Erdoğan on the Warpath with Germany Ahead of 2017 Elections

By Kamil Szubart

On Aug. 18, 2017, Turkish President Recep T. Erdoğan appealed to the members of the Turkish diaspora in Germany not to vote for four German major parties—the Christian Democratic Union, Christian Social Union in Bavaria, Social Democratic Party (SPD), and Alliance 90/The Greens—in the Bundestag elections on Sep.24, 2017. In his view, all four parties—along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel—represent hostile attitudes to Turkey and its interests.

“Bilateral relations between the two countries have been simmering for a while now, and recently tensions have come to a boil.”

Erdoğan’s words are another escalation of tensions between Germany and Turkey, one that has been going on for a several months. Since the 2016 failed military coup, Turkey has increased its foreign policy assertiveness, including this latest attempt to redefine its relations with Germany. But although it might cause further difficulties in political and security cooperation between both countries—in counterterrorism and the migration crisis—Erdoğan’s pressure probably will not have a decisive impact on the outcome of the German elections.

To better understand the ongoing tensions between Germany and Turkey, it is necessary to take a look at internal and external factors influencing relations between Berlin and Ankara over the last months., including the strengthening of the Turkish diaspora.

The German-Turkish Bilateral Situation

Bilateral relations between the two countries have been simmering for a while now, and recently tensions have come to a boil. Firstly, on June 2, 2016, the Bundestag passed a resolution recognizing the 2015 Turkish massacre of the Armenians as the crime of genocide. Secondly, in the aftermath of the failed military coup, Turkish law enforcement and its secret service began a reprisal against political opponents. This action, endorsed by Erdoğan, was criticized by Merkel and the other members of her government. Compounding the issue, Turkey arrested 22 German citizens of Turkish descent and charged them with conducting terrorist activity and espionage. Among them were Deniz Yücel, a journalist for die Welt; Peter Steudtner, a human rights’ activist; and Tanner Kilic, head of the Turkish office of Amnesty International. Additionally, at the beginning of 2017 German authorities refused Turkish demands to hand over 414 Turkish diplomats, high-rank-soldiers, and family members serving in Germany who had sought a political asylum in the country. In response, Turkey accused Germany of a lack of progress fighting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Syrian branch of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), both of which have a strong foothold in Germany.

Meanwhile, German newspapers—based on sources in the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz)—have reported on an increase of intelligence activity in Germany by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MiT). Turkey appears to have collected intelligence on top German politicians, businesses, and Turkish dissidents.

Finally, ahead of the Turkish constitutional referendum scheduled for April 16, 2017, German authorities at both federal and state levels suppressed Turkish politicians who wanted to conduct political rallies among the Turkish diaspora in Germany, a move that angered Erdoğan so much, he compared present-day Germany with the Nazi-era Germany.

Geopolitical Factors Affecting German-Turkish Relations

Pre-dating the above tensions, in late August 2014, Merkel and her government approved material and training support for Kurdish paramilitary units (the Peshmerga) fighting against Islamic State (IS) in northern Iraq and Syria. In response, Ankara refused to permit German transport aircraft carrying supplies to the Kurds to stop at Incirlik Air Force Base. This step forced the Germans to look for an alternative: the British RAF Base in Akrotiri, Cyprus. Later, on Jan. 29, 2015, the German parliament set up a 12-month military training mission by Bundeswehr for the Peshmerga in northern Iraq.

Germany also maintains two military contingents in Turkey within the framework of the multinational coalition fighting IS. The first of them was stationed at Incirlik, alongside US troops. German aircraft conduct reconnaissance flights over Syria and northern Iraq, while troops provide logistical support for NATO aircraft in the region. The second German contingent is a part of the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) component in Geilenkirchen, Germany, which operates from the Forward Operation Base in southern Turkey. AWACS aircraft conduct reconnaissance flights over Turkey and the Mediterranean Sea. Although 17 NATO countries maintain AWACS, Germany is the most valuable contributor to the system.  

In June 2016, Turkish authorities rejected a request for Bundestag parliamentarians to visit German troops in Incirlik. This decision caused another diplomatic clash. Merkel, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier heavily criticized the Turkish decision, and, eventually, as a result of pressure from Germany and other NATO member countries, Ankara agreed to permit the parliamentarians to visit, on Oct. 5, 2016. However, to avoid further disputes, Germany took steps to relocate its contingent from Turkey to Al-Azraq Air Force Base in Jordan. The relocation started in July 2017, but it will take a few months for the contingent to reach full operational capacity.

Unfortunately, the withdrawal from Incirlik has not ameliorated tensions between the countries. In July 2017 another dispute erupted over access to the Forward Operating Base in Konya. On July 13, 2017, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs rescinded its permission for a group of German parliament members, led by Bundestag Defense Committee Chairman Wolfgang Hellmich, to visit German troops there. This escalating tension caught the attention of NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who committed to resolving the dispute. Stoltenberg held talks with the foreign ministers of Germany and Turkey, proposing a consensus agreement to allow regular visits of German troops by Bundestag parliamentarians, who would receive the status of NATO visitors (a designation that means Turkey would not be able to halt their entry). On Aug. 8, 2017, the Turks announced that German parliamentarians, as members of a NATO delegation, would be able to visit the base on Sept. 8, 2017.

