November 9, 2017 | Policy Brief

Turkey’s Premier Visits Washington

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim is in Washington this week in a bid to mend his country’s flailing ties with the U.S. His trip follows the worst crisis in Turkish-American relations in decades, whereby both sides suspended visa services for each other’s citizens. It also comes three weeks before the start of a high-profile trial in New York of a Turkish-Iranian gold trader and four Turkish officials, who stand accused of evading U.S. sanctions against Tehran.

Yildirim’s visit was off to a rocky start. His meeting with Vice President Mike Pence was postponed by two days, with little to do for the Turkish premier but sightseeing in Washington. When the meeting finally took place on Thursday, it lasted only an hour, with no press conference. The Turkish side simply stated that it was “better than expected.” The White House, on the other hand, expressed “deep concern over the arrests of U.S. citizens” in Turkey.

The trip’s futility is hardly surprising for Turkey-watchers. As Turkey’s prime minister, Yildirim may appear as the country’s number two after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But he is far from that. Yildirim is neither a savvy politician nor a savvy diplomat. Erdogan appointed him as a more loyal caretaker than his predecessor Ahmet Davutoglu. In stark contrast to Davutoglu, a former foreign minister and international relations professor, Yildirim has zero experience in foreign affairs.

The trip could not have come at a worse time for Yildirim, whose family was implicated in the “Paradise Papers” scandal a day before his trip. In this trove of leaked records of offshore accounts, Yildirim’s two sons appear to have investments in Malta, designed to hide their wealth and evade Turkish taxes. The opposition has already filed a parliamentary motion to investigate the premier’s potential involvement in corruption, which Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) promptly voted down. This fits Erdogan’s track record of stifling similar inquiries.

In fact, Erdogan’s previous efforts to conceal the AKP’s corruption – at the expense of Turkey’s rule of law – have contributed to Ankara’s fraying relations with Washington. A major part of the ongoing visa crisis relates to the upcoming trial of Reza Zarrab on November 27. Zarrab is accused of evading U.S. sanctions against Tehran’s illicit nuclear program, and the investigation points to his collusion with not only Turkish state-owned banks but also top-level government officials.

In December 2013, Zarrab was arrested in Istanbul after a Turkish prosecutor completed his own investigation into Zarrab’s corrupt ties to the government. With Erdogan’s personal intervention, Zarrab was freed only months later, and all charges were dropped. Since the gold trader’s arrest in the U.S. in March 2016, the Turkish president and his allies have repeatedly sought, through diplomatic channels, to dismiss the case.

Although Yildirim’s delegation said that today’s meeting revolved around the visa spat, Syrian Kurds, and Ankara’s extradition demands for the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, the Zarrab trial was likely the key concern for the Turkish side. Media reports in the last two weeks indicate that Zarrab may now be pleading guilty, and Ankara likely seeks to contain the fallout from Zarrab’s confessions.

The Turkish prime minister probably had no illusions of his ability to extract any concessions from his American counterparts, but as Erdogan’s loyal caretaker, Yildirim performed the role that his boss had demanded. The real question is, what did Erdogan expect to gain from this stunt on the domestic front?

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Merve Tahiroglu is a research associate. Follow them on Twitter @aykan_erdemir and @MerveTahiroglu.