Dozens of Turks at risk at home from their affiliation with the man accused of mounting a failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have found haven in Albania. But ‘brotherly’ ties between Ankara and Tirana keep them on their toes.
By Vladimir Karaj
Early one August morning in 2016, Esin and Huseyin Sakinmaz filled their car with canned food and left their home in Istanbul. They headed south, but had little idea where they would end up.
Fearing highway cameras would record their licence plates, they took country roads for hundreds of kilometres. For three days and three nights, they ate, slept and lived in their car. They did not ask anyone for directions so as not to attract attention.
“As my husband drove I felt paralysed, unable to murmur a word; my mind was numb, I couldn’t feel anything,” Esin recalled two years later, seated on a park bench on Tirana’s central Skenderbej square, named after the medieval Albanian warrior prince who rebelled against the Ottoman Turks.
A mother of three young children, Esin worked as a communications specialist at an Istanbul office of the Gulen Movement, created by the US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen and operating a vast network of schools around the world.
On July 15, 2016, after crushing a coup, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, pinned the blame on Gulen and unleashed a withering crackdown.
When 56 friends and colleagues in her office were arrested in mid-August, Esin feared she would be next.
Leaving their children with her parents, Esin and her husband hit the road, eventually reaching Adana in southern Turkey, from where Esin took a flight to the United States on August 30, 2016. More than two years later, in October, the family was reunited in the Albanian capital.
Gulen has denied any involvement in the failed putsch, in which 251 people died.
But Erdogan, in power for 15 years, moved quickly to take revenge. According to Amnesty International, more than 50,000 people accused of links to the Gulen Movement have been jailed, with as many more facing prosecution. More than 130,000 people have been fired from the military, police, civil service and academia.
Many more are believed to have fled fearing persecution, with nearly 14,000 seeking asylum in the European Union last year alone, according to the bloc’s statistics office, Eurostat.
An estimated 60 families have sought refuge in Albania, a predominantly Muslim country once ruled by the Ottoman Turks but now a member of NATO and a candidate for accession to the EU. They have joined a community of Turkish teachers and administrators working in Gulen schools in Tirana since the early 1990s after communism fell.
Esin and her peers are considered ‘terrorists’ by the Turkish government, which has put pressure on the government of Albania and others in the Balkans for their extradition. Tirana has so far resisted, but its Turkish community still lives in fear.
Over a period of several months, BIRN interviewed a number of Gulen followers who escaped Turkey for Albania. Wanted in their homeland, often shunned by their own families, they have not yet sought asylum and fear for their security given the considerable political and economic clout Turkey wields in the Balkans.
In countries like Albania, which have weak economies and are desperate for foreign investment, “Erdogan can do many things with money,” said a 43-year-old journalist who fled Turkey for Tirana. He gave his name as Ismail.
“Albanians love Erdogan”
Part of the Ottoman Empire until the early twentieth century, Albania is today pushing for membership of the EU, which has grown increasingly critical of Erdogan’s authoritarian bent.
Tirana, however, has historically had strong ties with Ankara and benefits from Turkish investment. Prime Minister Edi Rama has referred to Erdogan as “our brother and inseparable friend” and his government is working with Ankara on construction of an airport in the southern coastal city of Vlora and creation of a national airline.
Erdogan and his allies have called on Tirana and other Balkan states to shut down any Gulen schools on their territory; Albania has so far resisted, insisting local legislation must be respected, but Rama has referred to the Gulen Movement as “dangerous”.
“When it comes to Albania, we keep under observation people who are supposedly linked to that network,” he said in a television interview in May this year.
Turkey stepped up the pressure in October with a visit by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
“We don’t harbour terrorists from Albania,” Cavusoglu told a Tirana press conference with his Albanian counterpart, Ditmir Bushati. “We expect the same of our Albanian friends.”
In response, Bushati said Albania would adhere to “all international charters for extraditions.”
Public statements aside, Albania is torn between the need to maintain good ties with Ankara and the expectations of the EU that it support the human rights of those who have fled Erdogan’s rule.
A senior Albanian government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told BIRN that concern within the cabinet deepened after Cavusoglu’s visit.
“The Sultan asks of us things we cannot deliver,” the source quoted Bushati as telling Rama during a cabinet meeting after the visit. Rama responded with a nod of his head, the source said.
According to Albania’s Ministry of Interior, 35 Turkish citizens have applied for asylum in Albania since 2016. Several times that number are actually believed to have fled for Albania.
The Gulen followers in Albania who spoke to BIRN said they had not sought official asylum for fear of exposure. They say Rama’s close relationship with Erdogan puts them at risk.
One of them, the journalist called Ismail, made his way to Tirana after the failed coup having been dismissed by text message from the TV station where he worked. Speaking in his rented apartment in a Tirana suburb, Ismail said he had no plans to seek asylum in Albania.
“In the worst case scenario, if circumstances will not be in our favor, I will seek asylum from another European country,” he said.
A Turkish businessman who relocated to Tirana with his family after authorities seized several million of euros of his money said he too feared the warm ties between Rama and Erdogan.
