Erdogan Critics Under Siege, EU Asks Turkey Help on Refugees

European Leaders Focus on Refugees
  • Government seizes media group that owns best-selling newspaper
  • Authorities seen betting on role to help EU on refugees

Turkish authorities are escalating a crackdown on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s opponents, undeterred by possible risks to the country’s renewed attempts to join the European Union.

In two days, authorities seized control of a leading newspaper and signaled they might strip prominent Kurdish lawmakers of their parliamentary immunity. The moves drew a tepid response from the EU on the eve of talks on Monday between Turkish and bloc officials on how to handle the influx of Syrian refugees.

Turkish anti riot police enter the Zaman Daily headquarters in Istanbul on March 5.
Turkish anti riot police enter the Zaman Daily headquarters in Istanbul on March 5.
Photographer: Akif Talha Sertturk/AFP via Getty Images

With the EU increasingly seeking Turkey’s help to contain Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II, and Ankara’s membership talks at an early stage, Erdogan’s allies are betting the escalation won’t damage Turkey’s ties with the bloc.

The president expects EU leaders “to turn a blind eye” in return for his “cooperation in curbing Syrian refugee flows to the continent,” said Aykan Erdemir, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based policy institute focused on national security.

“Parallel State”

On Friday, Turkey took over the Zaman newspaper, the latest twist in a 2 1/2-year campaign against U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former ally of Erdogan accused of running a “parallel state” to undermine the government. The move sparked clashes between police and anti-government protesters. The Turkish lira depreciated 0.9 percent to 2.9257 liras per dollar at 12:52 p.m. on Monday.

EU governments revived the entry talks, dormant since November 2013, as part of a package of economic and political incentives to encourage Erdogan to host refugees in Turkey instead of pointing them to Europe. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said in an interview recorded last week and broadcast on Sunday on BBC’s Andrew Marr show that “it will be a long time before we reach the end of negotiations with Turkey about accession to the European Union.”

“Actually, the German government has major doubts about whether Turkey should be a full member of the EU, but this is a question for the coming years,” said Schaeuble. “It is not a worry at the present time.”

Fierce Critic

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu denied that his government interfered with the judiciary’s appointment of trustees to run Zaman, a one-time supporter of Erdogan that became one of his fiercest critics. Yet while he said that “no one should have doubts about freedom of the press in Turkey,” he told AHaber television in an interview on Sunday that “we must make a distinction between press activity and activity against the elected government by the parallel state.”

“We will continue to fight members of the parallel state wherever they are within the state,” he said.

Separately, the premier said that parliament, dominated by his AKP party, will soon vote on whether to strip certain lawmakers in the pro-Kurdish HDP party of their immunity to investigate alleged links to the Kurdish militant PKK group.

The Kurdish party secured enough votes to enter the legislature for the first time last year, preventing the ruling party from securing enough seats to rewrite the constitution to give Erdogan more powers.

‘Not Very Meaningful’

Erdogan knows that the “EU can’t really stop him from eradicating followers of Gulen to putting Kurdish lawmakers on trial for ties to the PKK,” Nihat Ali Ozcan at the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara said by phone on Sunday.

“The EU’s criticism of Erdogan’s policies is not very meaningful at a time when the country’s membership bid is not high on the public’s agenda, and the reliance of the EU on Turkey to handle the refugee crisis and protect Europe against terrorism leaves more room for Erdogan to pursue his own agenda at home,” Ozcan said.

In response to the newspaper’s seizure, the EU said Turkey “needs to respect and promote high democratic standards and practices, including freedom of the media.”

“Turkey has always been a difficult and uneasy partner for the European Union. But at the end of the day, if the European goal is to limit the refugee inflow, then you can’t be too picky with your partners on the other side,” Carsten Nickel, a political-risk analyst at Teneo Intelligence, said in an interview with Bloomberg TV from Brussels on Monday. “It all boils down to Turkey’s central role in this crisis.”

‘Constitution Suspended’

Last week, Turkish government-appointed trustees shuttered media outlets owned by the Koza-Ipek Group, another Gulen-linked company. The Zaman newspaper was published Saturday with a black front page and headline reading “constitution suspended.”

Under new management, Zaman has turned pro-government overnight, with Sunday’s front-page decorated by smiling pictures of Erdogan and Davutoglu.

“Historic Excitement!” read the headline, referring to the near-completion of a bridge over the Bosphorus. Armed guards were deployed around the newspaper’s headquarters in Istanbul to prevent further clashes.

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