From the Russian accountant to Brunson: Crisis in Turkey-US relations

From the Russian accountant to Brunson: Crisis in Turkey-US relations

Sergei Leonidovich Magnitsky was an accountant working as an auditor for the law firm Fireston Duncan in Moscow.

On his company’s behalf, he was advising the U.S. investment fund Hermitage Capital Management (HCM). He was directly dealing with Bill Browder, the founding partner of HCM and he was giving him information regarding wide-ranging corruptions, involving Russian bureaucrats and police. Soon after, Browder started to expose those corruptions. In retaliation, the Russian Interior Ministry accused HCM of tax evasion and tax fraud and raided the company’s offices in Russia.

Magnitsky was arrested as part of this investigation. He spent 358 days in the Butyrka Prison. Even though he suffered from pancreatitis in prison, he was beaten. He did not have access to medical care. Magnitsky died on Nov. 16, 2009 while under arrest.

Browder, shocked by the Magnitsky affair, started lobbying in Washington. In 2012, when then-President Barack Obama was convinced, the law that imposed sanctions on Russian officials responsible for the death of Magnitsky, was legislated. It is known as the Global Magnitsky Act, which deals with human rights violations.

I give all those details because the U.S. administration imposed sanctions on Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül and Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu based on this act.

Apparently, according to U.S. officials, the case of pastor Andrew Brunson, who was moved to house arrest after a long period of being behind bars, falls under the same category. Thus they decided to impose sanctions on those who are the most senior figures responsible for the investigation, detention, arrest and the trial processes.

It is impossible that the people, who decided to impose those sanctions, are unaware that Gül and Soylu have no assets in the U.S. and that those sanctions are ineffective in practice.

Given all these, why did they choose to go with the sanctions?

There are two reasons:

1. Populist worries of the Trump administration. There will be mid-term elections in the U.S. in November. The Trump administration fears that it may lose ground in the Senate. It fears that it may lose support of its conservative voters. Brunson is an evangelical pastor. And Vice President Mike Pence and some other key figures in the administration share the same evangelical beliefs as the pastor. Moreover, the lobbying activities in the U.S. for Brunson have become another “Midnight Express” saga. The evangelicals criticize Trump for not doing enough for Brunson. The criticism that “You stand up to China, Russia and Iran but for two years you have failed to free an innocent man from prison” puts Trumps in a difficult position. Thus, Trumps feels that he needed to treat Turkey with the same reckless attitude he showed toward his western allies at the NATO summit and toward China in the trade wars and toward Russia.

2. The choices Turkey makes cause anger. Recently, Turkey has been distancing itself from the European-Atlantic alliance in a number of fields and forged stronger ties with BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). The decision to buy S-400 missile systems from Russia, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s messages at the BRICS summit in South Africa and Turkey challenging the U.S. in Syria angered not only the Trump administration but also the U.S. The motives behind the sanctions imposed on the two ministers and the decision to block the sale of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey could be the same.

Ankara’s attitude toward the U.S. in the cases of the S-400 procurement and the Syrian crisis resembles the late Turkish leader İsmet İnonü’s response to a letter by U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson. “A new world will be created and Turkey will find itself a place in this new world,” İnönü said in his response.

After all, the U.S. is well aware of the consequences of losing Turkey and Turkey is aware of the consequences of its harsh attitude towards the U.S.

Tensions between the two counties could be expected to first stabilize and then to decline after the meeting between the foreign ministers of Turkey and the U.S. on Aug. 3.

Deniz Zeyrek,