The Turkish Diaspora in Germany

The Turkish diaspora in Germany is 3 million strong, with 800,000 Turks holding German citizenship and 530,000 possessing dual German and Turkish citizenship. However, the diaspora represents only about 2.2% of all eligible voters in Germany. These numbers nevertheless allow the Turkish authorities to transfer to Germany certain political disputes and internal conflicts, including violent clashes between supporters and opponents of Erdoğan, which have taken place in the streets of German cities. Conversely, the political situation in Turkey is being influenced by the emigrants, whose support of Erdoğan is growing.

Influence of the diaspora in Germany is also fueled by Turkish intelligence, which provides support to Turkish nationalist organizations such as the Gray Wolves, the Turkish Federation in Germany (ADÜTDF), and the National Action Party (MHP), as well as combating the Turkish (Gülen Movement) and Kurdish opposition movements (PKK and PYD). MiT intelligence also appears to be running a propaganda and disinformation campaign targeting the German authorities and top politicians. For this purpose, it uses Turkish media outlets operating in Germany.

It’s worth mentioning that, although its overall electoral influence is small, the Turkish diaspora often has a high electoral turnout. In the last two Bundestag elections, Turkish voters went to the polls in high numbers: 71.5% (2013) and 70.8% (2009). In recent years, the center-left and left parties—such as SPD and the Greens—have dominated the Turkish vote. In the 2009 Bundestag elections, SPD received 50.2% and the Greens 31%. In the 2013 Bundestag elections, SPD acquired 64%, the Greens 12%, and the Left (die Linke) 11% votes.

Erdoğan’s popularity among members of the Turkish diaspora should not have a decisive impact on the outcome of the 2017 elections because of the negligible importance of Turkish votes in the context of the whole country. But Turkish votes might affect individual parties, such as the SPD, possibly undermining the party’s current position within the Turkish community and contributing to the party’s decline.

Conclusion: Erdoğan at the Poker Table

President Erdoğan wants to consolidate his support in Turkey. To achieve this goal, he is turning to foreign policy and foreign relations strategies with his country’s most important partners. According to Erdoğan, relations between Turkey and Germany remain asymmetric, and Turkey is the side that is being abused by its powerful counterpart. Therefore, Erdoğan thinks he needs to be assertive and to be seen as a powerful political leader who strongly articulates his nation’s interests.

Indeed, Erdoğan feels emboldened by his latest political successes, such as his Justice and Development Party (AKP) winning the 2015 political elections and the outcome of the 2017 constitutional referendum. He also continues the process of growing ties with Russia, which becomes a vital partner for Turkey and which, in his view, could be a substitute of Turkish relations with its partners from NATO and the European Union (EU).

Regarding geopolitics, Erdoğan holds a key card: he can moderate the migration crisis through stopping or allowing uncontrolled migrants from Syria to enter the EU. This migration flow is an essential factor in German politics, for the country has already taken 1.2 million migrants from the Middle East and North Africa regions. Conversely, Berlin could hypothetically put pressure on Turkey by using economic measures, freezing German direct investments in Turkey, for instance, or limiting the tourism industry by continuing issuing security alerts for German tourists planning visits to Turkey. Moreover, Germany, as the political and economic leader of the EU, can suspend the talks on Turkey’s accession to the EU. However, such steps will not be implemented before the 2017 elections, due to fears of protests or social unrest by members of the Turkish diaspora.

Another card Erdoğan holds is the role his country plays in the NATO coalition fight against IS. The United States, especially, relies on Incirlik Air Force Base, flying missions out of the base and storing tactical nuclear weapons there (within the framework of NATO’s Nuclear Sharing Policy).

US President Donald J. Trump might be considered Erdoğan’s “wild card,” allowing the Turkish president to continue his aggressive rhetoric against Germany. Since the beginning of his presidency, Trump has been paying less attention than his predecessor to citizens’ rights, political pluralism, and democratic values, while arguably focusing more on the efficiency of the fight against terrorism, in which Turkey plays a crucial role despite its severe violations of democratic standards. Lack of criticism from Trump has meant that that responsibility for criticizing Turkey has been taken up by Chancellor Merkel, who has in the past few years become Erdoğan’s main political enemy.

INSCT Research and Practice Associate Kamil Szubart is a 2017 visiting fellow at INSCT, via the Kosciuszko Foundation. He works as an analyst for the Institute for Western Affairs in Poznan, Poland, where he is responsible for German foreign and security policy, transatlantic relations, Islamic threats in German-native-speaking countries and topics related to NATO, CSDP, OSCE, and the UN. Currently, he is working on a doctoral dissertation examining US-German relations in the field of international security since 9/11.