In Turkey, Ukraine finds a challenging yet effective partner
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The situation looked hopeless.
Russia had sentenced two leaders of Ukraineâs Crimean Tatar minority, Akhtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov, to multi-year prison terms for opposing its annexation of their homeland. Neither the clear political nature of the charges, nor concerns about the menâs health c ould mitigate their cases.
Then, on Oct. 25, 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin abruptly pardoned Chiygoz and Umerov and released them into the custody of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the man who had interceded on their behalf.
âThe Ukrainian president repeatedly appealed to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but negotiations between Turkish President Erdogan and Putin proved to be effective,â Emine Dzhaparova, Ukraineâs deputy information minister and a Crimean Tatar herself, said at the time.
The Tatar leadersâ release was a diplomatic tour de force. And it revealed that Turkey can be one of Ukraineâs most effective partners â" but also one of its most challenging.
Ankara maintains strong ties with Moscow. That causes tensions in Kyiv, but it is also one of the reasons why the Turkish government is an effective advocate for the Crimean Tatars.
And Erdogan has expressed willingness to further advocate for other Crimean poli tical prisoners and possibly even help the Ukrainian Orthodox Church get independence from Moscow. But at what price?
As Ukraine re-orients away from Russia toward Europe, it is easy to overlook the role of Turkey, its maritime neighbor to the south.
But Ankara and Kyiv have extensive economic ties and long-standing political relations. Turkeyâs experiences unsuccessfully angling for European Union membership may prove instructive for Kyiv. And the countryâs strategic position between Europe, the Middle East, and Russia also offers benefits.
âTurkey can play a third vector between the West and Russia,â says Esref Yalinkilicli, a journalist for Turkeyâs state broadcaster and a Eurasia analyst. âTurkey is a way to open up to the Islamic World, the Middle East, and Central Asia.â
In 2011, the two countries signed a strategic partnership agreement. However, in the last two years, their relations have focused on âvery practical things, rather than strategic partnership,â according to Sergiy Korsunsky, who served as Ukraineâs ambassador in Ankara from 2008 to 2016.
Part of the reason is Turkeyâs increasing economic and security ties with Russia, and their joint entanglement in Syria.
Relations are now a âlittle bit more complicated, tainted with Russia,â but Ukraine also needs Turkeyâs assistance in Crimea, economic development, and military cooperation, Korsunsky says.
Despite it engagement with Moscow, Turkey has steadfastly refused to recognize Russiaâs annexation of Crimea and has actively supported the Crimean Tatars, whom it considers fellow Turks. Yet it also does not endorse economic sanctions to punish Russia for its actions in Ukraine, and tends be quiet in its support of Ukraine.
Korsunsky says Turkeyâs former foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, once told him: âWe will not be in the first line fighting against Russia for Crimean Ta tars, but you should know that we are always in the second line.â
Tamila Tasheva, a Crimean Tatar activist and founder of the Crimea-SOS organization, paints a similar picture. After the annexation, Ankaraâs reaction was weaker than many hoped. But Turkey has also supported the Tatars since the end of the Soviet period, when they returned to Crimea from their Stalin-imposed exile in Central Asia.
âTurkey does not openly enter into conflict with Russia, but, at the same time, it constantly raises the Crimean Tatar issue with Russia and President Putin,â she says.
Turkeyâs quiet approach may not always satisfy Ukraine, but with the release of Chiygoz and Umerov, it has proven that it can be effective.
And Mustafa Dzhemilev, a Ukrainian parliamentarian and the leader of the Crimean Tatar national movement, hopes that Ankara will continue to help Crimean political prisoners.
During a meeting with Erdoga n at the opening of the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline in Eskisehir, Turkey, in July, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Dzhemilev both asked for further assistance.
Erdogan told Dzhemilev that he would do what he could, and asked for some names, the Crimean Tatar leader told the Kyiv Post at a Oct. 24 press conference in Kyiv. Dzhemilev immediately named imprisoned film director Oleg Sentsov, his co-defendant Olexandr Kolchenko, Tatar activist Server Mustafaev, and several others.
Then, after the Ukrainian delegation had returned home, the Turkish Foreign Ministry requested a list of all the Kremlinâs Ukrainian political prisoners. The Ukrainian side provided it. Now, itâs a waiting game.
