Erdogan and Austria’s Far Right: Enemies Who Help Each Other

With lobbying, espionage and political suasion, Turkey’s president has used Europe’s creeping authoritarianism to bolster his own brand back in Ankara

Erdogan and Austria’s Far Right: Enemies Who Help Each Other
The Austrian Federal Chancellery raised the Israeli flag as a sign of solidarity, in Vienna on May 14, 2021 / Helmut Fohringer / APA / AFP via Getty Images

On the morning of Friday, May 14, during the latest war between Israel and Hamas, the flag of Israel was raised above the chancellery and foreign ministry buildings in Vienna, an unprecedented act that Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz described as a “sign of solidarity” with the under-fire Jewish state. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif swiftly canceled a scheduled visit to the Austrian capital; Austria’s former president Heinz Fischer warned that the move undermined the country’s formal permanent neutrality. It was “a clear act of partisanship amid an extremely complex conflict. It was populism and a form of political symbolism,” Cengiz Günay, deputy director of the Austrian Institute for International Affairs, told New Lines.

The move was bound to provoke a reaction, Günay said, and perhaps the most spectacular one came from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. “I curse the Austrian state,” Erdoğan was quoted as saying the following Monday. “They appear to want Muslims to pay the price for the genocide they inflicted upon the Jews,” he said, going on to explicitly criticize Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer for making “anti-Turkish statements.” Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg called in Turkey’s ambassador the following day for a diplomatic dressing-down, accusing Erdoğan of “pouring oil on the fire” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Erdoğan’s verbal pyrotechnics and Holocaust relativization were characteristic of his hostile attitude to the European Union and Germany and Austria in particular, which are home to two of the largest Turkish minority communities in Europe. When pro-Erdoğan rallies in Germany were canceled by authorities in the lead-up to the April 2017 constitutional referendum, Erdoğan said, “I thought that Nazism was over in Germany, but it turns out that it is still going on.” In June 2018, he said Kurz was “leading the world toward a war between the cross and the crescent” after the Austrian Interior Ministry, then controlled by the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), decided to expel 60 imams linked to Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, the Diyanet.

The Austrian right, in turn, uses Erdoğan, Turkey and Turks as interchangeable bogeymen to foster its xenophobic and anti-immigrant agenda. Consider previous FPÖ election slogans like “Daham statt Islam” (At home instead of Islam) or “Wien darf nicht Istanbul werden” (Vienna must not become Istanbul). Yet the deterioration in Austro-Turkish relations — coinciding with Erdoğan’s turn towards authoritarianism, which accelerated following the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey — goes beyond words. The Turkish government has arrested independent German and Austrian journalists such as Deniz Yücel and Max Zirngast, detained and attempted to recruit Austrian citizens as spies, and targeted opponents in Europe including Kurds and critics of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Austria’s Interior Ministry frequently complains of Erdoğan’s interference in Austrian internal affairs and meddling among Turks in Austria. That interference — most of which is not illegal though does, observers believe, include espionage — is tied to Erdoğan’s goal of establishing himself as the champion of downtrodden Turkish migrants to Europe and a leader in the Islamic world.

The sound of early summer 2020 was that of the siren and the helicopter. For a time in late June, there were daily scuffles in the streets of Favoriten, a large, working-class district south of Vienna’s central railway station where 51% of the population were either born abroad or possess non-Austrian citizenship. On one side were Kurds, in particular Kurdish feminists and sympathizers of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and their allies on the left based out of the Ernst-Kirchweger-Haus, a hub for the radical left scene in Vienna. Opposing them were predominately young male, right-wing Turkish nationalists, active on and influenced by social media, some seen raising their fists in the two-fingered salute of the ultranationalist Grey Wolves organization.

