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Erdogan backpedals on threat to expel 10 Western ambassadors

After threatening to expel 10 foreign envoys, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Monday appeared to de-escalate a diplomatic row sparked by the ongoing imprisonment of Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seen during a official state visit to Angola at the Presidential Palace in Luanda on Oct. 18, 2021.

ISTANBUL ­— A tense diplomatic crisis in which 10 ambassadors to Turkey faced possible expulsion from the country appears to have been defused Monday following a set of reconciliatory statements.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Monday said he welcomed statements shared via social media by Western embassies, including the United States, saying they would follow a diplomatic convention not to interfere with a host nation’s domestic affairs.

“I believe these envoys will act more carefully,” Erdogan said Monday. “Today’s statement by the envoys means retreat from slander.”

He added, “Those who do not respect the independence of our country and the sensitivities of our nation cannot live in this country, regardless of their title."

The exchange comes a week after the ambassadors of the United States and nine other nations, including Germany, Denmark, Finland, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Canada, Norway and New Zealand, called on Turkey to apply a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling for the immediate release of Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala, who has been jailed for over four years on espionage and terror-related charges without conviction.

In response, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry Tuesday briefly summoned the nations’ ambassadors, and the row escalated Saturday when Erdogan declared the envoys “persona non grata,” saying he had instructed the foreign minister to apply the declaration “as soon as possible.”

It was not immediately clear if the ambassadors would be expelled, though the possibility sparked a record slide for the Turkish lira early Monday ahead of what would have been a diplomatic crisis between Ankara and its closest trade and defense partners, many of whose leaders Erdogan will meet with this weekend at the G20 summit in Rome.

Bloomberg reported senior advisers briefed Erdogan Monday on the potential economic costs of expelling the foreign envoys. Prior to his evening speech, Erdogan also convened a Cabinet meeting and met with junior coalition partner Devlet Bahceli, head of Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party, during which he was believed to have discussed his options for the diplomatic row.

Parallel to Erdogan’s meetings, the implicated embassies Monday afternoon began sharing or retweeting each other’s statements saying they maintain “compliance with Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations,” which states foreign missions may not interfere in the internal affairs of their host country.

The references to Article 41 opened an off-ramp to de-escalate the diplomatic row, which Erdogan apparently took, though observers noted that calls to apply ECHR rulings for Council of Europe members such as Turkey are not considered overstepping barriers between foreign and internal affairs.

“The fact that they worked hard to develop some kind of compromise that defuses this situation begs the question of why Erdogan felt obliged to start the crisis in the first place,” Paul Levin, director of the Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies, told Al-Monitor.

In a series of tweets Monday, ruling Justice and Development Party deputy chair and spokesperson Omer Celik said Ankara will continue to strengthen ties with its foreign diplomats while highlighting sensitivity around issues of sovereignty and interference with the nation’s judicial system.

We have a very high sensitivity about the sovereignty of our state,” Celik tweeted Monday. “We have strongly rejected and will reject any statement that implies interference in the internal affairs and sovereign rights of our country.”

The de-escalation comes after main opposition Republican People’s Party head Kemal Kilicdaroglu Saturday accused Erdogan of trying to cast the nation’s worsening economic outlook as the work of foreign actors seeking to weaken the government’s stature.

“These actions are not to protect the national interest, but to create artificial justifications for the economy they are destroying,” Kilicdaroglu tweeted Saturday.

Turkey’s lira had repeatedly touched record lows against major currencies late last week following a deeper-than-expected key interest rate cut by the Turkish Central Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee Thursday.

The surprise cut to 16% came as the nation faces a nearly 20% annual inflation rate and was read by analysts as a move to further apply Erdogan’s unconventional economic stance in which he has repeatedly argued lower interest rates create lower inflation rates.

Negative pressure on the Turkish lira was compounded later Thursday when global financial watchdog the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) announced Turkey would be added to its “grey list” of countries subject to tougher regulations over shortcomings in deterring terrorist financing and money laundering activities.

Following Monday’s cooling of diplomatic tensions, the lira pared losses to about 9.55 per US dollar at 7 p.m. Istanbul time, though the currency remains down more than 20% against the greenback this year. Rising food costs and inflation will continue to draw concern from the Turkish government as it prepares for the next round of elections, currently scheduled for 2023.

“These repeated crises that Turkey is to some extent facing and to some extent manufacturing are not doing much for the Turkish economy and the confidence of investors,” Levin told Al-Monitor. “Investors want stability; they want rule of law and … also a predictable exchange rate, and Turkey doesn’t have any of those right now.”

Meanwhile, the source of the foreign policy standoff, Kavala, remains jailed, awaiting his next hearing on Nov. 26. In a statement released Friday, Kavala said he would not attend future hearings, repeating his denial of the charges lodged against him, saying they are “not based on any evidence.”

“Considering a fair trial is no longer possible under these circumstances, I believe it is meaningless for me to attend the upcoming hearings and present a defense,” Kavala said in a statement Friday.

In a joint statement Monday, Parliament Standing Rapporteur for Turkey Nacho Sanchez Amor and Chair of the EU-Turkey Parliamentary Delegation Sergey Lagodinsky reiterated calls for Turkey to apply ECHR rulings for the release of Kavala as well as jailed former co-chair of the Peoples’ Democratic Party Selahattin Demirtas.