Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Kyiv earlier this week was largely formulaic. He and Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky pledged to boost economic ties, defense production and tourism, as well as to continue talks on a free trade deal that has stagnated for many years.
But the two leaders’ joint briefing on Feb. 3 also sent an alarming message to human rights activists and Turkish citizens in Ukraine who are critical of Erdoğan’s policies: Zelensky’s government may be willing to sidestep democratic values to preserve its relationship with Ankara.
Turkey is an important trade and defense partner who can also serve as an intermediary with Russia. But in exchange, Erdoğan wants Ukraine to help fight his enemies. “We talked about security cooperation and fighting against terrorist organizations such as FETÖ,” the Turkish leader said.
FETÖ is an acronym used by the Turkish authorities for the movement led by the exiled Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom Erdoğan has accused of plotting an unsuccessful military coup in 2016. Alleged links to the Gülen movement have become grounds for Erdoğan’s government to go after its opponents.
The crackdown extends beyond Turkey’s borders. Since 2016, Ukraine, too, has been asked to investigate institutions and people that Ankara says are linked to the Gülen movement.
Several Gülen supporters in Ukraine have said they fear being kidnapped and reported being unable to renew their Turkish passports at the embassy. The Turkish embassy said it does not comment on individual applications.
Now, however, Zelensky seems to be cooperating with Erdoğan’s demands — or at least is unwilling to publicly reject Turkey’s requests.
“We talked at length and in detail about this matter,” he said on Feb. 3. “I received detailed information and facts from President Erdoğan. There are different names. I have passed the information to the head of the SBU (Ukraine’s security service) who has to take care of this issue.”
While the names of people and organizations targeted by official Ankara have never been publicly disclosed, Erdoğan singled out one case as “very, very important” at the Feb. 3 briefing.
This detail, however, seems to have been missed by journalists and the public.
Erdoğan said he presented Zelensky with intelligence on a key suspect in the 2002 murder of Turkish scholar Necip Hablemitoğlu. Prosecutors link the murder to his research on the Gülen movement’s alleged penetration of the Turkish intelligence service.
The suspect is a former Turkish military officer named Nuri Gökhan Bozkır who was arrested in Kyiv in July 2019 on an Interpol red notice.
He remained in custody for three months and was released under house arrest. Turkish authorities claim he has ties to the Gülen movement. Their request for his extradition is still being reviewed by the Ukrainian officials.
Bozkır has not replied to the Kyiv Post’s request for an interview.
Historian Hablemitoğlu was shot dead outside his house in Ankara in December 2002. For over a decade, the investigation into his murder stalled before being reopened after the July 2016 coup.
Investigators thought the assassination could have been connected to the historian’s work: In his last book, published posthumously under the title ‘Mole,’ Hablemitoğlu claimed the Gülen movement infiltrated Turkish intelligence units and collaborated with foreign intelligence.
Years later, Erdoğan would make similar claims after the coup attempt. He would say that the Gülen movement infiltrated the country’s army, judiciary, and state institutions and ran what was almost a “parallel state.”
Post-coup assessments would call the book almost prophetic, saying the slain scholar had warned of “the Gülen movement’s betrayal” back in 1999. Muhittin Ataman, a Turkish political analyst and editor, called Hablemitoğlu “the first person who discovered Gülen’s intelligence activities.”
Last December, the historian’s widow, Şengül Hablemitoğlu, called for the Ukrainian authorities to extradite Bozkır to Turkey.
Under an official state of emergency that lasted two years after the coup, Erdoğan’s government shut down over 150 media outlets, fired over 130,000 public servants and more than 360 academics and imprisoned over 70,000 people.
Arrests on suspicion of affiliation with the Gülen movement continue today. And Erdoğan’s purge spilled beyond Turkish borders.
Gökhan Demir, an educator and adviser to the board of Syaivo cultural center in Kyiv, said Zelensky’s statement upset him.
“I am a member of Hizmet, not a terrorist organization,” he told the Kyiv Post, using another name for the Gülen movement. “No country in the world recognizes and accepts this label that Erdoğan is repeating in every country he goes to.”
Gülen’s followers and members of his movement have run a vast international network of schools, universities, businesses and cultural centers in 140 countries. Before their falling-out in 2013, Gülen and Erdoğan were allies, and the network was a key player in advancing Turkey’s soft power and language abroad.
After the coup attempt, Erdoğan’s government has demanded that other countries close the network’s operations — with varying degrees of success. These schools and businesses, the Turkish president claims, help finance Gülen’s “terrorism” and recruit followers.
Back in 2016, Turkish state media identified two schools and one cultural center affiliated with the Gülen movement in Ukraine: Syaivo Ukrainian-Turkish cultural center, the Meridian International School in Kyiv and the Black Sea High School in Odesa. But the institutions denied the allegations.
Syaivo has since amended its name to “international cultural center” and now offers not only Turkish language classes but Ukrainian, English and Chinese ones.
Meanwhile, in 2017, the Turkish government opened its state-funded Yunus Emre Institute in Kyiv to promote Turkish language and culture.
A resident in Ukraine since 1994, Demir said he has been smeared as “terrorist” and no longer feels completely safe here.
