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Erdogan's Wrath Stretches To Ukraine, Leaving Turks In Fear Of Kyiv-Assisted 'Kidnapping'


These days, Turkish national and journalist Yunus Erdogdu rarely leaves his Kyiv apartment for fear of being arrested and forcibly deported to his homeland.

KYIV -- Yunus Erdogdu has been afraid to leave the concrete confines of his apartment building on the outskirts of Kyiv since mid-July.

That's when Ukrainian authorities arrested and extradited within days of each other two fellow Turkish nationals-- a journalist and an entrepreneur -- whom Ankara alleges are linked to a failed coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan more than two years ago.

Both men had Ukrainian work and residency permits. Yet both were denied the legally mandated five-day appeal period and quickly deported.

The repatriations were part of Erdogan's relentless campaign "in the East [and] in the West" to pursue supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based preacher and onetime Erdogan ally with a global network of schools and nonprofits as well as millions of followers.

The United States' failure to hand over Gulen himself has frayed relations between Washington and Ankara, but it has not deterred Turkish officials' aggressive pursuit of Gulenists elsewhere -- with dozens of the 77-year-old exile's alleged supporters nabbed and forcibly returned to Turkey since the attempted overthrow in 2016.

Such abductions have sent a powerful message to Erdogdu and others in the Turkish dissident community in Ukraine who are sympathetic to Gulen and his dissident vision for a tolerant, hard-working Turkish society.

The deportations from Ukraine, which shares a shoreline on the Black Sea with Turkey and has deepened cooperation with its government in recent years, has fueled speculation about a secret quid pro quo between the two countries' leaders and evoked comparisons to the CIA's extrajudicial abductions of terrorist suspects after 9/11.

'Overnight Terrorist'

A veteran journalist and frequent critic of Turkey's increasingly autocratic president, Erdogdu has lived and worked legally in the Ukrainian capital for 13 years, most of it as a correspondent for the Cihan news agency.

But that all came crashing down in March 2016, when Turkish police raided Cihan's Istanbul headquarters hours after a court ruling placed it and Turkey's most popular newspaper, Zaman, under state control. Both were eventually shuttered over alleged links to Gulen.

Almost overnight, "I became a so-called terrorist," Erdogdu told RFE/RL over a collection of his article clippings in the modest high-rise apartment where he lives with his wife and three of their children.

Yunus Erdogdu describes himself as a proud Gulen "follower and supporter," but insists he is no terrorist.
Yunus Erdogdu describes himself as a proud Gulen "follower and supporter," but insists he is no terrorist.

Erdogan's government refers to Gulen supporters as members of FETO, or the " Fethullah Terrorist Organization."

Erdogdu, a proud Gulen "follower and supporter," is reportedly being sought by Turkish authorities for allegedly opposing the state and supporting the 2016 coup attempt. His name appeared on a leaked list of Turkish dissidents in Ukraine whom Ankara wants extradited.

Erdogdu insists he is no terrorist and had nothing to do with the coup. As a follower of Gulen, his "spiritual leader," Erdogdu said, he practices a tolerant Islam that promotes education, modesty, and hard work.

Afraid he may be "kidnapped" by Ukrainian security services he claims are working with their Turkish counterparts to spirit away dissidents like him, Erdogdu confines himself to his apartment, where he publishes a small news site that is critical of Erdogan.

"The streets are too dangerous for me," Erdogdu lamented, gesturing to the world outside his window.

Dozens Snatched Abroad

Back in Turkey, Erdogan has vowed to "cleanse" his country of its Gulen-linked enemies. His government has dismissed some 140,000 public servants and investigated on alleged terrorism charges more than 600,000 people. More than 50,000 have reportedly been formally charged and kept in jail during trial.

Turkish police detained 538 people between November 26 and December 3 alone, and on January 10 authorities disbarred 17 judges and prosecutors over alleged Gulen links.

Meanwhile, Ankara's campaign to round up alleged Gulen supporters anywhere in the world has expanded.

"If not today, then tomorrow, one day every member of the FETO traitors' front will pay for his treason against the country and the nation," Erdogan told a congress of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) a year ago.

The Turkish-led crackdown has already prompted school closures and more than 100 people being plucked from at least 18 countries.

Ankara even hinted recently that its intelligence "operations" against Gulenists could soon extend to the United States, although it was unclear how forcefully Turkey might play its hand in that NATO ally's territory.

Turkish basketball player Enes Kanter (file photo)
Turkish basketball player Enes Kanter (file photo)

One of Erdogan's most outspoken critics in America, veteran NBA center Enes Kanter, has had his Turkish passport canceled and criminal charges brought against him in Turkey.

Kanter recently announced he would forego a January 17 game with his New York Knicks scheduled for London over concerns for his safety. Ankara's response arrived in the form of a request to Interpol for Kanter's arrest, drawing dismissive tweets from the 2.11-meter Kanter including one that quipped, "The only thing I terrorize is the rim."

