By Julian Dierkes and Mendee Jargalsaikhan
More than just a curious spy story, this might turn into a full diplomatic crisis between Mongolia and Turkey, a relationship that has been active and vibrant for some years.
Note that it is still unclear what exactly happened and the timeline below is simply what we have been able to put together from Mongolian reports that we have not been able to corroborate. We’re thus dealing with speculation and allegations here.
Note also that we do not have any particular insights into the international aims and role of the Gülen movement. This is a big debate in many countries, including Germany, for example where we have no particular expertise. Instead, we’re focused on events/implications in Mongolia here.
Sequence of Events
Timeline as reconstructed from Mongolian sources (Ulaanbaatar) :
0930 (4-5) strangers kidnapped Veysel Akçay outside of his apartment
1100 Family reported to the police that he was missing
1300 Ganbat, Mongolian co-director of school – spoke to the public (Facebook video)
1500 Veysel Akçay was brought to the airport
Relevant Government Agencies: Ministry of Road and Transportation, Civil Aviation Authority, Border Authority, Customs Authority – are inspecting if the Turkish airplane of the Special Ambassador – is connected or not.
People protested at the airport – around 1600 (news.mn photo)
MPs Baasankhuu raised concern, Lu Bold arrived at the airport
Туркээс ирсэн онгоц хамгаалалтанд бн. pic.twitter.com/mNtlXZxNJZ
— Luvsanvandan BOLD (@boldlu) July 27, 2018
Deputy Foreign Minister Battsetseg B – summoned the Turkish Charge de Affair
Deputy Foreign Minister B.Battsetseg called urgent meeting with Turkish diplomat @TsogtbaatarD https://t.co/83sF4dVU2J
— MFA Mongolia (@MongolDiplomacy) July 27, 2018
1700 NSC members – Speaker, President, and Prime Minister directed not to allow the Turkish plane take off until the investigation is complete.
1800 The attorney for Akçay –announced that the police is conducting the investigation and General Prosecutor’s office is controlling the process.
1900 Ganbat, Mongolian co-director, reported that Mr. Akçay talked with him over phone.
2125 – Deputy Minister of Road and Transportation tweeted ‘there was no additional passengers in the special plane, which took off’
Хэн ч энэ онгоцонд нэмж суугаагүй хэн ч бууж үлдээгүй ямар ч ачаа аваагүй зөвхөн газрын үйлчилгээ сумалгаа аваад буцлаа.
Тайван амгалан байцгаана уу! Баярлалаа. pic.twitter.com/fUXx6vAXIa
— Б.Цогтгэрэл (@TsogtgerelB) July 27, 2018
2300 – The Police Department reported – Mr. Veysel Akçay is at the police for additional questioning
0222 – After a medical exam, Mr. Akçay is home
Тэрээр “Би зүгээр. Хэргийг шалгаж байна. Та нартаа баярлалаа” гэв https://t.co/VRL84iyxjW
— Eagle News (@Eaglenewssocial) July 27, 2018
On the morning of July 27 (local time), Mongolian foreign minister D Tsogtbaatar hurriedly left from a visit to Washington DC to return to Ulaanbaatar. The day before, Tsogtbaatar had attended a ministerial conference to advance freedom of religion around the world!
Foreign Minister @TsogtbaatarD participate in the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the first-ever Ministerial being held in Washington to advance religious freedom around the world. @MongolDiplomacy pic.twitter.com/lRqmzSxs3n
— Mongolian Embassy US (@MGLEmbassy_USA) July 26, 2018
- Was the Turkish embassy involved in any way?
- Did any parts of the Mongolian security apparatus collaborate/assist Turkish agencies?
- Why was the plane allowed to depart? If there was an abduction and if there is a suspicion that the passengers who ultimately left on that plane were involved, why were they not held? Apparently, passengers of the plane had diplomatic immunity and the plane never opened its door, so the occupants could not have been involved directly in the abduction, but may have been awaiting “delivery” of an extra passenger.
The Turkish teacher V.Akchay is released. The criminal case of kidnapping is opened according to the law. The Mongolian auhtority who cooperated with Turkish security office will be hold responsible for the illegal actions. Rule of law means no one is above the law pic.twitter.com/20Clq6fksV
— Jargal Dambadarjaa (@jargal_defacto) July 27, 2018
If the events today turn into a major diplomatic crisis (the potential is clearly there) what will implications be?
Turkey has been increasingly active in its relationship with Mongolia (Moğolistan in Turkish) for the past ten years or so.
There’s an Ankara Street in Ulaanbaatar, TICA (Turkey’s international aid agency) has been undertaken many projects in Mongolia, many Mongolian students have studied at Turkish universities, including many that benefitted from scholarships.
Much of the development of the Mongolian relationship occurred in the context of Turkish democracy and Turkey’s continued move towards Europe. All that has changed with Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian turn under Pres. Erdogan, of course.
If reporting has been right that the Mongolian government essentially prevented this kidnapping, this reinforces the country’s image as a “scrappy democracy in a tough neighbourhood”. It might also seriously damage Mongolian-Turkish relations with implications for Mongolian students and continued funding of Turkish development projects in Mongolia.
But what will Central Asian countries think about a Turkish government that apparently disregards sovereignty in its pursuit of authoritarian government aims? Much of Central Asia is dominated by authoritarian regimes of various stripes, but any democracy movements will be significantly less keen on Turkish activities in Central Asia given this kind of behaviour.
What does China have to do with anything?
Well, Turkey’s persecution of the Gülen movement does resemble Chinese persecution of Uighurs in some ways, and this parallel could be extended to Inner Mongolian activists. What were to happen if Mongolia at some point refused to return an Inner Mongolian and Chinese security services attempted an abduction?
We’ll try to keep an eye on any Chinese reporting/comments on this event in coming days.
Unless the crisis somehow boils over with some kind of diplomatic confrontation, detention of Turkish agents in Mongolia, or actual abduction of Mr. Akçay, it seems unlikely that other countries will involve themselves. Obviously, EU embassies could share some of the experience of Turkish security service activities against the Gülen movement in Europe, but in all likelihood that would happen very quietly.
I have to note, of course, that the Mongolian intelligence services are no strangers to the abduction of nationals abroad. This is part of the notoriety of B Khurts, erstwhile Mongolian spy, who was involved in the abduction of a Mongolian from Paris via Berlin in 2003, events that ultimately nearly derailed the visit of German chancellor A Merkel to Mongolia in 2011. It’s not clear whether the Turkish abduction attempt will lead to a reexamination of that history, particularly in light of Khurts’ display of blatant disrespect for parliament in the Fall.
“Well, Turkey’s persecution of the Gülen movement does resemble Chinese persecution of Uighurs in some ways, and this parallel could be extended to Inner Mongolian activists. What were to happen if Mongolia at some point refused to return an Inner Mongolian and Chinese security services attempted an abduction?”
I would compare the crack-down on Gülenists/Hizmet to that on Falun Gong. Setting the accuracy of such an idea aside, the idea is that the movement has infiltrated government and social institutions, and challenges the AK government’s definition of Turkish religiosity/secularism, which of course is integrally linked with the form of the post-WWI Turkish sovereign state as the creation of Atatürk. Similarly, Falun Gong was held by the Chinese government to have spread throughout the state and party institutions themselves, and did not cooperate with Chinese government controls on qigong and other religious organizations.
Also, for the record, according to the Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Commission, Mongolia has apparently deported Inner Mongolian asylum seekers to China. https://lib.ohchr.org/HRBodies/UPR/Documents/session9/MN/HRCC_HumanRightsCenterforCitizens.pdf