Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said all the things Ukraine wanted to hear when he visited Kyiv this week, and media outlets in both countries rewarded him with glowing coverage.
He emphasized Turkey’s support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, underlining that Ankara doesn’t recognize Russia’s “illegitimate” annexation of Crimea in 2014. He said that Turkey will help build housing for nearly 500 Crimean Tatar families that were forced to move to mainland Ukraine following Moscow’s takeover of the Black Sea peninsula. He called Turkey and Ukraine “strategic partners.”
And on a red carpet rolled out for his arrival, he paused to address Ukrainian soldiers, pronouncing a slogan that has rallied the country amid its war against Russia-backed forces in the east. “Glory to Ukraine,” he said.
So, it’s little surprise that Erdogan’s visit was hailed as a success by Zelenskiy’s office and political commentators alike. As Turkey has strengthened ties with Russia in recent years, Ukraine has hoped to see its own relationship with the country across the Black Sea grow stronger. And it appears that it did this week, with the signing of an agreement that foresees Ankara giving Kyiv $36 million to purchase military and dual-purpose goods, as well as the prospect of natural-gas and free-trade deals in the near future.
But one message that Erdogan delivered in Kyiv appeared to get less attention, even though the two leaders spoke about it publicly. And it deepened fears among a community that is wary of the warmth between the two governments.
“We addressed security issues and the fight against the terrorist organization FETO,” Erdogan said at a press briefing with Zelenskiy. “We agreed and saw that our opinions on the need for this coincide completely.”
FETO is the acronym used by the Turkish authorities to refer to a movement led by Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric and onetime Erdogan ally who lives in exile in the United States and has a global network of schools and nonprofit groups as well as millions of followers. Erdogan blames Gulen and his followers for a failed 2016 coup against him; they deny it.
Erdogan has vowed to “cleanse” Turkey of his Gulen-linked foes, often called “Gulenists.” His government has investigated hundreds of thousands of its citizens on suspicion of terrorism. More than 50,000 were reportedly formally charged and jailed during trial. And over the past two years, Erdogan’s campaign to round up alleged Gulen supporters anywhere in the world and return them to Turkey to face reprisals has expanded.
It reached Ukraine more than a year ago, RFE/RL first reported, while Zelenskiy’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, was still in office.
In two cases, Turkish dissidents who follow Gulen and had made Ukraine their home — receiving residence permits that allow them to legally live and work in the country with their families — were secretly detained by Ukrainian security services, deprived of their right to appear in court, and whisked away to Turkey.
The family of one of the men found out he had been deported only when a photograph of him in handcuffs and standing beside a Turkish flag surfaced in local media there.
According to the 2001 Ukrainian census, there were 8,844 Turks living in Ukraine. That number is believed to have grown in the past two decades, according to members of the Turkish community in Kyiv who spoke to RFE/RL on the condition of anonymity because they are fearful of being swept up in a purge they worry could occur in the wake of Erdogan’s visit.
Several Turkish natives who follow Gulen and have been critical of Erdogan’s campaign said last year that they lived in fear of becoming the next one to be detained and sent to Turkey.
Zelensky charges Security Service to deal with Gülen’s followers in #Ukraine.
“We spoke in great detail. I know that this issue had already been on the agenda between Ukraine and Turkey. For many years it had been stalled. Today I received from President Erdogan very detailed..” pic.twitter.com/YZGitvmUrf
— Yunus Erdogdu (@erdogduy) February 5, 2020
There Are Names
One of them, Yunus Erdogdu, a journalist who has spent more than a decade living and working in Ukraine with his wife and four daughters, said that Erdogan’s exchange with Zelenskiy on February 3 had revived these concerns.
“All of the people who support the Gulen movement worry about this situation,” Erdogdu told RFE/RL a day after the visit. “But they don’t want to talk about it, because they worry about their family, and they have relatives in Turkey. Something may happen to them and their families.”