“Erdogan and Rama are close friends,” he said, sipping Turkish tea in a bar on the outskirts of the capital. “Albanians love Erdogan.”
Nevertheless, Mustafa Ustuner, administrator of the Gulen-led Turkish high schools in Albania, said that they had not faced any problems from the authorities. He described his life in Albania as “calm, happy and safe”, but that pressure from the Turkish government had made work more difficult.
“Some of the previous shareholders were Turkish citizens that lived in Turkey,” he told BIRN. “Affected by the pressure and fear present in Turkey, they decided to withdraw from the company, passing their shares to shareholders who live outside Turkey,” he said.
Esin expected to be reunited with her family soon after she flew to the US. With the help of her father, she started a company in Texas, but the money quickly dried up after his Turkish bank accounts were frozen.
Her husband, Huseyin, who had served as a headmaster for a Gulen High School in Istanbul, was refused a US visa. Left alone with their children, he returned to Istanbul, but did not feel safe.
In November 2016, Huseyin moved to Bosnia and later applied for a resident permit in Kosovo, a neighbour of Albania.
Then in January 2017, he returned to Turkey, took the children and relocated to Tirana with the help of an Albanian friend. Esin, meanwhile, travelled to Canada, where she was granted asylum.
In October she flew to Albania to be reunited with her family. Huseyin also applied for asylum in Canada and was awaiting a response from Canadian authorities when they were interviewed for this story.
Tirana has become a popular destination among Gulen followers due to the low cost of living. But its weak economy means many do not set down roots. Rather, most see it as a transit point to the West. None expect to return to Turkey.
“People became wicked. I don’t understand how it happened,” Esin told BIRN, describing a Turkey where people informed on their neighbours for 5,000 lira.
“There was a feeling of fear, entire families were divided,” she said through tears.
Ismail, too, recalled harrowing days in Turkey before he fled. His neighbours drafted a plan to expel him and his family from their apartment, he said, and would not let their children play together.
Others, he said, were branded, their front doors sprayed with the letter ‘F’, denoting FETO, or the Gulenist Terrorist Organisation, as the authorities refer to the Gulen Movement.
Two years on, Ismail says he is still in touch with his mother but that his brother and neighbours have urged her to cut all ties with him.
“They all see her as the mother of a ‘terrorist’, but I have never touched a gun in my life,” he said.
All those interviewed by BIRN dismissed the accusations made against them and the Gulen Movement. But the pressure is unrelenting, they say.
“You know you are innocent, but the people and society continuously put pressure on you,” said Huseyin Sakinmaz said. “There comes a point when you ask yourself did I maybe make a mistake that I should face such difficulties.”
The long arm of Turkish law
In 2016, the Turkish government instigated a campaign to bring back the so-called ‘escaped enemies’ after the failed coup, but also those who had left years earlier.
Around 100 people have been extradited to Turkey since, including six teachers hastily deported from Kosovo in March 2018 in an operation involving Turkish intelligence and condemned by the country’s own prime minister, Ramush Haradinaj. Bosnia and Macedonia have also come under pressure.
The campaign has worsened already strained relations between Turkey and its Western NATO allies, including Washington, which has refused to interfere in Gulen’s self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.
Ankara says it has handed Tirana a list of names, but no one has been extradited yet.
“The Turkish government is using every method and tactic,” said Abdullah Bozkurt, the former head of the English service of the Turkish daily Zaman, who was seized and closed by the state in March 2016. Bozkurt left Turkey in July 2016 after 47 colleagues were arrested following the coup. He received asylum in Sweden, where he runs an organisation created by Turkish exiles and called the Stockholm Center for Freedom, which promotes the rule of law, democracy and democratic rights with a focus on Turkey.
“They are offering contracts, money, favours and intergovernmental agreement in order to make this happen,” he said via Skype.
Bozkurt said Turkish embassies were heading up a campaign of intimidation, targeting Turkish exiles but with an eye on scaring those still in Turkey.
“It’s part of the intimidation campaign to maintain a climate of fear inside Turkey,” he said.
“You could be outside the country but are never secure because we will follow you, will punish you, throw you in jail and you will never see the light of day.”
The Gulen followers BIRN interviewed said they were sure they were under surveillance and never ventured into the city unaccompanied.
Ismail said that though he had not told his Tirana address to anyone, the Turkish police had shown it to his brother in Istanbul, along with other details, during an interrogation.
He said he noticed three Turkish-speaking people close to the apartment where he lived, watching anyone coming and going.
“Every time we read an article about Erdogan we get scared,” said Ismail. “Barely a week goes by without an adviser or spokesperson of the president declaring that no one should feel secure… ‘We will find a way,’ they say, to pack us up and bring us back.”
For the same reason, Esin and Huseyin initially asked that the not be identified in this article should they still be in Albania when it was published. At the end of October, they sent a short email hinting that they had left the country.
“You can now publish the interview in full,” they wrote. “It’s not a problem for us anymore.”