More than 30 Western nationals are currently imprisoned in Turkey, and they are viewed by some as pawns to be used to extract concessions in bilateral relations with the United States and European Union countries. Under the state of emergency, and with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s almost-complete control of the media, it has become extremely difficult to speak out against the framing and imprisonment of Western nationals.
Aykan Erdemir, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank and former member of the Turkish Parliament, believes this puts a greater moral and intellectual responsibility on Turks like him who live abroad to speak against Erdogan’s hostage diplomacy. On the occasion of the publication of his latest report for the Washington-based FDD, Erdemir spoke with Kathimerini, dissecting Ankara’s hostage diplomacy and how Greece, with its two military officers still in detention, fits the pattern.
In your latest report for the Foundation for Defense of Democracy, you attest that Erdogan has been engaging in hostage diplomacy using Western civilians. What are your key findings?
Erdogan’s policy of hostage diplomacy has emerged in the aftermath of Turkey’s failed coup attempt in July 2016. It is a makeshift policy that uses imprisoned Western nationals as a bargaining chip in bilateral relations with the aim of extracting concessions. Erdogan’s demands range from the speedy extradition of suspected coup plotters to unblocking arms sales. In my latest report co-authored with former US ambassador Eric Edelman, we have identified over 30 Western nationals who have been targeted with dubious political charges within the last two years.
On a secondary level, it also seems that a number of the hostage situations in Turkey are being used to spin an anti-Western and sometimes conspiratorial narrative in the country. What has been the role of the media in Erdogan’s hostage diplomacy?
There is also a domestic dimension of Erdogan’s hostage diplomacy. Turkey’s state-run and crony-owned media outlets have been carrying out a coordinated smear campaign against imprisoned Western nationals, framing them as terrorists or spies, effectively making it impossible for them to get a fair hearing in court. This campaign of character assassination also plays a key role in spreading the xenophobic worldview of the AKP [Turkey’s ruling party] that Western states, institutions and individuals are the main threat to Turkey’s national security. By nurturing anti-Western conspiracies, Erdogan not only mobilizes nationalist voters, but also sustains a toxic atmosphere, which then leads to further targeting and arrests of Western nationals – a hazardous vicious cycle.
How do you think Greece fits the pattern of hostage diplomacy?
Historically, accidental border crossings between Turkey and Greece have been a frequent occurrence. Until recently, both sides dealt with this issue in a pragmatic and amicable way, choosing to release soldiers, not to escalate the situation. The treatment of two Greek soldiers arrested in March is in stark contrast to earlier practice and is a direct result of intervention from the highest level in Ankara. Erdogan wants the Greek government to extradite all suspected putschists as a precondition of the release of Greek soldiers. So, at this point, the issue is less about the rule of law and more about bilateral bargaining.
Recently, Vice President Bekir Bozdag also made a strong statement against Greece, regarding the release of the eight Turkish officers who fled to Greece after the July 2016 coup attempt. There seems to be an expectation that Greece has to bypass its judiciary and extradite the soldiers. What do you think has led to this expectation?
Under Turkey’s state of emergency, the executive branch has come to fully dominate the judiciary. Turkish prosecutors and judges who make the mistake of acting against Erdogan’s will lose their positions overnight. This practice has blinded Erdogan and his inner circle as to how the courts actually work in Western democracies. Nowadays, the Turkish government genuinely thinks that their Western counterparts can also control courts and get any verdict they want overnight. It is practically impossible for Athens to convince Ankara about the existence of the rule of law and separation of powers in Greece. These concepts are now completely alien to Turkish government officials.
How would you advise Greece to tackle the situation of the two soldiers still being held captive?
The Greek government is under pressure from the Greek electorate to pursue this issue, and will continue to engage the Turkish government to facilitate the release of Greek soldiers. In the mid to long run this might deliver results, as we have seen with other European hostages. There is, however, no guarantee that similar hostage situations will not be repeated in the future. As long as Erdogan is in power as a one-man ruler, his erratic moves and arbitrary demands will continue.
My co-author and I argue that only a concerted transatlantic strategy can bring Erdogan’s hostage diplomacy to an end. There needs to be a loud and clear message that Erdogan’s “rogue state” tactics borrowed from Tehran and Pyongyang’s playbook belong neither in the European Union nor in NATO. There seems to be a reluctance to carry the issue from the bilateral level to the multilateral level, allowing Erdogan to determine the timing, pace and content of the bargaining. This I believe enables and encourages him to continue with hostage diplomacy.