Turkey accused of widespread attempt to undermine European democracy

Ankara’s attempt to silence dissidents abroad appears to affect almost every Western country – and most of those countries struggle to keep up their protections of free speech and protests.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during the re-opening of the Ottoman-era Yildiz Hamidiye mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, August 4, 2017 (photo credit: MURAD SEZER/REUTERS)
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during the re-opening of the Ottoman-era Yildiz Hamidiye mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, August 4, 2017
(photo credit: MURAD SEZER/REUTERS)
Ankara’s attempt to silence dissidents abroad appears to affect almost every Western country, and most of those countries struggle to keep up their protections of free speech and protests.
Turkey is seeking to extradite journalists from Europe, keeping tabs on anyone who critiques Ankara’s regime and also encouraging far-right thugs to attack Kurdish demonstrators, according to dozens of reports. Across Europe, there is a rising attempt by Ankara to meddle in local politics, subvert democratic institutions and prosecute journalists, free thinkers, critics, dissidents and minorities.
Over the last week, protesters in Vienna who expressed opposition to a new Turkish military invasion of northern Iraq were attacked systematically by groups of far-right activists backed by Ankara. According to The New York Times, Viennese police had to protect the protesters from constant attacks by “Turkish nationalists.” Locals said these were members of a group called the Grey Wolves.
To illustrate how Turkey seeks to make sure there can be no protests in Europe against its policies, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs intervened in Austria, releasing a statement claiming that the protests were “rallies that were organized by the PKK-terrorist organization.” Ankara often claims that anyone who protests or is critical on social media is a “terrorist.” Turkey slammed Austria, claiming it was “allowing PKK propaganda through these rallies” and saying these protests were “unacceptable.”
There is no evidence that any of the peaceful protesters in Vienna engaged in terrorism. Turkey has invaded northern Syria and Iraq, also claiming it is fighting terrorism. In Syria it accused the US of arming “terrorists” even though there was no evidence of any “terrorism” from Syria targeting Turkey. More than 367,000 Kurds had to flee Turkey’s invasions in 2018 and 2019 in Syria.
Ankara has now condemned the Austrian police for protecting protesters in Vienna, claiming they “used violence against Turkish youth.” The statement appears to indicate Ankara was involved in monitoring and perhaps planning the far-right attempt to block the protests in Vienna.
IN GERMANY, Turkey is accused of sending intelligence agents to track down dissidents. The Berlin-based European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies reportedly “accused Ankara of using Islamic organizations and public institutions to spy on its opposition in Germany.”
These reports claim Turkey’s intelligence group, the MIT, has “expanded activities in Germany for years,” according to The Arab Weekly website. According to Ahval media, Turkey also developed an app that “used to track dissident exiles and mid-sized companies, Germany’s domestic spy agency said in an annual report.”
This conjures up images of how Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was tracked. Ankara may be applying the same methods. In addition, the use of European soil by foreign intelligence services is similar to a spate of assassinations carried out by Iran, which is currently working closely with Turkey on foreign-policy issues.
In 2014, Iran’s IRGC met with the Muslim Brotherhood in Turkey to coordinate policies. Turkey’s ruling AKP party has roots in the Brotherhood. And Ankara supports other Brotherhood-linked groups, such as Hamas.
Nordic Monitor, in a report in May, asserted that Turkey’s attempts to track and follow dissidents go beyond Germany and Austria. Their report points to dissidents being tracked in Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands. In these cases, Ankara claimed it was seeking out “Gulenists,” or members of a movement linked to a Turkish cleric exiled in the US who Turkey also claims is a “terrorist.” Ankara has shut down schools and social organizations linked to the cleric and pressured other countries to do the same.
More than 2,000 NGOs have been forcibly closed in Turkey since 2016, and people linked to those groups, or journalists linked to opposition media, have either been jailed by the tens of thousands or fled to Europe, the report said.
TURKEY INCREASINGLY uses all its government offices, including the Foreign Ministry, to stop any critique of it in Europe, even cartoons going back years. For instance, Germany’s ambassador was summoned in Ankara for a cartoon that appeared in a German paper in 2011. Germany’s Angela Merkel, who is one of the major supporters of Turkey’s increasing authoritarianism – and a key player in the EU’s policy of paying Turkey to keep refugees away from Europe and a promoter of arms sales to Ankara – enabled cases to go forward in Germany against critics of Turkey.
In 2016, Merkel personally approved the prosecution of a comedian for making fun of Turkey’s leader, the BBC reported. The satirical poem was read on television, and a criminal complaint was made by Turkey. Despite Merkel’s attempts to extend Ankara’s increasingly authoritarian laws into Germany to prevent critique, German prosecutors dropped the case in October 2016.
Throughout the Balkans, Turkey has also been accused of “kidnapping” dissidents. For instance, The Washington Post reported that six Turkish men were kidnapped in Kosovo in 2018 and that this was one of many recent examples of “other kidnapping plots.”
