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The Ebb of German-Turkish Relations

The Ebb of German-Turkish Relations

No. 3, Jan.-Feb. 2017 » Bridging News

The political crisis in the relations between Germany and Turkey deepens as the tensions grow and bellicose statements and mutual accusations envelop more dimensions of the bilateral agenda. Millions of Turks are living and working in Germany, Germans, in their turn, traditionally make up to around fifteen percent of the country’s tourism arrivals. The bilateral trade volume is around 37 billion U.S. dollars p.a.[1]. Relations between Germany and Turkey have always been subject to serious and long-term synergies. Both sides have much to lose, but this, however, is not a dampener on hostile rhetoric.

Journalists from Berliner Kurier, a daily newspaper in German capital, recently visited Berlin’s Schönefeld Airport and questioned tourists getting ready to fly to Turkish resorts. The questions were about how sure they were concerning the safety and political dimensions of their travel decisions. The article contained three or four opinions and none of them were negative. Some respondents said this was their second or third trip to Turkish resorts and that they were pretty certain about their safety. Others responded that they had been in Turkey already, some immediately after the failed coup d’état attempt last year, and they were not afraid of anything now after the relative safety during the prior political turmoil. Nevertheless, despite the content, the title of the article was the following: “We Are Making Holiday by Erdogan” with a little subtitle under one of the photos: “President Erdogan Can Continue Hard Speeches, But His Beaches Stay Empty”[2]. Another example, this time Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung – after a Turkish runner of Azerbaijani origin, Ramil Guliyev, won the 200-meter world champion title, this paper highlighted the news with the following title: “A Golden Medal That Makes Erdogan Proud”[3]. And this is in the sports section, which has nothing to do with politics, at least in any decent Western media. These are just some examples, but it looks like German media is indeed fully enmeshed in a single topic which is perceived as vital for Germany – Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turkey’s homeland politics. 

What is going on? 

The increase in frequency and intensity of criticism of Erdogan from German and other European politicians made the regime in Ankara look more “patriotic”, particularly in the eyes of Anatolian provinces.

Some experts articulate that both sides need these tensions for reasons related to the realm of domestic populism, in each of the states. For example, there is an opinion that the increase in frequency and intensity of criticism of Erdogan from German and other European politicians made the regime in Ankara look more “patriotic”, particularly in the eyes of Anatolian provinces. Some experts articulate the thought that segments of the population, even those not quite sympathizing with Erdogan, consolidated around him before the recent constitutional referendum on this account. Of course, continuous terror acts in various parts of the country and consequent public insecurity played an important role, but the major factor was harsh European criticism, which by now oversteps the issue of Erdogan’s democracy and plays on strings which are very sensitive to all Turks, no matter what their political affiliation. Also undeniable is the role of government controlled Turkish media, which “retranslates” European criticism into sets of notions comfortable for use in domestic discourse. Indeed, it is still questionable whether Erdogan would have won the referendum without the aforementioned consolidation, bearing in mind the rather indecisive character of the ruling AKP’s victory and the current polarization in the country.

Also undeniable is the role of government controlled Turkish media, which “retranslates” European criticism into sets of notions comfortable for use in domestic discourse.

On the other hand, German chancellor Angela Merkel’s circle, some argue, is also interested in this verbal warfare – the next parliamentary elections are very close (end of September) and one of the priorities of the current government coalition in Berlin in the last years has been to draw to their side as many Alternative für Deutschland (AFD) supporters as possible (a party which is labeled far right and has made significant electoral inroads through nationalist issues). According to this assumption, the more aggressive mutual accusations on the official level are and the more hysteric German media gets, the more supporters the current ruling coalition peels off from the extreme right opposition. We can single out, for instance, the official calls for “tighter control against all Erdogan supporters in Germany”, voiced by Germany’s ministers of foreign affairs and justice Sigmar Gabriel and Haiko Maas. Such a phenomenon might have been on display during the recent parliamentary elections in the Netherlands, where a diplomatic spat between it and Germany may have robbed the anti-immigration opposition party, the PVV, of its steam, as Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s verbal sparring with the government in Ankara energized the population. 

