Baerbock in Turkey: between the rule of law and realpolitik

Istanbul, Ankara At first, both top diplomats tried to de-escalate. When Federal Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (Greens) saw the view of the Bosphorus from the official residence of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Istanbul, she remarked: “We have to keep sailing together, even when there are waves.”

But the confrontation soon came. In the joint press conference on Friday in Istanbul, the two fought verbal battles about the expected Turkish offensive in northern Syria, the imprisonment of the opposition leader Osman Kavala in Turkey and the island dispute between Greece and Turkey. Baerbock had previously visited Athens and clearly sided with Greece in the dispute over Greek islands such as Rhodes, Kos and Lesbos in the eastern Mediterranean.

“Direct statements and confrontation are sometimes unavoidable, not just necessary,” said the co-chair of the pro-Kurdish party HDP on Saturday after talks with Baerbock in Ankara. Criticism came from the representative of the Turks in Germany. “I would have wished that certain topics had been discussed diplomatically behind closed doors,” summarizes the chairman of the Turkish community in Germany, Gökay Sofuoglu, to the editorial network Germany.

Baerbock is the fourth German foreign minister to visit Turkey since an attempted coup in Turkey six years ago. It was never easy: Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD) visited a country in terror in 2016. During his roughly one-year tenure as Germany’s chief diplomat, Sigmar Gabriel (SPD) had the task of freeing the journalist Deniz Yücel from prison, while Heiko Maas (SPD) was confronted with Turkish military incursions in Syria.

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Baerbock’s tenure is not just about the Ukraine war. But also in the role of Turkey in it. The country has become the most important mediator in the conflict and most recently made the grain deal possible.

At the same time, Ankara’s politics are becoming increasingly autocratic. Elections will be held in June 2023. The Turkish opposition is hoping for a victory, and many in Berlin have resigned in the face of President Erdogan’s escalating power.

Turkey’s criticism of German foreign policy

The fact that Baerbock was so offensive despite the complex situation is refreshing, but also a bit short-sighted. Her Turkish counterpart never missed an opportunity to counterattack.

Cavusoglu accused Germany of taking sides against Turkey and no longer being a mediator, as Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) was. “Germany’s policy was balanced.” That is no longer the case.

The two also clashed on the subject of Syria. Baerbock warned Cavusoglu of a new offensive in the country. Ankara wants to fight the YPG militia, which the government regards as a terrorist organization. It is a fight against terror and not a military operation.

>> Read more: Europe buys gigantic amounts of LPG – “This plunges millions of people into darkness”

The Turkish foreign minister reacted particularly angrily to Baerbock’s criticism of the imprisonment of Turkish cultural promoter Osman Kavala. The Green politician emphasized that judgments by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), which ordered the release, must be respected.

Cavusoglu reacted angrily, accusing Germany of using and financing Kavala against Turkey. Kavala was sentenced to life in prison in April in connection with the 2013 Gezi protests. He has been in prison since 2017.

In the traffic light coalition, the realization has prevailed that direct attacks against the governing party AKP or head of state Erdogan are only understood as an invitation to provocation. “The Federal Foreign Minister criticized the matter strictly, never personally, and that was good,” explains a member of the Bundestag to the Handelsblatt.

Point victory for Annalena Baerbock

While the federal foreign ministers often referred to international law, or to the fact that they and Cavusoglu obviously interpreted it differently, the Turkish foreign minister hardly missed an opportunity to verbally attack journalists during the question and answer session.

“Why are you so attached to Kavala?” Cavusoglu asked Baerbock and gave his answer immediately afterwards: “Because you use him as a political vehicle and support him financially.” Such statements delight the pro-government press in Turkey. It’s useless in the debate.

Some interpreted Baerbock’s offensive appearance in Istanbul as a break with former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s old Turkey policy. In truth, Merkel went through two phases in her Turkey policy: starting with open criticism and rejection of Turkey’s EU membership bid, to a purely transactional relationship in which both countries worked together on critical issues such as migration.

As a result, Baerbock did not take a step forward, but two steps back. Criticism of a lack of rule of law in the EU accession candidate had been numerous in recent years – but it had never been of any use. And so the appearance of the two was mainly something for the local media.

>> Read more: Baerbock calls on Greece and Turkey to engage in dialogue

One can interpret this as Baerbock’s point victory. But diplomacy knows no final whistle. Anyone who performs well today will be surprised again tomorrow by the next crisis. And there are many of them in European-Turkish relations.

The fact is that Baerbock set the guidelines for her Turkey policy with her appearance. But the country has not only become an important geopolitical player since the Ukraine war. Ankara will also play an important role when it comes to refugees or Europe’s future gas supply. By then at the latest, the federal government will have to show which it will give priority to: the rule of law or realpolitik.

More: Turning point – from the rule of law to the law of the strongest

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