Remember “Midnight Express?” When Alan Parker’s controversial movie was released 30 years ago, it hit a raw nerve. Turkey was depicted as hellish for anyone unlucky enough to do time in prison. People were incarcerated in horrible conditions. The American anti-hero was imprisoned for drug smuggling.
The film’s release came when Turkey faced an international embargo for the 1974 invasion and partition of Cyprus. The operation created a deep rift with Turkey’s ally, the United States.
Today, “Midnight Express” suddenly seems relevant again. Turkey and America are at odds once more. Not only do the escalating tensions endanger bilateral relations, they pose a threat to Turkey’s decades-old ties with Western institutions and to its ailing economy.
All of this was not hard to foresee. In a column for The Arab Weekly ahead of the Turkish elections, I highlighted the core of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s international approach as “my way or no way.” I ended the column as follows: “What will happen if Erdogan and the [Justice and Development Party] win the elections on June 24?’ There are no easy answers.”
Now, we have some answers and they aren’t particularly surprising.
At the centre of the story is American pastor Andrew Brunson of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Until recently, he was held in a Turkish prison, accused of crimes that have been described as “fantastical” by Christian groups in the Middle East. These include allegedly converting Kurds to establish a Kurdish state and collaborating with the Gulen Movement, which Erdogan’s government blames for the failed July 2016 coup but which is politically opposed to the demands of the Kurdish movement.
Given that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is affiliated with Brunson’s church and that many members of Congress are evangelicals, the case has become a ticking time bomb. Brunson’s detention is at the top of the American Evangelist agenda, which adds to the pressure on Congress.
Sources in Washington said Erdogan has been repeatedly reminded to release Brunson immediately. The latest instance was by US President Donald Trump at the NATO summit in Brussels.
The pastor was recently moved from prison to house arrest but that may only have helped further infuriate Washington. On July 26, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a bill restricting loans to Turkey “until the Turkish government stops the arbitrary detention of US citizens and embassy employees.”
US Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said that the “long overdue development in Pastor Brunson’s case is not enough — the United States also insists on the release of our locally employed staff and an end to the harassment and targeting of US citizens. We must continue to move forward with the Turkey International Financial Institutions Act until Turkey ceases the egregious policy of detention and harassment of US citizens on specious grounds for political gain.”
If the bill becomes law, the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) will oppose all but humanitarian loans to Turkey. This would last until Turkey is “no longer arbitrarily detaining or denying freedom of movement to United States citizens (including dual citizens) or locally employed staff members of the United States mission to Turkey.”
The consequences are obvious. Turkey was the EBRD’s biggest borrower in 2017 with loans worth $1.8 billion. However, if it is treated like Russia and Iran, “external finance will shy away from Turkey,” economic analyst Guldem Atabay Sanli wrote for Ahval News Online. This would mean that Turkey’s “economic slowdown could rapidly turn into a full-blown crisis,” she added.
Not only that, but the US bill contains loan waivers that could be significant. These would be for loans to Turkey that mean energy divestment from Iranian and Russian sources. The bill seeks to block Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile defence systems. Thus, the Brunson case could drive Turkey further apart from NATO.
Erdogan may genuinely believe that what the West sees as a “hostage, bargain and swap policy” is a winner in the long term but he risks becoming entrapped by the following: First, anti-Americanism sweeping across Islamist, conservative, nationalist and leftist circles in Turkey; second, the so-called Eurasianist cadres that have enhanced influence in parliament and the bureaucracy. Erdogan may end up held hostage by a policy that he may have thought politically beneficial.
The US Senate bill highlights Washington’s realisation that the only way to affect Erdogan’s defiance is economic sanctions. Russia applied sanctions after the downing of its fighter jet. So did Germany to pressure Ankara after the detention of two of its citizens — Peter Steudtner and Deniz Yucel.
Nate Schenkkan, Freedom House’s special research director, recently suggested in a detailed policy brief that the Senate bill should be coupled with targeted sanctions against Erdogan and his inner circle.
For those who remember the dark 1970s in Turkey, the future is looking a lot like the past, at least in terms of looming instability.
Yavuz Baydar is a senior Turkish columnist, and news analyst. A founding member of the Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) in Istanbul, he has been reporting on Turkey and monitoring media issues since 1980. A European Press Prize Laureate in 2014, he is also the winner of Germany's 'Journalistenpreis' in 2018.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.