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Erdogan’s great game: Turkish intrigue in the Balkans


This is the third part of a series exploring Turkey’s geopolitical ambitions. Previous installments include Erdogan’s Great Game: Turkey’s Soldiers, Spies and Power and Erdogan’s big game: the Turkish problem at the gates of the EU

Just over a year ago, Turkish citizen Harun Celik was released from an Albanian prison and taken to the airport. Hours later he was back in Turkey, where state media boasted that he had been fired during an operation carried out by the Turkish intelligence services.

Mr. Celik, a teacher, was arrested by Albanian authorities in July 2019 for trying to enter the country on a false visa. But in Turkey, he was wanted for his alleged role as a high-level figure in the shadowy Gulen movement, accused of orchestrating a violent coup attempt in July 2016.

His mysterious journey – which recalls the highly controversial extraordinary renditions carried out by the CIA in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks – is the latest in a series of snippets of Turkish citizens across the Balkans and other countries that depend on it. ‘Ankara for financial reasons. , political or humanitarian support.

A man poses with the image of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen based in Istanbul in the United States © Osman Orsal / Reuters

It is part of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s assertive, sometimes uncompromising foreign policy, which has empowered Turkey’s intelligence service and raised alarm among the country’s traditional Western allies. Turkey and other authoritarian powers, such as Russia and China, view the Balkans as strategic due to the region’s proximity to the EU.

Turkey has been involved in at least 60 renditions from 17 countries in the past three and a half years, according to the US-based democracy watchdog Freedom House. Its definition includes both kidnappings by Turkish intelligence services and deportations for which there was little or no due process. Turkish Minister of Justice said in 2019, 107 suspected gulenists were brought back from abroad to Turkey.

“Turkey has illegally returned more countries in the past six years than any other country in the world,” said Nate Schenkkan, the group’s chief research officer. “It will never end, not while Erdogan is in power. . . it is such a priority for them that they will sacrifice other foreign policy objectives.

Bar chart of renditions of Turkish nationals since 2016, by host country, showing that Turkey has been involved in renditions in at least 17 countries

While the Albanian government has publicly denied any involvement in Mr Celik’s dismissal, several current and former officials in the Balkans told the Financial Times that they had faced “constant” pressure from Turkey to comply with their policy. crackdown on alleged coup plotters or risk the consequences. Turkey is a major trading partner and is heavily involved in major infrastructure projects in the Balkans, where it has funded the construction of some of the largest mosques in the region.

“Turkey has chosen the Balkans as a battleground in the fight against the Gulen movement,” said Asli Aydintasbas of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The region is symbolically very important,” given that much of it was ruled from Istanbul during the Ottoman Empire, she said. “But it’s also because they can.”

There is a broad multi-party consensus in Turkey that the acolytes of Fethullah Gulen, a 79-year-old exiled preacher, were behind the insurrection of July 15, 2016, which left 251 dead. Mr. Gulen, who lives in exile in the mountains of Pennsylvania, denies ordering a coup.

Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric based in the United States, at his home in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania © Charles Mostoller / Reuters

But Ankara has struggled to persuade international partners, many of whom have sharply criticized a post-coup crackdown that has seen tens of thousands of arrests and at least 130,000 lose their jobs, to help them prosecute suspected Gulenists. In the United Kingdom, a court in London refuse a Turkish request to extradite a business tycoon in exile. The United States, citing a lack of evidence, has been reluctant to initiate extradition proceedings against Mr. Gulen himself.

For some other countries, however, it has been more difficult to resist the long arm of Turkish intelligence, known by the acronym MIT.

In Mr. Celik’s case, the incident follows years of diplomatic pressure on Tirana to hand over suspected Gulenists and shut down or change ownership of Gulenist schools and universities.

A former senior Albanian official told the FT that Ankara had sent a list of hundreds of names of suspected supporters of Mr Gulen whom he hoped to have returned to Turkey.

An Albanian government official said that while Tirana had sought to resist Turkish demands, the timing of Mr Celik’s dismissal appeared to be tied to a Turkish pledge of millions of aid after a devastating earthquake struck the Albania in November 2019. told me. The Turkish government did not respond to a request for comment on the accusation. In March, five senior UN officials sent a letter to the Albanian government expressing concern over the expulsion of Mr. Celik.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama? in Ankara © Murat Cetinmuhurdar / Presidential Press Office / Reuters

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, who paid a two-day visit to Ankara last week, rejected outcry over Mr. Celik’s extradition. “We have not come under any pressure from Turkey and this extradition has been politicized beyond all imagination on the part of those who want to fight Turkey,” he said in an interview with the Financial Times Last year. But he did not explain how or why Mr Celik was released from a government prison and ended up on an Air Albania flight to Istanbul.

Speaking during Rama’s visit last week, Erdogan said the two countries “agreed” to the threat posed by the Gulenists.

Other Balkan countries have also found themselves trapped in the fallout from the failed coup.

In 2018, then Kosovar Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj sacked officials after six Turkish citizens were taken to Turkey in an operation which Erdogan said was carried out by MIT ” in coordination with the Kosovo intelligence services ”. Mr Haradinaj said this took place without his knowledge.

Turkey is one of the top three investors in Kosovo and owns Kosovo’s main airport as well as the electricity company. In a report released in September, the UN Human Rights Council said the Kosovo Intelligence Agency had “effectively abducted” the six men and referred the case to a UN special rapporteur for. further investigation.

In an operation between the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT) and the Kosovo spy services, six high-ranking members of the movement of the US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen were brought back to Turkey in a private plane © Armend Nimani / AFP / Getty

Also in 2018, Moldova handed over seven Turkish nationals teaching in private schools affiliated with the Gulen movement. Two months later, the two countries signed an agreement to boost trade and approved a € 10 million renovation of the presidential palace in Chisinau. The European Court of Human Rights later ruled the expulsions violated their fundamental rights.

Such decisions mean little to Ankara, Mr Schenkkan said. “The message is that Turkey sets its own rules and will carve out its own space based on its own preferences no matter what international standards or laws might say – just like the great powers do,” he said. declared.

Mr Celik, meanwhile, has spent the past 12 months in Silivri high security prison, west of Istanbul. In early December, the 42-year-old was sentenced to eight years in prison after being found guilty of belonging to a terrorist organization.

“Turkish media said he was ‘split up’ and taken back to Turkey,” said a family member, who asked not to be named. “It is not a gift to be given from one country to another.”



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