Turkey’s expedited European extraditions

Turkey’s expedited European extraditions

Turkey’s ongoing effort to dismantle the supporters for Fethullah Gülen has underlined its influence in southeast Europe, where multiple countries have hurried to comply with requested Turkish extraditions. This raises hard questions about how committed these states are to recent reforms intended to boost the rule of law.

Since 2016, suspected supporters of Fethullah Gülen, who Erdoğan has accused of being the mastermind behind the attempted July 2016 coup, have been whisked away from South Eastern Europe in suspiciously rapid procedures. Bulgaria, Kosovo and Moldova have all recently extradited suspected Gülenists, but the circumstances have been strange with different departments of the government and state being at loggerheads and human rights potentially being violated.

In 2016, businessman Abdullah Büyük was deported from Bulgaria in a case that raised enough questions for the European Court of Human Rights to request all the documents related to his extradition. In March 2018 in Kosovo the security service arrested and deported six people so covertly and quickly that even the Prime Minister claimed to be unaware of the operation. In Moldova, meanwhile, the security services actively cooperated with their Turkish counterparts to identify and arrest six employees of a private high school chain in September 2018. Bucking the trend, Bosnia and Herzegovina actually refused a request for extradition in April 2018.

In the vast majority of these and similar cases Turkey got their suspect, often very quickly. While the arrests were legally made under international arrest warrants issued by Turkey, the legal status of the extraditions is often less clear. Turkey claims that FETO, Gülen’s organization, is a terrorist group but the USA and the EU have rejected this designation. Despite this, the aspiring EU candidate countries of the Balkans, and in the case of Bulgaria an EU member, are performing extraditions on request. Why are Balkan countries handing over suspects so easily?


Fethullah Gülen at his home in Pennsylvania (Credit: Wikimedia).

Extraditions as diplomacy

The extraditions have become part of diplomacy. As Bulgaria’s Interior Minister put it this past May, they help to ensure good neighbourly relations. Having a good relationship with Turkey is important to all states in South Eastern Europe for a variety of reasons.

Ankara is the regional economic power. All of the aforementioned countries have benefited from Turkish firms opening factories and providing much-needed foreign investment. In an authoritarian regime like Erdoğan’s, such economic favours are linked to politics relations, with good diplomatic ties facilitating further investment.

In addition, there are strong cultural ties between the Balkans and Turkey that date back to the time of the Ottoman Empire. Bosnia and Kosovo’s Muslims frequently look to Turkey as a key ally and international advocate for their countries. Turkey has poured money into building new mosques and renovating Ottoman-era monuments. Even in Orthodox Serbia, there is a significant Muslim minority who sees Erdoğan as a leader. Ironically, these cultural ties also offer some explanation as to why there are Gülenist institutions in the Balkans; Gülen used to be very close to Erdoğan, and built a network of schools and cultural centres across the Muslim world, projecting Turkey’s soft power. After the July 2016 coup attempt, the network continued to operate, while Erdoğan chases down its employees.

In Bulgaria, the only one of these countries to share a border with Turkey, the migration crisis also requires good relations with Turkey. Bulgaria relies on the EU’s agreement with Turkey to control the flow of migrants and refugees from the Middle East towards its borders. This is not only a major issue for security reasons, but also for domestic political reasons, as Bulgaria has been reluctant to host both migrants and refugees.

For all these reasons and more, good relations with Turkey are paramount to the small states of South-Eastern Europe. Accepting Turkey’s requests for extraditions demonstrates friendship and loyalty towards Erdoğan’s regime.

Implications for the rule of law

These rapid extraditions do not reflect well on the rule of law in South Eastern Europe. They demonstrate the extent to which executive power tends to override individual and human rights, especially when a high-priority issue like relations with Turkey is at stake. The extraditions reveal that despite of the EU’s efforts to reform power structures in the Balkans, true power still lies with the executive and security services. This is especially true for Bulgaria, which as a full EU member might have been expected to better resist Turkish demands.

This has worrying implications for organizations and businesses operating in South-Eastern Europe. While Turkey’s pursuit of Gülenists may have little effect on most people and business, it is deeply unsettling that the politics of another country – especially one with such an authoritarian regime as Turkey – can make themselves felt so quickly and easily across borders. The effect is especially highlighted in this case as it was precisely Gülen’s previous closeness to Erdoğan that allowed the development of his network in the Balkans, which then became anathema to the Turkish leadership. Previously lawful, registered employees of private schools and other institutions suddenly became suspected terrorists, and their host countries fell into line with Turkey’s policy reversal.

One reason why so many world powers – such as Russia, China, Turkey, and the EU – compete in this region is precisely because it is so susceptible to foreign influence. Foreign regimes can get a big rewards at little cost. In this case, Erdoğan is able to impress on Gülenists all over the world that Turkey’s hunt for them is global, and is frequently successful. Foreign interference will continue in the medium-term, potentially causing instability in the region as different regimes compete for greater influence.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Luke Bacigalupo

Luke Bacigalupo is a political analyst currently based in Belgrade, Serbia. He holds degrees in South Eastern European Studies and Modern History from the University of Belgrade and the University of Oxford, respectively. He has previously worked as a political reporter at the Office of the EU Special Representative in Kosovo and at UNDP in Serbia.