Grey Wolves Howl in Favoriten

Turkish political violence has spilled over on to the streets of Vienna: The hard right Grey Wolves confront an alliance of Kurdish and left wing protesters in the 10th District.

A classical Irish yarn: A stranger is enjoying his beer in a crowded bar as a wild scrimmage breaks out. “Excuse me,” he asks one of the participants politely, “is this a private fight, or can anyone join in?” Favoriten, Vienna’s multi-ethnic 10th district, offered such an opportunity last week for any and all activists and sports fans to enter the fray.  

It began gently enough Die Presse reported, with a legally authorized demonstration protesting the huge increase of violence against women during the pandemic. They were joined by Kurds, sympathetic to the cause, protesting recent Turkish bombardments in Syria that had killed many Kurdish women. Soon other, organizations waving their own flags appeared, including the YPJ (the female Kurdish military units in Syria), which soon attracted the attention of passing Turks,  irritated by Kurds speaking Turkish. 

Over the hours and days that followed, the situation escalated rapidly, with right wing Turkish nationalists, hard core left Antifa activists and other unidentified belligerents, who apparently just piled in for the fun of it. Sonja Gerstl writing in the venerable state owned Wiener Zeitung witnessed dramatic moments as the women demonstrators were pursued by a howling mob of men, ignoring traditional Moslem rules for treatment of women. The fleeing women were able to barricade themselves inside the Ernst Kirchweger Haus, symbolically, once the Austrian communist party headquarters. Now city owned, the building is still a refuge for social activist organizations.

By the end of the second day hundreds of police were there in force, including the elite Wega special unit, water cannon and helicopters. The scorecard read: Three arrests, 34 summonses and two injured police officers. The politics of the Bosporus had arrived in Vienna.

The Howl of the Wolves

Most reports indicate that the driving force behind the spiral of violence came from the Grey Wolves, an organization closely linked to the junior coalition party in the present Turkish government. The MHP (National Movement Party) is a fiercely nationalistic group, loyal supporters of President Recep Erdoğan’s ongoing suppression of any hint of Kurdish independence. Their battle cry “The Fatherland cannot be divided” says it all, and in the multi-ethnic neighborhoods of Vienna, where around 20-25% of all “Turkish” immigrants are actually ethnic Kurds, Alevites, and others, it amounts to a declaration of war. 

Dramatic pictures from the streets of Favoriten show young men in leg-hugging jeans and close haircuts, facing off against the police, some with Turkish flags, others with hands raised in the Wolfsgrüß (the index finger and pinkie up, making two ears and a long snout poking aggressively forwards). 

It’s an uncomfortable echo of the fascist greeting we never wanted to see here again. Since 2019, the gesture is actually forbidden by law – like the Nazi salute. But as Der Standard pointed out, the bizarre fact is that the Grey Wolves are an accredited Verein (society) linked to the legitimate Muslim Religious Community, and as such receive Austrian taxpayer subsidies.

Top Level Street Fighting

The German authorities have long classified the Wolves as far-right extremists, their Austrian colleagues merely as Turkish-nationalistic, possibly to avoid irritating the government in Ankara. Until now that is. This restraint is fading fast: The Turkish ambassador Ozan Ceyhun was summoned to the Foreign Ministry and asked to exert his influence to de-escalate the situation. 

So far, so civilized. Then, however, the street conflict was raised to government level, as Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said bluntly that his police would do whatever necessary to restore order. “And” he added menacingly: “They shouldn’t think that wearing face masks will protect their identity, we have excellent video material.” The Austrian ambassador in Ankara was then promptly summoned and admonished that Turkish youngsters were being maltreated by Austrian police and community property damaged. 

Now it became an issue for Chancellor Kurz himself: “These conflicts are being imported from Turkey,” he declared. “Anyone who feels in need of a street fight should do it in Turkey; we don’t need it here in Austria.” For good measure he went on to indicate that he well understood what the Turkish government was up to: “They are using Turks in Europe to sow dissatisfaction, to further Turkey’s own interests. This is a misuse of people with Turkish roots living in Europe.”

Local Color Wars

But this is also an election year in Vienna, so a dash of local political in-fighting was added to the mix. “The parallel society in Favoriten is out of control,” security spokesman Karl Mahrer for the renascent, local black/turquoise ÖVP told the tabloid Heute. “This is the result of the Red-Green city government’s failed integration policy.”

It then appeared that the Vice-Mayor and combative leader of the Vienna Green party and, “popup bike path” Birgit Hebein, had herself been active at one the demonstrations. “Scandalous” declared Dominik Nepp, leader of the hard-right, blue and very battered FPÖ, grateful for anyone else’s scandal to grab hold of: “She must resign.””

Sometimes Irish rules do apply: If it’s a good enough fight, anyone can join in.

Simon Ballam
English, studied in NY and worked in London, Düsseldorf, NY, Fankfurt, Prague and Vienna. This covered stints in market research and the film industry, international advertising coordination and strategic planning. Currently business school lecturer and journalist.

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