Ilhan Tanir
Aug 18 2018

Lobbying by any other name?

Looking at the Washington Post’s August 15 op-ed warning that “the U.S. can’t afford to lose Turkey,” a casual reader might glance at the writer’s bio to find sparkling credentials – a former U.S. diplomat with long years of experience working on Turkish policy at respected think tanks.

Yet among the crucial details that writer, former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan Matthew Bryza, left off the bio was his employment by companies based in Turkey under the influence of the powerful ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

While this does not necessarily amount to a damning conflict of interest, Bryza’s article had Turkey-watchers questioning how much the Turkey-based ex-diplomat could get away with without publicly disclosing his private business affiliations.

Ignoring all discussion of the AKP and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s authoritarianism, harsh curtailments of human rights and imprisonment of thousands of Turks, the op-ed read more like a piece written by a lobbyist advocating for the Turkish government’s interests and called to mind the efforts of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn in November 2016, for which he was well compensated by a Turco-Dutch AKP-affiliated businessman.  (Disgraced Flynn at first denied his placement of an article in The Hill was on behalf of a foreign government, claiming ignorance of the ultimate source of the funds; he later registered pursuant to the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA)).

Indeed, Bryza’s involvement in the Turkish energy sector reportedly goes much further than Turcas, the energy investment company on whose board he sits, to companies that are obliged to play nice with the AKP.

Meanwhile, his work for the Atlantic Council sets similar alarm bells ringing – the Washington-based think tank receives millions of dollars per year in funding from the Turkish government and makes sure to give a good return for the investment.

Last year that meant removing opposition and critical names vetoed by the AKP government from various panels at its annual conference, to which Erdoğan makes a regular appearance as a guest of honour.

The council’s president, Frederick Kempe, clearly demonstrated the think tank’s line regarding the Turkish government in an interview with Hürriyet newspaper last year that read like yet another instance of lobbying.

This should come as little surprise given the think tank’s extensive list of sponsors. These include Çalık Holding, a Turkish conglomerate formerly headed by Erdoğan’s son-in-law, finance minister Berat Albayrak; Halkbank, the country’s largest public bank; and Turkish Airlines, another company known for its close links to the AKP.

Not to mention, the Istanbul stock market, BOTAŞ, TPAO, Zorlu Holding, Tüpraş, İhlas and others…

The fact that Turkish Undersecretary of Defense Industries Dr. Ismail Demir chose to address Washington from the Atlantic Council in May of 2016 also was another testament of the close ties between the Council and the Turkish government.

Another Atlantic Council senior fellow's lobbying connections and treatment of Turkish Foreign Minister in Washington, DC also raised eyebrows in 2017.

Sources in Washington and Turkey told Ahval that Bryza has been earmarked by the AKP as a “back channel” to Trump. These rumours were confirmed to Ahval by Bryza, who said that he had been “involved in the messaging activities between Washington and Ankara because this provided me a meaningful way to have a positive impact on the sorts of issues that were at the heart of my diplomatic career and about which I remain passionate.”

Bryza went further and told Ahval that "[t]he Manbij plan grew directly out of my informal messaging efforts. This initiative thus aimed to resolve  a broad range of problems plaguing in the U.S.-Turkey relationship, ranging from Pastor Brunson to counterterrorism to security in northern Syria and Iraq to legal matters to economic stability and to Russia/Iran."

It is still questionable how much influence the former ambassador, a protégé of Condi Rice and not of the non-establishment Republicans currently in the ascendant, could hope to exert under the Trump administration. Some prominent Turkish journalists based in Turkey told Ahval that some of Bryza’s back channel efforts might have helped create the present big break up in bilateral relations.

Bryza was one of Condi's baby DASes, who had worked for her at the NSC. Of course, the Government of Turkey has not shown itself adept in gaining influence in DC’s halls of power as evidenced by its misreading of Trump’s response to the continued detention of Brunson.  What is more, according to well-connected two different Turkey experts in Washington, “this informal diplomacy that Mr. Bryza is involved in “is not appreciated by U.S. officials, even if it is desired by the Turks (for obvious reasons).”

Bryza, when asked about why he has not disclosed his ties to some of private energy companies when writing for Washington Post, said this, “My professional ties are out in the open.  Check my Twitter profile, for example. The companies with which I am affiliated have nothing to do with the Turkish Government, nor with the Azerbaijani Government.”

