WikiLeaks Source Turkish Ambassador in Ashgabat Recalled to Ankara
Ambassador Huseyin Bichakli (Hüseyin Avni Bıçaklı), the Turkish envoy to Ashgabat, who was revealed by WikiLeaks to have reportedly served as a source to the U.S. Embassy about concerns of uranium transfer to Iran, appears to have been recalled to Ankara. Ambassador Sevki Mutevellioglu has been appointed as the new Turkish ambassador to Turkmenistan.
I've been watching to see what sort of fallout might occur for Ambassador Bichalli and other named and unnamed (but findable) sources exposed by WikiLeaks. There has been concern that U.S. ambassadors signing the purported cables might be recalled, and some leaders in Kenya, Germany and other countries have urged American envoys to be recalled.
But what about all those foreign diplomatic sources the American ambassadors talked to? U.S. officials have denounced WikiLeaks for possibly exposing human rights activists reporting on such topics as torture, although no such figures are known to have suffered retaliation (yet). Meanwhile, many of the "Cablegate" sources are among U.S. foreign service officers' own colleagues in the international diplomatic corps, and some of them may be in hot water now.
A December 2 article on the Turkish news site bianet said that Bichali was "transferred to the Head Office last month before having completed his fourth year abroad" with a sub-head "Transferred to Ankara in October," i.e. ostensibly before the publication of WikiLeaks November 28. The U.S. knew that the publication of the cables was coming ahead of that date, and sought to warn officials abroad; perhaps Bichakli was one of them.
In fact, the Turkish diplomat seems to have remained in Ashgabat for some time, as he was reported in the Turkish press as hosting a trade reception on October 29, his picture is still on the Turkish Embassy website and he is still listed on the U.S. Embassy's website as the ambassador from Turkey.
In a cable reportedly sent February 24, 2009, Amb. Bichakli had reported his fears of possible covert assistance from Russia and Turkmenistan in building Iran's nuclear capacity:
In a meeting with the Chargé on February 17, Turkish Ambassador Huseyin Bichakli raised concerns about reports that Turkmenistan and Russia plan to resume uranium production in Turkmenistan. He said that he had learned from sources that a Russian military delegation had visited Turkmenistan in early January and visited the site of a former "uranium" plant at Kizilkaya in Balkan Province. The plant operated during the Soviet era. He said that the delegation was also briefed on the planned North-South railroad line from Russia to Iran, which includes a 700 km stretch through Turkmenistan. Ambassador Bichakli said there were rumors that the railroad would be used to transport uranium processed at the currently inactive Turkmen uranium plant to Iran.
I noted that the site in question was a chemical plant that both NATO and Russian experts had visited and was being cleaned up by a Russian firm, and that the railroad wasn't finished yet. So maybe the report wasn't so much whistle-blowing as crying wolf -- although we don't all the facts of the situation from this very closed country where independent media and civil society are harshly discouraged.
Aside from the substance of the uranium claims, however, there was the obvious liklihood of fallout when the "vain" and "micromanaging" Turkmen President Gurbangaly Berdymukhamedov found out that the ambassador of his chief trading partner, Turkey, whose companies build many of his government palaces and help boost his textile and other industries, was now openly running to the Americans to invoke doubts about the sincerity of the most sacred precept of Turkmen statecraft -- "neutrality". A comment at the end of the cable stated, "Ambassador Bichakli did not provide his sources, but noted that for Turkmenistan to collaborate with Russia to transport processed uranium to Iran, particularly in a surreptitious manner, is inconsistent with its policy of neutrality."
Intriguingly, although the Turkish media said Bichalli was recalled before completing his fourth year abroad , and referred to the cable as a "diplomatic scandal," there does not seem to have been any official denunciations from Ashgabat or comments from Ankara.
Far from being declared "persona non grata," Bichali was given a warm personal send-off by President Berdymukhamedov in Ashgabat on December 22 -- a typical ritual staged by the Turkmen leader for most foreign ambassadors completing their tours of duty.
The account from the State News Agency of Turkmenistan illustrates that Bichakli may have learned to re-phrase his assessment of Turkmenistan a lot more diplomatically -- or else the government propaganda templates have portrayed him so:
As the diplomat emphasized, it was a great honor to represent his country in independent neutral Turkmenistan, which today is going through a new historic era, signified by large-scale progressive reforms and impressive achievements in all spheres of life. Moreover, Huseyin Avin Bichakli noted the rapid dynamics of reforms undertaken in the Turkmen state in recent years at the initiative of President Berdymukhamedov.
There was much more in that vein, culminating with Bichakli's recognition of "the international initiatives of the Turkmen leader aimed at strengthening universal peace and security" -- no more references to uranium and Iran.
The state-choreographed event ultimately proved the imperviousness of the diplomatic machine to WikiLeaks -- clearly both Ashgabat and Ankara valued their own special relationship more than the possible sensational ramifications of one Turkish ambassador's over-anxious gossiping with the Americans, and simply sent a new guy. We will have to stay tuned to Bichakli's further diplomatic career to see if he suffers any repercussions.
Meanwhile, the U.S. still does not have an ambassador appointed to Turkmenistan, this energy-rich nation bordered by Iran and Afghanistan used as a listening post on a volatile region. The chargé who signed this cable is long gone, as is another one who came after her; the most recent chargé, Eileen Malloy, is at the ambassador level, and has denounced the WikiLeaks cables without confirming their contents.
I will go on wondering what will happen to the Turkmen factory director who boasted to a U.S. source that his plant could make trailers for use in Afghanistan; to the policeman who told an Embassy official who happened to be his neighbor that he was fired from his job after a driver's supposed assassination attempt; to the Iranian truck driver who took literature from American Iran-watchers at the Turkmen border -- and others whose names may be redacted but who may be traceable.