Ilhan Tanir
Dec 11 2018

US must reach out to liberal Turks - Helsinki Commission chief

A troubling trend in its relations with the United States has made Turkey "the biggest challenge" out of 57 participating OSCE countries, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Helsinki Commission at the Senate Kyle Parker told Ahval on Monday.

The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, is an independent agency of the U.S. Federal Government that is known for its extensive work on the Magnitsky Act listings. 

The Magnitsky Act was named after Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, died in a Russian prison after exposing a tax fraud scheme linked to the Kremlin. The act first began to sanction Russian officials responsible for human rights violations, freezing their U.S. bank accounts frozen and denying them visas. The sanctions have since then been implemented in other countries after similar human rights violations; the White House imposed sanctions on two Turkish ministers due to their roles in imprisoning American Pastor Andrew Brunson in early August.

The U.S. administration eased the sanctions on the two Turkish ministers following the release of Pastor Brunson, and this triggered speculation that both countries' relations could warm up. However, since then the United States and Turkey relations have continued along a bumpy road. Parker, following a talk at the Wilson Center for its Wilson Quarterly reception in Washington, told Ahval that to his knowledge "that is the first instance that the US government has eased on the sanctions that were imposed under the Global Magnitsky act."

Parker is the chief of staff for the Helsinki Commission, a body which has monitored compliance with the Helsinki Accords and advanced comprehensive security through promotion of human rights, democracy, and economic, environmental, and military cooperation in the 57-nation OSCE region. According to Parker's bio on the commission's website, his work on the Magnitsky Act has featured in a New York Times bestseller.

    Parker said that based on this administration's track record, there is a willingness to impose these sanctions frequently and use them as "tools in both human rights and corruption issues, both of which are concerns in Turkey." Parker said a particular concern for congress in this area relates to Turkey's continued detention of U.S. consulate workers.

    The U.S. Helsinki Commission issued a letter on the detained Turkish consulate workers in February of this year, asserting the commission's worries. "Helsinki Commissioners have raised their cases on several occasions and will continue to do so until they are released" that letter said.

    Three U.S. Consulate workers, all Turkish citizens, have been under detention in Turkey for years. Hamza Uluçay, an envoy for the U.S. Consulate in Adana, was arrested on suspicion of "inciting public support for PKK, or Kurdistan Workers' Party." He was arrested on February 23, 2017. 

    Metin Topuz, U.S. Istanbul consulate's liaison for drug enforcement, was arrested on September 25, 2017, and charged with “membership in a terrorist organisation,” “gathering state secrets for espionage,” and “attempting to overthrow the Turkish Government and the constitutional order.” 

    A third U.S. consulate liaison, Mete Canturk, has been placed under house arrest for over a year on suspicion of being a member of the Gülen Organisation (FETÖ), a group that the Turkish government maintains is behind the 2016 coup attempt. 

    Parker said these arrests were "particularly bold steps, imprisoning US State Department workers for simply doing their jobs, which is what we have seen happening in both consulates. That is a lot to swallow from an ally that we are treaty-bound to defend and they are treaty-bound defend us."

    According to Parker, among the 57 participating states that the Helsinki Commission focuses on, "Turkey presents the biggest challenge, even bigger than Russia. Russia feels something like a constant. Turkey feels like a dangerous trend, where it started and where it has moved. Russia has not moved a lot where it has been. Turkey has moved in a big way."

    Only a few years ago Turkey was seen as a model partner country for the United States to work together with on regional issues. Former U.S. President Barack Obama, in a famous speech in his first bilateral oversees trip after being elected in 2009, praised Turkey at the Turkish Parliament as "a model partner." 

    Recently, though, Turkey's image in the international arena has somewhat changed. For years running, Turkey has been the leading country in the world in terms of jailing journalists. After the attempted coup attempt in 2016, Turkey was ruled for two years by state of emergency decrees issued by Turkey's strongman president, and hundreds of thousands of people were purged from their jobs. Turkey's press is labeled as "not free" by international watchdog Freedom House.

    Parker followed up his remarks by saying that when a country like Turkey poses such a "dangerous trend" within the NATO alliance, then "you have an ally but no longer a friend." 

    Parker, who was jointly appointed on January 3, 2018 by bipartisan U.S. Senators, emphasized in his after-talk interview that one of the biggest worries for the United States is that it does not "have enough links between the ostensibly liberal Turkish streets and this capital or Europe." 

    Parker said a lot of people in Washington wished to build more connections with democratic circles in Turkey, but Erdoğan's reputation as a king of "cartoon villain" in congress "complicates serious thinking on how we reach out to the Turkish streets and make sure that we are not inadvertently feeding anybody's propaganda."

    Even though "Erdogan has his constituency and some support in Turkey" like Russia's Putin and there is also a liberal Turkey that the United States needs to reach out to, Parker said.