Unintended consequences 

The rise of tensions and verbal warfare on the eve of elections to the German Bundestag can be comfortable for those who are interested in the distraction of the public attention from the No. 1 topic in domestic political discourse in Germany – the refugees.

The last point, however, is worrisome, because every stick has two ends. It seems that very few in the Berlin officialdom care that such calls can, under current circumstances, have only two tangible results. The first and the most expected will be a repressive response against German sponsored foundations or NGOs in Turkey, with obvious negative effects for Turkish democracy and other such causes. The second – the “erdoganization” of the Turkish diaspora in Germany. This, in its turn can happen for two reasons. The first was described above in the example of Turkish domestic policy – i.e. consolidation. The current hysteria in German media certainly contributes to the general rise of nationalism in Germany, like in the rest of Europe. And under certain conditions, Turks in Germany will care much less about their political sympathies, rather than their own security and the security of their families. The second – it is quite unclear what exactly what supporters of Erdogan will make of statements made so far by German officials. One can argue that there is no ground for such fears and that European judiciary and law enforcement systems are functioning properly. Well, not quite so. The Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) is still on the EU’s official list of banned terror organizations. But pro-PKK manifestations with explicit banners and calls are quite common in German cities, including the capital Berlin. Many representatives of the German mainstream media tend to call PKK “left extremists”, “Marxist extremists”, “nationalists”, or even “extremist freedom fighters” instead of using the phrase “terror organization”[4]. It will be very easy and tempting to blame as an “Erdogan supporter” anyone who protests against this hypocrisy. Or anyone who doubts the rectitude of the German Bundestag’s more than controversial resolution of recognition of the so-called “Armenian Genocide of 1915”, which has nothing to do with Erdogan and comprises the issue of the national dignity and national interest for all Turks[5].

This sort of “Who is the bigger Nazi?” see-saw is not anything new or specific to the German – Turkish context.

To finalize, one must admit that the rise of tensions and verbal warfare on the eve of elections to the German Bundestag can be comfortable for those who are interested in the distraction of the public attention from the No. 1 topic in domestic political discourse in Germany – the refugees. At the end of the day, refugees and the question of who and why took the decision to bring to Germany hundreds of thousands of people from totally different cultures with the consequent difficulties in integration are at the center of the German political debate. A series of elections for regional parliaments (Landtags) in 2016 demonstrated that starkly – it was probably the first time in the recent history of Germany when a global issue was more important in local elections than jobs, taxation, or municipal services. 

The larger perspective 

As George Friedman once put it, forty years ago the idea that the Russians and the Americans would have a crisis over Syria and the Turks would be sitting at the table as an equal player was inconceivable.

There are also strong opinions defending the instrumentality of the domestic context (both in Germany and Turkey), and some argue that a broader analytical framework must be implemented. It is all about geopolitics, they say. First of all, before we go on with this argument, it should be noted that it is not Berlin where Erdogan was first framed as a dictator, and it is not Erdogan who first accused the Berlin establishment of “Nazi policies”. Such terminology has been part and parcel of verbal “duels” in German – Greek, German – Italian, and German – Polish relations. In 2012, for example, the Italian newspaper Il Giornale, close to then Prime-Minister Silvio Berlusconi, showed Chancellor Angela Merkel raising her right arm in salute on the cover page and titled the article “The Fourth Reich”[6]. Poland’s conservative leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski is more and more called “a putschist” by many German columnists. There are many more examples, and it is undeniable that German media often uses even harsher words against Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, or Jaroslaw Kaczynski, than against Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In other words, this sort of “Who is the bigger Nazi?” see-saw is not anything new or specific to the German – Turkish context[7].

