Turkish Pressure on North Macedonia Worries Gulen Supporters
As Turkey presses North Macedonia to hand over alleged ‘Gulenists’, expatriate Turks who suspect they are on the blacklist hope the Skopje government doesn’t succumb to Ankara’s arm-twisting.
Even some 1,200 kilometres from Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s luxury presidential villa in Ankara, across two state borders, Turks living in North Macedonia consider it brave even to whisper words of support for the exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen – whom Erdogan loathes and calls a terrorist mastermind.
The fear is well founded. Ankara puts relentless pressure on Balkan neighbours to hand over alleged “Gulenists” and is currently pressing North Macedonia to send back 15 Turkish nationals whom it accuses of terrorism.
All are real or alleged supporters of the now US-based cleric whom Ankara holds responsible for a failed coup in Turkey in July 2015.
North Macedonia’s Justice Ministry has confirmed to BIRN that it has received several Turkish extradition requests since 2018.
“There are currently 15 requests for extradition [to Turkey] related to terrorism charges. All these procedures are ongoing and the institutions in charge are communicating,” the ministry said.
North Macedonia and Turkey have not revealed the identities of the wanted persons.
But the Turkish embassy in Skopje is less reticent. It has told the local Vecer daily newspaper that they include heads of educational institutions and members of Turkish-language media and NGOs working in the country.
One Turkish national in North Macedonia, who wanted to stay anonymous, does indeed fit the notorious “Gulenist” profile.
“He is in fact a Gulen supporter,” his friend from Skopje who was translating our conversation, said.
Gulen supporters think that the failed coup was faked to give Erdogan the excuse he sought to crush all potential opposition. Photo: Robert Atanasovski
However, this Turkish citizen insisted that being a “Gulenist” had nothing to do with terrorism, or with the failed attempt to oust Erdogan in 2015.
Awaiting certain jail in Turkey:
This same interlocutor came from Turkey to Skopje almost a decade ago on business. He still does not speak Macedonian.
But his children do, and he now hopes to get a North Macedonia passport. He last visited Turkey before the failed coup attempt and is convinced he would be arrested if he went again.
“I have no information about whether I am on the list of 15 persons, nor did the Macedonian authorities notify me of my extradition being requested. But I know I would be arrested if I stepped on Turkish soil,” he said.
He often combined the name “Erdogan” with the Turkish word “Dusman”, which means “foe”.
He certainly acts as if an enemy is looking for him. When he finally agreed to meet, it was in a café in Skopje far from his office, on the opposite side of the city; it was safer this way.
He said the attacks on him started five or six years ago, “when I received an offer to start working for Erdogan in Skopje, which I declined. One of his then advisors gave me this offer in person”.
Since the failed coup in Turkey, in which more than 300 people died and some 2,100 people were injured, Ankara has launched mass arrests of real and imaged political rivals, and shut down schools, organisations and media outlets on a scale not seen in recent history.
It has also cracked down hard on so-called “Gulenists” outside its borders, using diplomatic pressure on neighbours and allies to get them back in the country.
It routinely stigmatizes and demonizes them as members of the “FETO”, short for Fethullah Terrorist Organisation.
During his April 3 visit to Skopje, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar stepped up the pressure on North Macedonia to deliver suspected terrorists. He said he expected Skopje to take “action”. Akar has requested similar action from nearby Kosovo as well.
BIRN’s interlocutor insists the failed coup was faked to give Erdogan the excuse he sought to crush all potential opposition. “The coup was Erdogan’s theatre, which he used to deal with all of his opponents,” he said.
Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar [r] stepped up the pressure on North Macedonia to deliver suspected terrorists. Photo: gov.mk
He also said that after the failed coup attempt, the President had retaliated against hundreds of thousands of Turks, even though, during the actual coup attempt, only a tiny number of Turkish army staff and military pilots had attempted to take power.
Pressure on Skopje linked to NATO accession:
He says that he remains calm and does not believe that North Macedonia will hand him over to the Turkish authorities – even if he is on the black list of 15 people that Ankara wants extradited.
He says also that he has been in contact with European diplomats, who have assured him that the EU will not allow North Macedonia to extradite innocent people and will demand that the authorities in Skopje respect human rights standards in cases like this.
Prime Minister Zoran Zaev recently insisted that his country would not extradite people anywhere without due process, and without serious evidence of terrorism.
The country’s national coordinator for NATO accession, Stevo Pendarovski, who is running for the post of president, has made similar noises.
But Ankara has serious leverage over North Macedonia.
Defence Minister Radmila Shekerinska, who recently hosted her Turkish counterpart, this month told the “360 degrees” political talk show on Alsat M TV that the country needed Turkey to ratify North Macedonia’s NATO accession protocol – and warned that this might depend on Skopje delivering the people that Ankara wants.
After signing a historic friendship agreement with Bulgaria and an even more historic agreement with Greece last year, North Macedonia, took a big step towards full NATO membership this February when NATO state ministers in Brussels signed its accession protocol.
North Macedonia Defence Minister Radmila Shekerinska and her visiting Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar. Photo: mod.gov.mk
But to become the 30th NATO member state, North Macedonia needs all the parliaments of the other member states to ratify the protocol first, and Ankara is taking its time.
Meanwhile, Ankara has its eye on the country. More than two years ago, the Macedonian-language edition of the Turkish news agency Anadolu pinpointed the Jahja Kemal private schools, the Basak Tours tourist agency, the weekly Zaman Macedonia newspaper, the Sedef, Safak and Tolerance NGOs, the EVAR shop chain and the Rainbow transport company as “FETO” strongholds.
Ankara has kept up the pressure. This week, the management of the private Jahja Kemal schools issued a press release urging anyone who has any kind of evidence against them to contact the state institutions and the courts.
“Each year, during the period for enrolment of new pupils for the next school year, certain centres spread false and slanderous information about us,” the management wrote.
Last year, Zaman newspaper, like other print media outlets in the country, received a government subsidy of 15,000 euros.
But the newspaper soon returned the funds – after the Turkish embassy in Skopje accused the government of “financing terrorist organizations”.
North Macedonia’s minister without portfolio in charge for communication, transparency and accountability, Robert Popovski, told BIRN on an interview published on March 28 that Zaman had gave up these funds on its own initiative.
He insisted the government had not told the media outlet to give up the money for the sake of the country’s relations with Turkey – and to smoothen Turkish ratification of North Macedonia’s NATO accession protocol.
Either way, soon after, the newspaper closed its printed edition. It now functions exclusively on-line.