Relations with the US have always been tricky for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party). For its part, the AK Party has understood very well the importance of establishing good relations with the US. But when it comes to the internal politics of Turkey, appearing too close to the Americans is not perceived positively by the AK Party’s voters. Therefore, AK Party politicians have been using different language when speaking to their American counterparts compared to the discourse used when talking to Turkish voters.
But experts wonder whether AK Party politicians were considering the future of Turkish-US relations when almost every day a negative story on American diplomats in Turkey would appear in pro-government dailies. Many of the stories seem to be baseless and without a clear source, aiming to create suspicions about the intentions of US diplomats.
On Dec. 21, four days after the start of the graft probe, four pro-government newspapers ran a story simultaneously, saying that the US ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, speaking to a group of ambassadors in Ankara representing European Union countries, said the US had asked Turkey to cut the Iranian financial link with Halkbank, a bank that is now accused of suspicious money transfers as well as gold trading with Iran.
As the government did not heed the US’s instructions, Ricciardone reportedly concluded, “You are now watching the collapse of an empire,” referring to the possible downfall of the government. This alleged comment came on the same day that the police detained bureaucrats, three ministers’ sons and Halkbank’s general manager, on Dec. 17.
The US Embassy in Ankara denied that any meeting took place on Dec. 17 between Ricciardone and EU ambassadors. The embassy also stated that the remarks allegedly made by Ricciardone were complete fabrications. Moreover, the Cumhuriyet daily reported that a high-level journalist from one of the pro-government dailies, Yenişafak, Akşam, Akit and Star, called the US Embassy to inquire about the story. Although the journalist was convinced that the story was fabricated, two hours later he called the embassy again and declared that the story would appear in the paper next day because “the order comes from the top.”
US President Barack Obama’s administration then warned Ankara not to use bilateral relations as a tool in Turkey’s domestic politics and stated that Turkish officials will not benefit from statements that might poison those relations, following the appearance of the newspaper stories.
“The US is uncomfortable about our relations being used as a pawn in your internal politics. We are worried that unreasonable statements will poison our relations. We expect you to refrain from making statements that might jeopardize the future of our relationship,” said the US administration in its message to Turkey, according to diplomatic sources who spoke to Sunday’s Zaman on condition of anonymity.
Erdoğan implied on Dec. 21 that Turkey could expel the US ambassador for his alleged remarks. Speaking at a rally in the northern province of Samsun, Erdoğan struck a defiant tone, adamantly rejecting any wrongdoing and characterizing the corruption case as an international plot to weaken Turkey’s growing economy, stifle its diplomatic clout and topple the AK Party government.
“In recent days, very strangely, ambassadors have been involved in some provocative acts. I am calling on them: Do your job. If you leave your area of duty, this could extend into our government’s area of jurisdiction. We do not have to keep you [Ricciardone] in our country,” Erdoğan told supporters in the Black Sea province, implying that the US ambassador could be expelled.
A few more provocative news stories appearing in pro-government dailies have created suspicions about US diplomats in Ankara and İstanbul, suggesting that they are trying to foment chaos in Turkey.
The pro-government dailies Yeni Şafak and Akşam reported last Wednesday that Ashwin Bijanki, a US diplomat in Ankara, had visited the heads of some nongovernmental organizations and invited them to lobby against the AK Party government.
Citing Association of Young Businessmen of Ankara (ANGİAD) head Abdullah Değer, the Sabah daily said certain embassies in Ankara had been laying the groundwork for a corruption operation in the summer of 2012. The daily alleged that Bijanki had visited many Turkish cities and attended every meeting organized by Turkish political parties during that period. Sabah alleged that Bijanki’s meeting with Değer took place at the same time as surveillance began in the corruption investigation.
“2014 will be a crucial year in which the US and Turkey should cooperate closely to tackle long-standing issues in the Middle East. Of course, close cooperation requires mutual trust and confidence between allies. However, the recent developments in domestic Turkish politics show that Erdoğan never hesitates to mobilize anti-US sentiments in the country for his own interest,” said Cenk Sidar, founder of Sidar Global Advisors (SGA), a Washington, D.C.-based macro insight and strategic advisory firm.
“It is even more worrisome this particular time, because Erdoğan chose to blame the US just to cover up his own deficiencies. Erdoğan’s selfish and irresponsible political move will not only have repercussions on US-Turkey relations, but also on the region. An increase in bilateral tension may further strengthen the perception in the West that Turkey has been transforming into an authoritarian and unstable regime,” Sidar added.
The Taraf daily reported last week that the ruling AK Party had made plans after the graft probe got under way to conduct psychological warfare to undermine the credibility of the corruption claims.
A team headed by Culture and Tourism Minister Ömer Çelik would provide news pieces for pro-government media outlets, said the daily, and the Ricciardone story had reportedly been created by this team. Mustafa Varank, Ertan Aydın and Aydın Ünal, known members of Erdoğan’s inner circle, were expected to participate in the group’s future activities.
Denying these allegations via his Twitter account, Çelik said he would file a legal complaint about Taraf’s story. “[Taraf’s] story is obviously a lie. The news piece is part of a typical, primitive, very well-known and dirty psychological war. Not even a word is true,” he added.
The Takvim daily reported on Jan. 1 that retired US Gen. David Petraeus was the mastermind behind the Dec. 17 graft operation. According to Takvim, former CIA Director Petraeus aimed to drag the successful Turkish economy into chaos, and by using a financial organization called Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR), Petraeus had also amassed funds worth $25 billion.
The Washington Post wrote on Thursday that voters rather than courts might determine the outcome of the recent crisis in Turkey, which began with the graft probe on Dec. 17. The Post said that if Erdoğan’s party wins the local elections in March, he will probably press ahead with plans to increase presidential powers before running for the post later this year.
“He makes no secret of his plans to remain in power until 2023, when Turkey will celebrate 100 years as a republic. Neither Turkey nor the West would benefit from such a consolidation of power. The Obama administration and the EU should be pressing Mr. Erdogan to respect the rule of law and give police and prosecutors the opportunity to present their cases in court,” said the editorial.