Both Germany and Turkey are in certain sense projects, ideological and geopolitical. Both are products of the post-1945 balance of power settlements and the Cold War era.

It is also expedient to remind that there are basically five major issues around which the tensions between Germany and Turkey coalesce:

1) arrests in Turkey following the failed coup attempt;

2) the status of the NATO military base in Incirlik;

3) the extradition from Germany of Fethullah Gülen’s terrorist network (FETÖ) members;

4) accusations of espionage,

5) the ban on public speeches of Turkish government officials in Germany.

It looks like the German political elite has chosen the worst option of all possible – to aspire to the role of the new standard bearer of Western liberalism, and double down on its most idealist, and ideology-obsessed minority-centric form, adverse to any sense of value-based and security oriented long-term alliance building.

The first issue, arrests in Turkey following the failed July 15, 2016 coup d’état attempt, plays a special role. It has been the major argument of German officials and media. However, it is quite interesting to compare Berlin’s current positioning with that during and after the 1960, 1971, and 1980 military coups d’états in Turkey. Ankara’s reaction to the last year’s failed coup, including the extraordinary situation regime, mass arrests, etc. is, of course, comparable to a degree with the measures of military juntas following successful coups in previous cases. But, in terms of number of people tortured in jails, number of people killed, including unsanctioned killings (particularly after the 1960 and 1980 coups, the so-called “post-modern coup” of 1997 is omitted) actions of military juntas were much more ruthless and literally savage. Nevertheless, even clear-cut analyses show obvious inconsistencies in Germany’s foreign policy then and now if one sets human rights and democracy as the main yardstick for legitimate consideration. 

Breaking with the trend 

The cornerstone of German security policy in relation to Russia had been that security in Europe can only be guaranteed with and not against Russia.

For example, in June 1961, almost a year after the successful 1960 coup, Germany opened a new line of credit for the Turkish government in the amount of 200 million German Marks – and this in addition to all the previous cooperation agreements, including those in the military sphere, which were kept in place. One must remember that repression, tortures, and murders sanctioned by the 1960 military junta in Turkey were at their peak at that moment. The famous and more than controversial Yassiada trial against leaders of the Democratic Party, including top leaders of the first democratically elected government, was still going on. Prime-Minister Adnan Menderes, Minister of Foreign Affairs Fatin Rustu Zorlu, and Minister of Finance Hasan Polatkan were later executed (in October 1961). Or let us take the military coup of 1980. On the next day after the coup, September 13, 1980, Germany’s Minister of Finance Hans Matthöfer said in his interview to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that “he hoped for a positive shock out of which an arrangement involving democratic forces and the army can come out”. Moreover, the first international agreement of 1980’s military junta was signed with Germany, and it was about delivery of weapons and armored cars for Turkish police and gendarmerie. In February 1981, a delegation of the German Bundestag, headed by Alois Mertes (CDU) which included Karsten Voigt (SPD), Helga Schuchardt (FDP), and a number of other prominent German politicians of the time, visited Turkey to inspect the situation in the prisons. The following statement was made afterwards: “There are no systematic tortures in Turkey”, however exactly the opposite was stated in a report by Amnesty International at the same time [8].

“Strategy is about the future, whereas current German foreign policy is determined by the past and the present”.

These inconsistent findings can be countered by the consideration that the level of national sovereignty and independence in international relations available to German political elites in 1960 or 1980 were considerably lower than now. This may be true. In fact, German foreign policy became formally independent only in 1990, after the so-called “Two Plus Four Agreement” (Agreement on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany) was signed between West and East Germany on one side, and the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and France on the other. On the other hand, the question is if it is all so simple and if it really ended in 1990. Scandals like the U.S. National Security Agency’s (NSA) spying on Germany’s top politicians and business executives or cases when Russian infiltration into political parties and media community in Germany were proven, give much ground for ruminations, if not for doubts.

