A top Turkish human rights activist was freed today after spending over a year in prison, spurring cautious hope that Turkey’s financial woes sharpened by a row with the United States may force it to ease pressure on dissent so as to win back support from Europe.
Taner Kilic, the Turkish chair of Amnesty International, was arrested in June 2017 along with 22 lawyers over alleged links to Fethullah Gulen, the Islamic cleric accused of plotting to violently overthrow Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The case is among a slew of flimsily evidenced prosecutions of dissidents in the wake of the abortive July 2016 coup. Kilic’s trial was being closely monitored by the European Union.
Amnesty International said it was “overjoyed” by news of his release but demanded that charges against him and thousands of other prisoners of conscience be dropped.
On Aug. 14, Turkey unexpectedly freed two Greek soldiers who were arrested in March after they strayed accidentally into Turkey. “I hope that their release will herald a new day in Greek-Turkish relations,” declared Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos.
The moves come ahead of a critical meeting that is set to take place between Erdogan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the end of September. On Aug. 13, Merkel appeared to signal support for Ankara in its escalating row with the United States. “Germany would like to see an economically prosperous Turkey. This is in our interest,” Merkel said. She warned, however, that,“everything must be done to ensure an independent Central Bank.” She was alluding to Erdogan’s continued resistance to raising interest rates, seen as one of the underlying causes of the dramatic drop in the value of the Turkish lira. Erdogan is widely expected to seek Europe’s help to shore up Turkey’s wobbly finances.
Meanwhile, Turkey's top regional ally, Qatar, rode to the rescue with pledges of a $15 billion cash injection that was announced following a meeting in Ankara between Erdogan and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Amad Al-Thani. Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency shared photographs of the pair all smiles as they lunched at Erdogan's palace in Ankara. Erdogan's son-in-law and Economy Minister Berat Albayrak, who was due to hold a conference call with global investors on Aug. 16, was present at the meal.
Presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said the Emir's visit' "signifies Qatar is beside Turkey." But Europe's support remains vital.
Howard Eissenstat, an associate professor of history at St. Lawrence University and senior nonresident fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy who has written extensively about Turkey, explained in an interview with Al-Monitor, “Turkey understands that good ties with Europe are absolutely vital to stabilizing a very shaky economy. This has become particularly acute in the face of its standoff with the Trump administration.”
Eissentat noted, however, that the need for better relations cuts both ways. “Many of the heavy hitters in the European Union, most notably Germany, have determined that an Erdogan-controlled Turkey is an unsavory reality that they will have to live with. He might be a repressive authoritarian, the logic goes, but he is also the leader of a large state that borders the EU directly.”
Most immediately, the EU is nervous about a new flood of refugees that will potentially press against its borders should Turkey descend into political instability. Ankara has repeatedly threatened to scrap a controversial deal struck with the EU in March 2016 to serve as a holding pen for millions of refugees, mostly Syrians, who would otherwise head for Europe. Turkish citizens may well seek safe haven there, too, as they have in the past
Sitting an ocean away, President Donald Trump has no such concerns and is reportedly weighing further sanctions against Turkey if it does not free North Carolina pastor Andrew Brunson. They include limits on Turkey’s national carrier Turkish Airlines, a senior administration official told The New York Times. “They may as well free him now and cut their losses,” an administration official speaking on strict condition anonymity told Al-Monitor. “They will have to free him anyway.”
Tensions between the NATO allies show no signs of abating as Turkey doubled tariffs on some US imports including booze, cars and tobacco today in retaliation for US tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum that were heralded by Trump in a nasty tweet last week.
The Turkish action follows calls by Erdogan to boycott US goods and to convert dollars to liras. As the lira seemed poised for a free fall following Trump’s tweet, emerging markets worldwide began to sweat, with the Indian rupee among the worst hit.
The battered Turkish currency, which shed around 40% of its value since the start of the year, began to firm up, however, after the Central Bank began squeezing lira liquidity in the market on Aug. 13, pushing interest rates higher without a formal change in the benchmark rate.
The respite may prove temporary should the US Treasury announce a widely anticipated fine on Turkey’s state lender Halkbank over its involvement in a massive money-laundering scheme in violation of US sanctions against Iran. Turkey allegedly wants the fine and ongoing investigations into Halkbank scrapped in exchange for Brunson’s release. Trump is reportedly “fed up” with Ankara and not interested in resuming talks until the pastor is allowed to fly home.
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