Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit to Berlin highlights a new period in exceptionally close but at times uneasy relations between Turkey and Germany.
On Tuesday evening, Erdogan opened a new Turkish embassy complex in Berlin which is now Ankara's largest in the world, symbolizing Turkey's growing activism in international politics, as well as its growing interest in strengthening ties and gaining influence with the Turkish diaspora.
“This building is an expression of the great importance we attach to Germany; importance and value we attribute to our Turkish citizens living here,” said Turkey's ambassador to Berlin, Huseyin Avni Karslioglu. “We will have a glorious embassy, which our people can be proud of,” he told the Turkish press.
Turkey and Germany enjoy close and wide-ranging relations, stretching back over centuries. The two NATO allies have developed a unique partnership, enriched by the 2.5 million people of Turkish origin living in Germany, most of them descendants of those arrived under a “guest workers” program in the 1960s. While issues and problems related to the Turkish diaspora have long dominated the bilateral ties between Turkey and Germany, more recently the economy and trade, as well close cooperation on international politics, have become determining factors on the bilateral agenda.
Economy at forefront
Germany today is Turkey's biggest trading partner. Bilateral trade reached a new record of 31.4 billion euros in 2011, despite the economic and financial crisis in Europe.
Germany is also the leader in foreign investment in Turkey. The number of German companies and Turkish companies with German capital has exceeded 4,800. Germany is also the largest source of tourist revenue for Turkey with some 4,8 million Germans visiting the country each year.
Turkey's decade long economic boom, which made it the world's 15th-largest economy, has recently transformed the character of economic relations with Germany.
As a result of Turkey's dynamic development, Germany this year terminated its 50-year-long development aid program to the country. The Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development announced in September that Turkey was now “an equal economic partner.”
Turkey's new foreign policy
For many analysts, Turkey's success in significantly increasing its trade with neighboring countries and regions in the last decade is strongly related to its new active foreign policy. Turkey's “zero problem” policy with neighbors and Ankara's goal of creating common economic zones in the immediate region is widely admired by German officials.
“The economic numbers are impressive. I would be hard pressed to name any other country that has been able to quadruple its foreign trade in less than 10 years,” Ambassador Nikolaus Graf Lambsdorff, the German Foreign Ministry's Special Envoy for Southeast Europe, said recently at an international conference in Berlin.
“For many people in the countries of the Arab Spring, Turkey is a source of inspiration, if not a model,” Lambsdorff went on, adding, “Turkey has undergone impressive changes. It has become a regional player and an ambitious player on the international scene.”
Despite Turkey's growing importance for Germany and the EU, European leaders are not yet convinced about full membership for Turkey in the bloc.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has been one of the strong opponents of full Turkish membership, offering Turkey a “privileged partnership” instead.
Due to the decades-long Cyprus problem and the reluctance of other leading EU states besides Germany, Turkey's EU accession process has come to a standstill. The lack of progress has significantly undermined the democratization process in Turkey.
In its latest human rights report, the German Foreign Ministry sees some serious deficiencies and shortcomings in Turkey in the field of democratic rights and freedoms. Recently, the government in Turkey has applied increasing pressure on the media, which critics say is politically motivated to silence the opposition, and some 100 journalists remain imprisoned on various charges.
An alarming situation continues on the Kurdish question. In its fight against the Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK), Turkey has detained more than 2,000 suspects on charges of being members of the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK), an alleged “parallel state” apparatus formed by the PKK.
A widening hunger strike by more than 600 Kurdish militants in prisons across Turkey is raising concerns about Erdogan's policy on the Kurdish question. But the Turkish prime minister insists on a hawkish stance, recently blaming European countries and Germany for obstructing Ankara's fight against the PKK.
"Germany does not want a solution. France does not want a solution. These countries do not help us. Instead, they let the terrorist leaders live in their territory," Erdogan maintained in a televised interview last month.
Last year, Erdogan also accused German political foundations of supporting the PKK, causing a diplomatic dispute between Ankara and Berlin. All these claims have been flatly rejected by German officials. In the meantime, these foundations are facing difficulties in carrying out their activities in Turkey, which have long focused on issues of democratization, human rights and religious dialogue.
Erdogan: Not an easy partner
In recent years, Turkey has become more crucial for Germany, but despite the increased level of cooperation, “the new Turkey” is at times a difficult partner for Berlin.
On the Syria crisis, Turkey's strong stance against the Assad regime and its welcoming of more than 100,000 Syrian refugees has received praise and appreciation from Germany, but the Turkish government's assertive policy has also raised some concerns.
Turkey's more active foreign policy is also reflected in its stronger engagement with the Turkish diaspora. The recently founded Overseas Turks Agency (YTB) is seeking to defend the rights of Turks living abroad and is trying to support them to preserve their cultural and religious identity. These activities, however, are viewed by many Germans as an attempt to undermine the successful integration of Turks in German society.
Both the Turkish and German governments agree on the need for integration policies, but they disagree on the approaches. Erdogan has been an outspoken critic of some of the policies of the Merkel government. During his meetings with the Turkish community in Germany, Erdogan has repeatedly called on Turks to first teach their children Turkish and then German. "Yes, integrate yourselves into German society, but don't assimilate yourselves. No one has the right to deprive us of our culture and our identity. Assimilation is a crime against humanity,” he stressed, unleashing sharp criticism from German politicians, commentators and the public.
Turkish election campaign in Germany
Erdogan is expected to repeat his outspoken views during his visit to Berlin this week. But this time he will not only address German public opinion, but also Turkish immigrants, who will have a chance for the first time to vote in Germany for elections in Turkey.
As Erdogan focuses on becoming the next president of Turkey in 2014, he is seeking to gain the widest support possible, including from Turkish citizens living in Germany. With the recent legal amendments in Turkey, around 1.3 million Turkish citizens living in Germany will be eligible to vote during this election, making Germany the fourth largest Turkish electoral district, after Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir.
Because Erdogan will be addressing the Turkish community with the next election in mind, some German observers interpret this as another setback for integration, with Turks continuing to focus on politics in Turkey, rather than politics in Germany.
It is still not clear how Erdogan and his party will organize election campaign rallies in Germany, but Turkish politics has already spilled over into German streets. During his Berlin visit on Tuesday and Wednesday, he will likely face not only his supporters, but also opponents. Opposition groups associated with a wide spectrum of Turkish politics have already called for demonstrations in Berlin against Erdogan and his policies.