Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took a moment out of his first official visit to Germany on Friday to lay a wreath at a memorial for victims of war and dictatorship.
With his own premiership sliding steadily further towards autocracy in recent years, the solemn photos of Erdogan at Berlin‘s Neue Wache monument are sure to raise a few eyebrows among his critics.
The President has himself been described as a modern dictator and his state visit to London in May this year sparked protests from a number of human-rights groups.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lays down a wreath at the Neue Wache (New Guardhouse) memorial for the victims of war and dictatorship on September 28
This visit to Germany, which is home to more than 3 million people with Turkish roots, is equally contentious.
About 10,000 people were expected to demonstrate against Erdogan in the capital, and more protests are expected Saturday in Cologne where the Turkish president wraps up his visit, officially opening a new mosque built by a group with ties to Turkey.
Indeed upon his arrival in Germany yesterday it didn’t take Erdogan long to cause the first scandal.
As he and his wife Emine, 63, climbed out of their government aircraft and into a black state sedan, Erdogan stretched out four of his right hand fingers with his thumb on the palm – an Islamist greeting.
A protester takes part in a demonstration organised by a group calling itself ‘Erdogan Not Welcome’ during the visit of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Berlin
German website Bild called it: ‘A provocation – against Western values and democracy.’
Erdogan, who became President in 2014, is viewed with suspicion across the political spectrum in Germany, and many opposition politicians were staying away from a state banquet hosted Friday evening by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Tensions have mounted between the two countries in recent years, dating back to 2016 when Berlin criticised Erdogan’s authoritarian crackdown on opponents in the wake of a failed coup.
However, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke of mutual strategic interests when she met her Turkish counterpart on Friday.
Turkey is key to the European Union’s strategy of stemming the flow of refugees and migrants from the region, and for its part, Turkey is reliant on economic cooperation from Germany and other European nations.
The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in Germany for an official state visit in Berlin and Cologne from 27 to 29 September
Erdogan, who became President in 2014, is viewed with suspicion across the political spectrum in Germany. Many feel he is well on his way to becoming a modern-day dictator in Turkey
Accordingly, both leaders stressed the importance of the two NATO allies working together as they sought to improve acrimonious relations.
Yet, neither leader conceded much ground on the topics closest to home.
For example, the two nations have clashed over Turkey’s jailing of German journalists and a German parliament resolution labeling the early-20th century killing of Armenians in Turkey as genocide.
A protester is removed from the joint press conference held by the Turkish and German leaders in Berlin
‘I think this visit is significant because we can only clear up differences by talking to each other,’ Merkel said
Turkey vehemently denies that the massacre was genocide and insists it was part of the violence during World War I.
The rhetoric escalated to the point where Erdogan called Germany’s mainstream parties ‘enemies of Turkey’ and accused German officials of acting like Nazis, prompting Merkel to condemn the Turkish president’s words.
When asked at the press conference whether he had apologized for the Nazi comment, Erdogan pointedly ignored the question.
Instead he doubled down on his demand for closer cooperation from Germany against groups Turkey considers terrorist organisations, including Kurdish rebels and people with alleged links to a failed 2016 coup in Turkey.
Erdogan alleged that thousands of Kurdish militants and hundreds of people with suspected links to U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who accuses of orchestrating the coup attempt, are living in Germany.
German soldiers from the Guard Battalion carry a wreath prior to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attending the wreath laying ceremony
‘It is no secret to anyone that there have been deep differences in our relationship in recent years, and that there still are,’ Merkel said
‘With the mutual trust we have for each other, I believe the handing over of (suspects) would make our work easier,’ Erdogan said, adding that their return ‘is important from a security point of view for the peace and welfare of our countries.’
Merkel noted that Germany considers the PKK Kurdish rebel group a terrorist organisation and prosecutes its members, and said that authorities take Erdogan’s information on Gulen seriously ‘but we need more material – what we have is not enough for a similar status to the PKK.’
She also criticised the Turkish prosecution of journalists and others, detaining some for months without charges.
‘It is no secret to anyone that there have been deep differences in our relationship in recent years, and that there still are,’ she said.
‘That largely has to do with questions of the rule of law, with questions of press freedom.’
Erdogan said he has no right to criticise the German judiciary and Germany has no right to criticise the Turkish judicial system.
Merkel said she and Erdogan talked about bilateral economic cooperation, and stressed ‘Germany has an interest in an economically stable Turkey.’
About 10,000 people were expected to demonstrate against Erdogan in the capital, and more protests are expected Saturday in Cologne where the Turkish president wraps up his visit
‘There is, on the one hand, a common strategic interest in good relations, and on Germany’s part too an interest in developing these relations,’ she said. ‘But on the other hand, on all questions of how a democratic, free and open society looks, there are also deep misunderstandings – not misunderstandings, differences.’
‘I think this visit is significant because we can only clear up differences by talking to each other,’ she said.
Before the news conference, exiled Turkish journalist Can Dundar, the former editor of Turkey’s opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper, said he had decided not to attend and ask a question of the president after learning Erdogan was considering canceling if he were present.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, shake hands after a joint press conference in Berlin
Asked about Dundar, who was convicted in 2016 of revealing state secrets after his newspaper published photographs suggesting that Turkey’s intelligence agency was involved in sending weapons to Syrian rebels, Erdogan called him a ‘convicted spy’ who should be extradited.
Merkel said she didn’t want to discuss specifics, but that it was ‘no secret’ that Turkey and Germany differed in the case of Dundar, who fled to Germany in 2016.
As the leaders talked, another Turkish journalist who lives in Germany, identified by the dpa news agency as Ertugrul Yigit, stood up wearing a T-shirt with the slogan ‘Freedom for Journalists in Turkey’ and was quickly removed by guards.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) sit for talks at the Chancellery in Berlin