By Siobhan O’Grady
It’s been a complicated year for Turkey’s relations with pretty much everyone. The Turkish government is enraged by Washington’s decision to side with Syrian Kurds — who it claims are tied to terrorist attacks in Turkey — in the fight against the Islamic State.
Ankara’s relations with Moscow took a quick downward spiral after Turkish forces downed a Russian jet for invading Turkish airspace last November. And President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is so furious about being mocked on German television that he’s taking comedian Jan Boehmermann to court.
Adding to the mess, on Thursday the German parliament voted overwhelmingly in favor of labeling the 1915 killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide — a move that Erdogan’s government vehemently opposes and has sought to prevent from happening elsewhere, including in the United States.
In response, Ankara recalled its ambassador to Berlin on Thursday. Erdogan, who is currently traveling in Kenya, said the vote to label the killings as genocide would “seriously affect” relations between the Turkey and Germany, and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu tweeted what appeared to be a subtle reference to Nazism.
“The way to close one’s own dark pages of history is not by maligning another country’s history,” Cavusoglu wrote. Up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed throughout World War I, but Turkey claims the number of dead has been inflated and that the people who were killed were primarily victims of the civil war.
U.S. President Barack Obama has stopped short of labeling the killings as genocide, despite promising to do so while running for the White House in 2008.
Thursday’s vote in Germany comes at a particularly tenuous time. The European Union is trying to bolster an already shaky deal for Turkey to accept more refugees in exchange for visa-free travel to the EU. Ankara has hoped the eased travel could lay the groundwork for eventual EU membership. Recalling its ambassador to Germany, Turkey’s most important trading partner and the very country that spearheaded the recent deal, might not be a great place to start.
In a phone call with Foreign Policy, Bulent Aliriza, founding director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said it’s still too early to tell just how large of an impact Thursday’s vote will ultimately have on the long-term relationship between the two countries.
“At a time when Turkish foreign policy is going through a tough period, Germany was the one country that Turkey could rely on to understand its case and to bat for it,” he said. “I think it’s almost certain that it will affect the German-Turkish relationship, but the question is how much more will happen beyond the recall of the ambassador and response by the parliament.”
And Merkel is evidently worried about how Germany’s large Turkish community of around 3.5 million people will respond to the parliamentary decision. “I want to say to people with Turkish roots: you’re not only welcome here, but you are part of this country,” she said on Thursday.
And Erdogan might not really be prepared to completely cut off Germany, anyway. Aliriza said that even as international criticism of Erdogan has mounted in recent years, Turkish officials remain eager to amend many of the country’s poor relations with those it once considered close allies.
“This has to be seen in the context of continued worsening of Turkish relationship with the outside world,” he said. “The question is, as Germany, who has been steadfast in support of Turkey, is going through this kind of strain, will things get worse or get better? The jury is still out.”