Turkey’s image hurt by graft claims: US envoy

Turkey’s image hurt by graft claims: US envoy

Cansu Çamlıbel ANKARA / Hürriyet
Turkey’s image hurt by graft claims: US envoy

‘In particular, it’s clear to me that neither of our countries wishes to intervene militarily in Syria,' US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone says. AA photo

Recent allegations of corruption about high-profile officials from the Turkish government have “really hurt the brand of Turkey,” U.S. Ambassador Francis J. Ricciardone has told daily Hürriyet in an exclusive interview.

He also said he was disappointed with Turkey’s recent bans on social media websites, Twitter and YouTube, arguing that they made Turkey look less attractive.

Speaking about the local elections that took place on March 30, Ricciardone said “it makes no sense” to Americans that Turkey, as a Western state under the rule of law and democracy, was blocking Twitter and YouTube, while implying that the Turkish government’s accusations that external powers were the sources of the alleged corruption leaks could not be seen in most Western democracies.

However, the U.S. ambassador said any wiretapping done without a court order was a serious crime, both in the U.S. and Turkey.

What is your reading of the results of these local elections?

Honestly, two developments during the past elections make me concerned for their impact on Turkish relations with the U.S.

The first one is the appearance of Turkey abroad, especially in my country. Americans simply cannot understand how, especially during an election campaign … such a government, which is such a close friend and ally whom we always regard as a member of the Euro-Atlantic club of first class democracies – put a flat-out ban on Twitter and YouTube. It makes no sense to us. Because we consider Turkey as a Western state of law and democracy. The damage from the campaign is something that is still playing out in Turkey’s international standing… I am glad that Twitter is back in service and hope that YouTube likewise will quickly be unblocked.  

The second thing that concerns me is that during the campaign, there emerged a kind of a xenophobic focus on Turkey’s domestic problems as being caused from the outside. Not a debate about the very real and serious internal issues of transparency, governance, corruption, provision of services – all kinds of things that get debated in a Western European democracy… But there was an artificial focus on foreign interference that you don’t find in most Western democracies. For our part, we did everything we could, at the level of the president to assure your country, and we at our embassy did everything we could, to avoid letting anyone damage American-Turkish relations via tendentious exploitation in your internal politics. We respect and understand you and Turkish democracy, and expect the same respect and understanding from our friends in return. We would never interfere in your internal affairs and certainly not during an election period.

If the U.S. is making it so clear that you are not interfering with Turkish domestic affairs, why is there still this huge belief that you are actually doing it?

As the U.S. government, we simply have nothing to do with those activities of Turkish citizens abroad, much less their activities within your country. And of course, if we ever have or are given grounds to suspect anything illegal going on in my country with respect to your country, we would act against such illegal activity. 

So you could not really find a reasonable answer to those allegations as far as I understand.

Political cultures differ. Those allegations from unnamed sources in pro-government newspapers about U.S. government – or U.S. embassy interference – had absolutely no basis or truth, and so we informed the newspapers, on the record, as well as the high officials of your government. Why would a journalist or editor publish such seriously consequential allegations, without even carrying the denials that we immediately provided? Such apparently politically motivated fabrications can seriously damage not only the credibility of the media outlets that carry them, but also, when they are widely understood to be close to the government, Turkey’s reputation in the world.

As you said, you are experienced enough to analyze anything that happens in Turkey. What did you make of the Dec. 17 operations and corruption allegations?

Recently, the enactment of the new law on the judiciary stimulated a serious and enlightened debate on the fundamental importance of the independence of the judiciary. How does a democracy make judges, prosecutors, and the police independent of each other, so that each will do its function in accordance with law, for the sake of the citizens – and not have a secret political agenda, or personal agenda, or corrupt purposes? … Now ambitious young Turks know what good governance is. I’m confident that you are going to get it, I think, provided that you never give up demanding it.

PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said there was a signal from President Barack Obama that Fethullah Gülen’s extradition was on the table. Is it?

