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US and Turkey 'quietly' working on release of American pastor

With the lira's nosedive, Ankara feels pressure to resolve Andrew Brunson debacle, but has asked the US to cut the public squabbling
Andrew Brunson was detained in October 2016 and arrested in December same year (AP)

ISTANBUL, Turkey - After a major escalation of tensions between the US and Turkey over the summer, an American pastor at the heart of the diplomatic row may soon be released, according to US and Turkish officials.

Rhetoric between the two countries heated up this July after a Turkish judge ordered Andrew Brunson, who is accused of backing a July 2016 coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to be put under house arrest rather than released - and took the value of the lira with it.

But the shrill tone and tit-for-tat tariff slapping has lulled lately.

The calm, according to a Turkish diplomat, comes after Ankara, under pressure to stem the country’s economic freefall, told Washington that the conflict could only be resolved if the public squabbling stopped.

“We knew we had to solve the problem and normalise our relations with the US for the sake of Turkey’s economy, but it was not possible to do that amid challenging statements,” said the diplomat.

“So we both decided to prevent any more escalation and solve the problem quietly.”

On Tuesday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted that Brunson’s fate was a judicial matter, pointing to the pastor’s next hearing, scheduled for 12 October.

“As the president, I don’t have the right to order his release. Our judiciary is independent. Let’s wait and see what the court will decide,” Erdogan told Reuters in an exclusive interview.

'There is a will on both sides'

But the Turkish diplomat and a US diplomat told MEE that Brunson is the subject of talks currently underway at “the highest levels”.

“There is a will on both sides to solve this problem,” said the US diplomat. “We both want to leave this problem behind and focus on other areas to further our cooperation; especially Manbij, trade relations, and so on.”

The dispute has significantly impacted the Turkish economy with the lira losing 40 percent of its value since July and inflation rising by 3 percent during the same period.

The government has held talks with foreign investors, raised interest rates and announced a new economic strategy to try to curb the slump. An annual reception held when parliament opens in early October was cancelled this year to save money.

But the slide has continued – until Monday when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters at the UN General Assembly that Brunson might be released this month, leading the lira value to jump to a one-week high.

A financial adviser to one of the big companies in Turkey told MEE that government officials recently told him to expect positive steps on normalisation of US-Turkey relations, which would help to heal the economy. 

Murat Sagman, economist and lecturer at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, said that while the US is not a key trade partner for Turkey, it is a strategic ally so the diplomatic problems influence the Turkish economy directly.

“Turkey’s trade with the US is very small in comparison to the European countries. But when you look at the political alliances and relations, when there is tension, the Turkish lira loses value and that leads to a higher inflation rate. The people lose their purchase power,” he told MEE.

Turkey’s foreign debt, now totalling more than $220bn, will have negative effects on the country’s private sector along with warnings from credit rating agencies about the state of Turkey’s banks.

It’s too soon to tell how much damage the row has caused indirectly, but he said nothing good can come if the row continues.

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