“Germany lacks a sober, analytical approach when discussing foreign policy concepts such as power, military force, and national interest. Germans instead lurch into an emotional, excited and moralistic mode to condemn notions they view as politically contaminated. The upshot is that the nation that gave us the world’s most important strategist, Carl von Clausewitz, no longer does strategy”.

We tend to agree with the opinion that it is impossible to analyze and understand the nature of current crisis in bilateral relations between Germany and Turkey without reference to the broader agenda, the global politics, as it had been mentioned before. As famous American expert and founder of Strategic Forecasting Inc. (Stratfor) George Friedman once put it, forty years ago the idea that the Russians and the Americans would have a crisis over Syria and the Turks would be sitting at the table as an equal player was inconceivable[9]. There are many other things equally inconceivable even four years ago, such as imagining that someone like Donald Trump would be sitting in the White House. 

There is no stasis 

Other scenarios mean strengthening of Russian leverage either in Germany, in Turkey, or in both, with all of the possible consequences for future Europe.

Both Germany and Turkey are in certain sense projects, ideological and geopolitical. Both (even Turkey, although established in 1923) are products of the post-1945 balance of power settlements and the Cold War era. But the world is changing. Turkey is passing through transformations. This transformation carries both ideological and geopolitical characteristics, and it spreads through everything – from the Deep State to technicalities of day-to-day Turkish society and politics. Transformations of such scale and depth always mean instability at home and in foreign relations. Although not free from failures and mistakes, sometimes quite serious, Turkish political elites, nevertheless, have a unique strategic vision oriented towards the future. And this vision is advancing the New Turkey to the status of major regional power.

Almost ten years ago, in his famous study titled “The New Turkish Republic: Turkey as a Pivotal State in the Muslim World”, Graham Fuller, American expert on the Middle East and political Islam(with the RAND Corporation) and former CIA station chief in Afghanistan, predicted that if the U.S. military confrontations within the Muslim world increase, if terrorism rises markedly in the West, or the whole Middle Eastern region succumbs to deeper chaos, Turkey’s EU application will unquestionably suffer and propel Turkey further in a direction not towards the United States, but towards the Middle Eastern, Eurasian alternative[10]. There is no reason to argue that there are a number of developments and turns in Turkish foreign policy, particularly after the failed July 15, 2016 coup attempt, which give ground to the assumption that Fuller’s prediction is quite close to becoming a reality.

The focus on asymmetries in “geopolitical maturity” of Berlin and Ankara with reference to other power centers, like Washington, London, Moscow, even Beijing, generates the proper framework to analyze the current crisis in bilateral relations.

At the same time, Brexit and Donald Trump’s arrival to the White House marked a fundamental change in transatlantic relationship framework. This change comprises existential threats to the security of the European Union and to all that Berlin’s internal consensus has been constructing since the German reunification in 1989. Particularly important in this context are continuing war in the Ukraine and the growing desire of Eastern European players, Poland being the most important one, to rely on Washington, rather than on Berlin. But it looks like the German political elite has chosen the worst option of all possible – to aspire to the role of the new standard bearer of Western liberalism, and double down on its most idealist, and ideology-obsessed minority-centric form, adverse to any sense of value-based and security oriented long-term alliance building. Alas, the last is the thing that Germany needs so desperately, bearing in mind crisis of the European Union and the transatlantic security framework. 

A foundering vision 

From this perspective, Angela Merkel’s recent statements calling Europeans to rely on themselves (and the context meant first of all European security) can generate nothing but skepticism among Germany’s Eastern European partners under the growing threat from the East. It was Germany who opposed, most of all, any reforms in NATO which would turn its Article 5 into something more tangible than it is at the moment. For years before the war in the Ukraine, even after the Russo – Georgian war of 2008, the cornerstone of German security policy in relation to Russia had been that security in Europe can only be guaranteed with and not against Russia. As German researcher Tobias Bunde underlined in 2013, when the German Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik had asked the leaders the political parties represented then in German Bundestag to outline their conceptual guidelines for German foreign policy, the resulting essays from all the mainstream leaders used that particular formulation (“with Russia and not against Russia”), in slightly different variations[11].