But the Ukrainian side isnât waiting. It thinks Turkey could also help the Ukrainian Orthodox Church gain independence from Moscow. That may sound strange on the surface, but the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch in global Orthodox Christianity is in Istanbul.
Dzhemilev told the Kyiv Post that both he and Poroshenko discussed the issue of church independence with Erdogan.
At first, Dzhemilev says, Erdogan was surprised that he â" a Muslim â" was interested in this issue.
âI explained to (Erdogan) that it is a matter of national security,â Dzhemilev told the Kyiv Post. âThen he said, âI understand, and I will do everything thatâs necessary.â
In October, Patriarch Bartholomewâ¯I of Constantinople lifted the excommunication of Patriarch Filaret of the Kyiv Patriarchate and Patriarch Makariy of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church. The move was an important step toward recognizing the two churches â" viewed as âschismaticâ by Moscow â" and granting them independence.
Cost of doing business
But if Turkish advocacy has shown its benefits, there are also reasons for concern.
The release of Chiygoz and Umerov wasnât free. Shortly before they were pardoned, Turkey hand ed two Russian agents â" known as Yuri Anisimov and Alexander Smirnov â" over to Moscow. The two were arrested in 2016 in Istanbul and jailed for their involvement in the murder of Chechen fighter Abdulwahid Edelgiriev.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during a meeting in Tehran on Sept. 7, 2018. (AFP)
In July, Dzhemilev met with Turkeyâs foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, during an iftar â" or fast-breaking during Ramadan â" organized by the Crimean Tatar diaspora in Turkey and raised the political prisoner issue with the Turkish diplomat.
âHe had these words to say: âPutin doesnât give anything for free. You, of course, know how we freed Akhtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov,ââ the Crimean Tatar leader recalled.
This raises an ethical problem from Dzhemilevâs point of view.
âWho are w e exchanging?â he asked at the Oct. 24 press conference. âCompletely innocent people for bloody murderers.â
And these people are dangerous. One of the Russian agents released by Erdogan may have even been spotted by Ukrainian intel in Ukraine, Dzhemilev said, although he admitted he could not say to what degree this information was credible.
And thereâs another potential issue. In July 2016, members of the Turkish armed forces and bureaucracy attempted â" and failed â" to overthrow Erdogan. Since then, the Turkish government has launched a wide, international crackdown on alleged members of the Islamic social movement led by preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan blames for the coup.
Often, the Turkish authorities arrest people for otherwise innocuous things â" graduating from a Gulenist school many years ago or receiving a subscription to the now defunct Zaman newspaper.
The Turkish authorities have also kidnapped over 100 alleged Gulenists re siding abroad. The campaign has even reached Ukraine.
In July, the Turkey extradited two alleged Gulenists from Ukraine. In one of the cases, the Security Service of Ukraine detained Turkish journalist Yusuf Inan in Mykolaiv Oblast. The next day, a local court ruled in favor of extradition.
By law, Inanâs lawyer should have had five days to prepare an appeal. But two days later, Inanâs Ukrainian wife learned from the Turkish media that he was already in Turkey. She believes he was carried to Turkey on a private plane, suggesting deep involvement by the Turkish special services.
âIf any state is making an extradition request, you donât just pick someone up and hand them off,â says Nate Schenkkan, director of special research at Freedom House and a Turkey expert. âAnd you certainly donât allow the Turkish intelligence agency to do it.â
It remains unclear whether Ukraineâs assistance in the two menâs extradition was a quid pro quo for Tur keyâs support and assistance, as some have speculated. Ukraine has a generally checkered record of protecting dissidents from politically motivated extradition requests.
But the human rights situation in Turkey does worry at least some in Ukraine.
While Turkey has indeed helped the Crimean Tatars, âno one from the Ukrainian human rights movement has any illusions about rights violations in the Turkish Republic,â Crimea SOSâs Tasheva says.
The Ukrainian government has to fulfill bilateral agreements with Turkey, but it also must follow international norms, she suggests.
âIf any of the people that the Turkish side wants to extradite face serious danger there, then, of course, this issue should be taken very seriously before any extradition happens.â
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Source: Google News Ukraine | Netizen 24 Ukraine