The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Turkey’s Erdogan declares 10 ambassadors ‘persona non grata,’ escalating tensions with Western allies

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi, Russia, on Sept. 29. (Vladimir Smirnov/Pool/Sputnik/Reuters)
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ISTANBUL — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday declared ambassadors from 10 Western countries, including the United States, "persona non grata" in Turkey over a letter from the countries' embassies calling for the release from Turkish prison of Osman Kavala, a prominent philanthropist and civil society activist.

It was not clear whether Turkey intended to immediately expel the ambassadors, including representatives from France and Canada, but in a speech Saturday, Erdogan said he had instructed his foreign minister to declare the ambassadors persona non grata — meaning unwelcome — “as soon as possible.”

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Ankara declined to comment on Erdogan’s speech.

A Turkish philanthropist was acquitted after years in prison. Then he was detained again.

It came five days after a public statement by the 10 embassies criticizing Turkey over Kavala’s years-long detention and delays in his trial, which had “cast a shadow over respect for democracy, the rule of law and transparency in the Turkish judiciary system,” the statement said.

Along with the United States, France and Canada, the signatories included Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland.

Kavala’s long legal odyssey — involving accusations human rights groups have derided as farcical — has come to symbolize the incessant crackdown by Erdogan on opposition figures, dissidents and other perceived enemies in the years since a failed coup against his government in 2016.

Erdogan’s attack on the ambassadors — several NATO allies among them — also threatened to further damage his government’s foundering efforts to repair Turkey’s economy and stabilize the local currency, a strategy Ankara has pursued in part by trying to improve relations with the United States and Europe.

A Turkish opposition leader suggested that Erdogan’s statements Saturday were in fact meant to deflect blame from economic problems of his own making, including the plummeting value of the Turkish lira. “These actions are not to protect the national interests, but to create artificial reasons for the economy that he has destroyed,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), wrote on Twitter.

Erdogan and Turkish officials have framed the embassies’ letter as an intolerable intervention in Turkey’s internal affairs. But Soner Cagaptay, a Turkish American political analyst and the author of two books on Erdogan, said the president’s advisers had counseled against taking action against the Western ambassadors.

Cagaptay said it was still possible the government would walk back the president’s latest statements. But Erdogan himself “doesn’t care,” he said.

“He realizes the economy is collapsing and he can’t restore it,” Cagaptay said.

Erdogan hoped focusing on the ambassadors would “deflect Turkish public anger” about the failing economy, which had badly dented the popularity of both the president and his ruling political party ahead of presidential elections scheduled for 2023, according to recent opinion polls, Cagaptay said.

An indictment against Kavala accused him in part of colluding with George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist, to incite 2013 protests against Erdogan’s government. Kavala and Soros have both denied the charges, and Kavala was acquitted last year by a Turkish court, which ordered his release. Instead, prosecutors prepared new charges, accusing Kavala of trying to overthrow the government. He faces life in prison.

A statement Friday by Soros’s Open Society Foundations called the charges against Kavala “bogus” and urged Erdogan to stop “invoking George Soros’s name in an effort to obscure the facts around the case of Osman Kavala.” The statement said Kavala had served on the advisory board of Open Society’s national foundation in Turkey until 2018.

On Saturday, Erdogan repeated the old allegations. “When you say Kavala, it means the Turkish branch of Soros,” he said.