These demonstrations were initially spontaneous, the Austrian political scientist Thomas Schmidinger told me. But Nehammer said publicly in May that there is “clear evidence” to suggest Erdoğan not only influenced events in Favoriten but also anti-Israel demonstrations that took place in Vienna during the recent Israel-Hamas escalation. Supporters of Erdoğan and the Grey Wolves — Erdoğan “is the strong leader many Grey Wolves want,” the journalist and Green Party activist Thomas Rammerstorfer said — mingled among those who partook in a counterdemonstration at a rally organized by the Austrian Union of Jewish Students protesting antisemitism. A Vienna-based branch of the AKP also professed support on Facebook for Hamas’ rocket attacks.

Erdoğan’s voice “reaches many living rooms in the Turkish community in Favoriten,” the left-liberal daily Der Standard reported in the days after the clashes. Erdoğan’s government is able to “influence the Turkish community on many different levels,” Schmidinger said. Though the AKP is not formally constituted as a party in Austria, the Union of International Democrats (UID) has been described as a lobbying organization for it. The UID is one of “an array of [formal] associations” — or Vereine — in Austria, which Schmidinger described as being “close to the AKP.”

Through the Diyanet, the Turkish state has a relationship with ATIB, the Turkish Islamic Union for Cultural and Social Cooperation in Austria, an umbrella organization covering various aspects of Turkish social and religious life. ATIB has been described as the long arm of Erdoğan in Austria, and in June 2018, the organization confirmed that imams at its mosques were having their salaries paid by the Turkish state. Rammerstorfer, author of a 2018 book about the Grey Wolves, told me that “the religious attachés that work in [Turkey’s] embassies and consulates in Vienna, Salzburg and Bregenz have a direct connection to [Austria’s] mosque umbrella organizations.”

For the most part, there is nothing out of the ordinary or illicit about this kind of political or cultural activism. Nor is there anything inherently wrong, as Günay said, with migrants consuming media produced in their native language. More nefarious, however, is the role of Turkish intelligence.

Rammerstorfer believes there are around “a few dozen” agents of Turkey’s MIT, the National Intelligence Organization, active in Vienna “as well as informants who don’t work for the service officially but deliver information.” Schmidinger described Turkish intelligence as being “in the second row” at events in Favoriten, helping direct clashes in late June. By October of last year, The New York Times was reporting that a special police commission had “concluded that Turkey’s secret service had recruited agitators to help provoke” the violent clashes in Favoriten “and collect information on demonstrators.”

The extent of Turkish espionage in Austria was brought to light last September when Feyyaz Öztürk, 53 and an Italian citizen, turned himself over to Viennese police, seeking their protection while claiming to be an agent of Turkish intelligence tasked with carrying out a hit on the Kurdish-Austrian politician and Erdoğan critic Berîvan Aslan. She “remains under police protection until this very day,” Rammerstorfer said, adding that Austrian politicians Peter Pilz, formerly of the Green Party, and Andreas Schieder, of the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and a member of the European Parliament (MEP), are also known targets of Turkish intelligence. From 2018 to 2020, more than 30 Austrians were detained in Turkey after entering the country, and the Interior Ministry believes the Turkish secret services attempted to recruit them.

Having spoken with Austrian intelligence, Schieder told me the assumption is that he was targeted by the Turkish secret service after he was named as a pro-Kurdish activist in a report published by the Ankara-based think tank the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA). Unlike Aslan, however, he was not offered police protection. SETA and other think tanks funded by Ankara, Schieder believes, give a pseudo-academic sheen to right-wing Turkish nationalism and are another tool with which the Turkish government is able to “cook up” nationalistic and anti-integrationist sentiments among people of Turkish background in Austria.

Austria’s response to Erdoğan’s creeping authoritarianism has been to oppose Turkish membership in the EU and call for a formal end to accession talks, which today exist in name only. “Turkey has been continuously drifting away from Europe and European values over the last few years,” a spokesperson for the Austrian Foreign Ministry told me. “Turkey’s policies in many areas, including the rule of law and human rights, are hardly compatible with the status of an EU accession candidate.” As for Erdoğan’s outbursts, the spokesperson said: “We categorically reject the claims by some Turkish representatives that” Austrian condemnation of what it sees as “inciting conflict in our own communities” constitutes “a sign of rising Islamophobia.”