In November 2016, months after the coup attempt, he was assaulted by unknown men who stole a bag carrying his documents. He reported the incident to police, but the case never progressed.
“I have permanent residency in Ukraine, but not my Turkish passport. The Turkish embassy refused to issue a new one to me. I can’t go abroad,” he told the Kyiv Post. “Some of my friends had to take refuge in Europe, anxious about being kidnapped or the expiration of their passports.”
Three former teachers at the Black Sea High School and Meridian International School reportedly obtained political asylum in the European Union and left Ukraine.
There have been other reports that the Turkish embassy in Kyiv has refused to issue passports to people suspected of supporting the Gülen movement, leaving them with expired ones.
The Turkish embassy replied that all applications are processed according to Turkey’s legislation, and it does not comment on individual applications due to the state policy.
Canceling passports or effectively denying their renewal has been a consistent tactic used by Erdoğan’s government. According to research by Nate Schenkkan, director for special research at Freedom House, by early 2018, Ankara also “achieved the arrest, deportation or rendition of hundreds of Turkish citizens from at least 16 countries, including many who were under the United Nations protection as asylum seekers.”
Then Turkish security agents began snatching up dissidents from the streets of other countries.
In mid-2018, the Turkish foreign minister boasted that over 100 Turkish nationals branded as “traitors and members of the Gülen terrorist group” were brought back from abroad.
There were kidnappings and extrajudicial deportations from Azerbaijan, Kosovo, Sudan, Pakistan, Gabon, Moldova and Ukraine.
The suspicious circumstances of the arrest and hasty deportation of two Turkish nationals — the journalist Yusuf Inan and businessman Salih Zeki Yiğit — from Ukraine in July 2018 sparked outrage from human rights organizations.
Fearing for his safety, Kyiv-based Turkish journalist Yunus Erdoğdu says he didn’t leave his apartment for a few months. A vocal critic of Erdoğan’s government and a supporter of Gülen, Erdoğdu was the Ukraine correspondent for Cihan news agency, one of the many Turkish media outlets shut down in the purge.
“When Zelensky was elected, I thought there won’t be mafia practices, bilateral agreements and kidnappings,” Erdoğdu told the Kyiv Post.
A Turkish businessman in Kyiv who didn’t want to be named told the Kyiv Post, “I have lived in Ukraine for over 20 years. I built my family and life here. It’s hard to describe my feelings now. This persecution has upset many.”
While claims that the Gülen network was involved in the coup attempt at some level are credible, the Turkish government has failed to provide evidence on the involvement of individuals it has targeted, Freedom House’s Schenkkan told the Kyiv Post.
“From the perspective of due process, you can’t accuse people by virtue of a very large movement they were part of,” he said.
Moreover, Turkish anti-terrorism laws are incredibly broad, he said.
“Literally anybody can be labeled a terrorist on very thin grounds. It has been an issue for many years,” Schenkkan said.
Over the years, the Turkish government has accused journalists, human rights activists, and even basketball player Kanter Enes of ties to terrorism.
The willingness of some states to violate international and domestic laws by deporting Turkish citizens to their home country, where they are unlikely to see a fair trial, has raised questions of quid pro quos in exchange for Turkish assistance or investment.
In Ukraine, Turkey is seen as an advocate for the Crimean Tatars — a Turkic people — who can intercede with the Kremlin on Kyiv’s behalf. Ankara demonstrated this in October 2017, when Russia released two Crimean Tatar politicians, Akhtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov, in exchange for two Russian agents jailed in Turkey.
During his visit to Kyiv on Feb. 3, Erdoğan was lauded in the local press for saying that Turkey will never recognize Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and reiterating support for Crimean Tatars. He set the goal of boosting bilateral trade to $10 billion by 2023, approved 200 million Turkish liras ($33.4 million) in aid for the Ukrainian army to purchase Turkish military equipment, and promised to help Ukraine build houses for nearly 500 Crimean Tatar families relocated from the annexed peninsula.
There are joint defense production contracts on the table, and a lucrative free trade deal and imports of Azerbaijani gas through Turkey that Ukraine is also interested in.
“If Zelensky’s statement isn’t just a polite gesture, it signals that Ukraine is ready to sacrifice human rights to fulfill political agreements,” said Maksym Butkevych, a human rights activist and coordinator at the Without Borders project.
Ukraine already has a record of mishandling political refugees and collaborating with security services from authoritarian countries.
In 2016, Ukraine expelled Russian citizen Aminat Babayeva who sought asylum in Ukraine. In December 2019, Azerbaijani blogger Elvin Isayev, who was critical of his country’s president, was forcibly taken to Baku right in time for Zelensky’s meeting with the Azerbaijani president. Kazakh opposition journalist Zhanara Akhmet is currently fighting against extradition to her country where she faces politically motivated charges.
“It looks like a tendency that human rights can be written off in cases of agreements with leaders of authoritarian states, and it is alarming,” Butkevych said.
“It means Ukraine is an unfree country. And if the rights of non-citizens can be violated because it is profitable, the rights of Ukrainian citizens can be too.”
Source: Kyiv Post