And then came Ukraine…

The notion that Angela Merkel articulated in her statement requires intensification of the national security discourse in German society, academia, think-tanks, etc. It means a bigger and stronger army and navy. It means paradigmatic shifts close to those which Turkey has started more than a decade ago. And it is really questionable if Germany, where slightly more than twenty percent of citizens are proud of their national identity (demanding the same from the others), and where external infiltration into various institutions of socio-political life is still a fact, is ready to meet such a challenge[12]. At the end of the day, it means strategic vision. As Marek Cichocki from the Natolin European Center in Warsaw said in 2015: “Strategy is about the future, whereas current German foreign policy is determined by the past and the present”[13]. Analysts Leon Mangasaryan and Jan Techau put it in a different way:

“Germany lacks a sober, analytical approach when discussing foreign policy concepts such as power, military force, and national interest. Germans instead lurch into an emotional, excited and moralistic mode to condemn notions they view as politically contaminated. The upshot is that the nation that gave us the world’s most important strategist, Carl von Clausewitz, no longer does strategy”.

Mangasaryan and Techau further develop their thought and articulate nine key failures of German foreign policy in current geopolitical context, among which are:

  • The lack of historic understanding of how unstable Europe is;
  • The underestimation of the role of the U.S. in European security;
  • The inadequacy in understanding and countering Russia’s goals in the Eastern and Central Europe;
  • Making too many excuses for the Kremlin;
  • Misunderstanding the role of strong military and intelligence in diplomacy and protection of the liberal democratic order[14]

Unsound tactics 

The most controversial moment in Merkel’s last statement, which validates some of the points underlined by Mangasaryan and Techau, is that she mentioned the necessity of friendly relations with other neighbors, including Russia. But she said nothing about Turkey – Germany’s historic and current (more importantly, formal) NATO ally. Well, this may be a tactical move. But even if it is, a rightful question rises after all these inconsistencies and controversies – what are the key variables in the formulation of German foreign policy and, accordingly, what is the major reason of the current crisis in relations with Turkey? Human rights and democracy, social welfare and human dignity, respect for minorities and respect for the neighbors’ territorial integrity, or… something else? If these are indeed the key variables, as the German political elite and mainstream media try to depict in relation to Turkey, then where is the logic? Or, maybe, there are other interfering variables linked to some existential phobias and the ongoing painful reassessment of European identity, as well as the fear that Europe will inevitably acquire a Muslim face beside Christian, Jewish, or Hindu ones[15]?

The European Union is going through its most serious crisis in its history. But the context still keeps more than enough space not simply for normalization between Germany and Turkey, but for even more – the development of new frameworks of strategic security cooperation in Europe, also those that involve other players, like Poland. Other scenarios mean strengthening of Russian leverage either in Germany, in Turkey, or in both, with all of the possible consequences for future Europe. This can be observed already. As readers must have noticed, there are many questions in the article. But we are living in a world of dramatic and continuous change, and, as it has been underlined here, what was inconceivable even four or five years ago may come true. Nevertheless, in our opinion, and it is the focal point of our article, it is the focus on asymmetries in “geopolitical maturity” of Berlin and Ankara with reference to other power centers, like Washington, London, Moscow, even Beijing, which presents the proper framework to analyze the current crisis in bilateral relations. Of course, such focus must incorporate, to a sizable degree, the context of domestic politics. But in its nature the issue is geopolitical first of all. It has nothing to do with the quality of Turkish democracy. Turkish democracy has already showed its strength in July of last year.

 

[1] “Germany Warns Businesses and Citizens to Avoid Turkey”. Financial Times. 20.07.2017. Available online from: https://www.ft.com/content/16f84d64-6d2a-11e7-b9c7-15af748b60d0.

