Turkey aims to extend influence through Turks abroad

"Well wishers hold a placard reading 'Don't you hear their steps? They arrive, the fighters for justice, in the name of the merciful, the Turks are coming' near Cologne's Central Mosque prior to the visit of the Turkish President, Sept 2018. Patrik STOLLARZ / AFP

By David Lepeska

Ankara is quietly honing a new foreign policy tool, recruiting millions of Turks overseas to do its bidding.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last month appointed 34-year-old Abdullah Eren to head the country’s Turks Abroad and Related Communities (YTB), a government body that aims to promote education and cooperation among Turkish citizens around the world.

The move is one of several that signal greater ambitions for YTB, which Erdoğan’s government created in 2010.

In recent months, YTB has collaborated more closely with the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA), such as opening a school in Moldova. TIKA has grown exponentially under Erdoğan, who sees foreign assistance as a crucial element of foreign policy. Turkey’s development aid has leapt from $85 million in 2002, when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, to $7.9 billion in 2016, according to Alpaslan Özerdem, co-director of the Centre for Trust, Peace, and Social Relations at Britain’s Coventry University.

In September, YTB signed a deal to cooperate more closely with Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency. The two plan to develop joint outreach projects to increase collaboration between Turkish journalists at home and abroad. Turkey’s state Broadcaster, TRT, is headed by Eren’s brother, which suggests YTB is likely to gain wide coverage of its activities.

Abdullah Eren was born in northeastern Greece and is thus familiar with the lives of Balkan Turks, a key focus for YTB. He graduated from Istanbul’s prestigious Boğaziçi University and has long moved in AKP circles. He was the deputy head of AKP Istanbul Youth for several years, a key testing ground for future government officials, and worked in the office of his uncle, Hakan Çavuşoğlu, a former deputy prime minister under Erdoğan.

Since Eren was nominated for the post of YTB president in June, he has made regular public appearances, raising the profile of his agency. In July, he denounced the way the German media covered Mesut Özil, the Turkish-German footballer who quit the German national team. He said the coverage provided “a clear sign that racism and xenophobia are intended to be given a larger forum in Germany.”

He has shown himself willing to advise Turks’ abroad on helping Erdoğan’s government. Two weeks ago he talked up the potential of young Turks all over the world, particularly at the voting booth.

“A very high quality generation is coming. They speak Turkish very well and speak the language of their country very well. They are well educated, they are studying in good universities,” he said. “Among these citizens abroad, there is very serious participation in elections.”

In September, Eren announced the YTB had received 135,000 financial support applications from foreign students, a sharp increase from the 42,000 it received in 2012. Days later he urged some graduates to assist Ankara in its global battle against the followers of Fethullah Gülen, the Muslim scholar accused of masterminding the 2016 coup attempt.

“Alumni associations can help defend and justify Turkey’s fight against FETÖ,” he said in Sarajevo, using the acronym for what Turkey calls the Fethullahist Terror Organisation. “Each of our alumni associations is a serious instrument in the fight against FETÖ.”

As of April, Turkish agents abroad had seized at least 80 people accused of being Gülenists in 18 foreign countries. The YTB appears to be one way the Erdoğan government urges Turks abroad to keep an eye out for for people it views as criminals.

Responding to Netherlands’ state television’s negative portrayal of YTB in September, Anadolu Agency ran a story pointing out that involvement in YTB projects is entirely volunteer-based, and that many countries, including Germany, China, Greece, and Israel, have similar agencies.