Turkey-Ukraine relations blossom after Turks secure Crimean prisoners' release

Russia’s release of two leaders of Ukraine’s Crimean Tatar minority was secured by a Turkish “diplomatic tour de force” demonstrating Turkey’s potential as an ally of Ukraine, Matthew Kupfer has written for the Kyiv Post newspaper.

The price of this partnership, however, may be turning a blind eye to Turkey’s global purge on dissidents and suspected members of the outlawed Gülenist religious movement, said Kupfer.

The Crimean Tatar leaders Akhtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov received long prison sentences from Russia for opposing the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko reportedly made a number of appeals to German Chancellor Angela Merkel to help secure their release.

However, it was the administration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that managed to bring the two Tatars home after agreeing a prisoner exchange deal with Russia. Chiygoz and Umerov were swapped for two Russian agents said to have helped assassinate Chechen fighter Abdulwahid Edelgiriev, who had been arrested in Istanbul in 2016 and held there since.

The Ukrainian government has since asked Erdoğan for his help in securing the release of other Crimean political prisoners held by Russia, and Kiev believes they can gain further help from Turkey in another surprising area.

“(Kiev) thinks Turkey could also help the Ukrainian Orthodox Church gain independence from Moscow. That may sound strange on the surface, but the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch in global Orthodox Christianity is in Istanbul,” said Kupfer.

Erdoğan has told Mustafa Dzhemilev, a Ukrainian parliamentarian and the leader of the Crimean Tatar national movement, that he would “do everything that’s necessary” to help in this aim, the Kyiv Post reported.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul made the first steps toward securing independence for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church earlier in October.

While Ukraine has certainly reaped benefits from its relationship with Turkey, it may have had to play its part in the Turkish pursuit of dissidents abroad in return, said Kupfer.

Two Turkish citizens accused of links to the Gülen organisation, which Turkey says is responsible for the failed coup plot in July 2016, were arrested in Ukraine and deported to Turkey in July.

One of these, the journalist Yusuf İnan, was denied his mandatory five day period to prepare an appeal and sent directly to Turkey, Kupfer said. The incident sparked condemnation from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and human rights groups.

“If any state is making an extradition request, you don’t just pick someone up and hand them off … And you certainly don’t allow the Turkish intelligence agency to do it,” Kupfer quoted Nate Schenkkan, director of special research at Freedom House, as saying.