Condemnation of Turkish authorities' targeting of Kanter also poured in via social media from a wide range of non-Turkish dissidents, U.S. politicians, rights groups, and fellow players.

'Shoved Him Into The Car Like A Dog'

Since the Turkish president's campaign reached Ukraine in July, Turkish dissidents living there have lived in fear of becoming the next one to be snatched and returned to Turkey, several of them told RFE/RL in recent interviews. The dissidents, some of whom have lived in Ukraine for more than a decade and, like Erdogdu, have work permits and residency documents, asked for anonymity for fear of becoming targets.

The first known deportation of a Gulen supporter from Ukraine happened on July 11, when Turkish entrepreneur Salih Zeki Yigit was nabbed by Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) agents in broad daylight on a busy street in Odesa. Erdogdu, citing his own Turkish sources, claimed the SBU transferred Yigit to the neighboring Kherson region, where he was put on a private plane and flown overnight to Istanbul with a sack over his head.

A screengrab of Turkish entrepreneur Salih Zeki Yigit after his arrest and deportation to Turkey by Ukrainian security agents.
A screengrab of Turkish entrepreneur Salih Zeki Yigit after his arrest and deportation to Turkey by Ukrainian security agents.

In a second case, on July 12, local police and SBU agents detained Turkish journalist Yusuf Inan near his family's home in the southern Mykolaiv Oblast.

Inan's Ukrainian wife, Kateryna, told RFE/RL that her husband summoned her to translate for him when three police officers and three masked men who identified themselves as SBU agents came to the family's property on July 12. They told her Inan was wanted in his Turkish hometown, Izmir.

Kateryna said the SBU agents then grabbed Inan, hit him over the head, and "shoved him into the car like a dog." She said he was taken to a pretrial detention center in the city.

The next day, a local court quickly ruled in favor of extradition and Inan was flown almost immediately to Turkey. Kateryna only found out when she saw a photo of Inan published on a Turkish news site that showed him standing beside a Turkish flag with his hands zip-tied.

Both cases appear to have been carried out in contravention of the five-day appeal period prescribed by Ukrainian law.

The SBU and the Ukrainian Justice Ministry both declined to comment on the cases.

Quid Pro Quo?

Days later in Ankara, Erdogan's spokesman, Kalin, hailed the extraditions as an example of strong security cooperation between Turkey and Ukraine.

That prompted some observers to suggest the extraditions could be the result of an understanding at the highest levels of the Ukrainian and Turkish governments.

It is unclear whether Ukraine's help in detaining and extraditing the two men was a tradeoff for Turkey's assistance in other matters.

Erdogdu and other critics told RFE/RL that they believe Poroshenko's government has aided Erdogan's security services in return for deeper cooperation and support, including using the Turkish president's relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin to help negotiate the release of prisoners held by Russia in annexed Crimea.

The Poroshenko and Erdogan administrations did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

"Based on a number of expulsions of Gulenists from other post-Soviet countries, including recently from Moldova, I think it is quite likely that such a request was made to Ukraine as well," Alex Kokcharov, a principle research analyst at the London-based global information group IHS Markit, told RFE/RL. "And if in return Turkey would be able to provide Ukraine with some positive outcome on a key policy issue,... [then] I can see why Ukraine would choose to cooperate."

One of Kyiv's most urgent priorities is its ongoing war with Russia-backed separatists, a conflict that has killed more than 10,300 people since Russian forces occupied Crimea and fomented the armed conflict in parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Kyiv has long sought the release of Ukrainian citizens imprisoned by Russia, something Erdogan has reportedly expressed a willingness to help with.

An intervention by Erdogan purportedly convinced Putin to release Ukraine's Crimean Tatar leaders Akhtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov, who were sentenced to 11 years in prison by Russian courts on the annexed peninsula in September 2017. Many more Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainians remain in Russian custody.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) and his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, in Istanbul earlier this month.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) and his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, in Istanbul earlier this month.

Another area in which Erdogan appeared to have been helpful was in Ukraine's successful bid for ecclesiastical independence from the Moscow Patriarchate for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church -- a decision that lies with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, today better known as Istanbul.

Made official just this month, the move was fiercely opposed by Moscow and the Russian Orthodox leadership that is based there.

"It is not yet known exactly how, but it is clear that the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, managed to persuade his Turkish counterpart, Recep [Tayyep] Erdogan, if not to contribute to obtaining the Tomos [a church ordinance granting autocephaly], then at least not to interfere with this process," journalist Saken Aymurzaev, a keen observer of religious affairs, wrote for the independent Ukrayinska Pravda news site.

Poroshenko and Erdogan's most recent face-to-face meeting happened in Istanbul on January 5, when Poroshenko was in town with Ukrainian Orthodox Church officials to see Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew sign the Tomos.

