Turkey backs down on threat to expel foreign ambassadors
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has backed down from a threat to expel 10 ambassadors – including those from seven Nato allies – over their demands for the release of a prominent pro-democracy activist.
In comments on Monday Erdoğan said statements issued earlier in the day by the embassies in question, reaffirming that they will abide by a diplomatic convention not to interfere in a host country’s internal affairs, “show they have taken a step back from the slander against our country” and “they will be more careful now”.
The president’s communications director, Fahrettin Altun, added: “Our foreign ministry has already given the necessary response to these foreign missions and warned them about their unacceptable behavior,” in a statement on Twitter.
“Our government will not shy away from any further steps to show that we will never compromise our national sovereignty.”
A mass expulsion of the ambassadors would have been an unprecedented development in relations between Nato allies, threatening to open the biggest diplomatic rift between Turkey and the west during Erdoğan’s nearly 20 years in power.
While the spat appears to be de-escalating, the incident has left a sour taste for Ankara’s western partners, and reverses a year of overtures from the Turkish leader which appeared to be aimed at rapprochement with Joe Biden and European states.
Both Washington and Ankara appeared to insist on Monday night that they had not backed down, with a US state department spokesperson saying that the earlier statement on adhering to Article 41 of the Vienna Convention was meant to underscore that the US envoy’s actions were in keeping with the convention’s terms.
The Turkish lira – which has lost one-quarter of its value in the last 12 months – welcomed the news, pulling back from a historic low of 9.85 to the dollar to 9.607.
Tensions spiked between Ankara and the US, Canada, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and New Zealand over the weekend, when the Turkish president said he had ordered the envoys to be declared “persona non grata”, which can lead to formal expulsion.
The dramatic decision was triggered by a joint statement from the ambassadors calling on Turkey to abide by a 2019 European court of human rights ruling in the high-profile case of Osman Kavala, a businessman and philanthropist who has been held in pre-trial detention for four years on terrorism charges.
His next hearing is scheduled for 26 November, and the Council of Europe has said it will begin infringement proceedings against Turkey by the end of next month if Kavala is not released.
Monday’s climbdown came after a cabinet meeting at which ministers reportedly advised the president about the economic dangers of escalating tensions with some of Turkey’s closest allies and trading partners.
Opposition figures accused Erdoğan of trying to create an artificial diplomatic crisis that he could then blame for the plunging value of the lira ahead of elections which are due to be held in 2023.
In televised comments upon the meeting’s conclusion, the president said “the Turkish judiciary doesn’t take orders from anyone, and is not under anyone’s command. Our intention is absolutely not to create a crisis but to protect our rights, law, honour, interests and our sovereign rights.”
Along with Kavala, thousands more people have been arrested and tried in Turkey in relation to the 2013 Gezi park protests, which were sparked by plans to redevelop the green space in Istanbul into a shopping mall, and the failed coup attempt in 2016.
Western observers and human rights groups say the country’s judicial system has been hollowed out and weaponised against Erdoğan’s opponents and critics.
In the joint statement that triggered the crisis, ambassadors wrote that Kavala’s case “cast a shadow over respect for democracy, the rule of law and transparency in the Turkish judiciary system”.