[2] “Wir Machen Urlaub bei Erdogan”. Berliner Kurier. 23.07.2017. Avilable online from: http://www.berliner-kurier.de/berlin/kiez---stadt/reisen-in-die-tuerkei-wir-machen-urlaub-bei-erdogan-28014646.

[3] “Eine Goldmedalie die Erdogan Stolz Macht”. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. 11.08.2017. Available online from: http://www.faz.net/aktuell/sport/leichtathletik-wm/leichtathletik-wm-erdogan-bejubelt-gold-von-ramil-guliyev-15146315.html.

[4] “PKK Rally in Germany: Interview with Writer Ed Husain from the Council on Foreign Relations”. TRT World. 22.04.2017. Available online from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8jLhcwkBFgc&t=85s.

[5] “Bundestag Passes Armenia Genocide Resolution Unanimously, Turkey Recalls Ambassador”. Deutsche Welle. O2.06.2016. Available online from: http://www.dw.com/en/bundestag-passes-armenia-genocide-resolution-unanimously-turkey-recalls-ambassador/a-19299936.

[6] Germany Outraged by Italian Newspaper’s “Fourth Reich” Headline. The Guardian. 07.08.2012. Available online from: https://www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2012/aug/07/angela-merkel-silvio-berlusconi.

[7] The most recent and controversially ridiculous case is the cover page of the famous Stern magazine (August 24, 2017 issue) with Donald Trump draped in a stars-and-stripes – colored tunic raising his right arm in salute. The title is: “Sein Kampf” (“His Struggle”), a replay of Adolf Hitler’s book title “Mein Kampf” (“My Struggle”). The controversy is that in the middle of the scandal about Erdogan’s comparisons of Angela Merkel’s policies with those of the Nazis, German media does the same comparison on the U.S. President. The Romans used to say: “Quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi”. Source: “German Magazine Cover Depicts Donald Trump Doing Nazi Salute”. The Huffington Post. 24.08.2017. Available online from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/donald-trump-stern-magazine-cover-sieg-heil_us_599e758be4b05710aa59bc43.

[8] Total amount of this agreement was around 15 million German Marks. The first 27 armored cars were delivered already in December 1980. Source: “Der NATO-Putsch”. Junge Welt. 11.09.2010. Available online from: https://www.jungewelt.de/artikel/150708.der-nato-putsch.html.

[9] Source: “George Friedman and Ambassador Mathew Bryza on Turkey”. 2017. Available online from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vInM-7VTxxw.

[10] Fuller G. (2008). “The New Turkish Republic: Turkey as a Pivotal State in the Muslim World”. United States Institute for Peace. P. 149.

[11] Bunde T. (2013). “Has Germany Become NATO’s Lost Nation? Prospects for a Reinvigorated German NATO Policy”. Munich Security Conference. Available online from: https://www.securityconference.de/en/news/article/has-germany-become-natos-lost-nation-prospects-for-a-reinvigorated-german-nato-policy/.

[12] These statistics are taken from British historian Peter Watson’s recent book “The German Genius”. Watson makes reference to opinion polls in Germany and writes that while eighty percent of Americans are proud to be American, and fifty percent of Britons are proud of being British, only twenty percent of Germans are proud to be German. See: Watson P. (2010) “The German Genius”. Simon and Schuster. P. 27.

[13] “Judy Asks: Is Germany Discovering Strategy?”. Carnegie Europe. 11.02.2015. Available online from: http://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/?fa=59044.

[14] Mangasaryan L., Techau J. “Germany’s Strategic Frivolousness”. Handelsblatt Global. 10.05.2017. Available online from: https://global.handelsblatt.com/opinion/germanys-strategic-frivolousness-763246.

[15] Fuller G. (2008). “The New Turkish Republic: Turkey as a Pivotal State in the Muslim World”. United States Institute for Peace. P. 148.

 
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OEconomica No. 1, 2016