With a relatively friendly president in the White House and an array of lobbying firms at its disposal, Turkey still managed to get booted out of the prestigious F-35 fighter jet program in 2019.
That year, according to a review of lobbying disclosures by the Center for Responsive Politics, the Turkish government spent $3.6 million on seven different lobbying firms.
Fast-forward two years, and Ankara’s troubled relationship with Washington has only gotten worse.
Where President Donald Trump turned a blind eye to human rights abuses by US allies in pursuit of his “America First” agenda, Joe Biden on Saturday became the first US commander-in-chief to recognize the Ottoman-era genocide of Armenians in present-day Turkey.
In Congress, lawmakers from both parties are increasingly decrying what they call the “increasingly authoritarian path” taken by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
And US prosecutors are going forward with their criminal case against state-owned Turkish lender Halkbank on Iran sanctions-busting charges that threaten to engulf Erdogan’s son-in-law, former Finance Minister Berat Albayrak.
Worse still, the multiplying crises are happening as the Turkish government continues to hemorrhage lobbying firms that Ankara has long counted on to facilitate access and help sell its message in Congress and the executive branch. Amid a sustained pressure campaign from the Armenian-American diaspora, the embassy is down to just three firms registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) and no longer has any former members of Congress helping represent its interests.
“They are looking for lobby firms. Aggressively,” said Bilal Eksili, the executive director of the National Council On Civil Advocacy, a group close to US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen that has been lobbying on human rights in Turkey since 2019. The Erdogan government blames Gulen and his followers for a failed coup in 2016 and has been cracking down on alleged Gulenists ever since.
The Turks “are in huge need right now,” Eksili said. “This is a like a life-and-death matter for Erdogan. He needs the support of Biden.”
Eksili told Foreign Lobby Report that he is in talks with a lobbying firm, which he declined to name, that has been courted by the Turkish government but has so far turned them down. Other firms shared similar tales but declined to go on record for fear of endangering possible business opportunities.
As early as November, the New York Times reported that Turkey was in talks with Democratic lobbyist Manny Ortiz as Ankara prepared for the Biden administration. The Turkish Embassy did not respond to requests for comment.
Longtime Turkey watchers say it makes perfect sense for the embassy to ramp up its lobbying now, especially after a new ambassador, Hasan Murat Mercan, took office just last month with the message that the US and Turkey “can together accomplish great feats.”
“There’s a new Turkish ambassador who really wants to work with Congress, he wants to reach out to everyone,” said Gonul Tol, the founding director of the Turkey program at the Middle East Institute. “I would expect him to ramp up efforts to hire more lobbyists and all that.”
Finding them, however, is proving difficult as Armenian-American groups vow to keep up a pressure campaign that kicked into high gear following Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan in last year’s bloody conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, also known as Artsakh.
“You’re going to find that there are people who are going to be, unfortunately, happy to take their money, because it’s such a lucrative account,” said Elizabeth Chouldjian, the communications director at the Armenian National Committee of America. “And we’ll be going after them as well. It’s not about anyone personally, it has to do with, we have a red line that says we shouldn’t be making money off of genocide denial or white-washing attacks against Armenia and Artsakh.”
Mercury Public Affairs, which had a $1 million contract with the Turkish Embassy in Washington, was the first to call it quits in October 2020.
Greenberg Traurig followed suit days later, ending a $1.5 million contract. Former Reps. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) and Al Wynn (D-Md.) had been among the lobbyists registered on that account.
Greenberg subcontractor Venable was next to go in early November. Former Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) had been leading Venable’s lobbying on the account.
And just last week, Capitol Counsel, another former Greenberg subcontractor, also disclosed that it was parting ways with Turkey after signing on directly with the embassy amid the shakeup last fall. Former Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) had been registered on that account.
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Only three firms now remain registered under FARA for embassy work.
This includes the embassy’s longtime Washington law firm Saltzman & Evinch, which the Department of Justice forced to register last year, citing its coordination with lobbying firms.
Amsterdam & Partners also remains registered but its focus is on shutting down Gulen-linked charter schools in the US that Turkey says raise money for his outlawed group of followers.
That leaves longtime Turkey lobbyist Lydia Borland and her firm, LB International Solutions. Borland had been working as a subcontractor for Capitol Counsel but appeared Monday in a video meeting between the ambassador and Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), co-chairman of the Congressional Turkey Caucus, indicating that she remains engaged on the account.
Other Turkish groups with government links also remain active.
Mercury for example still has a $1 million contract with the Turkish-US Business Council, or TAIK, which includes working with Turkey’s Ministry of Economy. Boustany is registered on that account.
And in February Ankara-based SSTEK Savunma Sanayi Teknolojiler (Defense Industry Technologies) hired Arnold & Porter for $750,000 to try to help Turkey get back in the F-35 program after Trump’s Pentagon expelled the country over its purchase of Russian air-defense systems. SSTEK is wholly owned by the Presidency of Defense Industries (SSB), the government office that manages Turkey’s defense industry.
Even as Turkey’s lobbying has collapsed, Erdogan’s opponents see an opportunity under Biden.
The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) has vowed to fight Turkish calls to shut down the party and draw US attention to the ongoing trial of the party’s former co-chairs on charges that they incited deadly protests in 2014. Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, who have been jailed since 2016, are among 108 suspects on trial.
Under the Biden administration, “we’re hearing more sentences like ‘democracy and human rights will be a core value of diplomacy’,” said the HDP’s US representative Giran Ozcan. “That definitely resonates with us. And if that really is the case, then our message will definitely resonate more in DC, too.”
The National Council On Civil Advocacy’s Eksili said Congress and the Biden administration have been “very receptive” to the group’s criticism of Erdogan’s policies. He pointed to congressional letters in both the House and Senate that his group helped craft urging President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to prioritize human rights in dealing with Turkey.
“There’s a big difference between the Trump era and the Biden era,” Eksili said. ” We talk with a lot of key officials and members of the Cabinet already, within the first two months.”
The Middle East Institute’s Tol said the embassy will probably want to follow suit.
“One of the staffers was telling me that we had members (of Congress) who had never been interested in Turkey before but now, all of a sudden, they are super anti-Turkey, they want to know everything about Turkish domestic politics, because they are working with all these new groups,” Tol said.
“The anti-Turkey groups are super active on the Hill. So you would expect the Turkish government to work with more lobbying firms.”