Explaining the Visa Freeze Between the US & Turkey By Evren Celik Wiltse
Imagine two NATO allies that have mutually suspended visa applications, creating havoc among tourists, students, business travelers and family members on both sides of the Atlantic.
This week, the outgoing US Ambassador in Turkey, recently appointed to Afghanistan, announced that due to serious security concerns, the US missions in Turkey will not process any non-immigrant visa applications from Turkish citizens. Soon after this, Turkish government also suspended all visitor visas to the US citizens.
In a 5 minute video, the US Ambassador in Ankara explained the reasons behind the drastic measure against a NATO ally. Here are the facts he laid out:
-Officials working for decades at the US diplomatic missions in Turkey were detained by Turkish authorities.
-They were denied legal counsel.
-The embassy staff could not communicate with them.
-Turkish authorities did not issue any formal charges against them.
While the Embassy was left in the dark, Turkey’s pro-government media already published mountains of guilt-by-association pieces, and declared the detainees guilty.
In his speech, Ambassador Bass called for rule of law, right to legal council, assumption of innocence until proven guilty, and other fundamental legal concepts that should be expected from a procedural democracy. Alas, that is the problem.
The steady deterioration of democracy in Turkey has been creating diplomatic headaches for the US. However, despite the progressively worsening incidents, the US foreign policy makers tried to continue business as usual, until their own staff became the subjects of arbitrary arrests.
Claiming that US-Turkish bilateral relations have been on a roller coaster would be an understatement. The US currently holds a Turkish-Iranian dual citizen and a top Turkish public bank manager in custody in New York, for charges of illicit financial transactions that undermined the Iranian embargo. An ex-cabinet minister from Turkey is also subpoenaed by the US authorities, for involvements in the same case. Turkey, on the other hand, has in custody a US clergy who lived in Turkey for over two decades, a dual citizen NASA employee, and several other US-Turkish dual citizens, for charges of conspiracy and spying.
The Turkish President and numerous high-ranking members of the Turkish government openly express their interest in a “swap deal” among detainees. The prized person of interest for Turkey is a cleric, who is in self-imposed exile in a compound in Pennsylvania. This gentleman initially traveled to the US from Turkey for medical reasons, but since then, was granted US residency.
The strange case of this cleric is quite extensive, and beyond the scope of this writing. But suffice it to say that ex-CIA directors vouched for him for his residency permit. Hence, he is not any ordinary Muslim cleric. This gentleman is also the “spiritual leader” of the largest charter school network in the US, as well as across the world. To make matters worse, he was allegedly connected to a botched coup attempt in Turkey on June 15, 2016.
The Turkish government has been asking the extradition of this cleric ever since a massive corruption scandal broke out in Turkey in 2014. A series of anonymously released tape recordings implicated cabinet members and their families, including the current president. Turkish authorities instantly claimed these were fabricated. They accused the cleric’s network of infiltrating the state apparatus, particularly inside the police and the judiciary, in order to discredit and topple down the government.
For those not following Turkish politics closely, the reality may seem wilder than fiction. People lose track of the story as it gets bogged down with clerics, tanks, coups and purges. But for the causal reader, the following scenario might be illustrative.
Think of a hypothetical religious group in the US. Imagine this group starts as a benign religious organization with emphasis on science, knowledge, service to people, good manners, etc. Meanwhile, a conservative party comes to power in the US, and for more than a decade, has a very good relationship with this religious group. The conservative party promotes the group in the public sector, endorses their educational and social activities, and provides them with material and in-kind support at every turn. In fact, many US citizens, who would normally not care for this religious group, join the organization, thanks to this wholehearted government endorsement and readily available opportunities.
After a honeymoon period, conflicts of interest and disagreement among the cozy partners began to surface. The religious group raises corruption and nepotism charges, whereas the conservative party accuses them of plotting, scheming and treason. The religious group releases a series of compromising recordings of cabinet members, assuming they could turn the public opinion against the party. The party in turn, mobilizes all resources at its discretion to confiscate the assets of the religious group, purge them from public and private employment, and detain tens of thousands of them, without much care for due process.
There is one important caveat though: Somehow, high ranking members of the conservative party who have had an extensive track-record of cozy relations with the religious group are all spared from these confiscations and purges. Only the small and medium size affiliates are thrown under the bus.
The US gets embroiled in this strange friends-turned-enemies crisis in Turkey, largely because of housing the head of this religious organization. Since it has been more than five years since this cleric in Pennsylvania was granted a Green Card; chances are, he is already a US citizen.
The US authorities give boiler-plate answers to questions of extradition. Yet, incidents with Turkey progressively get more brazen. Turkish government periodically cuts power to the US bases located in Turkey and creates other hurdles to obstruct access. In the spring of 2017, the security details of the Turkish president beat demonstrators in Washington DC to a pulp, causing hospitalization of nearly a dozen. Months later, the US authorities issued subpoenas for the security guards. By then, these could no longer be enforced, as the guards have left US soil, and Turkish authorities ignored US court orders.
Today, anti-Americanism in Turkey is at all times high. Over 70 percent of the population perceives the US as the greatest threat, more than ISIS, Russia, or any kind of economic crisis. The Turkish President in a widely publicized statement claimed that those who study in the US become traitors and spies. Under normal circumstances, this should’ve been shocking, since for decades Turkish state has been funding students to get advanced degrees in the US. The Turkish president’s very own children had studied at the American universities.
Yet, Erdogan does not hesitate to liberally use anti-Americanism in his political rhetoric. His advisors and parliamentarians from his party openly use profanity against the US and its Ambassador on public forums, including Twitter. As their electoral victories from the ballot box get more compromised, they amplify the anti-American rhetoric as a smoke screen.
It has been long due for the US foreign policy makers to reconsider the parameters of the alliance with Turkey and its current government. This partial visa ban by the US Embassy in Turkey signals that appeasement period might be finally over.
Evren Celik Wiltse is Assistant Professor of Political Science at South Dakota State University.