Sound and fury over Germany’s genocide vote

Turkey’s outrage at the German vote on the Armenian genocide is for domestic consumption – Erdoğan is careful not to derail his deal with the EU or become still more isolated.

As expected, Turkey responded to the German parliament’s resolution commemorating the 1915 Armenian genocide by immediately withdrawing its ambassador from Berlin.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned of “consequences”, referred to Germany’s record on the Holocaust and in Africa, and condemned the 11 German deputies of Turkish background. As members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lined up to rebuke Germany and accuse Turkish deputies in the Bundestag of “treason”, even conjuring archaic concepts of blood purity, Erdoğan focused on the co-leader of Germany’s Green Party, Cem Özdemir. “He is a so-called Turk. What kind of a Turk? They need to have their blood tested in a laboratory,” the president said. Turkish Twitter users followed with a barrage of insults.

As distasteful as all this may sound, it might be the extent of Ankara’s retaliation. A decade ago, when the French National Assembly passed a similar bill that made it a crime to deny the Armenian genocide, Turkey all but cut off diplomatic ties – bilateral relations as well as economic links suffered.

As distasteful as all this may sound, it might be the extent of Ankara’s retaliation.

Today, now that 28 parliaments around the world have passed resolutions condemning the genocide, Ankara is more cautious about burning bridges. Erdoğan’s bellicose rhetoric aside, Turkish officials are careful to avoid long-term damage to their relations with Germany, especially with the Merkel government, which holds the key to Turkish ties with the European Union.

As a result, it is not Angela Merkel but Özdemir that Erdoğan went after. By targeting the Green leader and other Turkish deputies, Erdoğan and the pro-government media were able to rally nationalists and Islamists around the familiar concepts of “fifth columns” and “foreign enemies” who are eternally scheming to carve up Turkey. A master politician, Erdoğan knows that polarisation helps consolidate his conservative base.

But he also knows the give-and-take that is involved in high-level European politics.

When asked if the German vote would impact his refugee deal with the EU, Erdoğan was careful to separate the two matters: “Readmission agreement and visa liberalisation are issues related to the EU. Our position on these topics is known”. The president also stated that the German vote took place on instructions of a “higher mind” (üst akıl) – a new concept that he often uses to suggest a dark force that secretly controls international affairs.

Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş reiterated Turkey’s position on Monday: “Visa liberalisation and readmission are being handled at the same time. With these realised, it is the EU that will really win. They [Europe] should not sacrifice visa liberalisation because some countries want to pursue domestic politics based on dislike of Turkey.”

The truth is, even with the exit of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the policy’s biggest cheerleader, Ankara wants to pursue a refugee deal with the EU, striving to win visa liberalisation in October. Turkey’s new minister for the EU, Ömer Çelik, made a tour of Brussels last week, conveying to his European counterparts that Ankara is still interested in a deal that delivers visa-free travel to Europe for Turkish citizens. Turks hope that a new round of negotiations can take place after the fallout from the German vote.

Even with the exit of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the policy’s biggest cheerleader, Ankara wants to pursue a refugee deal with the EU, striving to win visa liberalisation in October.

Even with the anti-Western and anti-European sentiments that crop up in domestic politics , visa-free travel has an immense value for the Turkish government – symbolically marking an equal status with other European nations and providing a demonstrable benefit to urban voters. It would also provide a boost to Erdoğan before the referendum on expanding his presidential powers that may take place later this year.

Ankara also values its burgeoning relationship with the Merkel government, seeing that the chancellor’s efforts to strike a deal with Turkey is the only way to offset an increasingly negative image abroad. Feeling increasingly isolated in the Middle East and Europe, Erdoğan went on a tour of Africa last week, and his allies suggested publicly that normalisation of relations with Israel, Russia, and eventually Egypt were on his agenda. “We will increase our friends and reduce the number of our enemies”, Turkey’s new Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said in his first speech to the parliament last month.

With that in mind, and with a sense of urgency about easing Turkey’s isolation, few expect the clamour over the Armenian genocide resolution to last long. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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Associate Senior Policy Fellow

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