BERLIN — If Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan thought he could celebrate the first anniversary of the attempted coup by cementing his dictatorial rule at home and intimidating allies abroad, he made a serious miscalculation, which may end up costing more than he could have imagined. By exacerbating tensions with Germany, he has approached a breaking point neither he nor many in Berlin thought possible.
On July 15, the anniversary of the coup attempt attributed to the Fetullah Gülen movement, the Turkish president celebrated by staging mass rallies, followed by a new wave of arbitrary arrests and accusations leveled against persons and institutions related to Germany. A day earlier it became known that Turkey had refused to allow members of the German Bundestag (Parliament) their lawful right to visit German troops stationed at the NATO base in Konya, “postponing” the visit due to a “deterioration” in bilateral relations. On July 17, a number of human rights activists earlier detained, were formally arrested on trumped up charges of supporting terrorism. Primary among them was Peter Steudtner, a German citizen, taken into custody for up to 5 years. Since the coup attempt last year, 22 Germans had been arrested, including journalist Deniz Yücel, and nine are still in prison.
At the same time, it was reported in Zeit magazine, that the German Criminal Police (Bundeskriminalamt) had received a “black list” of names of 68 persons and agencies (later corrected to 700), from Turkish authorities, accused of having connections to the Gülen movement. Among them were big industrial groups like BASF and Daimler. When the BKA demanded further information, nothing came and the list was ridiculed in Berlin as “absurd” and “ridiculous.” The German press quickly put two and two together, and reckoned that Erdogan, by arresting German journalists and others, was essentially taking hostages that he might offer in exchange for the extradition of persons in Germany he wanted to put on trial. Among the latter would be Turkish military and diplomatic personnel who have filed for political asylum since the coup attempt.
The Last Straw
This time the blackmail coming from Ankara backfired. On July 19, the Turkish ambassador was summoned by the German Foreign Ministry, and “clearly told that the arrest of Peter Steudtner and other human rights activists was not comprehensible, not acceptable and certainly inexplicable.” Berlin demanded his immediate release, and characterized the assault on the human rights group as a “dramatic escalation.”
Underlining the seriousness of the incident, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel cut short his vacation and flew back to the capital. Gabriel accused Turkey of having abandoned European values and announced a new direction in German foreign policy. “De-escalation is in principle a good thing,” he said, but “we need a change in course, so as not to make ourselves ridiculous — even if it comes at a price.”