The main point of the phone call that was re-affirmed in that conversation is a point we have been making: We respect Turkey; we would never interfere in your internal affairs. Of course, we are aware of this issue and yes it has been raised by your government. We will respectfully and seriously respond to any request regarding legal issues. But we are just not going to get involved in the exercise of individual Turkish citizens’ rights while residing in our country.

It was only last week the spokeswoman of the State Department came out with a statement. When she was answering some questions from the Turkish media, she said “forget about that gentleman.” What does that really mean?

Like our spokeswoman, Marie Harf, I would rather focus on the really important issues that we deal with together as allies … To talk about one Turkish individual living in my country – [without] indications of criminal activity – for us, this is a huge distraction from the most serious matters that we face together.

How would you define the relationship between the U.S. and the Gülen movement?

We don’t have a relationship. We have official relations with states. Our relations as the United States government are with the Republic of Turkey, its branches of government, its administration.

Do you think the results of the elections will be a way to justify the government’s position that corruption did not really take place?

A truly strong state of law must address such serious allegations – not try to blame them on foreign conspiracies or otherwise to change the subject. Truly independent, impartial judges and prosecutors, whose only loyalty is to the law and the citizen, must investigate credible allegations. Where there is legally acquired evidence, in a strong state of law these develop into clear, specific indictments, prosecutions, and open trials, whose legal and moral force is based on the trust and confidence of the citizens.

Do you thing that the Turkish public is not really after the allegations or is it something else?

This debate is healthy and necessary in a democracy, and makes me hopeful that Turkey will never settle for less than EU standards of governance. I speak as a foreigner concerned for the relationship. We are promoting trade and investment with Turkey; we continue to do so. I believe Turkey remains a very attractive and interesting, sometimes challenging place for Americans to do business. It disappoints me when things come out about Turkey that makes it look less attractive, like closing off Twitter or YouTube. Allegations of corruption really hurt the branding of Turkey. As a foreigner who wishes to see more trade between Turkey and the U.S., I would recommend that Turkey act very strongly to show that this country is a serious place where rules and laws apply and American business people can expect to be treated in accordance with Turkish law. And bribery is not something that American businesspeople can deal with because they are forbidden under our law. I hope Turkey will fix the damage to its international reputation that has come out from all these allegations of corruption.

What is your general take on the wiretappings? Have you listened to them?

Now and then I have listened. When one’s privacy is violated it makes you feel both hurt and angry. It’s very creepy… So in our system we demand legal protections: only a judge can authorize wiretappings.

We know several journalists were named by the PM a few days before the elections. One of them was taken into custody. When you ask the Turkish government, they always give the example of the NSA and the Edward Snowden case.

You mentioned the Snowden case; and I might also mention the equally famous case of Corporal Manning and “WikiLeaks.” In the latter, the court found him guilty of betraying properly classified national security secrets.  He was sentenced to prison and is serving a life sentence. So we go after the criminal, not the means he used to commit the crime.

Have you had any concerns that the Turkish approach in Syria is somehow playing into the hands of the radical Islamists fighting Bashar al-Assad?

Earlier we saw foreign fighters were transiting through Turkey. This alarmed us. The government of Turkey clearly shared that concern. In particular, it’s clear to me that neither of our countries wishes to intervene militarily in Syria.

You said there is no desire from anyone for military intervention. But we know that (also from the wiretapping) that the Turkish government has been discussing this.

Of course all governments are discussing how to deal with the terrible conflict there and the threats it poses to national security and regional peace and stability.

What about the Kurdish issue? Does the U.S. support the solution process?

I commend the current approach toward resolving these problems, based as I understand it on strengthening the democratic rights of all citizens, as a wise and promising course. Certainly, it will take great courage and wisdom to achieve the bright vision of the “solution process,” after so much blood has been shed over so many years. We encourage and support the government of Turkey and Kurdish leaders in this historic task, and wish them every success.