U.S. warning on Turkey demo stokes underlying diplomatic tensions

A warning by the United States embassy in Turkey to avoid a political rally by the main opposition party has enflamed diplomatic tensions between the two NATO allies just days after they agreed to cultivate their relations.

Turkey’s foreign ministry summoned U.S. ambassador to Turkey Jeffry Flake on Sunday after his embassy posted a message on its website warning of the dangers of attending the rally, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported.

“The Turkish national police have used measures, including water cannons, tear gas and non-lethal projectiles, to control crowds at protests in the past,” the embassy said in the alert. “There is a strong possibility similar measures will be employed at this demonstration.”

The Turkish foreign ministry then issued its own warning to Turkish citizens in the United States that appeared to mirror the American statement. It said “violent acts” by the U.S. police had been used to quell demonstrations, including the use of live ammunition, electric shocks and tear gas, and urged citizens to avoid crowded places.

The United States and Turkey are seeking to repair relations damaged by a spat over the latter’s acquisition of S-400 air defence missiles from Russia, differences over the treatment of Kurds in Syria, and democratic backsliding by Turkey since the introduction of a full presidential system of government in 2018.

Flake was summoned so that the government could express its “discomfort” over “the unfounded allegations,” Anadolu reported.

Foreign embassies based in Turkey often warn their citizens about attending demonstrations after Turkish police violently broke up crowds over the past decade. The harsher police treatment began during the 2013 Gezi Park protests, in which Turks had protested against the construction of a shopping mall on one of Istanbul’s last green spaces. The demonstrations ballooned into nationwide protests against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government. Eleven people died in clashes after police intervened.

Foreign ministry officials told Flake that public rallies by political parties in Turkey were a deep-rooted democratic tradition, Anadolu said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu held talks with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in New York on May 18, after which the two top diplomats pledged to develop relations under a strategic formula agreed between President Joe Biden and Erdoğan at a NATO summit in October last year.

The United States and Turkey are also holding consultations on the entry into NATO of Finland and Sweden. Turkey opposed their membership applications this month, while the United States has provided strong support.

Turkish police now regularly break up protests and rallies by force, including those by the LGBT community. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) held Saturday's rally to protest a suspended prison sentence issued by an Istanbul court against the party’s chairwoman on charges of insulting Erdoğan. The event passed off without incident.

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