- Erdogan takes Turkey over precipice, opposition leader says
- Kavala in prison since the end of 2017 without conviction
- The Turkish lira has fallen by almost a quarter this year
- Polls show support for Erdogan ahead of 2023 election
ISTANBUL, Oct. 24 (Reuters) – Political opponents of President Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday said his call to expel ambassadors from 10 Western allies was aimed at distracting from Turkey’s economic woes, while diplomats hoped the expulsions could still be avoided.
On Saturday, Erdogan said he had ordered the envoys to be declared “persona non grata” for calling for the release of philanthropist Osman Kavala from prison.
As of Sunday evening, there was no indication that the Foreign Ministry had carried out the instruction again, which would open the deepest rift with the West in Erdogan’s 19 years in power.
The diplomatic crisis coincides with investor worries about the Turkish lira falling to an all-time high after the central bank, under pressure from Erdogan to stimulate the economy, unexpectedly cut interest rates by 200 points last week.
The pound hit a new all-time low in early Asian trade, weakening 1.6% to 9.75 per dollar, a move bankers attributed to Erdogan’s comments. It has lost almost a quarter of its value so far this year.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition CHP party, said Erdogan “was quickly dragging the country over a precipice”.
“The reason for these measures is not to protect national interests but to create artificial reasons to ruin the economy,” he said on Twitter.
‘SEEN THIS FILM BEFORE’
Kavala, a contributor to many civil society groups, has been in prison for four years, accused of funding nationwide protests in 2013 and participating in a failed coup in 2016. He denies charges and remained in custody while his trial continues.
“We have seen this film before,” said deputy leader of the opposition party IYI, Yavuz Agiralioglu. “Back to both our real agenda and the fundamental problem in this country – the economic crisis.”
Erdogan said the envoys did not respect the Turkish judicial system and did not have the right to demand Kavala’s release.
Sinan Ulgen, chairman of Istanbul-based think-tank Edam and former Turkish diplomat, said Erdogan’s timing was incongruous as Turkey sought to recalibrate its foreign policy away from episodes of tension in recent years.
“I still hope Ankara doesn’t go through with it,” he tweeted, calling the move unprecedented among NATO allies. “The foreign policy establishment is working hard to find a more acceptable formula. But time is running out.”
Erdogan did not always react to threats.
In 2018, he said Turkey would boycott U.S. electronics in a dispute with Washington. Sales were not affected. Last year, he called on the Turks to boycott French products over what he called President Emmanuel Macron’s “anti-Islam” program, but did not follow through.
A diplomatic source said a decision could be made at Monday’s cabinet meeting and de-escalation was still possible. Erdogan has said he will meet with US President Joe Biden at the G20 summit next weekend in Rome.
Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics for two decades, but support for his ruling alliance eroded ahead of the elections scheduled for 2023, in part due to high inflation.
While the International Monetary Fund projects economic growth of 9% this year, inflation is more than double and the pound has fallen 50% against the dollar since Erdogan’s last election victory in 2018.
Emre Peker, of London-based consultancy Eurasia Group, said the threat of evictions at a time of economic hardship was “reckless at best, and at worst a foolish gamble to bolster Erdogan’s plummeting popularity.”
“Erdogan must project power for reasons of domestic politics,” he said.
In a joint statement on October 18, the ambassadors of Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Finland, New Zealand and the United States called for a just and swift resolution of Kavala’s case, and his “urgent release”.
The European Court of Human Rights called for Kavala’s immediate release two years ago, saying there was no reasonable suspicion that he had committed an offense.
Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy tweeted: “Erdogan believes he can win the next Turkish election by accusing the West of attacking Turkey, despite the country’s deplorable state of the economy.”
Written by Daren Butler Editing by Dominic Evans and Giles Elgood
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