As Germany keeps pressing Erdoğan

As Germany keeps pressing Erdoğan

In his first public speech, as reported on March 22, new German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier directly criticized Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, asking him to stop “jeopardizing everything” that he has built “with others” so far. “The way we look [at Turkey] is characterized by worry that everything built up over years and decades is collapsing,” Steinmeier said. “End the unspeakable Nazi comparisons. Do not cut ties with those people who want a partnership with Turkey. Respect the rule of law and the freedom of media and journalists. And release Deniz Yucel.”

Yücel is a Turkish-origin journalist with German citizenship who was arrested on Feb. 27 on accusations of helping the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). On March 22 Erdoğan said, without directly giving Yücel’s name, that the government would not allow “foreign agents” in journalistic or any other disguise, and was determined to take necessary action against them. That statement might affect the working conditions of foreign reporters in Turkey as the country heads to a crucial referendum on April 16. 

“Turkey is not a country to be jostled around. If they continue on this course, the Europeans will not be able to find a street in the world where they can walk comfortably,” Erdoğan added.

The Steinmeier speech is a last - but seemingly not the least - step in the escalating tension between Turkey and Germany, two countries with deep political, economic and military ties, with 3 million people of Turkish origin living in Germany.

Before Steinmeier, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on the “Turkish leadership” to end “Nazi comparisons” after Turkish ministers were not allowed to carry out domestic political campaigning among the Turkish population there for a “Yes” vote in the referendum on shifting to an executive presidential system, as promoted by Erdoğan for years.

And just before then there was the Der Spiegel interview with German Foreign Intelligence (BND) chief Bruno Kahl, in which he said the Turkish government had not been able to convince them that the U.S.-resident Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen was behind the July 15, 2016 military coup attempt. He also spoke in defense of the Gülen network as a “civilian association” based on religious and secular education, not a terrorist one. In response, Sedat Ergin, a senior columnist for daily Hürriyet, criticized Kahl’s statement and noted that as an intelligence chief he must at least have seen the photos showing Gülen with Adil Öksüz, a theologian arrested at the Akıncı air base on the night of the coup attempt together with coup soldiers but then mysteriously released, allegedly with the help of Gülenist police officers and judiciary members who are now under arrest.

But when looked from a broader perspective, it could be argued that Germany is sending a message to Erdoğan that it has an idea about what has happened in Turkey over the last few years and what is happening now, thanks to its own intelligence and information received from the Gülen network, which Ankara believes the Germans have recruited.

There are 40 ex-officers of the Turkish military who have requested political asylum in Germany, who happen to have been working at NATO bases in Germany and also as military attaches at Turkish diplomatic representations there. There are also a number of high-ranking prosecutors, judges and police officers who have settled in Germany after escaping arrest following the coup attempt, according to Turkish security sources. It is thus not an unreasonable estimate to suggest they must have been debriefed by German authorities in depth for key information about current events in Turkey.

In his speech, Steinmeier also made a distinction between Turkey and Erdoğan’s rule, which might serve as an example to other EU countries in their approaches: They should consider not taking Turkey, Turks or Muslim believers as the target of their criticism, but rather be more political.

There are currently eight Turkish military officers waiting for their trial to end. They escaped to Greece with a military helicopter after it became clear that the coup attempt of July 15 would not reach its goal of toppling the government. Greece has refused Turkish demands to hand them over. The calls to reinstate the death penalty in Turkey if the constitutional changes are approved on April 16 are obvious justification for this rejection, but the picture is probably more complicated. 

Norway is not a member of the EU, but it is an ally of Turkey in the Western defense alliance NATO. It recently granted political asylum to five ex-officers of the Turkish Armed Forces, one of whom is a military attaché. Thus, in a very rare incident - if not the only one - a NATO country granted political asylum to military officers of another NATO member.

Of course, it’s not only Europe. The Donald Trump administration in the U.S. is seemingly indifferent to Erdoğan’s demands about both Gülen and the PKK’s affiliate in Syria. What’s more, the ban on electronic devices aboard planes from Turkey – as well as a number of Middle East countries - has also put Ankara in a more difficult position.

Russian President Vladimir Putin must be watching all these developments with relish.