Turkey aims to extend influence through Turks abroad

Turks Abroad and Related Communities (YTB) signed a deal in September to cooperate more closely with Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency.
Saturday 17/11/2018
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves after delivering a speech to MPs of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) at the parliament in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (AP)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves after delivering a speech to MPs of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) at the parliament in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (AP)

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

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appointed Abdullah Eren, 34, to head Turks Abroad and Related Communities (YTB), a government body that promotes education and cooperation among Turkish citizens around the world. The move signals greater ambitions for YTB, which Erdogan's government created in 2010.

YTB has collaborated closely with the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA), including opening a school in Moldova. TIKA has grown vastly under Erdogan, 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) rose to power, to $7.9 billion in 2016, said Alpaslan Ozerdem, co-director of the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University in the United Kingdom.

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

Abdullah Eren was born in north-eastern Greece and is familiar with the lives of Balkan Turks, a key focus for YTB. He graduated from Istanbul’s Bogazici University and has long moved in AKP circles. He was the deputy head of AKP Istanbul Youth, an important testing ground for future government officials, and worked in the office of his uncle, Hakan Cavusoglu, a former deputy prime minister under Erdogan.

Since Eren was nominated to be YTB president in June, he has made regular public appearances, raising the profile of the agency. In July, he denounced the way the German media reported on Mesut Ozil, the Turkish-German footballer who quit the German national team. Eren 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 Erdogan’s government. Recently, 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 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 graduates to assist Ankara in its global battle against the followers of Fethullah Gulen, the Muslim scholar accused of masterminding the 2016 coup attempt.

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

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

Responding to Netherlands' state television's negative portrayal of YTB, Anadolu published 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.