Why the American-Turkish Council (ATC) postponed its annual gathering

A U.S.-Turkish business conference in Washington that made headlines last year due to links with associates of U.S. President Donald Trump has been postponed this year due to lack of attendance.

Last year’s annual conference on U.S.-Turkey relations was held for the first time at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, with Turkish businessmen Ekim Alptekin and Sezgin Baran Korkmaz as two of the keynote speakers.

The conference is hosted jointly by the American-Turkish Council (ATC) and its Turkey-based counterpart, the Turkish-American Business Council (TAIK).

In 2014, Alptekin became the first president of TAIK to be appointed by the Turkish government-controlled parliamentary commission, after the council came fully under the government’s sway and lost its autonomy.

Following the dramatic fallout in late 2013 between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Gülen movement that the government accuses of subsequently carrying out the 2016 coup attempt, authorities moved to purge businessmen linked to the secretive group from business councils such as TAIK. 

Alptekin is also the former employer of Mike Flynn, who was Trump’s first National Security Adviser until he was forced to resign in February 2017 when details emerged of his dealings with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

Alptekin paid Flynn $530,000 in 2016 to promote Turkish interests in the United States, a role which allegedly involved Flynn trying to help to extradite Fethullah Gülen, the Pennsylvania-based Islamist preacher that Turkey blames for the 2016 coup attempt.

Alptekin, before admitting that he paid more than half a million dollars to Flynn to work on Gülen’s extradition, is known by consistently changing stories about why he hired Flynn and how he paid the money. 

Ahval sources said Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team is conducting a series of interviews in New York, Washington and New Jersey to investigate the source of the money Alptekin paid to Flynn. Two members of Turkish-American community told Ahval they were questioned by the Mueller team on whether the money paid to Flynn originated from Erdoğan’s close confidant and former minister Egemen Bağış.

This year’s U.S.-Turkish business conference, which had been scheduled for late April, has been postponed until autumn “in order to facilitate greater attendance from both countries”, according to email messages from both councils.

Sources familiar with the ATC told Ahval last week that low attendance was a serious concern this year. What is more, the sources said some major American defence companies have withdrawn from investing or securing new contracts with the Turkish defence industry. As a consequence, these big companies have little appetite for sponsoring the kind of large events traditionally held by the council.

Former national security adviser to President Barack Obama, General Jim Jones is still the chairman of the council. Under his watch, the ATC, which is supposed to be an independent business organisation, continued its partnership with the Turkish government-controlled business council, TAIK, even after it had lost its autonomy.

jones Beasey cavusoglu

Jones, according to businessmen who were in close contact with him, was unmoved by the series of steps taken by the Turkish government since he became the chairman, damaging the ATC's independent posture, therefore risking its status.

Two sources in Washington told Ahval that according to the bylaws of the business group, the council has to maintain its independence, it has to maintain its status as a U.S. organisation and has to have at least 51 percent of its membership from U.S. companies. Some have doubts that the council meets these requirements.

ATC officials declined to comment on the issue despite repeated phone calls by Ahval. Since the ATC's Turkish partner TAIK has come under the control of the Turkish government, there are serious questions about the direction of the council, several sources told Ahval.

This year, TAIK has chosen Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ as successor of Alptekin. Some in Washington are questioning the appointment as well. Yalçındağ had to step down as director general of the Doğan Media Group when leaked emails showed he had been reporting daily developments at the private media conglomerate to a staunchly, rival pro-Erdoğan media group. 

Yalçındağ is also known in Turkey as a partner of Trump since the Doğan Group is the owner Trump Towers in Istanbul. Yalçındağ posted victory messages on social media from New York on Trump’s election night and media reports suggest he has been trying to warm relations between Turkey and the new administration. In fact, Yalcindag decided to stay in New York City during the transition period of the elected president Trump and continued to spend much of his time in the U.S.

mehmet ali yalçındağ
Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ with Ivanka and Donald Trump. 2012, Gazeteciler.com

Now Yalçındağ has become the head of TAIK, the ATC's primary Turkish counterpart, questions abound about whether all these developments will result in a downgrade of the status of ATC in the United States.

In a surprise for those attending last year’s U.S.-Turkish business conference, Alptekin chose in his opening speech to address the issue of hiring Flynn and the reasons behind it, while businessmen from both sides of Atlantic were there to seek new business opportunities.

One prominent figure within the Turkish-American business community told Ahval that many participants last year believed Alptekin's remarks on a range of controversial issues had not helped the conference's agenda, though it might have helped raise Alptekin's profile.

U.S. media channels covered last year's business conference due to the Flynn controversies, and Alptekin gave numerous interviews on the subject.

Alptekin, as it later became clear, was questioned by the Mueller team in Washington in May 2017. Turkish media reported  that he was later invited back by the Mueller team to correct some of his testimony in front of a grand jury, as it was believed he had given inaccurate information. Alptekin never denied that he was invited back by the Mueller team.

Alptekin then resigned from his post because it had become impossible for him to travel to the United States. 

Another keynote speaker of 2017, Sezgin Baran Korkmaz was also invited by the Mueller team to be questioned over his role of the Turkish lobbying activities in the U.S.

Turkey’s ambassador to the United States Serdar Kılıç took the opportunity while speaking at the conference last year to slam the United States for supporting Kurdish groups opposed by Turkey and criticising his country’s record on freedom of expression.

The tirade prompted another speaker, U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon, to hit back at Turkey with his own list of criticisms that touched on its ongoing state of emergency and the aggressive acts of Erdoğan’s bodyguards during his visit to the United States.

A business conference that was supposed to be a platform to make new deals thus became politicised and that may perhaps be part of the reason why so many businessmen have opted out of this year's ATC conference, perhaps believing staying home preferable for now..