Kyiv-Ankara Ties Grow Stronger

Just 2 1/2 years ago, Erdogan may not have been in a position to aid Kyiv as an intermediary with Moscow.

That was during a falling out between his country and Russia over a series of alarming events that included the downing by Turkey of a Russian warplane near the border with Syria, a terrorist attack that downed a plane carrying hundreds of Russian holidaymakers that was blamed in part on a baggage handler who reportedly fled to Turkey, and a brief ban on Russian tourism and some business ties to Turkey.

Since then, Ankara and Moscow appear to have patched up many of their differences.

Relations between Ankara and Kyiv, however, have historically been strong since Ukrainian independence and appear to be getting stronger since Moscow's annexation of Crimea in 2014.

"Relations have since 1992 been pretty good, as well as pragmatic," Alexander Clarkson, a lecturer at King's College London who has researched Ukraine-Turkey relations, told RFE/RL. "While Erdogan has sought out closer relations with Russia over Syria, when there was that [eight] months of deep tension between both sides, Erdogan also tacked and intensified cooperation with the Ukrainian defense industry and cut deals over communication between both sides over Russian operations and intentions."

"The Turks are not naive when it comes to Moscow," Clarkson added. "They've always developed relations with Kyiv as an insurance policy that can be called in if relations with Moscow deteriorate badly."

Running And Hiding

While perhaps beneficial for Ukraine, this deepening partnership has the country's Turkish dissident community on edge.

Erdogdu and other Gulen supporters are convinced they remain targets and are under surveillance by Ukrainian and Turkish authorities.

Several Turkish nationals, including some who work as teachers at Kyiv schools, told RFE/RL that they have been followed by men they believe to be members of Ukrainian law enforcement, particularly the SBU. They declined to be interviewed on the record for fear of drawing attention to themselves and their families that could lead Turkish authorities singling them out for extradition.

Some of them cited the list that appeared in Ukrainian media and was said to identify 10 Turkish citizens living in Ukraine who were wanted by Ankara. Five of the names were published, Erdogdu's among them.

Another was Umit Karagozlu, a math teacher and Gulen follower who spoke to RFE/RL through text message and e-mail from Warsaw, where he said he applied for asylum after fleeing Kyiv this summer.

Karagozlu said Turkey has labeled him and his wife "terrorists" and issued arrest warrants -- which were seen by RFE/RL -- despite the fact that they haven't lived in Turkey for years.

"I have never worked in Turkey.... Each summer just for holiday I visited Turkey for two–three weeks," Karagozlu said. "How is it possible that Turkey blamed me for the coup?"

After receiving a phone call from a friend who claimed to have knowledge of a looming roundup of Gulen supporters by Ukraine's SBU, Karagozlu said he fled Ukraine under cover of night on July 11.

He managed to do so by keeping a low profile, ditching his mobile phone so his movements couldn't be traced, and changing cars several times before crossing into Poland and heading to Warsaw, where he was teaching at an international school when he communicated with RFE/RL last month.

The next day, Karagozlu said, he read the news of Turkish entrepreneur Yigit being picked up by the SBU in Odesa.

Passports Canceled

While trying to convince foreign governments like Ukraine's to extradite Turkish dissidents, Ankara has found other ways to make life abroad more difficult for Gulenists, according to Erdogdu and his wife, Alexandria.

Alexandria, who teaches at a school in Kyiv and runs all outside errands since her husband has felt unable to leave the apartment, told RFE/RL that Turkey has canceled or refused to give out new passports to citizens in Ukraine who support Gulen.

Many of them found out only when they went to the Turkish Embassy in Kyiv to renew their passports but were refused.

Alexandra said the embassy told her when she went to apply for a passport for the couple's newborn daughter, "The system doesn't work for you."

"They say, 'You can only return to Turkey to get a new passport,' which of course means jail for us," she added.

Faced with a difficult choice, some Turks here have let their passports expire, a move that does not render them stateless but effectively traps them within the borders of Ukraine and makes it difficult to find housing and work.

In a desperate attempt to reach perceived safety within the EU, seven Turkish citizens were detained by Ukrainian border guards while trying illegally to enter Poland on December 29.

The Turkish Embassy in Kyiv did not respond to a request for comment.

While trapped at home near Kyiv and fearful of being forcibly returned to Turkey, Erdogdu has continued to work as a journalist. He now publishes on his own site, Ukraine Haber, where he often takes aim at Erdogan, whom he labels a "dictator."

After months inside, he finally spent an evening out with his family on January 1, joining them to celebrate the new year at Kyiv's Sophia Square but with one eye over his shoulder. They took photos in front of an illuminated tree and the bell tower of the historic St. Sophia Cathedral.

Asked about taking the risk, Erdogdu said it was a split-second decision "to make the kids happy on New Year's night."

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