Erdogan’s enemies in the Balkans fear Turkey’s growing reach

Ankara unleashes global dragnet to catch Gulenists it blames for 2016 coup bid

By the time he turned 40, Ahmet had co-written 14 Turkish television series and worked in theatre and film, and was raising a son and a daughter with his wife Yasemin, a language teacher; he had done well since leaving his home village to study in Istanbul, and the future looked bright.

The following year, on July 15th, 2016, Turkey was shaken by events that derailed life for Ahmet's family and hundreds of thousands of their compatriots.

At least 250 people were killed when rebel troops tried to oust Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose subsequent crackdown has seen more than 77,000 people arrested and 150,000 others sacked or suspended from their jobs.

This vast purge targets what the government calls a "parallel state" in the Turkish security forces, judiciary, media and elsewhere that is allegedly loyal to the cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former Erdogan ally who lives in exile in the United States.

Thousands of Turks – ranging from soldiers and police officers to writers and teachers like Ahmet and Yasemin – have fled their homeland since the attempted coup, and hundreds have sought refuge in nearby Balkan states.

As Erdogan extends his influence in lands that were once part of the Ottoman empire, however, Balkan leaders who welcome Turkish investment also face pressure to hand over people that Ankara brands as “terrorists”.

Gulen and his followers deny involvement in the uprising, and call it a pretext used by Erdogan to crush critics and organisations that were outside his control, like the television station where Ahmet worked.

Threatening messages

In the febrile atmosphere that followed the violence, the channel was shut down, other production houses were warned not to employ “criminals” like him, and he found colleagues, neighbours and even relatives turning against him. When Yasemin received threatening messages, they packed what they could and left Turkey.

"We fled to Albania because we didn't need a visa," says Ahmet, who asked for his and his wife's names to be changed in this article to protect their identity.

“In addition, we thought this whole thing wouldn’t last long...We arrived in Albania safely as there wasn’t a search warrant for me at that time.”

Ahmet and Yasemin struggled to make ends meet in a new country with an unfamiliar language, and the upheaval bewildered their children.

“I think it was the second month when, one evening which I will always remember, my daughter cried for almost two hours, saying: ‘I can’t get used to it, Dad. Don’t you understand?’” Ahmet recalls.

Pro-Erdogan media were now accusing him of making propaganda films for the “Fethullahist terror organisation” (Feto), but Albania’s capital Tirana at first felt safe.

“But then some Turkish intelligence agents arrived in the neighbourhood where we lived. A few months later, they tried to photograph me...After this, I couldn’t go anywhere alone,” Ahmet says.

Erdogan’s hunt for Gulenists was growing: officials said last year that Turkey’s security services had already “bundled up and brought back” about 80 Turkish citizens in covert operations in 18 countries.

Secretly detained

The dragnet swept close to Albania last March, when a Turkish doctor and five teachers working at a Gulenist school in neighbouring Kosovo were secretly detained and flown to Ankara. Kosovo's then prime minister Ramush Haradinaj claimed ignorance of the operation and fired his interior minister and intelligence chief.

“When did Kosovo start to protect those who plotted a coup in Turkey?” Erdogan said in response. “The operation in Kosovo was not the first time and will not be the last.”

Countries as far apart as Pakistan, Malaysia and Moldova have also sent Gulenists back to Turkey on dubious grounds, most of them teachers from schools that the movement funds around the world.

"We have had meetings with the state authorities and sent them written requests, and they have said we are acting legally in Albania," says Mustafa Ustuner, director-general of the Gulenist Turgut Ozal schools in the country.

“But with these kinds of illegal [deportation] cases no one can be sure they won’t happen again.”

Since the 1990s, Gulenists organisations have run some of the best private schools and kindergartens in Albania; they opened a university in Tirana in 2007, and now teach more than 6,000 students of all ages and employ about 710 people, including about 70 Turks.

When Turkey's foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Albania last year, he appeared to have these schools in mind when he urged the government to abolish "anti-Turkish institutions".

“There is a serious Feto-ist structure in Albania,” he said. “We do not provide shelter to terrorists that come from Albania and we expect the same from our Albanian friends.”

Annulled passports

Ustuner says that since the failed coup Ankara’s embassy in Tirana has annulled the passports of some of his Turkish staff and refused to issue them with official documents; he also claims that Turkey has urged state agencies and private firms in Albania to sack Albanian graduates of Gulenist schools.

“And I’ve met [Albanian] parents of pupils who have business dealings with Turkey, who have been told to remove their children from our schools or they will have business problems and be bankrupted,” he adds.

Ustuner says Albania’s attitude to citizenship requests from Gulenist Turks is now “totally different to before 2016.”

“Now, when [our] people apply, either they don’t get citizenship or they don’t get any answer.”

Ustuner insists that his schools feel no hostility from the Albanian state or its people, but many Gulenists now fear being bargaining chips in dealings between Balkan states and Turkey, which expanded its trade with the region from $435 million in 2002 to $3 billion in 2016.

Ankara’s approach is that “we’ll give money for an investment or aid programme and when we run into problems with our Gulenists we’ll ask you to arrest and deport them,” says James Ker-Lindsay of the London School of Economics.

“Maybe some leaders in the region think they can live with that, because their top priority is economic development.”

In Tirana, Turkey is building the biggest mosque in the Balkans and jointly operating Albania’s new national airline, and its other major projects in the region include co-funding a new Sarajevo-Belgrade highway.

"At a personal level with the would-be strongmen of the Balkans, I think Erdogan is very good at transacting," says Dimitar Bechev, an expert on the region at the University of North Carolina.

Albania's prime minister Edi Rama, who was a witness at the wedding of one of Erdogan's daughters in 2016, told The Irish Times: "Relations with Turkey have always been very good and always will be."

‘Utterly despicable’

“What happened [in 2016] was absolutely despicable and they lost lives and risked going through a coup d’etat. I fully understand their concern. At the same time, Albania is a country where everything should go through the rule of law.”

When asked if Erdogan was right to regard Gulenists as “terrorists”, Rama replied: “I think it’s possible, absolutely. But it’s not up to us as a state to make the judgement. If they are...proven to have done wrong by a court of law then we will not protect them or hide from the facts.”

Ahmet and his family left Albania this year and applied for asylum in an EU country that he prefers not to name.

“Turkey is my homeland and of course I want to go back...but we can’t for many reasons,” he says.

“I would be arrested and imprisoned at the airport...So as long as Erdogan is in power and lives, there is no life for us in Turkey.”

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