ISTANBUL–Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday walked back from his threat to expel ten Western ambassadors over their joint statement of support for jailed philanthropist Osman Kavala.
“We believe that these ambassadors, who have fulfilled their commitment to Article 41 of the Vienna Convention, will now be more careful in their statements,” said Erdogan in televised remarks following a three-hour cabinet meeting in Ankara.
Article 41 of the Vienna Convention stipulates that foreign diplomats should respect the laws of the host countries and not interfere in their domestic affairs.
The envoys, including those of the US, Germany and France, last week called for the release of philanthropist Osman Kavala, who has been in a Turkish prison for four years awaiting trial on charges many view as unfounded.
The ambassadors of the Netherlands, Canada, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and New Zealand also joined the appeal.
As Erdogan convened his ministers on Monday afternoon for a session which could have confirmed the expulsions and triggered the deepest rift with the West in his 19 years in power, several embassies put out a brief statement.
“The United States notes that it maintains compliance with Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations,” the US embassy said on Twitter. The other embassies published similar messages or re-tweeted the US message.
But the week-long standoff underscored the growing uncertainty underpinning Turkey’s relations with its closest allies 19 years into Erdogan’s dominant rule.
Erdogan’s critics believe the Turkish leader, his approval ratings sagging, had seized on the issue to provoke a crisis and deflect attention from the country’s growing economic woes.
Inflation has surged to nearly 20 percent, the lira is plummeting and surveys suggest Erdogan could lose the next presidential election, which must be held by June 2023.
“Erdogan is drawing on the populist playbook to distract from the real issues facing Turkey today,” said Hasni Abidi, international relations professor at the University of Geneva.
But the pro-government Yeni Safak daily blamed the escalation on Western ambassadors who acted like “colonial governors” by calling for Kavala’s release.
Risking a rift
The expulsions would have opened a wide rift within the NATO military alliance and potentially pushed Turkey closer to Russia.
The row erupted ahead of a G20 summit in Rome next weekend at which Erdogan had expected to meet US President Joe Biden, who has been openly critical of the Turkish leader’s record on human rights.
Ties between the two have been further strained by sanctions Washington slapped on Ankara for the purchase of a Russian missile defence system in 2019.
Turkey was kicked out of the F-35 fighter jet programme as a consequence.
Ankara had been hoping for the return of $1.4 billion it says was spent on the US programme.
Turkey would like to see some of that the money to be compensated through the US delivery of less advanced F-16 fighter planes.
But Russia is in talks to deliver a second batch of its S-400 missiles to Turkey, which would harden Washington’s line on Ankara.
Turkey’s economy has been the main victim the diplomatic tensions, with foreign investment already far lower today than in Erdogan’s early years of power.
The call for Kavala’s release was signed by the ambassadors of Germany, Ankara’s closest single trading partner and the Netherlands, which accounted for more than 15 percent of investments in Turkey last year.
Six of the ambassadors come from members of the European Union, which Turkey has been in talks to join for most of the past 40 years.
The EU absorbed more than 41 percent of Turkish exports and accounted for 33.4 percent of its imports last year.
The rising tensions have already hurt the lira, which has lost a quarter of its value against the dollar since the start of the year.
A fragile economy poses political risks for Erdogan, whose electoral successes over two decades were fuelled in part by the prosperity and development his government brought to Turkey after a financial crisis in 2001.
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