Erdogan’s wrath is damaging Turkey

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has backed away from his threat to expel the ambassadors of the US and nine other Nato allies or key trade partners. It would have sundered the fraying moorings Ankara still has with the west despite the erratic behaviour of the Turkish leader. The neo-sultan has come down from a new peak of wilful wrath.

This crisis erupted after the 10, led by the US, France and Germany, called for the urgent release of Osman Kavala, a philanthropist and civil society leader, held in solitary confinement for four years on wholly unproven but endlessly recycled charges. Their statement said “continuing delays in his trial, including by merging different cases and creating new ones after a previous acquittal, cast a shadow over respect for democracy [and] the rule of law”.

Erdogan said the signatories would not release “bandits, murderers and terrorists” in their own countries. Then he publicly ordered his foreign minister to declare all 10 ambassadors persona non grata — the diplomatic formula for expulsion.

Kavala, a quiet-spoken man who has become a beacon of resistance, said he could not get a fair trial and would no longer attend court (although his lawyers will) to listen to the sub-Kafka charade of allegations against him.

Erdogan declared victory over the US and Europeans, who re-endorsed their commitment to the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations — which bars interference in another country’s internal affairs.

This may well persuade the already converted that their hero has forced great powers to back down. At worst, many will see it as a score-draw. The signatories say their démarche was consistent with the Vienna Convention. Those always opposed to Erdogan, swelled by the exasperation of former supporters with his mismanagement of the economy, will be looking further down the road.

Sure, this diplomatic ceasefire has momentarily halted the collapse of Turkey’s currency. But the lira was already heading speedily south before this sound and fury accelerated it; and Erdogan keeps dictating cuts in the interest rates he believes cause rather than curb Turkey’s chronic inflation.

Nor will this pause or halt New York courts prosecuting state-owned Halkbank for busting sanctions against Iran. It will not persuade Washington to relent on restricting jet-fighter sales to Ankara because it has bought Russian air defence systems it sees as a cuckoo in the Nato nest.

Those who see all this as Erdogan marshalling his coalition of neo-Islamists and ultranationalists to distract from economic woes are only partially right. His national populism, as his poll numbers sink, is tactical. But the president’s antipathy towards Kavala is visceral.

Kavala has always been more a cultural than a political activist, working to heal historical wounds with Turkey’s minorities, especially Kurds and Armenians. The charges against him, even Erdogan allies privately admit, are ludicrous.

Erdogan accuses Kavala of organising the spontaneous civic demonstrations of 2013 across Turkey as a dry run for the violent but abortive coup of mid-2016, blamed by the regime on their former allies, a secretive group led by the US-based Islamist imam Fethullah Gulen, which had cadres in the judiciary, army and security services.

Erdogan calls Kavala the “Red Soros” or the “Soros leftover”, a reference to the billionaire philanthropist George Soros on whose Open Society foundation Kavala was a board member. It was people like Kavala and his friends who first warned Erdogan against the Gulenists.

When Kavala was acquitted last year for lack of evidence he was rearrested on the way out of jail on an even more baroque tissue of charges. This is a personal persecution.

When Erdogan and his ruling party lost its majority in the June 2015 elections, the Peoples’ Democratic party (HDP), the first overtly pro-Kurdish group to enter parliament but then a rainbow coalition of the left, came third with more than 6m votes and 80 seats. Their victory celebration was in Kavala’s Istanbul restaurant. Erdogan convinced himself Kavala and Selahattin Demirtas, the HDP leader also in jail, were trying to block his path to the Russia-style presidency he now has.

Erdogan has made Kavala an international issue just as his domestic opposition is starting to unite in the belief he might self-destruct. What the US and Europeans said about Kavala and the absence of rule of law in an allied state cannot be unsaid. They will be measured by what they do, not what they say.

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