Gerhard Schröder helped free the human rights activist Peter Steudtner from Turkey, German media report. The former German Chancellor has a history of diplomacy with authoritarian regimes.
Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder made a quiet trip to Ankara a week after Germany's elections to persuade Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to release the human rights activist Peter Steudtner, according to a report in Der Spiegel magazine.
The initiative for sending the 73-year-old veteran politician came from Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, the magazine reported, citing "well-informed circles." The media group RND and the Süddeutsche Zeitung have also reported Schröder's intervention.
Gabriel appears to have turned to his fellow Social Democrat as the increasingly acrimonious dispute between Germany and Turkey threatened to escalate even further over the summer. In response to criticism from Gabriel, Erdogan used a particularly heated speech in August to ask the foreign minister rhetorically: "Who are you to speak to the president of Turkey? Watch your boundaries!"
There was a much more conciliatory tone at the secret two-hour meeting between Schröder and Erdogan, during which they reportedly agreed to continue working to resolve the issue of German citizens in custody in Turkey.
'Necessary first step'
The 46-year-old Steudtner, an activist who was arrested in Istanbul in July while conducting a workshop to train human rights defenders, was released on Wednesday, the first day of his trial. The charges — collusion with an opposition group that Turkey's government has named a terrorist organization — were considered absurd by Steudtner's friends. Ten other human rights activists from the workshop were also on trial, including the head of Amnesty's Turkish branch, Idil Eser.
Steudtner's case was apparently the easiest to resolve, though in return Turkey demanded that Germany's government not interfere publicly in the trial. German authorities believe that Steudtner might have been pardoned or deported home at the end of the trial anyway. Though German politicians queued up to welcome the court's decision to release him, many underlined that it was no more than a "necessary first step." Ten other Germans are currently in custody in Turkey on political charges, including the journalist Deniz Yücel, who holds dual Turkish citizenship and was arrested in February.
Angela Merkel met Schröder on September 1 to discuss and personally approve the diplomatic mission, according to the media reports. The former chancellor requested the meeting to ensure that his successor would give him authority as an emissary for Germany's government, rather than as a private citizen.
It must have been clear to Merkel why her predecessor was a potential diplomatic asset. Schröder harbored a notably warmer political friendship with Erdogan during his tenure than she does, and the Turkish president recently called the former chancellor, who lost his seat in 2005, the last German politician who could be trusted. After all, it was Schröder, along with French President Jacques Chirac, who originally opened the negotiations for Turkey's accession to the European Union — something that Merkel has only halfheartedly pursued.
Back channel master
Schröder's back channel prowess has been noted before — particularly when it comes to dealing with another authoritarian government: Russia. The former chancellor is a personal friend of President Vladimir Putin's and is the chairman of the shareholders' committee of Nord Stream, the consortium that operates the gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea and is majority-owned by the Russian state company Gazprom.
That awkward friendship with the Kremlin was brought up during this summer's election campaign in Germany, when media and politicians took exception to the ex-chancellor's appointment — by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev — as the chairman of the board of directors of the oil company Rosneft, which is majority-owned by the government. Rosneft's CEO, Igor Sechin, is still subject to US sanctions for Russia's meddling in Ukraine.
During a press conference at the height of the scandal this summer, Foreign Minister Gabriel notably defended his fellow Social Democrat, noting that Schröder had helped secure the release of German OSCE military observers who were captured by separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014.