He said he had hoped that Zelenskiy, who seemed more progressive than Poroshenko, would roll back what he called the unofficial policy of helping Erdogan with his campaign in Ukraine.
Instead, he fears the campaign could gain new traction in Ukraine after Zelenskiy said he would give information conveyed by Erdogan — including names — to the top security official in the country.
Standing beside Erdogan at the press briefing in Kyiv, Zelenskiy noted that there were several schools run by Gulen supporters currently operating in Ukraine. Erdogdu’s wife, Alexandria, is a teacher at one of them.
“We spoke in great detail. I know that this issue had already been on the agenda between Ukraine and Turkey,” Zelenskiy said. “Today, I received from President Erdogan very detailed, I’d say, some very detailed facts. I’ll even tell you frankly — there are various names.”
“I have already forwarded all this information to our Security Service chief, who should deal with the issue,” Zelensky added.
“It’s begun again,” Erdogdu said after the press conference. “Zelenskiy also chooses to go down Poroshenko’s road.”
Zelenskiy’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
A Matter Of Priorities?
While it caused few ripples for the media and politicians in Ukraine, human rights groups took notice of the exchange between Erdogan and Zelenskiy.
Matthew Schaaf, director of Freedom House’s Ukraine office, told RFE/RL in written comments that there had been several recent incidents that raise concerns that Ukrainian authorities may be prioritizing economic relationships with authoritarian governments over the rule of law and human rights.
“The announcement that Ukraine would help Turkey’s president pursue his political enemies in Ukraine is yet another example of how this policy has enabled authoritarians to attack their critics and dissidents beyond their borders,” Schaaf said.
Schaaf pointed to an episode in December 2019, when Ukraine returned an activist critical of Azerbaijan’s government back to Baku just before Zelenskiy’s visit to the country.
“Other incidents involving those fleeing repression in Tajikistan, Russia, and Kazakhstan, suggest that foreign special services are also active in political repression in Ukraine,” Schaaf said.
European courts and the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention have repeatedly ruled that deporting dissidents and critics back to Turkey or Azerbaijan, among others, would violate the international ban on returning people to countries where they are likely to be abused, known as non-refoulement.
“Rather than playing ball with authoritarian governments, doing their bidding, or letting them operate in Ukraine, the Ukrainian government should strictly follow domestic and international law, which call for protecting those fleeing repression, and live up to President Zelenskiy’s lofty promise of Ukraine serving as a protector of those fighting for freedom,” Schaaf said.
‘If I Don’t Talk About It Nobody Will’
Zelenskiy’s exchange with Erdogan, and his mention of a list of Turks facing possible deportation, has Erdogdu and others worried that the opposite of protection may be more likely.
In his role as a journalist, Erdogdu has interviewed Zelenskiy, during the president’s marathon press conference in October. But Erdogdu doubts that will be enough to save him if there is a stepped-up campaign to round up Gulen supporters, fearing that it could actually increase his chances of being targeted.
One sign that his name may have come to the attention of the authorities came ahead of the press conference at which the two presidents spoke. Erdogdu said that he sent the required documents to receive accreditation for the event, as he did days earlier when he was approved to attend the press conference given by Zelenskiy and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — at which the official video from the Ukrainian president’s office showed him front and center.
But when he arrived for the press conference with Erdogan, Ukrainian security guards turned him away without explanation. “I asked why, but they didn’t answer,” he said.
Erdogdu believes his best chance to remain in Ukraine is to shine a light on the issue by writing about it on his personal blog and social-media accounts and speaking to foreign media. “If I don’t write and talk about this all, no one is going to know about what is going on,” he said.
A former correspondent for the Turkish news agency Cihan and a 14-year resident of Kyiv, Erdogdu said this issue will be a test for Ukraine’s democracy and its president.
“Will Zelenskiy sell us or will he obey the law?” he asked.
By Christopher Miller