Turkey's Erdoğan strategically backtracks threat to expel Western diplomats, political analyst explains
Soner Cagaptay, a senior fellow with The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, joined The World's host Carol Hills to discuss the details of Turkey's recent diplomatic spat and how it was averted.
Members of a Turkish group hold a symbolic boarding pass for 10 foreign ambassadors as they stage a protest near the US Embassy to support Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in Ankara, Turkey, Oct. 25, 2021.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had a strong message for Western ambassadors over the weekend: Get out.
Erdoğan called for the expulsion of 10 ambassadors, including the US ambassador to Turkey, for statements calling for the release of jailed Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala.
Soner Cagaptay, a senior fellow with The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, joined The World's host Carol Hills to discuss the details of this diplomatic spat.
Carol Hills: Let's start with what caused this diplomatic spat. Who is the jailed philanthropist Osman Kavala, and why has he been imprisoned without trial since 2017?
Soner Cagaptay: Mr. Kavala is a philanthropist and businessman and someone who is known to support the broadening of liberal, democratic civil society in Turkey, and he is at the target of Turkish President Erdoğan's venom and anger there in recent years. Erdoğan sees him as the linchpin of democratic opposition that's, I think, of course, exaggerated. So, he's afraid that his democratic opposition is going to surge and vote him out in a tsunami. And I think he's using Mr. Kavala and others as symbols of oppression, letting the opposition and its organizers and civil society leaders know that if they stick their neck out, they, too, will be arrested.
But I want to stay on Osman Kavala for a second. He's been in prison without trial since 2017. What was he charged with or why was he detained? What are the specifics against them by Erdoğan?
There were large rallies against President Erdoğan in 2013, known as Gezi Park rallies. This was the biggest protest movement to date in Turkey's history. The allegations are that Mr. Kavala organized these rallies, that he is the linchpin in this effort to vote Erdoğan out.
Now, it's interesting since these embassies put out statements saying they won't be interfering in Turkey's internal affairs. Does it appear that they were pressured into backing down over this case?
No, I would actually say the opposite. I think this is a step back for President Erdoğan. It's the first time he's stepping down away from confrontation because he actually threatened to expel these ambassadors. He said it was a done deal over the weekend. And of course, now I think that his administration has walked back the stated policy. These ambassadors look like they won't be expelled. So, this is one of the first instances we see Erdoğan is stepping down in the face of a united front of Western countries — US and European countries acting together. It's quite significant. Erdoğan, I think in recent years, has benefited from a strongman image domestically, and a step back, of course, would be a big dent in his strongman image.
Turkey's relationship with the US and other Western nations has been strained for some time over a variety of issues. Is this kind of back-and-forth the new normal between Turkey and the West?
Yes and no. So, the assumption was that in recent months, Erdoğan had launched the charm offensive and as a resource-poor country, Turkey needs international investment to return growth. So, Erdoğan has been, for about a year now, on his best behavior toward Europe because of deep economic ties with it and also toward the United States, toward President Biden. He wants to create a narrative of good ties with Biden in order for markets to have confidence to invest in Turkey again.
Turkey's currency is also weathering a crisis as it continues to depreciate. What's behind the falling Turkish lira and what's the government's role in this?
... largely economic mismanagement, erratic policies that Erdoğan detests interest rates or high interest rates, and Turkey has quite high inflation, so that has to be matched with high interest rates, but obviously, he's voting against those policies, and there has been a lot of change at the helm of economic policies.
Is the depreciating Turkish lira going to affect Erdoğan's position at home?
Big time. Big time. And I think the reason why Erdoğan did not follow up with his threat to expel 10 Western ambassadors is because he was told by his advisers that if Turkey had a rupture in its ties with its most important economic partners — European countries — it would not only destroy the country's economy, but it would destroy what remains of Erdoğan's base.
This interview has been lighted edited and condensed for clarity.
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