In Meeting With Erdogan, Biden Holds the Power
And he should use it to push for these three changes.
On the margins of the June 14 NATO summit in Brussels, U.S. President Joe Biden is set to hold his first meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The encounter comes at a sensitive time for Erdogan, whose country is teetering on the edge of a potentially catastrophic economic and political crisis. And Biden should use that to the United States’ advantage as he seeks to support democracy in Turkey.
When they sit down, the two leaders—who command NATO’s largest militaries—will have a full plate of bilateral irritants that have accumulated over the past several years to discuss. These include Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile defense system as well as Turkey’s troubling (and successful) effort, just weeks ago, to water down NATO’s response to the horrific act of state-sponsored air piracy and kidnapping of internet activist Roman Protasevich by Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko.
Biden, who has pledged to restore human rights and democracy as pillars of U.S. foreign policy, has already shown his distaste for Erdogan, calling him an autocrat and giving him the cold shoulder. Biden’s first phone call to Erdogan came three months after his inauguration—and even then, it was only to inform the Turkish leader of his historic decision to recognize the 1915 Armenian genocide. Unlike his predecessor, Donald Trump, who regularly spoke (and bumped fists) with Erdogan, this U.S. president appears to have little use for the Turkish strongman.
Already, Biden’s frostiness has helped create leverage over Erdogan, who appears to be seeking a fresh start with the U.S. leader in Brussels. Biden must now make clear to Erdogan that an authoritarian Turkey is a threat not just to core U.S. values but also to U.S. security. More than paying lip service to democracy and the rule of law, Biden should use this meeting to press Erdogan on some specific human rights concerns that speak to Turkey’s democratic malaise and increasing disdain for civilized international behavior.
Three such concerns stand out.
The first is the unjust prosecutions of U.S. consular employees in Turkey. Since the failed coup in 2016, Erdogan’s government and hand-picked judiciary have led a massive witch hunt against his political opponents and critics, detaining more than 100,000 people under overly broad “terrorism” charges. Those arrested included not only U.S. citizens—most prominently, North Carolina pastor Andrew Brunson—but also three local employees of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara and the consulate in Istanbul. The U.S. State Department considers these arrests to be politically motivated and without legal basis.
Thanks to U.S. pressure, Turkey ultimately released Brunson and one of the consular employees for time served. But the other two employees remain imprisoned as they await their appeals: Metin Topuz is still in prison while Nazmi Mete Canturk is under house arrest. These men’s legal proceedings therefore remain a top concern for the United States and are worthy of direct mention by Biden in his meeting with Erdogan.
The second concern does not involve U.S. citizens or employees but carries deep significance for Turkey’s future as a democracy. This March, a public prosecutor in Ankara demanded the closure of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish opposition, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The Kurds are Turkey’s largest ethnic minority, comprising around 20 percent of the population, and the HDP is the only party in parliament that represents their rights. In 2015, the HDP grew so successful that it briefly helped end Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) parliamentary majority for the first time in a decade. Ever since, Erdogan has waged a campaign against the HDP—alleging the party is linked to Kurdish militants who have been waging a guerrilla war against Turkey for 40 years. Under this pretext, the government has sacked several HDP lawmakers and removed dozens of elected mayors from their posts.
These moves have long drawn heavy criticism from international human rights groups and European nations. Although the United States has been relatively muted in its response, Turkey’s recent threat to shut down the party altogether demonstrates how far the AKP is willing to go to preserve its hold on power. Ankara’s crackdown on HDP officials serves only to disenfranchise Turkey’s Kurdish citizens. A move to ban the party entirely would severely damage prospects for a peaceful resolution to Turkey’s decades-old Kurdish conflict and could encourage more Kurdish citizens to opt for violence against Ankara. A country that denies minorities political representation cannot be the kind of stable and democratic ally the United States needs in the region. Biden should not be shy in reminding Erdogan of this fact.
The third issue involves Erdogan’s repression of civil society, which, despite all obstacles, continues to tirelessly promote democratic values in Turkish society. For years, Erdogan’s government has harassed, intimidated, or unjustly prosecuted key civil society figures who have called out his steady accumulation of power.
No case is more emblematic of this dynamic than that of Osman Kavala, one of Turkey’s most prominent philanthropists and civil society leaders. Since arresting him in 2017, the Turkish judiciary has come up with endless pretexts to keep Kavala behind bars—accusing him, ludicrously, of plotting mass anti-government protests, supporting a military coup, and even espionage. The prosecutors have failed to produce any evidence for these charges, and Turkish courts continue to ignore a December 2019 order by the European Court of Human Rights to immediately and unconditionally release him. Kavala’s case has thus become a barometer not only for Turkey’s respect for basic freedoms but also for its adherence to the rule of law at home and abroad. In February, the Biden administration issued a strong statement calling on Turkey to end Kavala’s unjust prosecution. Now, the president must reinforce that message by personally raising Kavala’s case with Erdogan.
Biden is facing a historic opportunity to change Erdogan’s behavior. Erdogan, who has ruled Turkey continuously for nearly two decades, has never been more vulnerable. As Turkey’s economic crisis deepens, Erdogan’s public approval rating is plunging. On top of all this, Erdogan’s government is facing grave accusations of corruption, rape, and murder from infamous mob boss Sedat Peker, who recently broke with the government and took to YouTube to spill the regime’s dirty laundry in a spectacularly public manner. His videos detailing a lurid bill of particulars against AKP figures have attracted millions of Turkish viewers, compounding Erdogan’s woes. Given the sordid history of Turkey’s “deep state” and its notorious use of organized criminals, Peker’s allegations have transfixed the nation.
Although Erdogan, his top officials, and their media handmaidens continue to use the United States as a punching bag to shore up votes, the Turkish leader also appears to understand a positive relationship with the United States is crucial for keeping the Turkish economy afloat. When Biden meets with Erdogan next week, he should make it clear that maintaining a working relationship with Washington requires respecting human rights and the rule of law. Ending the unjust imprisonment of U.S. employees, Kavala, and Kurdish politicians would be a good place to start.
Merve Tahiroglu is the Turkey program coordinator at the Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington-based research and advocacy nonprofit dedicated to democracy and human rights in the Middle East. Twitter: @MerveTahiroglu
Eric Edelman is a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey.