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Erdogan drops threat to expel envoys, averting crisis with U.S. and other Western allies

Members of the Youth Union of Turkey gather in front of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara to support Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's call to expel the ambassadors of 10 Western allies.
Members of the Youth Union of Turkey gather in front of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara to support Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's call to expel the ambassadors of 10 Western allies. (Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)
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ISTANBUL — A brewing diplomatic crisis between Turkey and 10 Western countries appeared to pass Monday after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan backed off a threat to expel their ambassadors for advocating on behalf of an imprisoned Turkish activist.

The dispute spiked on Saturday when Erdogan declared the envoys, including the U.S. ambassador, to be “persona non grata” because their embassies had signed a letter calling for the release of civil society activist Osman Kavala.

But on Monday, in what appeared to be a carefully choreographed exchange of gestures, the embassies of the United States, Canada and other nations that had signed the Kavala letter posted one-sentence statements on Twitter reiterating their “compliance” with diplomatic norms against interference in the internal affairs of host states.

“In a new statement made by the same embassies today, the blasphemy against our country, our judiciary has been reversed,” Erdogan said later, after a cabinet meeting. The ambassadors, he added, “will be more careful in their statements.”

His threat had raised concerns of another blowup between Turkey and its NATO partners, adding to the strains on the alliance created by Ankara’s purchase of a Russian missile defense system and ongoing tensions between Turkey and Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey’s Erdogan declares 10 ambassadors ‘persona non grata’

In Turkey, there was also worry that the episode would further damage the economy, which has suffered repeated shocks as a result of Ankara’s increasingly routine squabbles with the United States and other Western allies. Erodgan’s interventions with Turkey’s central bank have further unsettled the economy.

Early Monday, the Turkish currency, the lira, fell to an all-time low before recovering somewhat later in the day.

Analysts said Erdogan’s impulses during the Kavala episode — tacking toward escalating a foreign policy dispute rather than tamping it down — revealed his anxiety about his slipping popularity as well as his desire to distract from an economic crisis he has been unable to solve.

The Twitter messages from the embassies contained no apology or retraction of the sentiments contained in the Kavala letter, which had been critical of Turkey’s judiciary. But the gesture itself appeared to have been enough to avert a crisis no one seemed to want.

“It appears like the ten Ambassadors threw a rope to get us out of the pit we fell into,” Namik Tan, a former Turkish ambassador to the United States, wrote on Twitter.

The statements did nothing to resolve the case of Kavala, who has been imprisoned for more than four years and is still on trial on espionage charges that he and his advocates say are politically motivated.

His case remains a flash point in relations between Turkey and Europe. Even some of Erdogan’s allies have questioned why the government continues its pursuit of Kavala, a philanthropist, civil society activist and businessman who was not especially well known before his arrest in 2017.

Initial charges against Kavala cast him as an organizer and financier of nationwide protests against Erdogan’s government in 2013, which are viewed by the Turkish leader as the first real challenge to his rule. The demonstrations were sparked by a government plan to construct an Ottoman-style barracks in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. Kavala was also accused of supporting a 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan’s government.

Last year, a Turkish court acquitted Kavala and other activists on the Gezi-related charges and ordered him released. But prosecutors leveled new charges and said he would remain in custody.

“He was a constructive member of civil society who always pursued dialogue and advocated dialogue with the government,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, the Turkey director for Human Rights Watch. And while Kavala was a “champion for democracy and human rights,” he never pursued the kind of political ambitions that had put other Turkish activists in the government’s crosshairs, she added.

In the prosecution of Kavala, “you have got this open meddling in the cases, going on all the time. It’s not even disguised,” she said. “What are the gains for Turkey in all of this? Turkey has so much to lose.”

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