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Erdogan's motivations behind the move to expel ambassadors from Turkey

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

Persona non grata. The term means, literally, someone's not welcome anymore. Yesterday, in a rare move, the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, triggered a diplomatic crisis within the NATO alliance by designating the ambassadors of 10 nations that way, including the U.S., France and Germany. Their offense? They signed on to a statement calling for the release of Osman Kavala, a wealthy Turkish philanthropist and activist who has spent the last four years in a Turkish prison despite never having been convicted of any crime. For more, we're going to turn to journalist Durrie Bouscaren to explain events in Turkey. And she joins us from Istanbul now. Durrie, welcome.

DURRIE BOUSCAREN: Hi. Thanks for having me.

FOLKENFLIK: Durrie, help us understand. What's going on?

BOUSCAREN: So yesterday, Turkish president, to a crowd of supporters, claimed he would tell his foreign ministry to declare 10 ambassadors persona non grata. And what this does is revoke their diplomatic immunity. It usually results in that person being recalled to their home country.

And at this moment, the embassies are staying pretty quiet. I mean, spokespeople from the Dutch and Norwegian governments told me they haven't received any communication from Turkey's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which would confirm that they're being expelled. It's also unclear who exactly would be expelled or even when. Some countries signed their statement with a specific diplomat's name, while others, like the U.S., released it from the embassy itself.

But what we do know is that this is incredibly unusual, especially because Erdogan is threatening to expel ambassadors from seven of his own NATO allies, as well as some of his largest trading partners in Europe. I mean, it's a huge fight to pick and one he probably doesn't have to. He's been in power for 19 years. And this scale is really unprecedented in the diplomatic world.

FOLKENFLIK: Erdogan says he wants to expel these 10 diplomats because of this statement in support of Osman Kavala last week. What about Kavala makes him so important to them? And what about him makes him such an irritant to Erdogan?

BOUSCAREN: What we know about Kavala is that he's about 64 years old. He's Western educated. He was a businessman who made his fortune through his family company and later put his weight behind civil society and the arts, activism in Turkey. He also sat on the board of the Turkish branch of the Open Society Foundation, which was created by American billionaire George Soros.

Turkish prosecutors initially charged him with supporting popular protests in 2013. They were called the Gezi Park protests. And then two years later, when a judge ordered his release, prosecutors charged him again with different charges related to the 2016 coup attempt.

So there are different reasons why Kavala is considered sort of a rival of Erdogan. But he's not really a politician. There are other people who are considered political prisoners in Turkey, like Selahattin Demirtas. He was the co-chair of the pro-Kurdish party. Foreign governments have also released statements in support of him, calling for his release. But it didn't escalate to the level of a diplomatic crisis the way this statement did.

FOLKENFLIK: So what's the thinking on why President Erdogan is making this move now?

BOUSCAREN: The first reason, according to experts I talked to, is that this is an effort to distract from domestic politics. Turkey is still in the middle of a massive financial crisis over the Turkish lira. It got worse this week, when a financial arm of the G-7 greylisted Turkey. It said it hadn't done enough to stop money laundering. And Erdogan has historically picked fights with the West to rally his base when he feels like he's under attack.

FOLKENFLIK: OK. So this happens as the U.S. ambassador there, David Satterfield, is wrapping up his term in Turkey. He's about to be replaced by former Senator Jeff Flake. So what happens next?

BOUSCAREN: I think the embassies are in a wait-and-see mode. I mean, they're hoping Turkey's Ministry of Foreign Affairs will try to walk this back in the coming days. But if the ambassadors are expelled, Erdogan really risks alienating the U.S., a huge military partner, and Germany, a top trading partner for Turkey, as well as the Netherlands, a massive source of foreign investment in Turkey. These countries may choose to then expel Turkish diplomats based in their countries as kind of a tit for tat. And if that happens, the risks to Turkey's economy are huge.

FOLKENFLIK: We've been hearing from reporter Durrie Bouscaren in Istanbul. Durrie, thanks.

BOUSCAREN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.