Hostage diplomacy is a sign of Ankara's desperation
Turkish anti-terror police detained Austrian journalist Max Zirngast in Ankara last week. Zirngast, who studied philosophy and political sciences at the University of Vienna, was continuing his studies at the Middle East Technical University. Zirngast has lived in Turkey since 2015 and has given many seminars across the country during this time.
Three other people, Hatice Köz, Burcu Pekdemir and Mithatcan Türetken, were arrested alongside Zirngast and also accused of terrorism offences on the same day.
Zirngast volunteered at many social events such as "Campus Witches,” a group of female college students fighting against violence and harassment of women in universities and an environmental group, "Nature's Kids.”
The detention of Zirngast has brought many questions to mind:
Why has someone like Zirngast, a civil society, human rights, and ecology activist become a threat to Turkey?
Why did Zirngast, aware of the risks, choose to stay in Turkey?
Isn't it strange that a European journalist was detained at a time when Turkey is desperate for financial help from European nations?
This cannot be a coincidence. The arrest or detention of a journalist is not an unusual event for democrats in Turkey. We can almost hear them saying; "once again European nations won't do anything."
And they are not wrong. But here is some essential background:
• Turkey is a geopolitically crucial and vital NATO ally.
• Turkey and many European countries have trade pacts.
• Turkey is a candidate for European Union membership.
• There are millions of Turkish immigrants in Europe, half of whom are European citizens and potential voters.
• The deal between Turkey and Europe on refugees is vital for European nations, in particular, for German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
• There are quite a few European citizens in Turkish prisons.
Politicians in Europe are aware of what is happening in Turkey, and they are feeling uneasy about it. They are worried that the regime in Turkey is becoming increasingly authoritarian. Except for some far-right populists, European politicians do not approve of the totalitarian tendencies of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
The refugee crisis has paralysed European politics, as leaders cannot determine a joint solution that would work for all of them. Their inability to come up with a joint solution led them into a dead-end with Erdoğan.
Every refugee arriving in Europe increases the number of votes for right-wing and far-right nationalist parties in Europe. In some countries, for example in Austria, these parties are now part of coalition governments. Conservatives and social democrats have had to re-adjust their priorities to halt further losses in elections. These politicians are willing to negotiate with Erdoğan as long as the refugee flows stop. And Erdoğan has used their anxiety very well.
The European Union's concerns about refugee inflows have prevented it taking active political steps on issues like human rights in Turkey, about women's rights, or about the Turkish government's actions in Syria, such as its operations in the mostly Kurdish district of Afrin.
On the other hand, Europe has continuously warned Erdoğan since the 2013 Gezi Park protests. As the human rights abuses in Turkey increased, the EU has suspended the membership process entirely. Turkey is not considered a candidate state anymore; European countries want to negotiate for a strategic partnership.
Erdoğan and the AKP also know that they do not have a strong hand in negotiations with European countries. So, they are trying new methods to strengthen their hand during the EU membership, or partnership talks.
One of these methods is to detain or arrest European citizens such as German-Turkish reporters Deniz Yücel and Meşale Tolu. Yücel was released following a dirty deal between German and Turkish officials.
Turkey's economic crisis has become quite apparent right now. For the Turkish economy to survive this crisis, the Turkish government must normalise its relations with EU countries and receive economic assistance. Erdoğan, however, has no credibility with European nations anymore. The only cards left in his hand is blackmail and political pressure. And the simplest way to achieve that goal is to arrest European citizens.
But, what if European countries decide to do the same, what will happen then? Hundreds and even thousands of innocent people will end up paying the price for these dirty political negotiations.
The rise of xenophobia and Islamophobia in Europe did not occur spontaneously. Quite the opposite. The political and socio-cultural landscape in Europe started to change after Islamic State bombed European cities, the Muslim Brotherhood launched its campaign in Europe and Erdoğan adopted a hostile attitude against European nations.
Erdoğan and the AKP's current hostage diplomacy is not only strengthening the xenophobic and Islamophobic movements in Europe, but is also an indication of Ankara's desperation.