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Erdogan Should Put Brakes on Himself

By Shantanu Mukharji

March 17, 2017

Ever since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan survived the July 2016 coup attempt, he appears to have lost his sense of diplomacy, his statecraft and arguably even his mental equilibrium. This is visible in ample measure in the insecure President’s body language and rhetoric in the wake of a diplomatic row snowballing into a major crisis before the referendum he is seeking from the Turks, both within and outside Turkey, for unbridled and sweeping powers to strengthen his Presidency. This also displays how desperate Erdogan is to derive more power.

Against this backdrop, the Netherlands refused (and perhaps rightly so) permission to Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglo who was on his way to the European country to canvas for Erdogan ahead of the referendum. Erdogan, with his huge ego, couldn’t swallow the denial of entry to his foreign minister.  His impulsive anti-Netherlands remarks were unsavoury, intimidatory and fell well short of diplomatic niceties.

Matters got complicated when the Turkish minister Fatima Betul Kaya, who arrived at Rotterdam via land from Germany, insisted on holding a rally in the port city. The Dutch, acting as any sovereign state, did not allow a rally to be held leading to huge protests by the local Turks which also saw use of force and violence. Finally, Minister Fatima was escorted out of the Netherlands by land further infuriating the Turkish president. Erdogan labelled the Dutch as Nazis, vowed punitive action and threatened to teach them a lesson. Such undiplomatic remarks, punctuated with aggression and belligerence, speak of a head of state who is in a hurry to consolidate power and is not sure how to handle a smaller country like the Netherlands.

The Netherlands has 400,000 Turks holding dual nationality and eligible to take part in the referendum. They look confused and sadly such acts of immaturity and tactlessness have put them into a state of dilemma. They hitherto thought of the Netherlands as their home. The latest imbroglio has upset them and they may start nurturing anti-Dutch sentiments causing unpleasant problems. Dutch society now stands threatened with a division on religious lines - Islam vs the rest.

This is dangerous as Erdogan is tainted with his excesses on the Kurds and his leaning towards Islamic fundamentalism. He perhaps thinks he has nothing to lose if Dutch society is Islamised. The Netherlands already has a vocal and active politician Geert Wilders who is pressurizing Prime Minister Mark Rutte to act against Islamic activists to clear the country of extremism and terror.  He cites instances of Algerians, Tunisians and Moroccans causing terror-linked problems in Belgium and France.

The Netherlands too has refugees from Syria. Dutch intelligence is keeping a hawkish eye on them lest some of them align with other Islamic forces (now possibly Turkey included) to spark terror. The fresh Turko-Dutch tension is a bad sign and needs urgent redressal to calm down communal forces, ready to light fires and split the society. Possibly the new UN Secretary General and diplomats of the European Union ( EU) must brainstorm sooner rather than later. This is a moment to act and not react. In the meantime, the Dutch ambassador to Ankara, who is out on an assignment has been told by the Turks not to return. Anti-Dutch statements continue to flow incessantly. In a very recent statement Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildrim has threatened the Netherlands that his country would respond in the harshest ways for this ‘unacceptable’ behaviour. Such fiery rhetoric may push things to a point of no return. This is all the more reason for restraint and a statesmanlike approach. Already ties between European nations and Turkey have been impacted. The first step for calming down passions and angst needs to be taken by Erdogan.

Erdogan must also remember that he has few friends on this planet. Putin is his newest ally yet he should not expect that Russia will get involved on this issue. Pakistan, another amongst  the few ‘friends’ of Turkey,  has been muted in its response. In the present day, the last thing a sovereign country can afford is to remain in isolation. Erdogan should be wise enough to refrain from falling into this situation.

Shantanu Mukharji is a security analyst and columnist on matters of security. He is also the Senior Fellow with the India Police Foundation.