Osman Kavala: a liberal oppositionist

Persona non grata

There are mounting tensions with the west and a rocky economy. Turkey’s president is facing challenging times, writes Esen Uslu

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s bodyguards brawled with the uniformed security personnel of the UN in 2011.1 They fought with Belgian security staff in 2015.2 They attacked Kurdish protestors in Washington DC in 2017.3

But not only are the presidential bodyguards deemed undesirable: the Turkish foreign operations, under the cloak of the Religious Affairs Department, or those said to be acting on behalf of the Turkish migrant population in European countries, are widely seen as a ‘radicalising influence’. The close cooperation between fascist organisations, such as the Grey Wolves and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), as well as state-supported charitable foundations and ‘cultural’ organisations abroad, are being closely scrutinised. Arrangements allowing the continuing operation of Turkish intelligence agencies now seems beyond the reach of any ‘gentlemen’s agreement’.

The rogue Turkish state and its far right militia allies are regarded more and more as a nuisance by the ‘international community’. Erdoğan’s indiscreet remarks and undiplomatic stance on many issues has to all intents and purposes made him persona non grata: nobody invites him to visit their country, apart, that is, to meetings of multinational organisations, such as Nato.

Kavala protests

Osman Kavala - once a member of the Union of Turkish Students in Britain in the 1970s - is the scion of a rich family with a long commercial trading background. On his return to Turkey in the early 80s, he became the partner of an influential liberal publisher. He was an active promoter of a wide variety of artistic, cultural and charitable projects. That included being a founding member of the Open Society Foundation in Turkey, part of the George Soros network designed to promote liberal values internationally. Presumably that is why Kavala was targeted by the Erdoğan regime.

In October 2017, well over a year after the botched “Gülenist” military coup attempt, Kavala was arrested under the terms of articles 309 and 312 of the country’s penal code. Since then he has been kept in jail without trial. Like so many well-known activists he was released after pre-trial hearings, only to be rearrested. Despite several legal interventions, including a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights, that remains the case. Rather making a mockery of Turkey’s signature to abide by its judgements.

In their infinite wisdom the ambassadors of 10 countries - the United States, Germany, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden, seven of which are, of course, Nato members, issued a joint statement calling for Kavala’s release on the fourth anniversary of his detention.4 The Turkish government huffed and puffed, and the foreign ministry summoned the 10 ambassadors for a scolding about not ‘interfering in Turkey’s internal affairs’. While that might well have been the end of the matter, the fact that the 10 governments issued statements in support of their ambassadors ensured that this was not going to be the case.

Erdoğan went ballistic. He told the press that Turkey is no uncivilised tribal backwater. It is a major country with a long tradition of civilisation. He would not accept all this finger-wagging. How dare they lecture him. All this sent an instant cold blast across the bows of the Turkish state, press and business. A major spat with the west is high risk politics. Especially given the precarious state of Turkey’s economy.

True to form, the next day, Erdoğan declared, at an AKP rally, that he had instructed the foreign ministry to start procedures to expel the 10 diplomats. The Turkish lira plummeted. Unimaginable consequences loomed.

However, over the weekend, while everyone was holding their breath, behind the scenes diplomacy was in full swing. A face-saving solution was found. An agreed text was published on the social media channels of the 10 embassies. For example, according to the US embassy, “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.”

Mind you, the Turkish interpretation of the text that was served to the press involved plenty of artistic licence. The Turkish version translates: “The United States undertakes to abide by article 41 of the Vienna Convention.” That is the version constantly repeated by the media for domestic consumption. So, according to official propaganda, Erdoğan had mastered the foreign devils and, thanks to Turkish prowess, made them eat their words.

Just before all this, the Financial Action Task Force announced that Turkey has been added to its “grey list” of countries subject to heightened scrutiny over terrorist financing, money laundering and institutional corruption. A case involving Halkbank, a Turkish state-owned operation, is about to come before US courts. It stands accused of sanctions-busting through deals with Iran.

In 2018 the former head of Halkbank, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, was convicted by a US court of conducting transactions on behalf of Iran and sentenced to 32 months. But, following his release and return to Turkey, he was promoted to be director of Istanbul Security Exchange. However, in March this year he was forced to resign. A move that some said was a gesture of goodwill to the US.

But now the new case against Halkbank will surely force the Joe Biden administration to take further action against Erdoğan’s regime.

Top brass

Turkey seems to have become a thorn in the flesh, when it comes to western policies in the Middle East. Erdoğan’s demagoguery, coupled with reckless interventions in the eastern Mediterranean - as well as his game-playing, with threats to unleash refugees kept in camps on Europe’s borders - are not deemed friendly. Nor does Ankara’s brinkmanship with Greece and France fit well with the redrawn US policy across the region.

The main worry is that the army top brass, which has been Erdoğan’s mainstay, now seems to be increasingly committed to Eurasianism - meaning it supports reaching a new understanding with Russia and China, gradually ditching agreements with the west and eventually quitting Nato. Since the July 15 2016 coup attempt that trend is becoming more and more pronounced.

However, there are also counter-currents. Some come in the shape of the traditional bureaucracy, while the parliamentary opposition parties have started to show that they are still actually alive. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) has for the first time voted in the Grand Assembly against the extension of the government’s mandate for military interventions in Syria and Iraq. Nevertheless, despite that, of course, Erdoğan got the parliamentary majority he needed.

This provided the go ahead for renewed actions in Syria in Tel Rifaat near Aleppo. But Erdoğan has yet to obtain permission from either Russia or the US for doing more. He has offered a sop to Vladimir Putin by indicating a willingness to purchase yet more S-400 missiles. Simultaneously, he has told Biden that Turkey wants to buy more F-16 fighter planes - to replace the F-35 order cancelled by the US.

However, neither party is ready to dance with Turkey just yet. After all, US plans include extended Nato maritime patrols in the Black Sea, supported by regular passages through the Turkish Straits, together with increased cooperation with Greece. In order to counter Russian actions, such as its annexation of the Crimea and further advances in Ukraine, the US is seeking to increase its presence in Georgia and the Czech Republic, as well as Ukraine - apparently even offering it Nato membership. So the times do not look good for Turkey to rock the boat.

Last week 15 Palestinians were arrested in Turkey, accused of operating a spy ring on behalf of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. Mossad previously had good relations with Turkey’s own intelligence organisations, with whom there was an arrangement for a limited sharing of information. All this points to the growing influence of Eurasianism within Turkey. Nationalist forces within the government, army and society in general are on the rise.

Sensing the dangers, the working class seems to be stirring. For the first time in a long time several small working class organisations have managed to organise a rally in Istanbul in protest at economic hardship and lack of democracy. The CHP made the initial move, but the pro-Kurdish leftwing People’s Democratic Party (HDP) seems to be back on its feet despite leading members being held in jail on trumped-up charges - and for far longer than Kavala at that. Not that they expect an ambassadorial intervention on their behalf.

  1. www.youtube.com/watch?v=fe_4yUkN4mM.↩︎

  2. www.politico.eu/article/battle-of-erdogan-bodyguards-security-belgium-police.↩︎

  3. https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-us-canada-39979879.↩︎

  4. See, for example: tr.usembassy.gov/statement-on-four-years-of-osman-kavalas-detention.↩︎