Haaretz, Balkan Insight and other newspapers have reported on the kidnappings in the Balkans as well as pressure brought by Ankara to prevent any Turkish dissidents from getting asylum. Once again, Turkey has claimed it is merely going after Gulen-linked individuals. However, such extrajudicial renditions, of the kind the US used after 9/11, are considered a violation of international law.
Turkish journalists who had to flee have accused Ankara of a variety of crimes. Can Dundar, former editor of the newspaper Cumhuriyet, wrote in The Washington Post last December that Ankara was even sanctioning “assassinations of dissidents abroad.” He mentioned three “female members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) who were shot in the head at the Kurdistan Information Bureau in central Paris in 2013.”
Dundar’s article said a Turkish lawmaker had warned Germany that members of a three-man “hit squad” had been sent to Berlin. Ankara also pressured Western countries in Turkey. Turkey arrested a lawyer for the German Embassy in Ankara accused of “espionage,” according to the case. The lawyer was supposed to help with asylum requests.
Turkey also arrested an employee of the US Consulate, a translator for the Drug Enforcement Agency, and sentenced him to eight years in prison for “terrorism” in June 2020, the Voice of America reported. According to this piece, at least 80 people have been renditioned by Turkey from 18 countries in recent years.
ANKARA’S ATTEMPTS to silence dissidents abroad appear to affect almost every Western country, and most of those countries struggle to keep up their protections of free speech and protests. In the US, for instance, Turkish security at their embassy in Washington attacked protesters and police in 2017. Although initially the US was angered, the State Department appeared to have quietly worked to get the cases dropped in 2018. It has denied this, but it is highly unusual that Americans are attacked by foreign governments for protesting on US soil.
Turkey has also tried to hold political rallies in Europe. In 2017, Ankara accused the Netherlands of being “Nazis” for preventing far-right Turkish pro-government rallies. In a rare attempt to stand up to Ankara’s meddling in European internal politics, both Germany and the Netherlands denied Ankara’s request to have major political rallies for Turkey’s ruling party. Ankara also accused Merkel, despite her pro-Turkey stance, of being a “Nazi” in 2017.
According to the Turkish Minute and Nordic Monitor websites, an Istanbul court has sought to extradite a Turkish journalist who is living in Sweden. According to the article, “Levent Kenez, an editor for Nordic Monitor, is accused of libeling a prosecutor and a judge at an Istanbul court in an article published on the Turkish-language news website TR724 in February 2018.”
The attempt to strike at dissidents in Europe is an extension of policies inside Turkey, where most critics of the government’s ruling party have been imprisoned or are being charged with various crimes. Since an attempted coup in 2016, reports indicate that 53 newspapers, 20 magazines and 24 radio channels, as well as six news agencies, have been shut down by the government – meaning that almost all media in Ankara is now controlled either by the government or by loyalists of the ruling party. There is often more diversity of opinion expressed today in media in Iran, China and Russia than in Turkey.
In Turkey, opposition party members are being rounded up and imprisoned. The chair of the CHP Party in Istanbul, Canan Kaftancioglu, was sentenced to nine years in prison for criticism expressed on social media seven years ago. Kurdish minority mayors are also being removed from their democratically elected offices.
THE OVERALL picture is that Turkey is one of several countries that seek to undermine European democratic institutions and the EU’s commitment to freedom of expression. Iran, Russia and Turkey have all been singled out by critics for these attempts. Turkey is different than Iran and Russia, however, because it is a member of NATO and was once considered a candidate to join the EU. It has increasingly used its membership in NATO to demand the EU play a greater role in Turkey’s militarist adventurism, including invasions of Syria, Iraq and Libya.
Turkey is now in a spat with France over Libya, subjecting France’s president to insults. Ankara has tried to pressure NATO to do more for Turkey by refusing to agree to NATO plans for the Baltic states. Ankara is also constantly in friction with Greece over Mediterranean energy rights and refugees. On June 17, Reuters reported that Turkey was still blocking a NATO plan for Poland and the Baltics apparently as leverage for concessions it wants.
Across Europe, this multilayered approach of Ankara has now increased: tracking dissidents, using intelligence agencies, carrying out renditions, attempting local prosecutions, activating local far-right activists, use of soft-power media such as the state TRT broadcaster, refugee threats and NATO leverage, along with detaining members of Western embassies in Turkey and constantly insulting European countries by calling them “Nazis.”
Turkey’s foreign minister in January explained Ankara’s view of Europe. “Europe’s spoiled and racist children should know their place,” he wrote on Twitter. From Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Brussels and elsewhere, Europe is seeing this policy manifest itself.
In January, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu tweeted these sentiments: “These racist minds know better than anybody how we crash and kick out to the sea those who dare attack our glorious flag. Europe’s spoiled and racist children should know their place. Europe must put an end to racism and animosity against Islam.”