Answering journalists’ questions after the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting in Brussels on Wednesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu addressed President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s harsh reaction to US Ambassador Jeff Flake’s visit to presidential candidate and main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, claiming Erdoğan declined an invitation from US President Joe Biden to the White House because it would not be proper to visit Washington, D.C., during an election year in Turkey.
Çavuşoğlu stated that the government pays great attention to election years, and that if there is an election being held in the country they intend to visit, they postpone it. Regarding foreign leaders coming to Turkey, the government does not receive them during election campaign periods, according to Çavuşoğlu.
The top diplomat for the first time revealed that Erdogan turned down a White House invitation from Biden for precisely this reason while two the leaders were meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali on November 15, 2022, a meeting that was not announced in advance. It was not clear until the last minute whether the meeting would take place.
After the meeting neither side released a statement regarding the invitation, which was disclosed to the public by Çavuşoğlu on Wednesday. The fact that this detail was not covered in the pro-government Turkish media probably means that the invitation Çavuşoğlu mentioned, if there actually was one, was nothing more than a courtesy. Given the fact that the US Department of State has issued several statements denying remarks made by Çavuşoğlu and the Turkish Foreign Ministry in the past, it is unclear if Erdogan turned down the invitation, or even if such an invitation was extended.
Çavuşoğlu said making a visit when the election campaign was starting would give the appearance of “taking sides” and said he conveyed this to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, with whom he met Wednesday. “Under normal conditions, ambassadors can meet with anyone in the country. Ambassadors of other countries also seek our opinion and ‘permission.’ Such communications take place, but the ambassador met with a presidential candidate in an election year, and It is not acceptable for him to appear to be taking sides,” he said.
Erdogan reacted harshly to the March 31 visit of US Ambassador Flake to Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.
“[This is] shameful. … You are an ambassador, and your interlocutor here is the president, use your mind a little,” Erdogan said.
Visiting a branch of the Gray Wolves (Ülkü Ocakları), the youth organization of government partner the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Erdogan also criticized US President Biden.
“We need to teach America a lesson in these elections. Joe Biden is speaking over there, but look what his ambassador is doing here. He goes and visits Kılıçdaroğlu. It’s shameful.”
Meanwhile, Ambassador Flake did not attend an iftar dinner given by Erdogan for ambassadors on Wednesday. A spokesperson at the US Embassy in Ankara said in a statement to the media, “Ambassador Flake was very pleased to be invited to the traditional iftar dinner organized by the AK Party (ruling Justice and Development Party). The ambassador will be out of Ankara on the date of the event due to a pre-planned program and will not be able to attend. The diplomatic mission in Turkey will be represented at the event.”
Since it is rare for an ambassador to decline an invitation from the president of the country where he or she is serving, it seems the US is seriously disturbed by Erdogan’s statements. Flake’s absence from the dinner was perceived as a protest in the Turkish media.
It’s no secret that President Biden and Erdogan don’t get along very well. Unhappy with former president Donald Trump’s defeat in the last election, Erdogan said troubled relations between Turkey and the US had sunk to a new low after Biden formally recognized the Armenian genocide in April 2021.
Moreover, the US officially excluded Turkey from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program in 2021 because Ankara had purchased a Russian S-400 missile defense system.
Erdogan was not invited to last week’s Summit for Democracy 2023 hosted by Biden for the second year in a row.
Erdogan would be unlikely to miss an opportunity to visit the White House before the May elections. It is widely known how eager he is to meet with American presidents at international summits. Erdogan attaches great importance to being a leader who is still accepted in the West. There is no doubt that he would see a visit to the White House as a great opportunity to show that he has international support before the elections.
An inconsistency in Çavuşoğlu’s statements is his assertion that leaders intending to visit Turkey are asked to come after the elections. For instance, Erdogan is looking for ways to have his picture taken with Russian President Vladimir Putin before the election. During a live interview last week, Erdogan did not hide his desire to see Putin attend the April 27 inauguration of the first reactor at the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, built by Russia in southern Turkey.
“There is a possibility that Mr. Putin will come on the 27th of April. If not, we’ll connect virtually,” Erdogan said.
The Kremlin denied reports that Putin was coming to Turkey. However, the Turkish government aims to strengthen Erdogan’s image by hosting a ceremony with Putin in attendance before the elections.