen this film before. Return at once to our real agenda and the fundamental problem of this country, the economic crisis," said Yavuz Agiralioglu, deputy leader of the opposition IYI Party.

Erdogan said the envoys were impudent and had no right to demand Kavala's release, stressing that the Turkish judiciary was independent.

The president was cited on Thursday as saying the ambassadors in question would not release "bandits, murderers and terrorists" in their own countries.

Rights groups and western governments have viewed Kavala's case as a critical test for the independence of Turkey's judiciary and the rule of law. 

In a written statement on Friday, Kavala said: "Since there is no possibility of a fair trial under these circumstances, I believe participating in hearings and delivering my defence will be meaningless from now on."

Previous threats

Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based think tank Edam and a former Turkish diplomat, said Erdogan's timing was incongruous as Turkey was seeking to recalibrate its foreign policy away from episodes of tension in recent years.

Erdogan says Turkey in talks with Washington to buy F-16s
Read More »

"I still hope that Ankara will not go through with this," he wrote on Twitter, describing it as an unprecedented measure among Nato allies. 

"The foreign policy establishment is working hard to find a more acceptable formula. But time is running out."

Erdogan has not always followed through with threats.

In 2018, Erdogan said Turkey would boycott US electronic goods in a dispute with Washington. However, sales of the goods were unaffected. 

Last year, he called on Turks to boycott French goods over what he said was President Emmanuel Macron's "anti-Islam" agenda, but he did not follow through.

Biden meeting

One diplomatic source told Reuters a decision on the envoys could be taken at Monday's cabinet meeting and that de-escalation was possible given concerns about the potential diplomatic fallout. 

Erdogan has said he will meet US President Joe Biden at next weekend's G20 summit in Rome.

According to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, a state may notify a country's diplomatic mission that a staff member is unwelcome. The country may recall that person or terminate their role.

Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics for two decades but support for his ruling alliance has eroded significantly ahead of elections scheduled for 2023, partly because of sharp rises in the cost of living.

While the International Monetary Fund projects economic growth of nine percent this year, inflation is more than double that and the lira has fallen 50 percent against the dollar since Erdogan's last election victory in 2018.

'Foolish gambit'

Emre Peker, from the London-based consultancy Eurasia Group, said the threatened expulsions at a time when the economy faces "massive challenges, is at best ill-considered, and at worst a foolish gambit to bolster Erdogan's plummeting popularity".

"Erdogan has to project power for domestic political reasons," he said, adding that typically countries whose envoys have been kicked out retaliate with tit-for-tat expulsions. 

Turkey: Lira slumps to record low after Erdogan fires three Central Bank governors
Read More »

"This stands to make for increasingly difficult relations with Washington and the EU."

In a joint statement on 18 October, the ambassadors of Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Finland, New Zealand and the US called for a just and speedy resolution to Kavala's case, and for his "urgent release". 

They were summoned by the foreign ministry, which called the statement irresponsible.

The European Court of Human Rights called for Kavala's immediate release two years ago, saying there was no reasonable suspicion that he had committed an offence.

Soner Cagaptay, from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the countries involved made up half of Turkey's top 10 trading partners, underlining the potential setback to Erdogan's efforts to boost the economy ahead of elections.

"Erdogan believes he can win the next Turkish elections by blaming the West for attacking Turkey -- notwithstanding the sorry state of the country's economy," he wrote on Twitter.