Yet Austrian policy is also bound by an inherent contradiction, namely that even in the face of Erdoğan’s interference, it continues to view Turkey as “an important partner” and “therefore advocates the preparation of a comprehensive, realistic, and credible neighborhood concept” encompassing trade and investment as well as scientific, cultural and educational cooperation between Turkey and the EU. That cooperation also extends to “managing migration,” according to the Austrian Foreign Ministry spokesperson. The 2016 refugee pact with Erdoğan, whereby the EU pays Turkey to keep refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere out of Europe, has, in a sense, been beneficial for both parties.

Schieder, an opponent of the deal, described Austria as being caught in a “double bind,” with the EU giving Erdoğan money to solve its refugee problem, thereby acknowledging it perceives there is a problem, which the Turkish president can use as a “weapon.” This attempt to solve the problem, the MEP contends, in fact created a new one for Austria and the EU in general.

The deal provides material for Turkish government propaganda, which Erdoğan can use to pressure Turkish communities in Germany and Austria. Indeed, a majority of eligible Turkish voters in Austria, 72%, plumped for Erdoğan in the 2018 presidential election, and 73% voted in favor of his constitutional reforms a year prior.

For Erdoğan, Turkish citizens in Austria as well as Germany constitute a “pool of voters for the AKP,” which he may need to draw upon in the 2023 presidential election given his declining popularity at home. But Erdoğan is only able to draw on them because he is playing the kind of music Turks in Austria want to hear: “Erdoğan has presented himself as the Robin Hood of the disenfranchised, of the socially disadvantaged classes of Anatolia,” Günay said. “He comes from this class himself. He speaks of a battle between the ‘black Turks’ and the ‘white Turks,’ and he represents the ‘black Turks’ against the elite.”

This dichotomy rings true for Turks living in Austria, where anti-Turkish or anti-Islamic sentiment has indeed been an undercurrent in national politics for decades, according to Günay. “The main messages one hears as a migrant and a person with Turkish roots in this country are: ‘You are a problem,’ ‘That has to change,’ ‘That’s not right.’ And then Erdoğan comes along and says, ‘I am your representative. The might of Turkey stands behind you. Have no fear.’ He looks Merkel and Kurz in the eye and calls them fascists and compares them to Nazis, and in doing so, speaks to a part of their soul. It’s no wonder that there’s an interest in Erdoğan or that Erdoğan speaks to people.”

For Günay, the solution to Erdoğan’s interference is not to criminalize or problematize it but rather first to understand what he sees as its root: the feeling among Turks (and Muslims in general) in Austria of intimidation, exclusion, ghettoization and discrimination, and second to encourage a culture of belonging, inclusion and participation without Turks having to sublimate their own identity. One might argue, however, that neither side has an interest in bringing about such conditions, for the Austrian and Turkish governments, and specifically the right-wing conservative scenes in both countries, are bound in a mutually reinforcing and beneficial relationship within which both sides are able to use the other for political and electoral gain.

The fact is, whether the issue is mainstream political and cultural Islamophobia or xenophobia or the domestic activities of the extra-parliamentary extreme right like neo-Nazis and the identitarian movement, the Austrian right is a useful foil for Erdoğan. Far-right provocations or attacks dialectically serve his interests. In turn, Erdoğan’s interventions in Austrian domestic affairs — from his 2014 declaration that Austrian Turks should reject assimilation through his latest act of Holocaust relativization — is fodder for the very same right-wing current Erdoğan claims to oppose, whether in the guise of Kurz’s conservative People’s Party or the far-right FPÖ.

“Ultimately, these are two right-wing currents that profit from each other,” Schmidinger said. “Turkish nationalism colored by Islamism on the one hand and anti-Islamic and anti-Turkish racism, which has spread throughout Europe and Austria in particular, on the other.”

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