Bryza said he is indeed “a Board member of Turcas, a private company that is traded on the Istanbul stock exchange” but added that “Turcas has no affiliation of any sort with the Turkish Government (or the Azerbaijani Government).  In fact, the Turkish Government’s energy policies often work against the commercial interests of Turcas.”

One Washington based Turkey observer objected to this explanation. Observer said that saying his "professional ties are in the open", and to cite Twitter does not really explain the whole story. On the contrary, “No one is suggesting these are secret relationships... So to say he's open actually only accentuates the problem: If you're open, why not include them in your bio in WaPo? It would be easy to say you're a director of several Turkish firms, including in the energy industry.”

Bryza doesn’t address how many shares of Turcas are controlled by AKP supporters/leaders/names. One would imagine the connections are tenuous enough to hide the connections if it is controlled by AKP government.

Apart from Turcas, he is also affliated with Lamor Turkey, a joint venture with a Finnish company, Lamor Corporation, which is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of oil spill response equipment.

Bryza said, when asked what he has to say whether his private business ties might influence his writing on Turkey matters, “When I am writing or speaking about energy in the Eastern Mediterranean region, I routinely mention these affiliations. In this instance, however, there was no relevant way to work them into the article. The point I am making in that op-ed is that President Trump is choosing the wrong tactics to achieve his foreign policy goals in Turkey. In other words, I am not taking the side of Turkey; I am making a set of observations that flow out of my professional diplomatic experience, as well as my informal messaging.”

What he appears to have overlook here is that, as one Washington Turkey watcher rightly put it, is that “Turkey has been increasingly a place where private enterprise is bound up in political relationships. Moreover, even if his partners are truly independent and apolitical, at a baseline level, he has a financial interest in the resolution of the crisis between the U.S. and Turkey. Access to debt markets, the value of the lira, etc. — they all affect his Turkey-based businesses, and therefore they affect him. He is not a disinterested party.”

If you are based in Turkey and have business ties whose business prospects are under the thumb of the country's strongman, one should rather put them in the public eye.

Even if we accept the notion that Bryza is not a friend of the current Erdogan regime, he appears to believe, like former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Jim Jeffrey and some other State or former State people, that Turkey is so valuable to the U.S. that the Washington cannot afford to lose Turkey by calling out the current regime on human right issues, press freedom, etc.

They fear that the U.S. is driving Turkey into the arms of Russia and Iran rather than recognising that it is Erdoğan taking Turkey there regardless of U.S. responses.

The fact that people like Bryza cannot bring themselves to mention the Erdoğan administration’s widely recorded human rights abuses does not bode well. Erdoğan is still managing an administration that is the world leader of jailing journalists. When told about the disappointment on this front, Bryza said he fought quite hard throughout his diplomatic career “on issues of human rights, including journalistic freedom, while serving in Poland as communism  ended (1989-1991), Russia (1995-1997), and Azerbaijan (2011). Indeed, while working in Azerbaijan, I often remarked that I spent more time pressing on fundamental freedoms and broader human rights than on any other issue.”

Bryza’s former colleagues from the State Department though paint a different picture. One colleague of Bryza wrote to Ahval, “While he was DAS, Bryza, changed the text of the 2008 Human Rights electronic report (or maybe it was the 2009, difficult to be certain) concerning a reference to Azerbaijan’s [human rights records] in the Armenia section of that report, which is not to be changed without permission of the Assistant Secretary for Democracy Rights and Labor. As the hard copy had already gone over to Congress, this was a big no no… with only 21 years in the Foreign Service, it angered many that he was getting an Ambassadorship much sooner than the average.  None of my friends or I could ever figure out..” how that happened.

Bryza added, the reason he wanted to write the op-ed is because US President Trump and Vice President Pence’s preference “to humiliate and to injure Turkey (meaning the entire country and not simply the country’s leadership) rather than respond in a dignified way to requests made by the Turkish side in a negotiation that was on the verge of success.”

Bryza also said, in our long exchanges of emails, that the The Washington Post editorial staff was fully aware that he lives in Turkey and have business interests there. He added that he did not write the byline in that op ed; that was done by the Post’s editorial staff.

Bryza likely has all the best intentions in the world while calling on U.S. and Turkish leaders to patch up the relations. However, he should be carrying it out transparently and disclosing all ties.

Living in Turkey at the moment puts a lot of pressure on public figures like Bryza. If he wants to take a lead in forming relations, he should abide by transparency rules.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.