Is the US blackmailing Turkey over Sweden?

June 30, 2023
by Enes Esen, published on 30 June 2023
Is the US blackmailing Turkey over Sweden?

The US and Swedish authorities are currently investigating graft allegations involving Bilal Erdoğan, the son of Turkey's President, according to a Reuters special report. These allegations have significant implications, as they could constitute a criminal offense under certain circumstances. However, as the report points out, there is a possibility that they may not even lead to formal charges. Interestingly, the Turkish side seems to have minimal interest in the substance of the allegations or its judicial implications. They genuinely believe that the accusations are politically motivated and serve as a means to blackmail Turkey into lifting its veto on Sweden's NATO membership. They hold the perspective that if an agreement is reached regarding Sweden, the allegations will wither away.

High-ranking Turkish officials have strongly denounced the corruption allegations as a disinformation campaign targeting Erdoğan's family. In a tweet, Fahrettin Altun, President’s Communications Director, expressed suspicions about the report’s timing, emphasizing that it was released just before the upcoming NATO summit. He argued that this news, propagated by an anti-Turkish lobby and public authorities, aims to exert pressure on Turkey, adding that these attacks will not deter Turkey from its path. Yılmaz Tunç, Turkey's Minister of Justice, vehemently denounced the report, labeling it as disinformation against Turkey and the President's family. Numan Kurtulmuş, President of the Turkish Parliament, also condemned Reuters. He claimed that the report was fabricated as a reaction to Turkey’s principled stance before the NATO summit, adding that they know which circles are behind this false news. 

Turkish media followed a similar narrative. Haber7, a pro-government media outlet, ran a headline titled "Operation against Turkey before the Sweden Summit." In Akşam, another pro-government daily, a columnist argued that the report was a form of blackmail against Turkey due to its objection to Sweden's NATO membership. The columnist said the United States should focus on convincing Sweden to fulfill its promises rather than blackmailing Ankara. OdaTV, a Eurasianist news website known for its pro-Russia views on the war in Ukraine, shared the news with its readers under the title "They are pressuring Turkey... A new Reza Zarrab Investigation… The Target is Bilal Erdoğan." The article provided a brief summary of the allegations and included a quote from Reuters highlighting that the allegations come at a sensitive moment for Sweden’s NATO membership.  

These statements and articles suggest that Ankara views the allegations as a means to pressure Turkey vis-à-vis its objection to Sweden's NATO membership rather than as a genuine judicial investigation of corruption. There were indeed indications that the United States could notch up pressure on Turkey about Sweden after the Turkish presidential elections in May. 

Despite the defiance of the AKP officials, there have been several instances in previous years when Ankara yielded to foreign pressure. The Turkish government was compelled to release Pastor Brunson in 2018 when President Trump threatened Erdoğan with devastating sanctions on Turkey’s economy. Turkey had to offer its apologies in 2016 for shooting down a Russian warplane when Russia put sanctions on Turkey and accused Erdoğan’s family of involving in an illicit border oil trade with ISIS. 

In the current case, even if the allegations are true and the prosecution can build a strong case, it will probably take many years before reaching a trial. This is why Ankara will evaluate these corruption allegations as a warning shot to change its stance. Part of this understanding stems from the fact that Turkey's own judiciary would never launch such an investigation without taking cues from the government. Another reason is that there is a precedent of the United States taking action when negotiations between the two sides reached an impasse.

From Ankara’s perspective, it seems that the US is raising the stakes due to Turkey’s intransigence on Sweden. This is why Erdoğan will not disregard the allegations, but he will first explore potential fallouts of this judicial case. Then after carefully weighing his options to ensure his family's safety, he may prefer engaging in negotiations to settle with the US rather than fighting the claims in court. In other words, while this investigation may not lead Turkey to change its course of behavior in the first place, it will undoubtedly prompt Erdoğan to reconsider his stance on Sweden’s accession to NATO, given that the focus of the investigation is his family.

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