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How 'anti-terror' information sharing soured German-Turkish relations

understanding others

When Turkey shared with Berlin a list of 300 names and 200 organizations in Germany that Ankara was spying on, it sparked a strong response from Germany.

People hold placards with slogans urging 'No to dictatorship' in German and Turkish during a demonstration organized by Kurds, in Frankfurt on March 18.
Ralph Orlowski/Reuters
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No doubt the secret dossier was meant to remain secret, when Turkey’s spy chief handed it to his German counterpart in February.

Inside it were the names of 300 individuals and 200 associations in Germany, complete with videos, recordings, and the telltale trappings of spycraft, German media reported last week. Turkey claimed it had identified supporters of Fethullah Gülen – a reclusive cleric who Turkey accuses of being the “terrorist” mastermind of a coup attempt last July.

But instead of quietly declining to act, German officials last week publicly lambasted the Turkish government for spying on its citizens on German soil, revealing a gaping diplomatic disconnect between the two nations, and the latest rupture of trust between Turkey and Europe.

Turkey’s divisive politics are now spilling over as never before into Germany, home to some 3 million ethnic Turks. Half are able to vote in Turkey’s controversial April 16 referendum to expand the powers of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Germany has led a handful of European nations in blocking Turkish ministers from holding “yes” campaign rallies, prompting Turkish jibes about “Nazism” and “fascism” reemerging in Europe.

German politicians, including some of Turkish extraction, have urged Turks to vote “no” in the referendum, in a clear rebuke to Mr. Erdoğan that has provoked outrage in Ankara. An article in Bild newspaper last week – in both German and Turkish – said that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, would vote “no” if he were still alive.

Further angering Turkey, German officials have also suggested that Mr. Gülen played little role in the failed coup attempt – undermining an article of faith for Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). In mass arrests since the coup attempt, Turkey detained and purged some 140,000 people it links to Gülen.

A strong reaction

Turkey “miscalculated very badly, thinking they might get some help from German authorities, [who] used the opportunity to return the favor,” says Stefan Kornelius, the foreign editor of Süddeutsche Zeitung, the newspaper that broke the story about the Turkish dossier.

“We had not only the Gestapo applying the same kind of measures, but the East German Stasi,” says Mr. Kornelius. “This is twice in recent history that Germany intimidated its own people, and to see it repeated on its own soil, of course they would react. It is naïve to assume they would actually get any help.”

"We have told Turkey several times that such [activity] is not acceptable," said German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere last week, responding to the media reports. "Regardless of what you think of the Gülen movement, German law applies here, and citizens who live here won't be spied on by foreign states," he said.

Not only did Germany publicize the Turkish list of alleged Gülen sympathizers, but in some cases warned residents on the list of the risks of returning to Turkey.

“The intensity and ruthlessness being [used by Turkey] on people living on foreign soil is remarkable,” Boris Pistorius, the Lower Saxony state interior minister, said to justify warning citizens, according to Reuters.

Turkey's latest clash with Germany comes after another in early March with the Netherlands, where authorities physically prevented AKP ministers from addressing “yes” rallies. Turkey’s newspaper front pages were full of images of Dutch riot police using dogs and water cannons to disperse Turkish protesters.

“Turkey is not a country you can pull and push around, not a country whose citizens you can drag on the ground,” Erdoğan said on March 22. “If Europe continues this way, no European in any part of the world can walk safely on the streets. Europe will be damaged by this.”

Gülen and Erdoğan

Analysts say Turkey’s actions and reactions are magnified by the politics of the referendum, in which the president and AKP are pulling out all stops to shift in their favor what polls show to be a 50-50 split over fulfilling Erdoğan’s dream of creating a presidency with sultan-like powers.

“It’s not complicated. It’s all about winning a referendum for the Turkish president and his party,” says Ersin Kalaycıoğlu, a political scientist at Sabanci University in Istanbul.

“They are trying to create a certain image in which they appear both as strong in the face of international challenges, and at the same time [as] victim in the hands of vicious enemies of their party in Turkey and abroad,” says Mr. Kalaycıoğlu.

Turkish officials don’t doubt that followers of Gülen – who lives in exile in Pennsylvania – orchestrated the July 15 coup attempt, which traumatized Turkey’s ruling elite. For a decade the AKP worked closely with Gülenists to undermine military and secular influence in Turkish politics, before falling out in 2013.

Today, Gülenists are officially called the “Fethullah Terrorist Organization” or FETÖ, and are accused of every conceivable ill. Still, Turkey has not been able to convince the US to extradite the aging cleric, nor convince Europeans to crack down on his alleged influence.

“This was created to provoke Europe,” says Kalaycıoğlu. “There are many messages there, all of them geared at indicating how good and great and how pure and dedicated the government of Turkey is, and how on the other side, how evil their interlocutors are at home and abroad.”

Germans don’t see their outing of Turkey’s spy agency as belligerent, but instead a response to what they consider an outrageous breach. Germany has dealt with the spat “in a non-nervous, non-aggressive manner,” but has reached a limit, says Sylke Tempel, the editor of Internationale Politik, which is published by the German Council on Foreign Relations. Germany is also worried about tensions flaring in the German-Turkish community, which is already polarized by the referendum.

“To go public with it is a sign that the German government wants to state clearly, ‘Listen there are limits to what you do … we are not going let you make us go berserk as well,’” says Ms. Tempel.

There have been public calls in Germany to react more forcefully to Turkey, after the arrest in February of a German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel, a writer for Die Welt, on charges of spreading “terrorist propaganda,” and also after Erdoğan’s “Nazi” comments.

The limits of tension

Despite the current fracases with Germany and Europe, and Turkey’s shrinking hope of ever joining the European Union, the economic and security relationship with NATO-ally Turkey may be too important to remain permanently hostile.

“President Erdoğan’s No. 1 ambition is to secure a victory is the referendum,” says Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert at the Chatham House think tank in London.

“He took advantage of the clash with Germany to play to the Turkish nationalists who are key to [that] victory,” says Mr. Hakura. “Erdoğan has continued to attack Europe, but at a lower tempo than before. He’s still playing with the Europe card, accusing Europe of being xenophobic and racist…. There will be some bitter aftertaste, but I doubt this clash will rupture ties between Turkey and Germany.”

Germany also is cognizant that it needs Turkey.

“Turkey is Turkey. Its geostrategic and geographic position and its role in the Middle East is important, its role in NATO is important, so we have to try to sort things out as much as we can,” says Tempel.

“This is the new normal anyway,” she says. “Wherever you look, almost each and every partner has become difficult…. There is no huge road to happiness anymore, anywhere.”